A London Story

Secret Lore of London – edited by John Matthews with Caroline Wise

2016-03-01 10.29.13-1I love London!  I love legends! Put the two together and you have this wonderfully woven collection of stories that introduce the reader to London lore.

So, what is lore? Lore is belief or tradition passed on through the generations – generally oral tradition.  Lore serves to teach about the foundations of our culture. It is human nature to question and to seek answers and we are never satisfied with just information – we need to feel that there is a reason for things. Through the ages we have used lore to share knowledge and explain why we are here, why we do things the way we do, how things work, why structures look the way they do and what makes us human. Lore is thus born to help us understand ourselves.

Lore fascinates me. It generally asks more questions than it answers, and I love that!

But, how much of it is real?  How much of it is fantasy? Are the legends that make up our understanding of lore merely fairy stories, or do they provide a foundation for the history we believe to be factual? Who were the authors of the documents we use to research our own history? What were their agendas?  Who were their patrons? This means we continue to question and we never accept history as pure truth. We thus take lore to be our human, social foundation on which we build our history.

The Secret Lore of London is a wide ranging collection of really well-researched, clearly thought out, well-connected, easy to read and exciting to share essays about the legends of London – and they are not only entertaining, they are interesting and captivating.

The book comes in three distinct parts, which I feel could’ve stood alone as separate books.  Each book would appeal to a different type of reader.

As a trained guide I feel that the first part would appeal to those with a deeper understanding and knowledge of the city – it fills in the gaps and adds colour to previous knowledge.

The second part is a wonderful collection of short pieces – packed with varied and interesting bits that are perfect for someone with little or no knowledge of London, as well as for those who have an extensive knowledge of the city.  The pieces all relate to different sights, buildings or landmarks and will thrill and surprise with every page turn. This part can be used to explore London with insight that is generally not found in other guide books. Whether the reader is a tourist, a resident of London or an academic, part two is a real treat!

The third part….now this is the part that kept me entranced.  The stories about London are fresh and fascinating!  From the Druids to the Romans and to Arthurian lore that put London on a wonderful historical journey. I craved to read more.

London is such a vast city with a long, interesting and fascinating history, so to tackle this subject is very brave and admirable. If you have an insatiable hunger for knowledge, this book will give you food for thought as it opens a wonderfully colourful world that forms the foundations of what we believe to be ‘solid’ history.

The Secret Lore of London is for everyone – whether you are a London academic, a tour guide, or simply someone who wants to know more about their home city or are visiting this remarkable place. A world of legend, which plays such an important role in laying the foundation for what we take as gospel – what we accept as history. We all love a story, we love a tale – old and young alike. Some legends fill us with a warm and fuzzy feeling – others give us another perspective, a unique angle and often an explanation for why or how something came about.

To sum up the book in one word – fascinating!


Beef & Liberty

The Beefsteak Club was a dining club that was popular with the male upper class and creatives of especially London society in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The club celebrated the beef steak and the members wore a uniform of a blue waistcoats and brass buttons while enjoying their steaks with potatoes and port. Their motto was ‘Beef and Liberty”.

The 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, was a member of the club. He was also First Sea Lord, and had held a commanding position in the British Navy. He was a gutsy explorer and loved to gamble.

While engrossed in a game of cards at the pub in Covent Garden called Shakespeare’s Head in 1762, the Earl was hungry and called for this dinner.  But not wanting to interupt his winning spell, he told the staff,

“Just bring me a piece of meat between two bits of bread”.

Others saw what the Earl was eating.

“Bring me what Sandwich is having” they all asked.

And thus the sandwich was born…

This marvelous invention meant that if you were playing cards, or fighting a battle at sea, you could eat without fuss or mess.

The 11th Earl of Sandwich, John Edward Hollister Montagu, his son Orlando and the founder of Planet Hollywood, Robert Earl, decided to catpitalise on the Sandwich family fame of inventing the sandwich, and opened a sandwich shop in Walt Disney Resort in Florida, USA.

After opening 15 shops across the US, the first British shop was opening in London at  38 Ludgate Hill, adjoining St Martin Ludgate.

The “Earl of Sandwich” has the registered motto of “The World’s Greatest Hot Sandwich” and inside are portraits of the 1st Earl of Sandwich and James Cook of Sandwich Island fame.

Even though Dr Phil says, “You don’t need a pack of wild horses to learn how to make a sandwich”, a sandwich at the Earl of Sandwich is not just a sandwich, but a bite into history.

©Dawn Denton



For the audio version of this legend, click on link below:


The first London A-Z was compiled by a young woman called Phyllis Pearsall in the 1930s. She was up every morning at 5am and in total apparently walked over 3,000 miles through the streets taking notes. Her completed 23,000 street entries were kept in boxes under her bed.

As no publisher was interested, she published it herself and delivered copies to branches of WH Smith in a wheelbarrow.

She died in 1996 and by then the A-Z had sold millions of copies!

Today, what would millions of locals and tourists do without it? Probably use their iphones!

