The Cockpit

The amazing history of the UK capital

Once again this month, London Calling has returned to the ever-popular
COLIN BAINBRIDGE for another batch of fascinating stories linked to the amazing history of the UK capital. Enjoy!

Digging for victory?

This is a tale of one man’s obsession for digging that went on secretly for 40 years, literally under everybody’s nose!

Beneath the streets of London, there are literally hundreds of miles of tunnels. Train tunnels, sewers, walkways, catacombs and utilities. We expect and trust them to be well constructed and safe. What we don’t expect is for one of our neighbours to be digging his own complex series of tunnels underneath our homes. But that is exactly what the infamous ‘mole man’ of Hackney did.

In the early 1960s, William Lyttle decided to dig out his own wine cellar under a house he inherited from his parents; only he enjoyed digging so much it didn’t stop there. Over the next 40 years, he excavated a complex labyrinth of passageways which stretched out over 100 feet in every direction from 121 Mortimer Road, Hackney. The average depth was around eight meters, but some were so dangerously close to the surface the pavements actually started to collapse!

At first, his neighbours were oblivious to his burrowing, but when he accidentally broke through a wall and ended up in someone’s basement in the next street, his secret was out – although this didn’t stop him.

At one point, he broke through a 450-volt cable and the whole street lost power for a day. Neighbours complained for many years and, at one point, the council evicted him, only for him to return, break through the corrugated sheeting surrounding his home and carry on digging. Ironically, much of the house was filled with the spoil from the tunnels.

Eventually, after 40 years of digging, and shortly after a double-decker bus sank into one of his tunnels, he was evicted a second time in 2006 and put up in a ground-floor flat in a tower block at the council’s expense. He was ordered to pay £293,000 to rectify the damage, which he never did. He then even tried to dig out under the tower block.

Before the council filled in his tunnels, they did an inspection that revealed he must have spent a considerable amount of time living underground. There was food, cooking facilities, toilet facilities and alcoves with books with apt titles such as At the Earth’s Core and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. There was a central atrium that Lyttle had named ‘the bunker’ and the tunnels were so long he had almost broken through into Dalston lane tunnel – and the railway station. Lyttle said: “The idea I dig tunnels under people’s houses is rubbish. I just have a big basement.”

Lyttle died of natural causes in 2010, just three years after being evicted. His legacy lives on though, to some extent, as the house was bought by Sue Webster in 2012 who then dug up some of the cheap concrete and restored some of the lower levels. She kept much of the dilapidated exterior as it was though, telling Vogue: “I just love it looking like a f**ked up bunker.” It couldn’t have been that f**ked up though, as it won Best New House of the Year 2012.

There is an ‘English characters’ blue plaque on the outside of the building!

A Victorian pyramid!

By the early 1800s, London’s cemeteries were at bursting point. In 1829, architect Thomas Wilson proposed a huge pyramid to house the dead – ‘The metropolitan sepulchre’ on Primrose Hill.

The proportions of the mausoleum were staggering. Ninety-four storeys high (four times the height of St Paul’s Cathedral), it would cover 18 acres of land and have a capacity for five million dead bodies.

The price for a vault was a reasonable £50 and, at 40,000 burials a year, would have made a total of £10 million. All for the building cost of £2,500.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on whether you like the idea or not, it was never built.

Incoming fire from HMS Belfast?

The town class Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast has been part of the London landscape since 1971. Permanently moored on the river Thames, it is a popular visitor attraction with its guns pointing skywards at an angle of 45 degrees. Are the guns aiming at a target, or are they just randomly pointing into space?

Since 1971, the two forward turrets have been locked onto Scratchwood services (The London Gateway) on the M1, ready to annihilate it with its six-inch guns firing eight rounds a minute. So, what is so important about the busy motorway food and toilet stop to warrant bombardment from a barrage of 112-pound shells? Well, nothing really. The location was picked to illustrate the firepower range of the light cruiser. At 12 miles away, Scratchwood services is almost on the limit of Belfast’s guns. Try that drive in London traffic and you will see just how far away it is!

HMS Belfast was in service from 1938 to 1967 and took part in the attack against the German battleship Scharnhorst in the North Cape in the Arctic Ocean during WW2. She also took part in the bombardment prior to the Normandy landings, as well as having many other roles around the world during her term in service.

It has been announced that a new HMS Belfast will be put into service in the mid-2020s, a state-of-the-art Type 26 Frigate. The original HMS Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast 1938 in honour of the illustrious predecessor.

The Cockpit Pub

Not too far from St Paul’s Cathedral, hidden away down a quiet little street, is a pub with a blood-soaked history.

The Cockpit on St Andrews Hill is a stone’s throw from Blackfriar’s station. Built in the 1840s, the site is steeped in history, being the location of a gatehouse bought by William Shakespeare for £140 to use as a theatre in 1613. Prior to that, it was the Blackfriar’s Monastery. There is even a record of an inn before that, in 1552, called the Oakwood Inn.

The clue to the pub’s gruesome past is in its name. It was built for the obscene ‘sport’ of cockfighting and when you look around at the unusual, curved layout, you will notice the balustraded gallery where the gambling punters would look down and shout and cheer at the grotesque spectacle of two roosters (usually bred and reared for fighting) cutting each other apart with their talons, which were often fitted with metal spurs or knives to compound the cruel and hideous destruction of their opponent.

Thankfully, the barbaric pastime was banned in England in 1835, although there is suspicion that it continued at venues such as The Cockpit pub for some time afterwards. In 1849, in a bid to distance itself from its insalubrious past, the pub changed its name to the rather innocuous Three Kings. The name was changed back to The Cockpit in the 1970s, when many of the original features were uncovered and several stuffed birds and prints were added to the decor.

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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