Common section

Pestilence and Flame

The causes and consequences of the Great Plague of 1665 were endlessly described, but most considered it to be God’s punishment upon a heathen city.


A Plague Upon You

London is a city perpetually doomed. It has always been considered the Jerusalem about which the prophets were so clamant, and the words of Ezekiel have often been applied to curb its mighty spirit—“Say unto them which daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall … and a stormy wind shall rend it” (Ezekiel XIII: 11). In the fourteenth century John Gower lamented its approaching destruction, and in 1600 Thomas Nashe wrote that “London doth mourn, Lambeth is quite forlorn; Trades cry, woe worth that ever they were born … From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!” In 1849 the Earl of Shaftesbury described London as the “City of the Plague,” and one of the characters in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying talks of “a city of the dead.”

Much has been written about the nature of fear in London. James Boswell arrived in the city in 1762. “I began to be apprehensive that I was taking a nervous fever, a supposition not improbable, as I had one after such an illness when I was last in London. I was quite sunk.” The editor’s commentary upon Laroon’s depiction of street traders emphasises the traces of anxiety upon their faces, in particular “hollow, frightened eyes.” In the poem “London” William Blake’s narrator wanders through the streets by the river, “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe” together with the “Infants cry of fear … Soldiers sigh … Harlots curse … new-born Infants tear.” In the illustration with which he has adorned the right-hand side of the poem, a child is warming itself beside a great fire which may itself be a token of calamity. In his account of the plague of 1664 and 1665, Daniel Defoe depicted the city itself torn by fever and nervous fear. It was said of Thackeray that “it seemed as if London were his disease, and he could not help telling all the symptoms” to which is appended the remark, “that is another sign of a true Londoner.” In a poem by Thomas Hood, the stones of London cry out against a woman careering through the streets upon a horse—“Batter her! shatter her! Kick her brains out! Let her blood spatter her!”

There has always been so much to create anxiety in the city—the noise, the endless rush, the violence of the mob. London has been compared to a prison and to a grave. To the German poet, Heinrich Heine, “this overdriven London oppresses the fancy and tears the heart.” Heckethorn’s London Memories records that when in 1750 one soldier prophesied an earthquake “vast multitudes left London for the country, and the fields around were crowded with fugitives from the threatened catastrophe.” The unfortunate seer was later confined to a madhouse. But the symptoms of fear have never materially diminished. In times of pestilence many citizens simply died of fright, and it has been remarked that in nineteenth-century discourse the word “gloom” emerges frequently. It is related to the fogs or “London particulars” of that century, but it seems also to have possessed an intimate and more unnerving significance. November was the month for London suicides and, when the fog was at its thickest, “people who experienced this phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” These last words were exactly those used by the inhabitants of Whitechapel Road, when a firework manufactory exploded. The phrase came readily and easily to the lips—as if, perhaps, there was some unconscious wish for this mighty cessation. Dostoevsky noted, after visiting the Great Exhibition in London, “And you feel nervous … a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. Can this, you think, in fact be the final accomplishment of an ideal state of things? Is this the end, by any chance?”

Death has always been one of London’s devices. “The Dance of Death” was painted on the wall of St. Paul’s Churchyard, so that the people who thronged that church for business or amusement were always aware of their mortality. In June of 1557 the registrar of a parish records the following causes of death within that one month—“a swellynge … ague … consumption … thought [cough] … blody fluxe … poches [pox] … postum which brake … browce [bruise?] … famyne … consumed away.” The bills of mortality in London, published every Thursday, include those who were “planet struck,” or who suffered from “horseshoe head” or “rising of the lights,” the latter now quite uninterpretable; there are entries on those “killed in the pillory” or who “died from want in Newgate.” Even before the plague of 1665 and the Fire of 1666 memento mori motifs were “one speciality of the seventeenth century City churchyards.” “Nobody is healthy in London,” Mr. Woodhouse complains in Emma, “nobody could be.” A character in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, suffered certain symptoms in London “which warn me to be gone from this centre of infection.” A century later London was described as the “Great Wen” or fleshy excrescence indicative of poor health.

There have always been epidemics and waves of death within the metropolis. The “Black Death” of 1348 killed approximately 40 per cent of London’s population. Many were buried outside the walls in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Pardon Churchyard or Wilderness Row, now part of the Clerkenwell Road behind the Charterhouse. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries epidemics of the “sweating sickness” fell upon the capital on at least six occasions; that of 1528 “visited London with such violence that it carried off thousands in the space of five or six hours.” The quagmires and open sewers of the city turned it into “a paradise for mosquitoes,” thus causing the “ague” which is now known as malaria.