Dawn Denton©


Image Source: www.az.co.uk

London – Best on the Planet

“Where will you be over the summer; enjoying ‘the best place on the planet’ or avoiding it? London has just been named the best place to visit on the planet for the first time. In an Olympic and Diamond Jubilee year, the capital jumped from eighth to first place, ahead of New York, Rome, Paris and last year’s winner Cape Town. The league table, compiled by TripAdvisor, is based on the analysis of tens of millions of reviews by visitors to 440 destinations around the world. The capital has been very much in the spotlight over the past few years, thanks to the Royal Wedding, the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. This jump to first place is a remarkable achievement for a city that, just a few years ago, was widely seen as grubby, grey and expensive. In 2010 London did not even feature in the top 3 cities in Britain, it was beaten by Edinburgh, Brighton and York. It seems that tourists are now discovering London’s positive side, with many on TripAdvisor raving about the wide range of theatres and the number of free museums”.

International Association of Tour Managers

(May 2012)

Bovril & Prostitutes

‘Picadils’ were pieces of material used to support stiff collars or ruffs, which were popular during the  Elizabethan times and en vogue in the royal courts.

Robert Baker was a well-known tailor with a shop on the Strand and ‘picadils’ made him a very wealthy man.  In 1612 he built a large house in what is today’s Piccadilly and it was instantly nicknamed Piccadilly Hall.

The house was later demolished and the area became a busy thoroughfare and crossroads.

In the early 1900s electrically illuminated advertising boards appeared and in 1910 the famous Bovril and Schweppe’s signs were erected, followed by a Guinness clock.

London County Council could not prevent this advertising even though most of the land was owned by the council. The reason the boards did not spread to other sides of the Circus was because the land granted by the council to John Nash in the 1800s was so tightly worded that it did not permit any advertising.

During World War 2 “Piccadilly Circus” was the code name used by the  Allied Forces during the D-Day invasion as an assembly point for the fleet in the English Channel.  It was also during the War that the soldiers called the ‘Ladies of the Night’ in this part of London ‘Piccadilly Lillies’.

But for most of us, when we think of Piccadilly Circus, we think of the large Coca Cola sign which has been on the facade here since 1954.

And whether we are visitors to the city or Londoners, we cannot but stop and admire our very own ‘Times Square’.

Dawn Denton©


Image Sources: www.neatorama.com &  www.iwm.org.uk &  www.eg.bucknell.edu

“I intended to kill him!”

Born Ruth Hornby in 1926, Ruth Ellis led a quiet, conservative, Catholic life growing up in Rhyl, North Wales. Her father, Arthur, was a cellist and changed the family name to Neilson to allow for a more ‘exotic’ stage name. Her mother, Bertha was a Belgian refugee from the Great War.

At the height of the 1941 London bombings the family moved to Southwark in London and 15 year old Ruth got a job as a machine minder. Contracting Rheumatic Fever, she took dance lessons to nurse herself back to health and before she was 20 years old Ruth had a son, worked as a photographer’s assistant, been a model and eventually got a job in London’s clubland.

At the famous Camera Club, the sexy, attractive ‘peroxide blonde’ Ruth posed for photographers, which led her to a hostess job at the exclusive Court Club near Grosvenor Square. Here she was very popular and extremely well paid!

It was here too that the well-educated, good-looking, charming David Blakely, came into Ruth’s life. He was a wealthy racing driver and his fast life appealed to her. Very soon they were a couple (even though Ruth was still married) and his partying fuelled Ruth’s heavy drinking. But playboy David had affairs with Ruth’s friends, and she drank more and more heavily. Their ‘love- hate’ relationship was abusive and violent and caused much heartache to all those in their lives.

On Easter Sunday in 1955, Ruth had had enough! Filled with jealousy and rejection she went to Hampstead and waited outside the Magdala public house in South Hill Park (with a gun that no one knows how she actually acquired). As David came out of the pub with a friend, Ruth shot him five times, calmly asked a friend to call the police and an off-duty policeman arrested her while still holding the smoking gun.

Her trial opened on 20 June in Number One Court at the Old Bailey. Ruth wore a black two-piece suit and white blouse and had re-dyed her hair to her signature platinum blonde.

During the court case the jury were not told that she was addicted to anti-depressants or that she had been abused as a child by her father. No one mentioned that the Rheumatic Fever she had suffered as a teenager had left her hand possibly too weak to even fire a gun, but when she was asked, “When you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?”, Ruth replied: “It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.”

The court found her to be of ‘sound mind and discretion’ and it took just 14 minutes for the jury to find her guilty of premeditated murder. She did not appeal against her conviction and she never attempted to deny the murder.

Ruth spent just over 3 weeks at Holloway Prison during which time there were many calls for clemency including 50,000 signatures on a petition for her to be saved.

But on the 13th July 1955 a crowd of up to 1,000 gathered outside the prison gates singing, chanting and praying for Ruth. 18 minutes after her execution a notice of Ruth Ellis’s death was posted on the prison gates.

And thus Ruth became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Her story inspired many books, TV programmes and films, including ‘Dance with a Stranger’ which starred Miranda Richardson.

If Ruth had been found guilty of manslaughter, and her mental state at the time of the murder had been taken into account, she would probably have only received a prison sentence. She may also not even have fired the gun…

As was customary, Ruth was laid to rest in an unmarked grave inside the walls of Holloway Prison. During prison renovations in the 1970s, her body was exhumed and reburied at St Mary’s Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire with the headstone inscription of ‘Ruth Hornby 1926–1955’. Tragically in 1982 her son Andy (Andre) destroyed her gravestone and then committed suicide.

Today Ruth Ellis’ grave is overgrown….

Dawn Denton©


Image Sources: www.dailymail.co.ukwww.camdennewjournal.co.uk