A ghostly, indelible set of footprints is buried somewhere beneath the paving stones of Bloomsbury. At least according to the legend of the Field of Forty Footsteps.
The story goes back at least 230 years, to a time when the lands around the British Museum — then Montague House — were still open meadow.
Until around 1800, the area was a well-known duelling ground. One such face-off involved a pair of brothers, in love with the same woman. After pacing away from one another, the brothers turned, fired and both fatally hit the mark. So the story goes.
Their tragedy would not be forgotten. The brothers' footprints remained behind for decades. No grass would grow within them, nor yet on the ground where their bodies fell. The oddity became known as the Brothers' Steps, or the Field of Forty Footsteps.
We're of a rational mind and inclined to dismiss supernatural explanations for the footsteps — most probably, it was simply a popular short whose oft-refreshed boot prints were spun into urban myth. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that some kind of curiosity could be found in that meadow. Many people wrote about it in the Georgian period. The most noted witness to the footsteps was Robert Southey, who would later become Poet Laureate. He was prompted to visit by a friend, whose mother had seen the steps ploughed up, only to reappear. Southey took the advice, and wrote the following in response:
"We sought for near half an hour in vain. We could find no steps at all, within a quarter of a mile, no nor half a mile, of Montague House. We were almost out of hope, when an honest man who was at work directed us to the next ground adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought, about three quarters of a mile north of Montague House, and about 500 yards east of Tottenham Court Road... They are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six, but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen, is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat."
The final known mention comes from Joseph Moser, writing in January 1800:
"Went into the fields at the back of Montagu House, and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the foot-prints of the workmen."
Although covered over, the legend remained in popular currency. In 1828 the Field of Forty Footsteps was immortalised in a romantic drama of the same name. At least two theatrical productions ensued, and press accounts can be found throughout the 19th century. Geoffrey Trease wrote a children's novel on the subject in 1977. It remains well-known enough to have a Wikipedia page.
But where was the Field of Forty Footsteps? Where should we dig today if we wanted to rediscover the lost phenomenon? Some have equated it to Tavistock Square; others to Torrington Square. Both are open spaces and would therefore contradict accounts that the area was built over. Can we find clues in the original sources?
Southey's directions of 500 yards east of Tottenham Court Road would put the footsteps somewhere on the line of Malet Street, while 'three quarters of a mile north of Montague House' would suggest a location north of Euston Road. That's too far out to match other descriptions, so Southey's distances are unreliable. An undated first-hand account from the early 19th century tells us that the footprints "were in a field on the site of Mr. Martin's Chapel, or very nearly so". This would be the Baptist Chapel on Keppel Street, served by preacher John Martin. From old maps, it can be seen that this is about 400 yards east of Tottenham Court Road, where Senate House now stands. Another secondary account places the footprints "at the extreme termination of the north-east end of Upper Montagu Street". This is now Thornhaugh Street, at the north-west corner of Bedford Square. The map below shows these locations.
Taking the two points together, it seems the Field of Forty Footsteps was somewhere beneath the University of London buildings around Torrington Square and the Brunei Gallery. Curiously, a major redevelopment is currently underway in this area. Might the excavators finally uncover the long-buried footprints of the duelling brothers? If, that is, they haven't already been found...