The plague came early to London; the first recorded instance is from the seventh century. Between the years 1563 and 1603 there were five severe attacks, in the latter year killing some 30,000 Londoners when “Feare and Trembling (the two Catch-polles of Death) arrest every one … no voyce heard but Tue Tue, Kill, Kill” and Watling Street was “like an empty Cloyster.” No one was ever safe. No one was ever entirely well in a city “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous and noyous,” dirty and filled with “corrupt savours.” London itself had become a sink of disease. Yet nothing in its history could have prepared its citizens for the events which unfolded between the fated and fateful years of 1664 and 1666.

There had been intimations of catastrophe. In 1658 Walter Costello wrote that “if fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar for ever. Oh London! London!” In the following year a Quaker tract entitled A Vision concerning Londoncontained the prophecy that “And as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein; but she knew not how, even in all her goodly places, and the kindling of it was in the foundation of all her buildings and there was none could quench it.” In his Monarchy Or No Monarchy, published in 1651, the London astrologer William Lilly inserted an hieroglyphical plate “representing on one side persons in winding streets digging graves; and on the other a large city in flames.” Wenceslaus Hollar had noticed the vigour and energy of the citizens in 1647 but, on his return in 1652, “he found the countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spight full, as if bewitched.” Mother Shipton predicted a general conflagration, and a Quaker walked naked through Bartholomew Fair with a pan of fire and brimstone on his head as a prophecy. A man in a narrow passage by Bishopsgate convinced all those around him that a ghost there was making “signs to the houses, and to the ground” suggesting plainly that “abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard.”

There is an area adjacent to Goswell Road known as Mount Mills. It is now an open space, used as a car park. It is unusual in this part of London to find what is essentially a patch of waste ground. The answer lies in its history. Here, according to Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year, on “a piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mount Mill … abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell, and even out of the city.” It was a plague pit, in other words, where, during the Great Plague of 1664 and 1665, thousands were taken in “dead carts” and dumped in the loose soil.

It was comparable to the burial pit in Houndsditch, about forty feet in length, sixteen feet broad and twenty feet in depth, containing more than a thousand corpses. Some of the bodies “were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart.” It was reported that the living, out of despair, sometimes flung themselves among the dead. The Pye tavern was very close to the Houndsditch pit itself and when, at night, the drunken heard the rumble of the dead cart and the noise of the iron bell they came to the window and jeered at anyone who mourned for the newly dead. They also uttered “blasphemous expressions” such as There is no God or God is a devil. There was one driver who “When he had any children in his dead cart could cry ‘Faggots, faggots, five for sixpence’ and take up a child by the leg.”

The area of Mount Mills is waste ground still.

·  ·  ·

These reports are all taken from Defoe’s chronicle. He was only six years old at the time of the visitation, and much of his evidence is anecdotal, but there are also contemporary accounts which furnish additional material for contemplation. Any observer willing to enter the city during the plague would first have noticed the silence; there was no traffic except for the dead carts, and all the shops and markets were closed. Those who had not fled had locked themselves within their houses, and the river was deserted. Any citizens who did venture upon the streets walked in the middle, down the kennel, away from the buildings; they also avoided chance meetings. It was so quiet that the rush of the water beneath the bridge could distinctly be heard throughout the old City. Great bonfires were placed at intersections and in the middle of main thoroughfares, so that the streets were filled with smoke as well as the miasma of the dead and dying. The life of London seemed to be over.

The plague had begun, in the parish of St. Giles, at the close of 1664. It is understood now that the infection was carried by the black rat, known also as rattus rattus, otherwise called the ship rat, or the house rat. These rats are old inhabitants of London, their bones being discovered in excavations of fourth-century Fenchurch Street. It is likely that they arrived from South Asia in Roman ships, and they have remained ever since. The severe cold of the early months of 1665 prevented any spread in the infection for a while, but from the beginning of spring the bills of mortality began to rise. By July the plague had entered the city from the western suburbs. It was a dry, hot summer without any wind. Grass grew in the abandoned streets.

