History, art and culture

Horrid History of London

London today is a great city, popular with visitors from all over the world. Did you know that over 17.4 million international visitors arrived in 2015 alone? But the capital was not always like this, in fact the history of London is dark and often gruesome, noting many highs and lows, milestones and monarchs. This post will chronologically explore the horrid history of London to put into perspective just how far the city has evolved from the days of filthy plague-ridden streets, public executions and parliamentary betrayals. Black Death The plague was a much feared disease, as no one knew where it came from or how it spread and it wasn’t until 200 years later that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacteria in the common rat flea as being the source. Rats were common creatures among the streets of London as sewers overran, public hygiene was difficult to instil and the cramped conditions made it almost impossible to improve. The Black Death first appeared in 1375 and slowly took hold over England, claiming the lives of many in silent destruction with no known cause or cure. It was reported in 1563 that a thousand people were dying in London each week, totalling 15,003 deaths just thirty years later. The plague grew three fold in 1625 with 41,313 dead culminating in the year 1665, known as the year of the Great Plague. 1665 was a year of monumental destruction for the people of London but which marked the end of the bubonic plague that had swept across England over centuries. Claiming an estimated 100,000 lives that year (almost a quarter of London’s population) the silent killer spread through the dirty streets with speed. It wasn’t until preventative measures of quarantines and those most disease-ridden left the city that the bacteria became airborne and pneumonic which meant it was harder to contract and over time those infected were less and less. Why not experience your very own bubonic history heritage at one of the many plague pits in London. These have turned into some popular meeting spots, such as Golden Square in Soho and more famously Green Park. Great Fire of London Just a year later, in 1666, the Great Fire tore through the streets of London. Having just rebuilt the community after the horrors of the Great Plague to stem the spread of the disease, on the 2nd September the city witnessed another terrible event. An aggressive fire started in the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane near London Bridge and tore through the city with unprecedented speed. Although fires were a common occurrence during those days, it was due to the summer being particularly hot that the tinder on the wooden houses was especially dry and quick to catch. 300 houses were quick to go down in flames, being consumed with the fire which thanks to a strong easterly wind was spreading the fire further – unable to be quelled just by pales of water. There was mass exodus as everyone ran for the Thames to escape by boat. Much like today’s popular attractions, word got out of this accidental disaster and some flocked to witness the scene – including diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Two days later half of city was still up in flames, with no respite. It didn’t help the fact that gunpowder was used to destroy the houses that were blocking its path – which created even more flames! Luckily the Tower of London survived, but St Paul’s Cathedral fell victim to the flames, with its lead roof melting and pouring onto the street like lava, under which the great cathedral collapsed. It wasn’t until the 6th September that the Great Fire was brought under control, not before leaving hundreds of thousands of London’s population homeless. The silver lining? London had been cleansed of all diseases and the city was rebuilt to combat the overcrowding. Mother’s Ruin It’s no surprise that the Brits like a drink, or two, with Gin being a go-to tipple of choice for many. But did you know that in the 18th century things got so bad that it turned into an epidemic among the poorer classes – even nicknamed Mother’s Ruin? Between 1700 – 1760, Londoners were fervently involved in a love affair with gin. The poorer working class in Georgian London turned to gin for a number of remedies, to stave of hunger, cure the common cold and offer respite from their poverty and pitiful lives. Reaching its peak, there were 7,000 gin shops in 1730 aiding and abetting the gin addiction that was widespread in the capital. Gin at the time was sold for pennies and together with the drop in food prices, it became the turn-to reprieve and comfort. In tow, the city experienced a huge spike in crime and outlandish drunken behaviour. The gin distilled in England was strong and impure (often with turpentine spirit and sulphuric acid) – making it a lethal liquor. To highlight the severity of the problem, it was recorded that in 1734 a woman even strangled her own son to sell his clothes for gin. Many artists portrayed the destruction that was taking a hold of the slums of London which helped as propaganda to publish a new law called the Gin Tax two years later which made the purchase of gin harder, combined with a decrease in minimum wage. Jack the Ripper Towards the end of the 19th century there was more widespread terror as an unidentified serial killer was on the rampage in East London. Between August and November of 1888 there were 11 murders recorded of female prostitutes in the Whitechapel area. These targets made easy prey as the impoverished area was home to over 62 brothels servicing over 1,200 women working as prostitutes. During that time, the area was infamous for crime, uprisings and social disturbance often reported in the media. An estimated eleven women were attacked by ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the most brutal way, dramatized in the papers as victims of a mysterious murderer. It was his lack of identity that was one of the more terrifying aspects as well as the grotesque manner of the murders including deep throat slashes and abdominal mutilations which led people to believe he was an educated, medical man. Jack the Ripper was never caught and his identity is one of the largest unsolved mysteries in history... London Executions This year marks 500 years since the birth of Queen Mary, posthumously nicknamed Bloody Mary, owing to her penchant for Protestant executions. Executions in London were a common occurrence and you can even take a tour of the old execution sites if you really wanted. Smithfield was a hot spot for executions, and it was here that many Marian Martyrs met their demise. It was also the site of William Wallace’s execution when he was hung, drawn and quartered, and whose head was later tarred and put on display atop of London Bridge. You can even find a memorial to the Scot outside St Bartholomew’s Church. Tyburn, a small village outside London (now where Marble Arch is), was a popular site for executions for over 600 years and you can even see the stone memorial that marks where the Tyburn Tree used to stand. It was also the tree upon which Oliver Cromwell was hanged in 1661. The Tower of London was not only a stronghold and fortress dating back to 1066, but it was the site of a handful of private executions of those who were accused of treason. Scaffolding was erected in front of the Chapel Royal, which claimed the lives of three English queens who were beheaded here – famously Anne Boleyn (1536), Lady Jane Grey (1554) and Catherine Howard (1542). London wouldn’t be London without its dark and dirty past. The events from the Black Death and Great Fire of London, to the merciless executions and gin addiction have shaped the city into one of rich culture off the back of its struggles and strife. Visit the many fascinating museums in the city that explore the history of London for a deeper appreciation of the city.

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