Five Weird Facts About London You Probably Didn’t Know

Each month, we’ll unload five of the oddest things we’ve heard about the capital, choosing trivia you won’t find in many, if any, trivia books.

1. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral once became completely separated from the rest of the church. On 17 April 1941, a German bomb penetrated the North Transept. The shock from the blast was funnelled up into the famous dome, causing the entire structure to lift by a millimetre before settling back down. A hairline crack still runs around the base of the dome. Source: Oliver Caroe, Surveyor to the Fabric of St Paul’s, personal communication

2. The Carlisle Arms on Bateman Street was the scene of London’s only known death through near-inhalation of a billiard ball. In November 1893, a 24-year-old envelope cutter named Walter Cowle reckoned he could place a whole billiard ball in his mouth and still close his teeth. This he achieved, but only by accidentally blocking his windpipe and choking to death. The coroner later declared that it was a ‘silly and dangerous feat to attempt’. You can still drink in the pub to this day, but it no longer contains a billiard table. Source: Grantham Journal, 11 November 1893

The Carlisle Arms, Soho.

The Carlisle Arms, Soho.

3. John Barry, Bernie Ecclestone and  Jeffrey Archer were all housemates…sort of. All three have owned the penthouse in Alembic House, the 1960’s mid-rise tower close to the MI6 building at Vauxhall. Source: London Walks, London Stories, by David Tucker (more info here).

Alembic House (the taller building).

Alembic House (the taller building). Image by M@.

4. There’s a good reason why Penge in south London sounds odd to the modern ear. It’s one of the very few places in London whose name is thought to have Celtic (pre-Roman) origins, from penceat, meaning ‘tree hill’. Nearly all other area names are derived from Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages, or from later times. Brent is another Celtic example, although it doesn’t sound nearly so hilarious. Source: The London Encyclopaedia and other texts

5. There are 118 different ways of getting into the Barbican…or at least there were until recent work along London Wall and Moorgate curtailed some of the options. Source: Robert Rider, Londonist Out Loud

Feel free to share your own trivia below. The odder the better. More next month.

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  • Brandy Del Anderson

    I love this series! Neat trivia!

  • Alan O’Kelly

    Penge sur-la-mer, beautiful place.

    • Lopekal

      Best place for it!

  • Richard

    One of my favourites: the object that looks like a slightly wide lamp-post in the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square was, until the 1960s, a police overnight lock-up for drunk and disorderly people (fitting one person.) If you look inside, you can still see an old telephone which was at the time a direct line to Scotland Yard.

    • Cate

      In one of the pillars of the Marble Arch, also!

      • Richard

        Really? Amazing!

    • Kevalaarr
    • Carolyn

      I got taken in there by a copper once for an illicit snog. With a girlfriend. We’d just finished finals and had been contemplating a paddle in the fountains. The encounter began with him warning us off that idea. He even gave us his badge number in case we wanted a follow up. Young and foolish. Dunno what his excuse was!

  • Nikki Waye

    Did you know their is a lighthouse in London, at least 26 miles from the nearest coastline?

    • Lopekal

      I went to a Warp records party there back in 2000

  • Penel

    118 ways in, so why is it so difficult to find even one way out of the Barbican?

    • tamipl

      they said 118 ways IN, didn’t mentio 1 way out

  • tracy

    An altogether more fab fact is that Alembic House is used in Theatre of Blood.

  • Best LDN Walks

    I wrote an article “19 stupid facts about London” for Twenty Something London, see if there is anything there that takes your fancy!

  • Debbie

    Re Walter Cowle & the billiard ball – I believe I recall seeing his larynx, complete with billiard ball, in a jar in the forensic museum at the old Middlesex Hospital. (I had a summer job looking after the printer & it’s output when I was 16 some forty years ago, and crept around the creepy museum at lunch times). Some images stay with you…….

    • MattFromLondonist

      That’s amazing. Thanks for sharing that Debbie. I don’t suppose you have any idea where the specimen is these days do you?

      • Debbie

        Hi Matt. I believe UCL took over the teaching responsibilities, so quite likely had first option on the displays in the museum – some of which went back many years, and there was some quaint Victorian-ish handwritten labeling. I think all teaching hospitals that have been around for a while would have similar forensic museums, but some of the items would today be considered controversial, such as deformed foetus’s. I’m guessing access would be controlled. What else has stayed in my memory? The diseased bits of lungs, and the blackened liver that was from an alcoholic, some fingers from a man that had been electrocuted, and the burn wounds ate straight down to the bones, with little visable burning – I suppose just an instant of incredible high voltage; made me respect electricity! I am guessing much of this type of history is kept locked away in vaults.
        You wouldn’t want to look at this stuff at night. Maybe recent medical students could say if they had access to this type of forensic museum? Regards

        • Diana

          A few years ago I saw some similar (perhaps the same) exhibits. I think it was at King’s College Gordon’s Museum of Pathology. As I recall, access was limited to medical professionals and students.

          • Pe Nelope Kay Greenhough

            it may not be one and the same, but the the description rings bells… there has been an electrocuted hand in KCH morbid anatomy museum since at least 1987, when me and another student visited because we were told that there, the owner of the worlds largest penis had bequeathed his member to be pickled for posterity … gruesome but fascinating place… even though we never found the penis.

  • Rob Barber

    When you stand outside the Prince Albert in Crystal Palace you are at exactly the same height above sea level as of you were standing on the top of the cross on the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

  • Jose Luis Ugarte

    Ye Olde Chesire Cheese in Fleet Street. Dicken’s place to be back in the day!

  • Doaa Mohaisen


  • Jeff

    Outside the Houses of Parliament is a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Directly opposite, upon the wall of St Margaret’s Church by Westminster Abbey, is a small bust of Charles I. Though erected 60 years apart, the two old enemies now face each other in eternity.