John Allin, a clergyman, stayed in the city and sent many letters to those at a safe distance; they are reprinted in W.G. Bell’s Unknown London. On 11 August he wrote: “I am troubled at the approach of the sicknesse neerer every weeke, and at a new burying place which they have made neer us.” “They,” indicating some indeterminate authority all the more pressing for being so vague, has always been part of the London vocabulary. Thirteen days later: “I am, through mercy, yet well in middest of death and that, too, approaching neerer and neerer: not many doores off, and the pitt open dayly within view of my chamber window.” In the following week, at the beginning of September, he described “the dolefull and almost universall and continuall ringing and tolling of bells.” So this was the noise that broke the silence. In the same letter he mentioned that his brother had left the house one morning and, on his return from the streets, had found “a stiffness under his eare, where he had a swelling that could not be brought to rise and breake, but choacked him; he dyed Thursday night last.” Five days later Allin wrote of the distemper: “it is at the next doore on both hands of mee, and under the same roofe … These 3 dayes hath bene sea cole fyres made in the streets about every 12th doore, but that will not do the worke of stopping God’s hand.” His anxiety is palpable. It was not until the middle of September that some rain mitigated the appalling heat, but after that modest abatement the plague raged again.

John Allin told the story of six physicians who, believing that they had found a remedy, opened up an infected body—“it is said that they are all dead since, the most of them distractedly madd.” Six days later there came report of “that word spoken by a child here concerning the increase of the Plague, until 18,317 dye in a weeke.” The child died. Yet the rates began to fall. In the last week of February 1666, there were only forty-two deaths reported, whereas more than eight thousand died each week of September 1665.

Within the texture of Defoe’s prose London becomes a living and suffering being, not the “abstract civic space” of W.H. Auden’s poem. London is itself racked with “fever” and is “all in tears.” Its “face” is “strangely altered,” and its streets circulate “steams and fumes” like the blood of those infected. It is not clear whether the whole sick body of London is an emanation of its citizens, or whether the inhabitants are an emanation or projection of the city. Certainly its conditions were responsible for much death. In the great centre of trade and commerce, the process of buying and selling itself destroyed the citizens—“this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city.” The people “dropped dead in the very markets” in the act of trading. They would “just sit down and die” with the tainted coins still in their pockets.

There is another melancholy image which issues from the pages of Defoe. It is of a city where there “were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up.” Metaphors of incarceration are persistent throughout London writing, but during the Great Plague there emerged vivid and literal examples of urban imprisonment. The symbolism of the red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us” has not been wasted on mythographers of the city, but the measure of societal control has perhaps not been fully recognised. Of course many people escaped, often by the expedient of going over a garden wall or travelling along the roofs—even with some “watchmen” murdered to ensure liberty—but, in theory, each street and each house became a gaol.

One ordinance has remained in force for three centuries with the proclamation that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.” All beggars were expelled. Public assemblies were banned. In a city which had shown its manic propensities in a thousand different ways, order and authority had to be imposed directly and harshly. Hence the turning of houses into prisons by “shutting up,” a measure which even at the time was considered by many to be both arbitrary and pointless. But in a city of prisons it was the natural and instinctive response of the civic authorities.

By means of anecdote and circumstantial detail, Defoe provides a Londoner’s vision of a city “quite abandoned to despair.” It is clear from his report that the citizens very quickly reverted to superstition and apparently primitive belief. A genuine madness was in the streets, with prophets and interpreters of dreams and fortune-tellers and astrologers all terrifying “the people to the last degree.” Many, fearful of sudden death, ran out into the streets to confess that “I have been a murderer” and “I have been a thief.” At the height of the plague it was fully believed that “God was resolved to make a full end of the people of this miserable city,” and as a result the citizens became “raving and distracted.” Daniel Defoe knew London very well—perhaps better than any man living in his period—and he declared that “the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their destruction.”

There were “conjurors and witches … quacks and mountebanks” who placed posters all over the city advertising their services and who dispensed pills and cordials and treacles and “plague waters” to the desperate. A list of cures was published at the “Sign of the Angell, neare the Greate Conduit in Cheapside,” and it was possible for “An Excellent Electuary against the plague, to be drunk at the Green Dragon Cheape-side at Six-pence a pint.”

London has always been a centre for healers and doctors, surgeons and magnetisers, of all descriptions. Perhaps its nervous fear has in turn promoted symptoms to be cured by “physic.” In fourteenth-century London, calendars of saints, as well as various charts of astrology, were used to determine the efficacy of particular herbs. Ecclesiastics were the first surgeons. In the thirteenth century the papal authorities banned them for shedding blood. After that date, lay surgeons and physicians were ubiquitous. Not all of them had undergone the usual apprenticeship of ten years, however, and in the early sixteenth century it was proclaimed that “the science and cunning of physick and surgery” were being exercised by “smiths, weavers and women” who used “sorcery and witchcraft” to effect their cures. It was believed, for example, that water drunk from the skull of a hanged man or the very touch of a dead man’s hand were efficacious.

