28 May 2017 | 10 °C

How This Area Of London Ended Up Being Called Dead Man's Hole

How This Area Of London Ended Up Being Called Dead Man's Hole

Here's a London sight you might not know: Dead Man's Hole. It's underneath the north side of Tower Bridge, where thousands of tourists walk past it everyday in search of the infinitely more glamorous crown jewels.

Perhaps you've seen the signs and assumed they were part of the Tower tourist trail, playing on visitors' love of all things gruesome? Rest assured, Dead Man's Hole is a real place. Not a nice one, but a real one.

It's the alcove situated underneath the northern side of Tower Bridge, right by the water's edge, and is essentially a mortuary. No longer a functioning one, but a remnant from Victorian times, when bodies used to wash up on this particular area of the Thames with alarming regularity. Head down to the river on the eastern side of the bridge and you'll see an 'L' shaped set of stone steps curving right round into the Thames directly under the Bridge, presumably to make accessing the water to retrieve the bodies easier.

Also look out for the hooked pole, which, it has been suggested, would have been used as a tool for retrieving the bodies. Once rescued, the waterlogged bodies would then be left in this mortuary until identified, or, as was more often the case, buried anonymously.

Despite the gruesome history of the place, it's quite nicely done up, all shiny white tiles — certainly sleeker than the cobbled neighbouring pedestrian tunnel. There's a reason for that, according to Spooky Isles (maybe put aside any food you may be eating while you read this next sentence). Decomposing corpses can explode from trapped gases, and tiles are easier to wipe clean. Whether there's any truth in that isn't known, but it sounds as good reason as any to us.

It's not the only Dead Man's Hole, although being so central in London, it's probably the most famous. A newspaper report from August 1900 tells of a father and son who drowned at Dead Man's Hole on the Thames in Tilehurst (near Reading).

In 1876, a drowning was reported at Lee Bridge (probably today's Lea Bridge) in east London, and further Dead Man's Holes existed in the West Country.

Think Dead Man's Hole sounds bleak? It's not alone — London has had plenty of other morbidly named locations in the past, for similar reasons.

  • A wharf in Deptford was once known as Deadman's Dock. When the wharf was originally built, plenty of bodies were found at the location, due to its position at the bottom of the curve of the Thames, a natural place for bodies to wash up. Its morbid reputation increased when, between 1776 and 1857, prison ships were used to house convicts in the area. The prisoners would labour at the docks in the day and return to their floating jails at night. When they died, their bodies were unceremoniously ditched in Deptford's marshes.
  • Peter Ackroyd, in his excellent book Thames: Sacred River, mentions that Wapping's Dead Man's Stairs, a set of ferryman's steps which no longer exist, were named for a similar reason — bodies were regularly pulled from the river at this point.
  • Further out in the Thames Estuary in Kent, Deadman's Island is where cholera victims were buried, another throwback of the era of floating prisons. Rather gruesomely, the remains, buried for 200 years, began to come to the surface in early 2017.
Camden Lock. The arch at the far left of the picture is known as Dead Dog's Hole. Photo: Matt Brown
  • We've also heard of a Dead Dog Bay, also know as Parish Dock in Greenwich, but we've been unable to find any information about the origin of the name. It may be something to do with the Isle of Dogs, just the other side of the Thames, but if you know anything, please share information in the comments below. Similarly named is Dead Dog Hole, at the entrance to Camden's catacombs. Again, no definite explanation is known, but plenty of waste ends up in the water at this point, due to its proximity to Camden Lock, so it's entirely feasible that a dog or two washed up here at some point.

Last Updated 19 May 2017

LondonRemembers

Fascinating. On a more optimistic note there was "The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning" which gave rise to Receiving Houses, buildings where the almost-drowned could be resuscitated. There was one at the Hyde Park Serpentine: https://www.londonremembers... .

Juno

Corpses can explode - it happened to William the Conqueror and Oscar Wilde.