London Calling has found a new, well, ‘calling’ in Lockdown Three. How better to really get under the skin of one of the greatest capital cities in the world than to hear from some experts on London and others with a great tale to tell about the city? Starting this month, we are going to ask some guest contributors to share some of their knowledge and stories.
To kick off, we are privileged to hear from Colin Bainbridge. Colin is a mechanical engineer and well-known contributor to the website ‘London Sinister’. He has been fascinated by London since the age of 17 and regular visits in better times to the old pubs in the capital have stoked his interest and passion.
Brompton Cemetery to Wounded Knee
Why were three native American Indians buried in a London cemetery in the 19th century and then exhumed over one hundred years later? This is a story that starts in 1892 and ends in 1999.
The tragic tale of how Chief Long Wolf travelled from America to London in the late 1800s but never came home is legendary among Oglala Sioux Indians. Long Wolf was among the warriors who fought and defeated General Custer’s 7th cavalry at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. However, retaliation by the US forces was swift and the Sioux were ultimately defeated and subsequently mistreated.
Long Wolf saw an opportunity to avoid persecution by joining Colonel ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s wild west show and travel the world. The show re-enacted Indian fights, stagecoach robberies and gave people a flavour of the wild west. Between 1870 and 1920, they gave performances in the United States and all across Europe.
Long Wolf, then 59, wasn’t in good health and died of pneumonia. He was travelling with his wife and family and because the return home would have involved a long sea voyage, his wife was given the option of a burial at sea or burial in London. She decided on London and he was buried in Brompton cemetery on June 13, 1892 in a plot paid for by Bill Cody. His grave was marked by a stone cross with a wolf on it, a detail that was to prove very fortuitous many years later.
For there he would have stayed if it had not been for a housewife from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, who by chance found a dog-eared book in a local antiques shop in 1993 all about Long Wolf’s tragic life and death. Touched by the story, she felt she ‘just had to do something’.
First, she travelled to London and found his grave, the carved wolf described in the book was a big help. Next, she placed advertisements in South Dakota newspapers in a bid to trace his descendants.
The ad was seen by John Black Feather, 60, a great grandson of Long Wolf who was extremely grateful as ‘the spirit doesn’t rest until body is brought home’. He said: “I’ve been hearing about Long Wolf since I was a little boy, we knew he was buried in London, but we had lost track of exactly where.”
Arrangements were made to have Long Wolf exhumed and flown back to the USA. In 1997, a delegation of Sioux in full traditional dress oversaw the exhumation and reburial on the open plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Catacombs in Camden
Beneath the pavements of Camden is a complex network of tunnels and vaults. Despite the name conjuring up images of skeletons and mummified remains, they have never been used to store dead bodies, the name is just a nickname.
They were built by the Engineer Robert Stephenson in the 19th century and the passageways are actually tunnels where horses and pit ponies would pull and shunt railway wagons full of goods. The tunnels run under Euston mainline, under the goods depot at Primrose hill and under Camden Lock market.
The network also includes an underground canal basin. The idea was to provide a link between the rail network and the canal network. The tunnels also gave access to the basements of a number of warehouses.
The system has been owned by Network rail since 2012 and although many sections were destroyed due to redevelopment in the 1980s, a large rabbit warren of passageways still remain, although a portion is often under water.
Run like an Egyptian at Holborn!
If you ever board or alight at Holborn tube station, you will probably have noticed the Egyptian murals decorating the walls and thought to yourself, they look rather pleasing.
However, if you ever find yourself on the platform alone, especially in the late hours, you might get more Egyptology than you bargained for. For it is at this locale that the manifestation of the Egyptian God Amun-Ra likes to hang about!
He does more than just hang about however; unfortunately much to the consternation of lone travellers as he is likely to approach and chase after you! But this is no Scooby-Doo-esque jolly jape; his grotesquely sinister aim is to drag you back to his lair at the British Museum via a secret passage!
Sightings and rumours have persisted for years of unnatural activities at the station and Amun-Ra’s mysterious secret passage. The nocturnal wanderings can be traced back to 1935 when two women mysteriously disappeared. It was the same year an Ankh (the Egyptian key of life cross) was stolen from the museum by a tourist. It is thought Amun-Ra is taking revenge by dragging people back to his room at the British Museum to suck out their life juices and make them pay for their crimes!
Sightings of the Egyptian Gods do still get reported and maintenance workers on this section of line speak of strange goings on and fragrant smells. But does the ‘secret passage’ exist? Henri Gestalt, who is in charge of maintenance, is guarded with his answer: “There is a disused tunnel that heads towards the British Museum,” he says. “I have followed it for about 150 metres, and it comes to a dead end. Apparently, it was bricked up in the 1960s. I don’t like the place, I have found seeds on the platform and the tracks near to the tunnel entrance, not once but many times.”
Lighting the streets of London
The Cripplegate Pype is thought to have been a sinkhole. The earliest mention of it is in 1420 where it was being used to dump rubbish, human waste, dead animal carcasses and even human corpses. It is thought a great many of the dead and living who couldn’t afford burials were disposed of in this way.
In around 1450, records speak of ‘lytes and illuminations on three streets at Cripplegate’. Tybalt Withycombe, who lived near the Pype, had noticed that when fire embers were thrown down the hole, there were sometimes small explosions or flares. He suspected the ‘foule and putrid stenches’ coming from the Pype were flammable. He devised a wattle and daub hood to go over the Pype and a system of clay pipes finishing with a wick-like taper.
What he was burning, of course, was methane gas being produced by all the rotting flesh.
He soon expanded his network of clay pipes to cover almost half a square mile of London; he would charge anyone wanting light three eggs a week.
Although some people considered it to be work of the devil, people realised for the first time they could walk to the tavern and play musical instruments after dark.
After Withycombe’s death, the system fell into disrepair and was forgotten about.
In 1868, the construction of the Metropolitan Tube line unwittingly cut through the Pype and it was thought to be a plague pit.
It wasn’t until 1978, when the foundations to the Barbican centre were being dug, that the Pype entrance was unearthed, and that archaeologists looked into records of the area and rediscovered the Cripplegate Pype and London’s first ever street lighting.
By Richard Lamberth
Richard leads parallel lives with homes and business interests in London and Portugal. He provides consultancy services to leading businesses in insurance and financial services, property and media sectors. He has four sons, two dogs and enjoys a busy family life. He likes swimming, keeping fit and an outdoor life.