10 London Urban Myths

By a woman smiling holding a drink in black and white Emily Gray |
3rd March 2019

London’s history is made up of thousands of tales and facts, some true (the District Line will never arrive when you’re in a rush) and some which are a little on the fantastical side but which make a brilliant story – why let the truth get in the way. From swarms of rats and monster pigs to Hitler looking to live in South West London, here are the best urban myths in our capital.

Spring Heeled Jack

Fifty years before Jack the Ripper terrorised London, there was another unknown Jack who was causing mayhem, Spring Heeled Jack. Not dissimilar to the devil, Spring Heeled Jack was said to breath flames, have fiery eyes, long claws and wore a cape. He acquired his name because it was said that after assaulting his victims he would flee the scene by jumping over buildings and high fences. And it wasn’t just London that he was seen in, he was also spotted in the Black Country and other cities across England. He was never caught and it is now assumed to be a case of mass hysteria and a few guys dressing up to play pranks… really “funny”.

Big Ben Striking Thirteen

Big Ben is rather silent at the moment, but rumour has it that if the bell was ever to strike thirteen then the four lion statues of Trafalgar Square would come to life. Some say they’ll wake to protect the city, whilst others say that they will destroy the city… maybe you would too if you had been clambered on that many times.

Jimi Hendrix is to Blame for the Parakeets

There are many stories about Jimi Hendrix mainly involving drugs and sex, but one of the more unusual stories is that he is the reason that London is home to so many parakeets. Yes Jimi Hendrix did release a pair of birds on Carnaby Street back in the sixties, but could they really have bred that much that their offspring ended up populating great swathes of the city? No. The first recorded sighting of wild parakeets in London was actually back in 1885, but Hendrix’s pair would have definitely contributed to the masses we see today.

Ravens at the Tower of London

Ravens are normally seen to be birds that carry with them a feeling of uneasiness or ill omens, not in London though. Oh no, we need at least six to be living at the Tower of London, otherwise both the tower and monarchy will fall. It was said that Charles II first insisted that the ravens were protected and whether it is true or just a legend, it’s been taken very seriously. You’ll always find seven ravens, they tend to have a spare, as occasionally some have resigned, such as Grog who was evidently a true Londoner and moved to an East End pub in 1981 and George who was fired in 1986 for eating too many TV aerials.

London is Swarming With Rats 

Despite what people think, London isn’t swarming in rats and you’re not just six feet away from a rat at all times. Think about it, if you were, say, lying in Battersea Park then there would have to be rats everywhere for that statistic to work and how many times have you shared your Prosecco picnic with a rat? Nope, apparently you’re more likely to be around 164 feet away from a rat, so we can all breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Hauntings at the Savoy 

Caspar might be the friendly ghost, but Kaspar at the Savoy Kaspar has a scarier background. Legend has it that South African diamond magnate Woolf Joe dined at restaurant in 1898 along with fourteen guests. Except that one cancelled at the last minute. Dinner went on with an ‘unlucky’ 13 guests, making one superstitious diner announce that death would befall the first person to leave. Joel took that gamble and a few weeks later he was shot dead in Johannesburg. To avert a PR disaster The Savoy offered a member of staff to sit amongst tables of thirteen, but this was unpopular as it stimied conversation. So Kaspar was born, a three foot high bronze cat sculpted in 1926 by Basil Lonides to stave off bad luck. He joins parties of 13 with a napkin around his neck and a full place setting.

Tower Bridge was Sold to a Gullible American

We’ve all heard the story, London Bridge was once sold to an American millionaire who mistakenly believed he was buying iconic landmark Tower Bridge. London Bridge, as we all know, is relatively dull to behold, serving as a functional corollrrory between The City and Borough, while Tower Bridge is a masterpiece of architecture and a London cultural icon. So to British ears it’s the perfect anecdote, stupid American being duped by wily Brits. Except it’s not true. About to dismantle London Bridge to be replaced with a wider bridge, the London authorities realised it would be better to find a buyer than simply destroy the historic bridge. And one was found in Robert P. McCulloch, a chainsaw tycoon (genuinely!) from Missouri who needed a tourist attraction for his new city. And so, entirely knowingly, bought London Bridge, not Tower Bridge. Amazingly, it’s still Arionza’s second-most popular tourist attraction after the Grand Canyon!

Black Swine of London Sewers

Without Joseph Bazalgette introducing London’s sewage system we’d quite be in the sh*t. But the introduction of the new underground network of tunnels, didn’t just do away with the horrors that were the products of Londoners’ bowels. It also helped to demystify the urban legend of the Black Swine. Rumour has it that a pregnant sow got into the sewer network, had her litter of piglets that fed on the contents of the sewer and grew into a super breed. They then spent their days running around under the streets of London, waiting until the day that they were going to emerge in Highgate and cause riots.

Hitler’s London Home in Balham

Balham might be one of London’s most up-and-coming areas, but one thing the estate agents probably won’t mention on a viewing is that it was also earmarked as Hitler’s preferred UK headquarters. The art deco masterpiece that is Du Cane Court, a block of flats on Balham High Road was apparently chosen by the Führer for its (at the time) modern design and styling. However, we can’t find anything to back this up, so perhaps it’s just another London myth.

The First Baby Born on the Tube Was Called TUBE

We’ve seen many things on the tube, but a baby being born is not one of them – there are only three official births. Back in 1924 those riding the Bakerloo line in May would have seen the first baby born, a little girl who was rumoured to be called Thelma Ursula Beatrice Eleanor giving her the initials TUBE. Not so, she was actually called, Marie Cordery. Here’s an actual fact though, Jerry Springer was born in Highgate station during the Blitz when it was used as a bomb shelter.

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