London's Fear Of The Number 13

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 78 months ago
London's Fear Of The Number 13
Photo by Kath in the Londonist Flickr pool.

London is scared to death of the number 13. All over our triskaidekaphobic city, superstitious measures are in effect to ward off this 'unluckiest' of figures. Here, we take a look at some of these, splicing them with some strange coincidences from the newspaper archives involving the number 13. Or perhaps this whole 13 thing is no coincidence at all...

Why unlucky?

The reasons for 13 being a number of ill omen are many and varied. Some link it back to the Last Supper (with Judas playing the role of THAT dinner guest no one really wants to invite). There is another theory that it's got something to do with Friday 13 October 1307 being the day King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar. Although this took place in France, the arrests soon spread across much of Europe, and eventually London's own Knights Templar were chucked out of their precinct (now known as Temple) by a reluctant Edward II. The knights were tortured, then either imprisoned or killed. At least their legacy is now marked with a Wetherspoon.

Derby Daily Telegraph, 7 May 1927. Image © Local World Limited. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Omitting the number 13

In London The Biography, Peter Ackroyd talks of the city's superstitious thoroughfares which don't have a 13; Fleet Street, Oxford Street, Park Lane, Praed Street, St James's Street, Haymarket and Grosvenor Street all eschew the dreaded number. Some buildings themselves are superstitious: One Canada Square, for example, has no 13th floor; instead the numbers leapfrog from 12 to 14. Then there's the London Eye, which has 32 capsules numbered up to 33. Why's that? Yup, no number 13.

Kaspar, the Savoy's lucky cat. Photo by Matt Brown.

Superstitious dinner parties

If you're ever invited to dinner at the Savoy along with 12 other guests, you'll be joined by a 14th by the name of Kaspar. Nope, Kaspar isn't an uppity waiter, he's a cat. And not a real cat either — rather, an 88-year-old Art Deco sculpture. The tradition stems from 1898, when a guest dropped out last-minute from a dinner party for 14, hosted by diamond magnate Woolf Joel. When one of the guests suggested tragedy would befall the first person to leave the table, Joel brushed such superstition aside, and got up from his seat. A few weeks later, he was shot dead by a blackmailer. Following the episode, the Savoy instructed staff to join together tables of 13 into tables of 26 until, in 1927, the architect Basil Ionides created Kaspar. The lucky cat gets served the same food and drink as all the other guests.

Hartlepool Mail, 22 October 1937. © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

The Thirteen Club

Not all Londoners are triskaidekaphobic; some practically embrace it. Take the Thirteen Club, which used to meet every 13 February at '13 o'clock', flagrantly disregarding the perils of dabbling with the number 13. According to The Great Wen:

"There were 13 dinner tables each with 13 settings and diners wore green ties with toy skeletons in their buttonholes. Meals were served by two cross-eyed waiters, who announced dinner was to start by smashing two mirrors."

Only one member of the club had an untimely death. And he hadn't paid his fees. Hang on a second...

Western Daily Press, 13 February 1939.

The baker's dozen

We've all the heard the phrase 'baker's dozen', and that it equates to 13, but did you know it has its roots in medieval London? With the introduction of the Assize of Ale and Bread in the mid-13th century, the Worshipful Company of Bakers had the power to impose severe punishments on bakers whose measures failed to live up to exacting standards like this:

"By the consent of the whole realm of England, the measure of the king was made; that is to say: that an English penny, called a sterling round, and without any clipping, shall weigh thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear, and twenty-pence do make an ounce, and twelve ounces one pound, and eight pounds do make a gallon of wine, and eight gallons of wine do make a London bushel, which is the eighth part of a quarter."

Rather than risk draconian punishments such as losing a hand, bakers gave away 13 loaves for every 12 sold. (This is one theory anyway — as with most of these things, a few are floating around.) So just as for the Thirteen Club, the 'unlucky' number was actually rather the opposite.

Know of any London superstitions or oddities involving the number 13? Tell us in the comments.

Last Updated 12 May 2016