The night of the hallowed souls is nigh and you are in for a treat this Halloween. London is a city with a rich and fascinating past, but we will venture to the darker side of its history. We have compiled a list of some of the most spine-tingling areas in London for those of you interested in history with a more macabre twist – visit them if you dare!
The Tower of London
This historic castle, dating back to 1078, sits along the north bank of the River Thames. Its bloody history of imprisonment, torture and execution makes it a key resting place for tormented souls. One ghostly resident you may spot is Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was beheaded in 1536. She haunts the place of her execution and has been seen carrying her own head. The two young princes, Edward V and his brother Richard, were banished by Parliament to the Tower and then mysteriously disappeared. It is generally assumed that their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, murdered them so he could then usurp the throne. In 1674 their skeletons were found beneath the staircase in the White Tower. Their apparitions have been seen huddled in one of the castle rooms.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum
This museum of surgical history is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres and is based on the original site of St Thomas’ Hospital [dating back to 1215]. It is found in the roof space of the English Baroque St Thomas’ Church. The Old Operating Theatre is an eerie place reminiscent of the gruesome surgeries that took place there years ago. Surgeons had no anaesthetics until 1846, and relied on quick surgeries [surgeons could perform an amputation in a minute or less] where the patient would be given ample alcohol to dull their senses.
Historically, graveyards and burial grounds were crammed in between shops, houses and taverns, wherever there was space, often with other human remains. Bodies were covered in quicklime to speed decomposition, so that within a few months the graves could be reused. At the beginning of the nineteenth century London was facing a severe lack of burial space as the population, and the mortality rate with it, was increasing. To remedy this Parliament passed a statute in the interest of public health, for seven new private cemeteries should be opened in the countryside around the capital. Opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery is part of these “Magnificent Seven” resting places surrounding central London. This sprawling Grade I listed graveyard houses a veritable list of notable figures from British history – Karl Marx, George Eliot, Charles Dickens family, William Michael Rossetti as well as numerous thespians, playwrights and soldiers. There are approximately 170,000 people buried in around 53,000 graves at Highgate Cemetery. Sightings of a mysterious grey figure and hysterical rumours of a Highgate Vampire started circulating at the beginning of the 1970s.
St Paul’s Cathedral
The city’s most iconic domed cathedral dates from the late 17th century, though the original church on this site was founded in 604 AD. The current church, a Wren Baroque masterpiece, was part of a major rebuilding programmed after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Services held at St Paul’s have included the funerals of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, both of whose tombs lie in the Crypt. The church is home to the Whistler ghost. The spectre resides in the All Soul’s Chapel in the northwest tower. It takes the form of an elderly minister who whistles a sorrowful tune as he floats across the floor and through the same spot in a wall. During the renovation of the chapel, excavators discovered a hidden door behind the wall through which the spirit disappears. The door opened to a spiral staircase that led to a mysterious room with an unknown purpose.
The East End during the late 1800s was riddled with crime and widespread poverty. Between the years 1888 and 1891, eleven grisly murders took place on the streets of Whitechapel. The infamous perpetrator was never found but given numerous pseudonyms but the one that has stood the test of time is “Jack the Ripper”. The victims were female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums. Out of these eleven brutal murders, the “canonical five” are widely believed to be the work of Jack the Ripper. The Ten Bells pub has connections with two of the Ripper’s victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly. It is thought that Chapman drank there before her murder, and Kelly picked up her clientele outside the venue. Her mangled body was found across the street from the pub. With increasing literacy of the population and the newspaper publicity, the Whitechapel Murders was one of the first sensationalist events to garner the public imagination. The gruesomeness of the stories was consumed far and wide and gave the East End a much darker reputation than it already had.
Cross Bones Graveyard
Within this disused burial ground in south London, lie the remains of some 15,000 lost souls. For centuries this was the burial site for the outcast dead, [the bodies of beggars, prostitutes and thieves] in the heart of medieval London’s red light district. Set along the swampy southern banks of the River Thames, this area lay outside the legal reach of the city, and offered safe haven to seedy taverns, bawdy theatres and brothels. Cross Bones provided the only option for the burial of the city’s prostitutes or ‘Winchester Geese’, who were denied Christian burials. By the 1700s, additional pariahs of society were brought in for burial; by 1853 the near-bursting-with-bodies graveyard closed its gates for good. In the 90’s the Museum of London performed a partial excavation, uncovering heaps of bodies in mass graves, half of which were children. The site is now a memorial garden run by volunteers. A commemorative procession occurs every Halloween season and the rusted Cross Bones fence is adorned with ribbons and flowers in honour of the dead.