Earlier Londoners admiring “London Stone,” which has been considered alternately as a milestone or a symbol of civic power. It now lies almost unseen in Cannon Street.

John Stow: the great sixteenth-century antiquary whose Survey is the first complete and authentic description of London. His bust still survives in the church of St. Andrew Undershaft.

William I’s charter: this small document marked the king’s authority over London and its citizens, and was one of the first salvoes in the continual struggle between the monarchy and the city.

“Buy my fat chickens,” “Fair lemons and oranges,” “Knives, combs and inkhorns”: images of street sellers, drawn by Marcellus Laroon, c. 1687. They are the ragged emblems of London life, confident or careworn, animated or depressed, as the eternal crowd melts around them.

London, 1560. Note the Bankside bear-baiting arenas in the foreground.

A panorama of London Bridge and the northern areas of London in the sixteenth century. The bridge was then a great thoroughfare, complete with shops, houses and public lavatories. Note the number of churches which Wyngaerde has depicted.

Hollar’s panorama of London is one of the most striking and evocative images of the seventeenth-century city before the Fire. The endless activity on the river is a testimony to London’s commerce, while the streets and buildings are an emblem of its magnificence.

A view of old St. Paul’s, completed by Hollar in the mid-seventeenth century. This was the magnificent church quite destroyed in the Great Fire, a reminder of all that London lost in that conflagration.

The Royal Exchange, forerunner of the Stock Exchange, as depicted by Hollar, is packed with merchants and brokers; they are part of a commercial life which was established as early as the Roman period and has continued ever since.

A detail of a map showing the devastation wreaked by the Great Fire of 1666. Even churches did not survive.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Seventeenth-century firemen at their trade; they were indispensable in a city notorious for fires, and their call of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” was as ubiquitous as the modern siren.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Moll Cut-Purse: an engraving of the most notorious of the “roaring girls,” those women who wore masculine costume in order to confront a male-dominated city on its own terms. The animals and birds depicted were part of her own private menagerie.

Newgate Prison showing the windmill which supposedly helped provide air for the inmates. The gaol was the most notorious within the city, commemorated in songs, pamphlets and plays. London writers of all periods have compared the city to a prison, in implicit homage to the pervasive power and presence of that “hell on earth.”

“The Modern Plague of London.” A temperance map: each dot represents a public house. London is so large, and so diverse, that a thousand different maps or topographies have been drawn up in order to describe it. Here is a map of drunkenness in the city always notorious for its drunkards.

A photograph of the Café Monico, on Piccadilly Circus, in a period where horse-drawn vehicles competed with motor cars in the busy streets. Note that the age of advertising is in full swing.

In seventeenth-century London, too, “quacks” or “healers” were in the ascendant and have been duly catalogued in Charles Mackay’s volume of popular delusions and superstitions. When Valentine Greatraks, a “healer,” moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the early 1660s, “Nothing was spoken of in London but his prodigies; and these prodigies were supported by such great authorities, that the bewildered multitude believed them almost without examination.” Thus did another showman succeed in “magnetising the people of London.” “Scurvy quacks” used spoonwart which grew by the banks of the Thames, while more noxious treatments such as “Spirit of Pearl” or “Essence of Gold” were also dispensed. There were “wise-women” and “wise-men” who examined urine (known as practitioners of “piss-pot science”) or pored upon moles to discover the source of illness. The seventh child of a seventh child invariably entered the business, although many claimed that distinction without having attained it.

One William Salmon practised at the very gates of Bartholomew Hospital and claimed to have cured “Ambrose Webb at the Three Compasses in Westbury-street of a great bleeding at Nose; a youth, a son of William Ogben, a Taylor, near the Black Boy in Barnaby-street, of a long and tedious ague and madness … Nicholas Earl at the Cup in Long alley, of dropsy; Joan Ingram near the Bear in Moor Fields of the Gout, and Anthony Geasture at the Cock in Wapping of a consumption.” The circumstantial detail is compelling. The advertisement also serves to elucidate the manner in which Londoners identified each other by citing location in terms of the nearest tavern.

