41 Splendidly Curious Facts About London

This is why you’d have to be tired of life not to love the place. With special thanks to Simon Leyland’s superb A Curious Guide To London.

1. The first person to receive a parking ticket in London was parked on Great Cumberland Place… and was a doctor attending a heart attack victim.

2. In 1938 a pedestrian was killed by a stone phallus that fell from a statue on the Strand.

3. Harrods sold cocaine until 1916.

4. This is Britain’s smallest police station, designed in 1926 to monitor demonstrations. You can find it in the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square.

5. It was believed that as long as there are ravens at the Tower of London, Britain will be safe from invasion. Birds are still looked after by the raven master today.

6. The first man to wear a top hat in public supposedly caused so much hysteria and commotion in St James’ that he was arrested for disturbing the peace.

7. The last wolf in the City of London is commemorated at the spot it was killed, where a wolf’s head forms the waterspout of the Aldgate pub.

8. There’s a Nazi memorial in Carlton House Terrace. Sort of. Below is Giro’s grave – he was a dog owned by Dr Leopold von Hoesch, who was the German Ambassador in London from 1932 to 1936. He died in 1934 after being electrocuted, by accident, by an exposed wire. His small tombstone bears a phrase (in German) meaning: “Giro: A true companion”.

9. In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock took umbrage over a remark about her age by a Mrs Elphinstone so they duelled in Hyde Park. Over 200 people saw Lady Braddock’s hat get blown off by a pistol shot and Mrs Elphinstone wounded in the arm during a sword fight. She apologised and they had tea.

10. In 1864 Colonel Pierpoint designed the world’s first ever traffic island, which he had built in St James’s Street. Unfortunately he tripped over while showing his friends his creation and was killed by a passing cab.

11. Duck Island on the lake in St James’s Park has a strange story to tell. A French soldier and writer was exiled from France during the reign of Charles II and sought employment at the royal court. Charles didn’t want to upset him or the French government so he made him governor of Duck Island. He was delighted with his title, though he had no idea about its provinence.

12. The first London Eye was actually erected in Earls Court in 1894 for an Empire of India exhibition. It was 300 feet high, as opposed to 442 for the London Eye today.

13. The convention of standing on the right on tube escalators came about because with early escalators that ended in a diagonal one had to step off with the right foot.

14. Sanitary pioneer Thomas Crapper, born in 1836 in Yorkshire, is widely believed to have invented the flushing toilet. It’s not true, but from his shop on the King’s Road he did design a spring-loaded toilet seat, designed to flush once the user stood up. Due to a problem with the rubber buffers it would remain down for a few seconds before slapping the unfortunate incumbent on the bottom. Thomas Crapper’s “Bottom Slapper” was not a commercial success.

15. The first regular bus service began in July 1829, invented by a man named George Shillibeer. Three horses pulled 22 passengers for a fare equivalent of £3.59 from Paddington to Bank via Angel, Islington.

16. In 1902 Lenin was living in London with his wife. He took on an English tutor from Rathmines in Dublin. When he was speaking to the crowds at Speaker’s Corner he did so in an Irish accent, as confirmed by H.G. Wells who met him in 1920.

17. People who took their own lives were, until the nineteenth century, considered to have committed a crime equalling murder. They were buried at crossroads as the cross brought a suggestion of religion to their life. The last person buried this way was a 22-year-old student called Abel Griffiths, interred at the crossing of Grosvenor Place and Lower Grosvenor Place in June 1823.

18. In September Londoners were excited by rumours of a young woman with a human body and the head of a pig in Manchester Square. The story went that she’d moved to London after inheriting a huge sum of money. She could apparently only communicate in grunts. A number of men advertised in the paper hoping to meet her.

19. There are two strange statues on Portman Mansions – a monkey with a long tail and a hunchback – that weren’t part of the plans and appeared some time in the Summer of 1935.

20. The Soviet Union ran a spy ring from 49 Moorgate during the 1920s. Special Branch raided the place in 1927 and found a quarter of a million documents and crates of rifles.

21. The Hoope and Grapes on Aldgate High Street is one of the few pubs to have a listening tube – which runs fom the bar to the cellar so the landlord can listen for treasonable gossip.

22. London’s smallest statue can be found on Philpot Lane: a memorial to two builders who were killed working on the Monument.

23. Wife selling in Smithfield didn’t become illegal until the early twentieth century.

24. There are three terracotta devils on the side of the building that faces the church of St Peter upon Cornhill. It’s said one of them looks like the vicar of the church, who made the architect re-draw his plans in the nineenth century.

25. Rackstrow’s Museum of Anatomy and Curiosities, which stood on Fleet Street (at the time 197, opposite the entrance to Chancery Lane) was popular in the 1700s because he was a skilled modeller in wax, and specialised in replicas of the reproductive system.

26. The Wellcome Library on 183 Euston Road is home to the world’s largest collection of cards put in phone boxes by sex workers.

27. In 1867, 41 people lost their lives after they decided to ignore warnings and skate on the thin layer of ice that had settled on the lake in Regent’s Park.

28. In 1810 writer and satirist Theodore Hook bet Samuel Beazley a guinea he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address within a week. And he did indeed make 54 Berners Street the most talked about house in the city.

29. On the wall of the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies, there’s a small plaque apologising for its being there. It’s the only building in London to apologise for its existence.

30. The Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street had panels of etched glass to prevent well-to-do drinkers having to watch the common man drinking at the other bar.

31. Torrington Square is known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, after a legendary 1680s duel between two brothers over the love of a local girl. Legend has it that forty of their steps could be seen in the ground for years afterwards, and the grass never grew back.

32. In 1814 the Great Beer Flood of London took place after a popular brewery’s 800-pound hoop fell off the vat, smashed through the walls of the brewery (knocking over other great tanks of beer), and flooded St Giles. The people ran outside to scoop it all up with pots and pans, while others just lay down and lapped it up as it went past their doors.

33. Ely Place by Holborn Circus is not part of London.

34. The first umbrella was used in London in 1750 by Jonas Hanway, who brought the prototype back from Persia. Cabbies, fearful they’d lose their wet weather, taunted him for being a “Frenchman”.

35. Constantia Philips, a retired courtesan, opened London’s first sex shop in 1732. Her “preservatives” – condoms – were hugely popular.

36. There’s a statue of William III in St James’s Square. If you look closely you can see a molehill at the foot of his steed. The horse tripped on a molehill and he died from the pneumonia that developed from complications to his injuries.

37. The lions heads you can see along the Victoria and Albert Embankments are a unique part of London’s Victorian flood warning system – hence “When the lions drink, London will sink.”

38. 222 The Strand was once home to one of the first air conditioned restaurants in London. It opened in 1883 and was in business for three years, during which time a pair of ladies recruited from a local cycling club would pedal a bicycle in the basement to power a giant pair of bellows.

39. On Carting Lane, which runs down from the side of the Strand towards Embankment, there’s a sewer gas destructor lamp. Hence its nickname of “Farting Lane”.

40. On the left-hand inner wall of Admiralty Arch, you’ll see a small nose protruding from the wall. It’s said to be Lord Nelson’s second nose, but it’s not. It was placed there in 1997 by an artist as a form of protest.

41. Etched into the frosted windows of the Albert Tavern in Victoria Street is an image of Prince Albert’s penis.

update

This post has been updated to meet attribution standards.

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