Get in the mood for Halloween as Andy Hill hears terrifying tales from this city of 8 million souls – mysterious tube tragedies, covens of cannibal rats and ominous unexplained killings
A chilling chamber in Vauxhall
Nine Elms Cold Store was an eerie, labyrinthine refrigerated food warehouse built in 1965 near Vauxhall station. It held some 16,000 tons of chilled meat, cheese and butter, but fell into disuse in 1979. Between then and its demolition in the late ’90s, it was the scene of many sinister goings-on. One policeman patrolling its deserted interior stumbled upon an oddly decorated chamber with ‘… a bed, an altar and restraining devices attached to the walls and pillars’.
The St Pancras walrus
Workers excavating a north London churchyard during construction of the St Pancras International Eurostar terminal in 2003 probably expected to uncover some human remains. Which they did: but sharing a grave with three human skeletons dating back to 1822 were the body parts of a 12-foot-long Pacific walrus. All four corpses showed they had been cut into pieces before they were buried.
The Northern line killer
The tube can be a spooky place. But a genuinely frightening Underground story emerged last year. Retired Met detective Geoff Platt claims that Scotland Yard suppressed a case in the 1970s, in which a homeless man confessed to deliberately pushing 18 innocent victims in front of Northern line trains. Allegedly, the police cover-up was intended to stop public panic, because there was clear evidence that the suspect had indeed been present at the scene of several ‘suicides’.
The buried butcher of Newgate
In the seventeenth century, a butcher in Newgate Market, Lawrence Cawthorne, was abruptly buried by his landlady following a sudden illness. She stood to inherit his money and possessions, but was a tad hasty in interring her tenant. Soon after the burial a dreadful screaming could be heard coming from the grave. Bystanders tried valiantly to unearth Cawthorne, but found that he had expired, partly through asphyxiation, but mainly from head-butting himself to death trying to break through the coffin lid.
Masonic revenge in Blackfriars
Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in June 1982. At first it was thought he had committed suicide, but bizarre details emerged: his pockets were stuffed with bricks and £15,000 in different currencies. Calvi’s body was exhumed in the late ’90s and an investigation conducted into his connections to the Vatican, an obscure Masonic order, the Mafia and even Pablo Escobar. The revised verdict? Murder.
The phantom night bus of Ladbroke Grove
If you think night buses are terrifying anyway, it gets worse. A speeding double decker has been spotted several times, magically appearing in the wee hours on St Mark’s Road near Cambridge Gardens, before suddenly vanishing. Spooked eyewitness reports dating back to 1934 tell of motorists swerving in panic, causing death on at least one occasion. Not seen since 1990, let’s hope the nefarious Number 7 is now parked in whatever depot of hell it calls home.
Midday madness at the Monument
More people died building Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London than perished in the fire itself, two of them in a scuffle in which one builder accused another of stealing his bread and cheese. Both fell to their deaths on the cobbles below. The explanation that a mouse was actually responsible for the theft is today commemorated by London’s smallest public sculpture (two mice and a wedge of cheese on the wall of Philpot Lane).
A heady brew in St Giles
Dennis Nilsen was a murderer and necrophiliac, with at least 12 confirmed victims, mostly gay men and the homeless. Nilsen dismembered his victims and boiled the flesh off their heads in a large pot. As an employee of a Job Centre on the corner of Denmark Street (now a Fernandez & Wells), Nilsen blithely offered the same pot for use as a punchbowl at his office Christmas party in 1980.
Giant cannibal rats in Tooting
Earlier this year pest controllers in south London discovered a nest of six giant rats – each two feet long and weighing over 25lbs – which were simply too massive for conventional traps to kill. Some experts have attributed their terrifying size to a warmer climate, but the rodent hunters who eventually snared them decided they had probably mutated through eating their own kind.
The mystery of the Moorgate disaster
The most deadly crash in London Underground history has never been explained. On the morning of February 28 1975 a Moorgate train arrived at the then-terminus, but failed to stop, ploughing at full speed into a dead-end tunnel wall. Forensic examination of driver Leslie Newson revealed no medical reason for the crash, and he had been applying power until two seconds before impact. Eyewitnesses on the platform reported that he had been sitting upright and staring ahead, and money was found on him which he was going to use to buy a car for his daughter after his shift, suggesting he was not suicidal. Newson and 42 passengers died, with 74 more injured in the crash. Why remains a complete mystery.
The Highgate Vampire
Highgate Cemetery is the atmospheric resting place for some 170,000 souls, among them Karl Marx and George Eliot. In the late 1960s the gothic graveyard had several reported sightings of a strange, black-clad, spectral figure, which hovered above the ground and was said to exercise a hypnotic power over those who encountered it. At the same time, several foxes were found dead in the cemetery. Then, in 1970, the corpse of a woman was dragged from a tomb and stake driven through her heart. No explanation for any of it has ever been found.
The stuffed philosopher of Bloomsbury
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham left instructions that on his death he should be publicly dissected, then his body put on display as his own memorial. To this day his macabre ‘auto-icon’ is on show at UCL, and is still occasionally wheeled into staff meetings – most recently in 2(1) to honour the outgoing provost. It consists of Bentham’s skeleton padded with hay and dressed up, with a wax replica of his head attached. His real head was mummified, and used to sit, grinning, between his feet. These days it is locked away, having been deemed ‘too gruesome’.
Highgate's ghostly chicken
Not many people know that one of the pioneers of refrigeration was Sir Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan philosopher, not the painter). In 1626 in Highgate, he made the fateful decision to purchase a chicken, wring its neck, stuff it with snow and demonstrate how the science of preservation worked. But he caught a chill during the experiment and died shortly afterwards in nearby Arundel House. Various eyewitness accounts since then have reported a ghostly chicken, flapping and squawking around Pond Square, terrorising the locals.
Exorcism on the Underground
During the early 1990s a spate of breakdowns on the Circle line between Edgware Road and Baker Street led to an examination of records dating back to when the tunnels were dug. These revealed that bone and tooth fragments had been unearthed during construction. The official verdict of a ‘plague pit’ didn’t fit with such a westerly location, and the problems only disappeared after holy water was sprinkled on the site.
Cut-price burials on the Strand
In the 1840s London’s skyrocketing population and frequent cholera outbreaks created a desperate shortage of graves. Churches began charging ever-increasing sums for a decent London plot. One unscrupulous minister by the name of Mr Howse charged a mere 15 shillings for a burial at his chapel near the Strand (less than half what others were advertising), then horrifyingly stuffed as many as 500 corpses in a year under the floorboards.
The beast of Sydenham Woods
For more than a decade, residents of SE26 have reported eerie sightings of a huge black cat, stalking the wooded hills, attacking pets and even people. Explanations of the phenomenon vary, but some people gothically believe that it is a panther that has escaped from an exotic private menagerie.
With thanks to Declan McHugh (author of 'Bloody London' and organiser of 'The Blood and Tears Walk' www.shockinglondon.com) and Olly Weston (London Bicycle Tour Company, www.londonbicycle.com)