There seems little doubt that William Salmon did indeed effect cures; like a modern psychiatrist, he was particularly effective at dispelling or exorcising that “melancholy” which was a recurring London condition. He was himself a London original, part showman, part sorcerer and part physician. He was born in the summer of 1644 and began life as “an assistant to a mountebank” before establishing his own career as the seller of “Elixir Vitae.” He was also a popular educator, and in 1671 published Synopsis Medicinae, or a Compendium of Astrological, Galenical and Chymical Physick which passed through at least four editions. He wrote several other popular books, upon mathematics and drawing as well as medicine, but his most successful work was his London Almanack in which he prophesied in a manner to be later adopted or stolen by Old Moore. His practice across London can be traced with some accuracy—from Smithfield to Salisbury Court off Fleet Street, from there to the Blue Balcony by the ditch near Holborn Bridge and then on to Mitre Court beside Fleet Street. Like many Londoners he became a radical Dissenter; he joined a sect called the “New Religious Fraternity of Freethinkers” which assembled near the Leather-sellers’ Hall. Then, at a somewhat late age, he began to practise anatomy. On his death in 1714 he left two microscopes and a library of over three thousand volumes.

Of course there were more genteel, if not more learned, practitioners of healing who came under the aegis of the Company of Barber Surgeons (they were later to split in two, becoming barbers or surgeons) or the College of Physicians. The latter institution, with a roof described as “the distant sight of a gilded pill,” was in Warwick Lane, near Newgate Prison from which many of its anatomical subjects came. Anatomy lessons were its principal and compelling feature. They were conducted in a central chamber, used as the setting for Hogarth’s The Reward For Cruelty in which the corpse of a wretched murderer, Tom Nero, is thoroughly anatomised and degraded. It was known as a “theatre,” and indeed it became an intrinsic part of London spectacle. The taking of the corpses of the hanged for dissection and dispersal was an old custom—we read of the necessity of “a wax candle to look into the body”—but in later years the corpses were also used to test the properties of electricity. One recently deceased killer was “galvanised” in 1803, with the result that one of his eyes opened and he raised his right hand. It is reported by Charles Knight that the instructor “died that very afternoon of the shock.” At an earlier date, in 1740, a specimen was about to be anatomised when “he threw his Hand in the Surgeon’s face, and accidentally cut his Lips with the Lancet.” After this escape from the knife he sat in a chair, groaning, and “in great Agitation”; eventually he recovered and “heartily” asked for his mother.

Hogarth’s engraving is a swirling composition, in which the round complementarity of all parts evokes the circles of Tom Nero’s life within the inferno of London; it also seems to demonstrate the connection between Nero’s own cruelty and that of the physicians who are presently disembowelling him. The violence of the streets fashions Nero’s character so that he becomes an emblem of the worst London “type.” Yet he is not so different from the surgeon delightedly plunging a scalpel into his eye-socket. Hogarth based his portrait upon a surgeon named Dr. John Freke. In this city everything connects.

The skeletons of two famous malefactors, which once hung in the alcoves of the anatomical theatre, can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Jonathan Wild, the most notorious villain of eighteenth-century London, and William Corder, the killer of Maria Martin in the Old Red Barn murder, now hang together as part of a truly old-fashioned London spectacle. In the same gallery can be seen the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose skeleton of seven feet ten inches has been placed beside the diminutive remains of Caroline Crachami who was only one foot ten and a half inches in height. They were London “freaks” and, in death, they still satisfy the taste for urban theatre.

The apothecaries of London, like the anatomists, were accustomed to stage management. They customarily wore black and it was almost mandatory that their shops, however humble, would contain a skull as well as a folio written in some ancient tongue. Here were sold herbs and powders, pills and electuaries, drugs and dentifrices, pomades and love-charms. In Camomile Street and Bucklersbury, in particular, all herbal remedies were to be found. In Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) there is a summary of the trading arts—“Oyster-shells he could convert into crab’s eyes; common oil into oil of sweet almonds … Thames water into aqua cinnamoni … when any common thing was ordered for a patient, he always took care to disguise it in colour or taste, or both, in such a manner as that it could not possibly be known.”

The drugs themselves came and went according to the fashion of the age. In the seventeenth century, these included moss, smoked horses’ testicles, may dew and henbane. In the eighteenth century, we find nutmeg and spiders wrapped in their own silk. In the nineteenth century, we read of “Turkey rhubarb and sulphuric acid.” In the early twentieth century, in the East End, there are reports of “Iron Jelloids, Zam Buk ointment, Eno’s Fruit Salt, Owbridge’s Lung Tonic, Clarke’s Blood Mixture.” Anderson’s Scots Pills, first given to the world in 1635, “were still being sold in 1876.”

