Putney Bridge (Photo: TOM ROGERS/UNSPLASH)
Putney Bridge (Photo: TOM ROGERS/UNSPLASH)

London Calling – Some of London’s strangest tales…

This month, with your regular columnist (Richard Lamberth) in Paris, London Calling has returned to the ever-popular COLIN BAINBRIDGE for some quirky tales of the Capital and life in general.

Dolls of death

Coming to terms with the death of a loved one is always difficult, and if it’s a child even more so. People find different ways of coping with their grief.

The Victorians had a great number of death practices that we would find quite macabre these days. One of the stranger ones was that of mourning dolls, or grave dolls, whereby an effigy of the deceased child would be made from wax to resemble them exactly.

The doll would be dressed in the child’s actual clothes, have the child’s hair implanted and sometimes even their teeth. The mourning dolls made their appearance at the wake, frequently lying alongside the deceased in their own little coffins. Sometimes they would have soft cloth bodies that were filled with sand to give a lifelike weight and feel, they had flat backs so they would be stable in their coffins.

After the funeral, the dolls would usually be left at the child’s grave, but some families would keep them at home in glass coffins as mementos of their child, suspended in time and never ageing. They even changed their clothes and cared for them as though they were alive.

Generally, death dolls were used for children between 0-3 years of age, older children were depicted as a head and shoulders facsimile and placed on death poles, often in the corner of the room or at the dining table.

Mourning dolls weren’t the only wax dolls involved in Victorian death practices. By the 1870s, death kits were available for children to prepare them for the experience of losing a family member. They would be given a wax doll, miniature coffin and funeral shroud. They would then be expected to practice laying the doll in the coffin, attending a mock funeral, complete with practice grief and even attend to other mourners at a pretend wake.

As the years passed and death customs changed, the wax mourning dolls lost their popularity and few survive today, as most were left to the elements at the graveside. The ones that did survive are the home dolls in glass cases.

A very unfriendly society!

 Friendly societies were first established in the late 17th century but became more widespread in the 18th century.

The story of how one of these societies committed illegal and heinous acts against its members has largely been forgotten and lost in the mists of history.

‘The Independent Order of Bedfellows’ was formed in 1689 with honourable intentions, that was, to support its members in times of need. Members would pay a minimum of a penny a week, and should they need to be off work due to sickness or injury, the friendly society would pay a small percentage of their wage.

All went well for the first six years, but the board of directors had been trying to think of a means by which they might make a profit for themselves rather than just break even and benefit their members. The vast wealth of trade that went on at London’s docks every day had not gone unnoticed, and so, a risky and somewhat overambitious plan was devised.

Joseph Bazalgette in the 1870s (Source: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY LONDON)
Joseph Bazalgette in the 1870s (Source: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY LONDON)

Firstly, they secured financial loans from some highly dubious sources and combined them to the majority of the friendly’s pot of money intended for the workers. They then used this money to hire a Royal Navy ship which they renamed ‘Friendly Society’.

Their plan was to get into the lucrative import business, bringing in such goods as spice, tea, cotton and silk. They did a deal where they would work under licence for the East India Company (by far the biggest and wealthiest trade company at the time).

The ‘Friendly Society’ was a three-mast 36 gun warship but had proved to be a poor design when used by the Royal Navy, hence their decision to hire it out to a third party. It set sail under its temporary new ownership in 1696 under the command of Habbakuk Wyley.

Wyley had recently faced a court martial for embezzlement whilst in command of HMS Vulture. Although he was acquitted of the charge, he was not exactly flavour of the month with the British Navy and they were keen to palm him off to someone else.

The ship successfully sailed to Calcutta, picked up its cargo and set sail back to England. All went well and a year later they were almost home when the ship ran aground and capsized at Goodwin Sands. Most of the crew and Wyley survived, however, unfortunately, the cargo was either lost or ruined.

This put the ‘Independent Order of Bedfellows’ in a very awkward position. The ship was uninsured, they had lost a very expensive cargo, but, worse of all, they owed money (for the loans) to some very dangerous individuals.

The board of directors decided that the people who would bear the brunt of this financial disaster were the impoverished workers for whom the society had been set up to help in the first place.

The members of the friendly society generally had little in the way of financial wealth, so the board decided to take the one of the few things they had of value, namely their teeth. At this time, there was a thriving market for human teeth that were used to make dentures for the rich.

A Greek immigrant called Vivar Hubris was appointed to carry out this grim and sinister task. Hubris is described as a hulk of a man with hands like shovels. He would force his way into people’s houses, often at night and remove their teeth in what must have been a hideous and painful ordeal for the householder and their families.

He had a fearsome reputation, especially in the East End. Parents would threaten their children with the ‘evil tooth fairy’ and his activities founded the slang term ‘pulling a fast one’ which came to mean unscrupulous activity.

His reign of terror lasted for around four years before the Bedfellows creditors lost their patience and the board of directors either fled or ‘disappeared’ and the society was dissolved.

Invasion of the body snatchers

 The need for cadavers by medical research establishments reached such a high demand between 1850 and 1900 that even the body stealers couldn’t keep up.

London-based Kebabick brothers hit on the idea of stealing live specimens. There was good money to be made from these living corpses too, since the fresher the body the more the universities paid.

It’s estimated the brothers stole over 2,000 bodies; only about 800 or so were used for research (the rest it is believed were used as fuel during the cold winter of 1874).

Their macabre activities came to a conclusion when the elder brother took a fancy to one of the products, so much so that he married Edith Scrimshaw in 1879. Scrimshaw, however, got cold feet and went to the police after her death (by way of secret letter held by her sister in the event of her death).

The brothers were rounded up and danced hanging from the Tyburn jig a year later.

Super sewer!

 Joseph Bazalgette’s brilliant sewer system has served London well since it was commissioned after the big stink of 1858. At the time, the population of London was two million. He designed it to cope with twice that number. Now, over 150 years later, it is struggling with the effluent from nine million people, in addition to the fact that far more water is used in modern London.

It is a combined sewer, meaning it has to take away wastewater as well as human waste. And that is the problem. When there is too much rain, the system is overwhelmed and valves on the ‘combined sewer outlets’, CSOs, are opened and untreated raw sewage flows directly into the Thames, up to 39 million tonnes of it every year.

Something had to be done, and so construction of the 16-mile-long super sewer began in 2016. Despite the enormous cost (around four billion pounds so far) and the disruption and misery for a lot of people, it is a an engineering marvel. Because London is so busy underground, they had to go deep, below the tube tunnels, below cross rail.

It is designed to complement and work with Bazelgette’s original system. Now, instead of overflowing into the Thames, 34 of the CSOs will connect to a 7.2 metre diameter main tunnel and onto Beckton sewage works.

Chief engineer Steve Williams says: “I talk sewage every day, my life is poop, and this is the most exciting thing I have ever done.”

Six huge tunnel boring machines are being used, each weighing a whopping 800 tonnes each. Traditionally, to keep tunnellers safe, a female name is given to each machine. A poll was held to pick the names of six inspirational women local to where each tunnel is being dug.

The machines were named as follows:


Engineer, she set up the first women-only engineering company.


A key leader in the suffragette movement.


Feminist, intellectual, political and union leader.


A cryobiologist who worked on blood freezing.


A pioneering doctor who set up a medical mission for vulnerable women and children.


The first woman to work at Greenwich observatory. She was a ‘human computer’ mathematician.

The super sewer is expected to open in 2025.

Bazalgette’s name lives on in the creation of the incredible metropolis that London has become. Some of the most magnificent structures of that time bear his name including the iconic Putney Bridge where the famous annual Boat Race starts.