On a bright sunny day, London can be radiant: green, lush city parks are aplenty, colorful flower pots adorn period houses and pubs' frontages; the streets are lively with locals and tourists shopping and sightseeing. Yet the city hides a darker side too.
The name Jack the Ripper is enough to evoke memories of horrible crimes, bloody murders and the seedy alleys of the 1800's East End. The murderer is so famous that there are loads of themed tours and walks dedicated to his famed crimes and even a museum, recently opened in a former Victorian house in the very area where he committed such heinous crimes. Sadly, this area of London, nowadays full of hotels, bars and restaurants and very safe, was the scene of quite a lot of other crimes, not just the Ripper's.
A little further east in fact, twins Ronald "Ronnie" Kray and Reginald "Reggie" Kray run a well-oiled, organised mob operation in the 50s and 60s and were responsible for a number of homicides as well as robberies and racketeering. Many a site in the East End of the city are linked to them and a few movies have been dedicated to their life; if you want to experience a time warp and see a little bit of the London the Krays lived in, treat yourself to a proper English breakfast at Pellicci on Bethnal Green road. This Italian family run café has not changed in over five decades and used to be a favorite of the mobster twins. Fear not, it is today an extremely pleasant and fun place to visit where tourists mingles with local workers and residents.
But it is not just the East End that boasts a crime related heritage! Many other city areas, some particularly innocent looking today, can vouch for violent misconducts and mysteries and even ghosts. Take the lively Covent Garden for example, these days a centre of entertainment with loads of shops, ice cream parlours, trendy bars and boutique hotels. It wasn’t' always the case.
Around the corner, another vile man committed crimes that can properly rival Jack the Ripper in terms of hideousness. Another famous character with even musicals dedicated to his actions, Sweeney Todd was a barber with a shop located at 152 Fleet Street, next to a pie shop owned by one Mrs Lovett. Sweeney used to slit the throat of his clients (victims) and Mrs Lovett helped him get rid of the bodies by baking delicious meat pies to sell in her shop.
Legend or truth, the story has inspired numerous adaptations from movies to musicals and remains, to this day, one of the most famous mysteries of the capital. Unfortunately, similar crimes do not only appear in the fantasy of authors or popular culture and a city such as London has seen its share of horrors. In the charming area of Bloomsbury, Charlotte Street is today a lively thoroughfare with plenty of offices and restaurants but has in the past been the witness to many a felony.
One of the most horrific took place in 1917 at n101: a Belgian butcher called Louis Voisin used his professional skills to beat up, kill and then dispose of one of his ex-lovers. The police searched his house and found the remains scattered and hidden in a barrel in the cellar. He hanged the year later at the still in use Pentonville Road prison.
This area is not new to ghoulish stories either. Legend says that there is a hidden tunnel that connects the British Museum’s Egyptian gallery to the now closed tube station dedicated to the Museum. The next station on the line is Holborn and apparently, sometimes, if you stand on the edge of the platform close to the tunnel, you can hear the distant wail of Egyptian voices coming down the shaft. Holborn tube station is only one of many London Underground rumoured to be haunted by ghosts and strange sightings. Some of the busiest stations (Bank, Liverpool Street, Covent Garden) have had reports of apparitions but perhaps one of the most distressing is that of Bethnal Green tube; during an air raid in 1943 the station was bombed by the Luftwaffe and 173 people were killed. Many people in recent years allegedly have heard the screaming of women and children through the station's tunnels.
It seems that London is one haunted city and it has its own 'ghost' tour bus. It might be a bit cheesy, but a blacked out vintage Routemaster bus departs every evening from Trafalgar Square and drives through the city showing off the most dark and chilling landmarks, revealing legends and myths of the city's past and present ghosts through the words of a couple of actors.
One of these sights is a creepy but equally interesting attraction, the London Dungeon. It's been opened for decades and in macabre perfection details the horrors that the city has seen since medieval times: enjoy life size plague ridden statues and rat infested sewers as well as the pleasantries that the holy inquisition inflicted upon witches and miscreants. Not one for the faint hearted.
Yet for something also quite disturbing but actually real, the Old Operating Theatre is an fascinating insight into the history of medicine and surgery. Housed in the attic of the early eighteenth-century church of the old St Thomas' Hospital, the museum runs special sessions with mock demonstrations of the early days of surgery where no anaesthetic was available and doctors had to be quick to perform their duties, one can imagine why!
Back in the Easy End, another off the beaten track place offers something even more quirky and odd. The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History is a tiny museum full of curiosities and oddities which include occultists paintings and pop art prints, the horrors and wonders of nature, two headed kittens and living coral.
So if you are visiting the English capital during the dark days of winter, you’re not going to be short of ghoulish things to do!
Also read: Gruesome London Tips