In his account of the Great Plague Defoe emphasises the credulity of ordinary Londoners, who wore “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets” in order to ward off the encroaching disease. Some kept signs of the zodiac, or the written phrase “Abracadabra,” in pockets and seals. They had reverted to the paganism that had dominated the city ever since the first wooden idol was carved in Dagenham (2200 BC).

There is a museum south of the river, off the Walworth Road, which contains the “Lovett Collection” of London charms, amulets and relics. It is the true home of urban superstition, with a range of artefacts which suggests that the city has absorbed all the traditions of magic and ritual from both native and immigrant populations. From the East End came, in 1916, “five uneven shaped stones on a string”; these were, according to the museum’s catalogue, “hung on the corner of the bed to keep nightmares away.” In the same year was deposited a “greyish white tubular bottle sealed at each end with thread. Mercury inside.” This was used as a cure for rheumatism. A grey cat’s skin was employed as a remedy for whooping cough, and a “leather slipper painted gold” was a symbol of good luck. From Clapham arrived a pincushion in the form of a domino piece, marked with seven dots. From east London came a key attached to a rope, as a talisman to safeguard the wearer against witches, as well as a necklace of amber and other gems worn in 1917 “to bring good health.” Barking was the area in which to search for mandrake roots, which scream like a child when taken out of the ground. There are coins to bring wealth, iron pyrite acorns to prevent lightning strikes (the acorn from the tree of the thunder god), cows’ hearts and rams’ horns and donkeys’ shoes to act as charms. The museum also contains the head of a London magician’s wand or staff, engraved with Solomon’s seal; it was carved in the fourteenth century, and then lost in the depths of the river. As recently as 1915, it was common practice, in the East End, to cut off some of the hair of a sick child. The hair was placed in a sandwich, and given to the first dog that was encountered; the illness then left the child and entered the body of the unfortunate animal. In the East End, too, it was customary for women and female children to wear blue glass beads around the neck “as a preventive charm against bronchitis”; these necklaces were sold in hundreds of small shops, “usually presided over by an aged woman,” at the price of one halfpenny. It became a custom that the beads were eventually buried with the woman who had worn them. In the early twentieth century, too, young women all over London were visiting herbalists in order to purchase “tormentil root” or “dragon’s blood”—gum from a Sumatran tree—as love philtres.

In a suggestive book written by Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, published in 1925, it is reported that sharks’ teeth taken from the London clay were said to cure cramp. In Camberwell it was customary to cover a horseshoe with red cloth in order to ward off nightmares, while Mile End was known as the place where children could be “charmed” and healed. When market business was bad in the East End the trader would exclaim: “Ah! I expect I forgot to bow to the new moon!” It is appropriate, in a city of commerce, that it was customary to call out “money” at the sight of a falling star. Strangely shaped stones were placed on London mantelpieces as a “votive offering,” in the same manner that silver representations of limbs were hung in medieval city churches. A woman in Whitechapel told an investigator that, when moving house, it was customary to swing the cat around one room in order to induce it to stay. There are also interesting records of “cat sacrifice” in the walls of certain houses. Cauls in which children had been born were on sale for eighteen pence each as a safeguard against drowning but, at the time of the First World War, when the danger of death was very close, the price rose to £2. In London markets it was possible, until recent times, to buy neolithic stone axes or flint arrowheads as another precaution against thunderbolts.

London resembles a prison, and it is perhaps not surprising to discover that keys have always been an object of taboo. They were associated with magic and the presence of demons; thus “The art of lock-picking was known as the ‘Black Art,’” according to Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged, and “the most common lock-picking tool was called a ‘charm.’” Keys were used to investigate suspected persons; the name was placed in the stem of a key and guilt was established if the key then moved or shook. The lodgings of prostitutes were often symbolised by “the drawing of a large key,” and many ladies of the night wore keys around their neck as a symbol of their trade.

There is a suggestive eighteenth-century passage, connected with the storming of Newgate Prison. One rioter came back to his lodging house and announced: “I have got the keys of Newgate.” At his subsequent trial, a fellow lodger was questioned by the magistrate about these keys. “You would not touch them for fear that they would contaminate you?” “I would not come near them.”

