The late Keith Flint from The Prodigy
The late Keith Flint from The Prodigy

London Calling – What lies beneath?

Our friend and expert on quirky tales from London past, COLIN BAINBRIDGE has once again graced us with some interesting stories this month – Richard Lamberth

Under London’s streets, there is a rich history still waiting to be discovered. Even after all these years of building and excavation, artefacts of hundreds or even thousands of years old are still being unearthed. One such discovery was made in 2017 when a Roman stone sarcophagus was found near Borough Market on Swan Street during work to build some new flats.

Archaeologists were given the chance to check the site before the development went ahead as the area near the banks of the Thames was a Roman burial ground and was near to two Roman roads. Southwark would have been an important commercial hub after the establishment of Londinium in 50AD.

Roman Londoners were either cremated or buried in wooden coffins; it was only a very small number that were buried in stone coffins with lids. Stone sarcophagi often contained a lead coffin with the body inside that. The find in 2017 was rare as only three stone sarcophagi have been excavated in the last 30 years.

When the Southwark coffin was found, it was built into the side of a wall, so it may have been part of a mausoleum. Close by, the skeleton of an infant was found along with a bracelet and some broken pottery. The lid was partially pushed back, suggesting the grave had been robbed, probably in the 18th century. The coffin was of a plain stone design, about eight feet long and weighed about two-and-a-half tons.  Because of the lid removal, the 1,600-year-old coffin was full of earth, so its contents weren’t immediately obvious. It was removed off site and carefully excavated.

The contents were revealed to be that of a woman thought to have been around 30 years of age and buried between 86 to 328 AD. Archaeologists believe the child could have been buried with the woman but was thrown out when the grave was robbed.

There was a small piece of gold found in the coffin, probably from a piece of jewellery she was wearing and missed by the grave robbers. A small gemstone of carved jasper was also found. It was carbon dated, found to be much older than the burial site and is likely to have been a family heirloom. It depicted a satyr – a mythological figure who is part human, part goat and would have been set into a ring – another indication this was someone of extreme wealth.

Softly, softly

Do you remember the Mr Soft adverts on TV that ran from 1987 to 1995? Maybe you or your friends perambulated in Mr Soft’s unique style. I know I certainly didn’t.

The ads were for Trebor Softmints and the first ad featured a sort of soft man (some considered him sinister and creepy) walking down a soft bouncy street handing out Softmints.

In the second ad, he returns to his car to find an overzealous human traffic warden about to write him a ticket. On giving him a Softmint, the traffic warden is assimilated into the soft world and Mr Soft gets away with it.

The third ad was for the variant, Softfruits, and Mr Soft is kicking back on a desert island, drinking Softfruits through a straw.

The adverts were the invention of a young advertising consultant called Malcom Green. Green was a big Cockney Rebel fan and had been trying to use one of their tracks for a while. He had the idea of using Deptford-born Steve Harley’s 1974 top ten hit ‘Mr Soft’. He used the tune and rewrote the lyrics with Harley’s approval. Unfortunately, by the time Green was given approval, Harley was unavailable and it had to be sung by a Harley sound-a-like!

The ads were hugely successful, but, behind the scenes, tragedy was about to strike. Mr Soft was played by Laura Ainsworth, a young and unknown actress at the time. She found the pressure of getting recognised in public all the time overwhelming and sadly committed suicide by jumping off the notorious Hornsey Lane Bridge at Crouch End. In a final irony, it turned out that the lorry that ran her over was carrying mattresses!

Softmints are still sold today and are a popular confectionary. Every year, the Mr Soft festival is held on the Isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides and is attended by hundreds of people, many of them dressing in Mr Soft’s iconic white suit!

Roman stone sarcophagus - Photo: SOUTHWARK COUNCIL
Roman stone sarcophagus – Photo: SOUTHWARK COUNCIL

Digging their own grave?

Are there up to 1,000 JBC diggers buried in concrete tombs beneath London?
It was a story that was passed off as hard fact several years ago by all the major news agencies only to be then debunked by builders and people in the industry.

The story goes like this. Sometimes, after constructing a mega-basement at a private residence in the capital, it is so difficult and expensive to get the JCB digger out of the hole that it’s simply easier and more convenient to leave the plant where it is and concrete it over.

So, is it fact or urban myth?
Well, first let us take a look at the complexity and depth of these mega-basements.

The London mega-basement is a relatively new phenomenon born out of the need for the super rich to expand their homes. Often restricted from expanding outwards at ground level, the obvious way is downwards. And we are not talking about a couple of storage rooms in the cellar. These ‘iceberg houses’ often have basements four or five levels deep for the entire footprint of the house and garden.

They usually have swimming pools, cinemas, gyms, golf course simulators and even underground car garages with car lifts.

Between 2008 and 2017, nearly 5,000 basements were approved for London homes, 112 of which can be classed as mega-basements (three storeys or more or two storeys running the length of the garden), the majority of these being in Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster.

So, are JCB diggers being left at the bottom of the hole? The debunkers and builders say there is no basis in the claim and that it would make no sense to leave expensive plant behind after a job. Furthermore, it would take up valuable space.

The counter argument claims that once the digger is in the basement, it’s not always easy to get it out because of the structural concrete work that has gone on as the hole has gone downwards.

Secondly, even when it is possible, a large and expensive crane would have to be hired and permits required to close the street. The cost of which would be easily exceed the value of one JCB digger.

So, which side is correct? And how did the matter come to light? One possible origin for the story can be traced back to 2011 and a report of a digger breaking down on completion of a job whereupon it was deemed to make more financial sense to simply concrete it into the foundations.

Furthermore, there are rumours that other contractors who have been brought in to extend existing sub-basements have supposedly found leftover machinery from previous works when they have started digging.

It seems possible that there are a number of diggers buried under people’s homes, the exact number, however, is always going to be a mystery. Maybe they will be dug up in the future by bemused archaeologists in 500 to 1000 years’ time?!

On the right tracks

“I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator, I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated, I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter”.

So sang the late, great Keith Flint, frontman of The Prodigy in their 1996 hit “Firestarter”. The iconic video was filmed in an abandoned London underground tunnel in Aldwych, a location chosen by Flint himself after remembering the location from a school trip years before.

Flint said of the filming: “It was really creepy in that tunnel, especially since we were filming in black and white. I could feel an unearthly presence when I had to walk down the tunnel away from the camera on my own.”

The memorable stars and stripes jumper in the video was bought at the last minute by Flint himself on the way to the shoot from Camden market for £5.

The exact location of the tunnel used isn’t a very well kept secret and is a bit of a mecca for The Prodigy fans, especially after Flint’s tragic death in March 2019. It’s a bit of a headache for security, as trespassers have to traverse active lines to get to the site.

Although the company making the video obtained full permission to use the tunnel for filming, they got into hot water with Transport For London (TFL) for using an angle grinder on the tracks and it was The Prodigy themselves who received a bill for £5,000 (€5,655). Apparently, Keith Flint paid the fee out of his own pocket.

“Firestarter” got to number one in charts in March 1996 and stayed there for three weeks.

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.
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