We've all heard the stories of king rats, pigs and crocodiles lurking in London's sewers. Most are merely urban myths. In December 1903, however, an exotic creature really was liberated from a Chelsea sewer. An Indian rattlesnake was found beneath a manhole in Arthur Street — now Dovehouse Street, close to the Royal Brompton Hospital. Here's a contemporary cutting from the Evening News that explains the animal's fate, if not its origin.
In truth, London has known the slither and hiss of many a snake over the centuries. Even today, adders and grass snakes are not unknown in the capital. Several instances of escaped exotics are reported each year, and a colony of Aesculapian snakes has set itself up on Regent's Canal. Using the wonderful British Newspaper Archive, we've cornered a few other anguine anecdotes from the capital's history.
1884: African tree snake trapped in Bloomsbury
An emerald snake "of huge dimensions", later measured at almost eight feet long, was found in Cartwright Gardens. The beast had caught itself up in some railings and was easily dispatched by a workman called Charles Lack. A naturalist form the zoo identified it as a venomous tree snake from central Africa, the first ever recorded in the country. It is not known how it came to be in Bloomsbury.
1896: The Holloway snake hunt
Mr William Rice of 5 Lysander Grove, near Archway, was perturbed to find a two-foot snake of undisclosed species in his drawing room. He quickly assembled the tools and the talent to tackle the beast with extreme prejudice. "The milkman and the baker were enrolled in Mr Rice's attacking force," said the Edinburgh Evening News, "but the snake out-manoeuvred them and got into the dust bin. Mr Rice shot at it with an air gun, and the pellet went right through the reptile. Next he put a dart through it, and stunned it." Finally using some tongs to transfer the hisser out onto the lawn, the plucky Rice finished it off with another dart, then preserved it in a bottle.
1897: Hiss up in a brewery
Ever visited Hawksmoor Seven Dials? In Victorian times, this was Combe's brewery, a large complex of buildings serving ale to the Covent Garden area. A two-foot long venomous 'whip snake' was found in the cellars by brewery workers in 1897. "The reptile at once erected itself, and made a vicious dart at the nearest cellarman," said a sssssyndicated report. Fortunately, one of the men had an axe to hand, and cleaved the snake in twain. It is thought that the luckless reptile hitched a lift from India on one of the vegetable crates bound for Covent Garden market.
1912: Putting the serpent back into the Serpentine
The curvy water course that connects Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park is, it seems, well named. In 1912 a man witnessed a duck paddling across the Serpentine in pursuit of a snake. "The drake did not seem to be hurrying," he told the press. "I rather fancy he was inspired more by a perplexed and cautious curiosity than by epicurean tastes." Eye-witnesses were a lot more eloquent in Edwardian times.
1934: Snakes (almost) on a train
Garage hand Mr J Birne received a shock at King's Cross station, when he stooped to pick up some lead piping. According to the Western Morning News: "As he did so, the 'piping' leapt three feet into the air. It was a snake! Mr Birne grasped the reptile by the middle of its body and smashed it against the wall, killing it. It was about three feet long." Where's that Parseltongued Potter when you need him?