Patients at Bedlam who refused to swallow their drugs had their mouths opened by a specially designed metal key.

At the time of the plague, spectres were seen in the thoroughfares of the city; indeed London has always been troubled by ghosts. A fine brick house on the south side of the churchyard in Clerkenwell was “seldom tenanted” because of its reputation. Number 7 Parker Street, off Drury Lane, had a name for “ill luck” and was eventually torn down. Another house in the same street, No. 23, was haunted by “fearful noises” in a corner where death had occurred. There was a haunted house in Berkeley Square which was “empty for a long time,” and another in Queen’s Gate.

P.J. Grosley, visiting the city in the eighteenth century, remarked upon “the great practical fear” of ghosts there, even while Londoners “make a jest of them in theory.” Another stranger in the same period visited the theatres and noticed that the ghosts of Shakespearean drama provoked “surprise, fear, even horror … to such a degree, as if the scenes which they saw were real.” It has often been remarked that, in a city of spectacle, Londoners find it difficult to distinguish theatre from reality but, more significantly, such reports suggest a surprising credulity. In the middle of the sixteenth century a young girl was found to have counterfeited a supernatural voice in a house near Aldersgate, “through which the people of the whole city were wonderfully molested.” We must imagine flying rumour, and reports, and fear.

The London writer “Aleph” has another story. In the early months of 1762 it was firmly believed that, within a house in Cock Lane, that once “dingy, narrow, half-lighted street,” there dwelled a ghost known as “Scratching Fanny” responsible for certain knockings and bangings. A young girl was believed to be possessed by this spirit, and “was constantly attended by mysterious noises, though bound and muffled hand and foot.” Thousands of Londoners visited Cock Lane and the more genteel were permitted to visit the girl’s bedroom, fifty at a time, “almost suffocating her from the stench.” A committee of eminent Londoners was set up to investigate the claims—one of their number was the superstitious Samuel Johnson—and concluded that the girl “had some art of counterfeiting noises.” Her father was put in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane, where “the populace treated him with compassion.” And so the affair ended, after London had once again been “wonderfully molested.” It is almost as if it were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.

The “Islington Ghost” visited a patch of ground beside Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square causing “a wondrous commotion in various parts, the earth swelling and turning up every side”; Michael Faraday is supposed to haunt a telephone exchange in Bride Street which was once the chapel of his Sandemanian congregation. Lord Holland and Dan Leno, Dick Turpin and Annie Chapman, have variously been seen. Old hospitals and the city churches have proved fruitful ground for phantoms, and the stretch of Swains Lane in Highgate beside the cemetery has been the home of many “sightings.” There is apparently a ghost in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, and a phantom blackbird haunted a house in Dean Street for many generations. The daughter of the Earl of Holland, walking in Kensington Gardens, “met with her own apparition, habit and everything, as in a looking glass”; she died a month later. The rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, saw in his pulpit the ghost of a divine “in the black gown of Geneva … exhorting the unseen audience with the greatest fervour, gesticulating vehemently, bending first to the right and then to the left over the pulpit, thumping the cushions in front of him, and all the while his lips moving as though speech was pouring from him.”

The Tower of London has of course been the natural haven of many spirits. Familiar figures have glided by, among them Walter Raleigh and Anne Boleyn. The latter was “seen” by three witnesses as a “white figure,” and a soldier on duty at the door of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings “fell in a dead faint.” He was court-martialled but later acquitted. The ghost of a bear “issued from beneath the door” of the Jewel House, and the sentry who saw it died two days later. It might be recalled that there was indeed a menagerie, or a zoo, within the Tower itself. One of the most ambiguous apparitions was that vouchsafed to the Keeper and his wife; they were at table in the sitting room of the notorious Jewel House when “a glass tube, something about the thickness of my arm” hovered in the air. It contained some “dense fluid, white and pale azure … incessantly rolling and mingling within the cylinder.” It approached the Keeper’s wife who exclaimed “Oh Christ! it has seized me!” before it crossed the room and disappeared.

Other places have remained objects of London fear. It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend. The “Field of Forty Footsteps,” which now lies beneath Gordon Square, was considered to be “charmed” or “blasted,” according to taste. Here were once picked plantain leaves which were supposed to influence dreams but, more importantly, on the same spot two brothers killed each other in a duel. The imprint of their fatal footsteps was thought to have lingered, while the area of the killings could produce no grass. Southey did indeed decipher the outlines of seventy-six footsteps “the size of a large human foot about three inches deep” and in the summer of 1800, just before the area was built upon, Moser “counted more than forty.”

Washington Irving observed the inhabitants of Little Britain, behind Smithfield and beside Aldersgate, in the 1830s. “They are apt to be rendered uncomfortable by comets and eclipses,” he wrote in the guise of “Geoffrey Crayon, gent,” “and if a dog howls dolefully at night, it is looked upon as a sure sign of death.” He also listed the “games and customs” of the people. We may include here the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds, an act of parish assertiveness which derives from the importance of beating the devil out of the locality; once charity children were whipped at each boundary with white willow wands, but in more recent years the particular walls are simply beaten with sticks. There are altogether some fifty-six annual customs and ceremonies in the city, ranging from the “Swearing on the Horns” in Highgate to “The Verdict of The Trial of the Pyx” in Goldsmiths’ Hall, but the rituals of May-day are the most enduring if not necessarily the most endearing.

In the first recorded ceremonies the “merry Milk Maids” of London would carry upon their heads a “Pyramid” of “Silver plate” instead of their usual pails; this may sound quaint, but the connotations of the practice were more ritualistic and barbaric. The maids were hardly “merry”—they were some of the most poorly paid and heavily worked of all city trades—and this parade of silver plate, borrowed for the occasion from pawn-brokers, can be seen as a token of their financial enslavement during the rest of the year. The first of May was also a day of sexual licence and, in recognition of this lubricious fact, young chimney-sweeps joined the maids in a later version of the spectacle. Grosley reports that their black faces “are whitened with meal, their heads covered with periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper-lace; and yet, tho’ dressed in this droll manner, their air is nearly as serious as that of undertakers at a funeral.” Chimney-sweeps, like miners, have always been associated with the dark and promiscuous forces of the world; hence their appearance on “May-day.” But the young sweeps, with their “serious” air, were also the most harshly treated of all London children. Many were killed, burned or deformed in the exercise of the trade, which was literally to climb up the flues of the chimneys and dislodge any soot or cinders. So their labour, and suffering, were paraded for one day of levity.

There is a painting of great interest, dated around 1730 and entitled The Curd and Whey Seller, Cheapside; it depicts a blind girl sitting at the foot of the conduit in that street, holding out her hand to three young sweeps. This conduit was their usual haunt, and their expressions are of startling vivacity. The faces of two of them are so blackened that only their eyes and mouths are visible. They are all very small, and one of them seems to have a deformed back. They do indeed seem like the grotesques of the city, with a suggestion of threat or menace directed against the blind and very pale street-seller. It can be suggested, therefore, that the procession of sweeps on May-day was a re-enactment of their threat which was to be symbolically alleviated by laughter. Like all London rites, however, the ceremony gradually became more fanciful, with the introduction in the late eighteenth century of a “Green Man” covered in twigs and leaves. He was known as “Jack-in-the-Green” or simply “Green” and, accompanied by milkmaids and sweeps, was paraded in various parishes as some garish token of spring. May-day ceremonies were eventually taken over by street performers, before disappearing altogether.

Yet the superstitions of London have not wholly departed. The city itself remains magical; it is a mysterious, chaotic and irrational place which can be organised and controlled only by means of private ritual or public superstition. That great adopted Londoner, Samuel Johnson, felt obliged to touch every post in Fleet Street when he walked down that thoroughfare. In similar spirit, many London streets have refused to countenance a No. 13—among them Fleet Street, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Praed Street, St. James’s Street, Haymarket and Grosvenor Street.

But the very line of a thoroughfare has, for some, a more numinous function. There have been many attempts to plot the trajectory of the city by means of “ley-lines” or “leys” which connect certain sites in straight alignment. One such line connects Highgate Hill in the north with Pollard’s Hill in Norbury to the south, on the way touching a surprising number of churches and chapels. Efforts have been made to connect the various churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, or to align St. Pancras Old Church, the British Museum or the Greenwich Observatory within a significant topography. In one sense it marks a revival of the earth magic once practised by the Celtic tribes of this region, yet it also gives due recognition to the power of place.

This is the power that William Blake celebrated in his vision of Los treading through London “Till he came to old Stratford, & thence to Stepney & the Isle/of Leutha’s Dogs, thence thro’ the narrows of the River’s side/And saw every minute particular.” In those particulars, like the mournful days of the Great Plague, the life and history of the city can be revived.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!