3 Hellish Places From London's Past You Wouldn't Want To Visit

By Dr Matthew Green Last edited 23 months ago
3 Hellish Places From London's Past You Wouldn't Want To Visit

As much as we'd like to see the Londons of centuries gone by, there are certain places we're glad we never experienced. Dr Matthew Green, author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, takes us to three of them.

Bear gardens, Elizabethan Bankside (c. 1599)

The Bankside bull and bear baiting arenas, detail from the Agas Map (c. 1560), showing the mastiff dogs straining on their leashes.

Find the rickety, timbered amphitheatre nearest the Thames. Four distinct spectacles await you. First, a bull will be tethered to a stake and a volley of mastiff dogs released, snarling and barking, as the audience scream "Go Bull! Go Dog!". The bull will try to toss the dogs through the air like pancakes — sometimes onto the very shoulders of spectators — while the dogs' owners try to break their fall with leather-tipped poles. Next, the dead bull will be replaced by a grizzly bear who is baited in turn. The bear will clasp the dogs so tight it makes their bones crunch, the bear's own teeth having been broken short to prolong the agony. See the bear roar, his muzzle smeared in slobber and blood, as his lifeless attacker slumps to the ground. Then, an old, blind bear will be whipped without mercy for the pleasure of the crowd. And the coup de grace? "A pony is baited, with a monkey on its back, defending itself against the dogs by kicking them". Lit fireworks, you will notice, are strapped to the monkey's back. So sickening to you, this "sweet and comfortable recreation for a peaceable people" (as the Privy Council describes it in 1583) has long been London's most popular spectator sport.

A depiction from 1588 showing the Bankside bull and bear pits.

It has royal approval too; Queen Elizabeth visits here, but not the Globe and it's actually illegal to sell beef that hasn't been baited as people believe it's less tasty. The fiercest and most valiant bears can become celebrities — Sackerson the Bear appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor — and audiences see no contradiction between watching a philosophically searching play like Hamlet one afternoon and the bear baiting the next, revealing much about the mindset of the age. Bankside's bull and bear pits long outlived the Globe and Rose (which imitated their style), dying out in the 18th century after a move to Hockley-in-the-Hole, Clerkenwell.

The Whit, Restoration Newgate (c. 1662)

Newgate, the portal to the Whit

Known as 'the Whit', since it was rebuilt in the early 15th century at the bequest of Mayor Dick Whittington, Newgate Prison was once described, rightly, as "a hell such as Dante might have conceived". To get in, give the turnkey a penny. One of the first dungeons you'll encounter is the condemned hold, or death row. Here, "prisoners lie like swine upon the ground, one upon another, howling and roaring", their legs shackled by long wooden stilts making it impossible to walk. Don't miss Jack Ketch's kitchen where the heads of traitors are parboiled in a kettle with salt and cumin to weatherproof them before they are turned into gruesome human lollipops on London Bridge. The paying 'master’s ward' is relatively luxurious but you won't want to stay too long in the 'commons ward' with its layers of crunchy lice and trails of excrement weaving through a dark and dismal labyrinth of cells. Prisoners sleep on mouldy boards (or sometimes in coffins) and the whole thing reeks of "foul sweaty toes, dirty shirts, the shit tub, stinking breaths and uncleanly carcasses". You’ll understand why, by 1700, for every prisoner hanged at Tyburn, four will die of disease in Newgate and since you can be committed on the strength of an allegation alone, a false accusation can be an excellent way of getting rid of someone you don't like. In the Press Yard you will see prisoners who refuse to offer a plea in court 'pressed for an answer' with iron weights on their chest but the best spectacle is the monthly execution sermon in Newgate Chapel where doomed prisoners are forced to attend their own funeral. Newgate was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century.

An Anchorite’s Cell, Medieval Cornhill (c. 1350)

In late medieval London, bulging out of a dozen churches and abbeys, you will find strange little stone cells. Go to the church of St Benet Fink on Cornhill, kneel down, and peer through the grille. You'll be looking into a tiny, claustrophobic space — no more than 8ft by 6 — containing a gaunt man or woman, their eyes sunk deep into their sockets, muttering a prayer.

Depiction of a medieval anchoress from an illuminated manuscript.

For a bed they'd have a wooden board; their pillow, a log. There would be no door. The occupant, you'd find, would be walled in — and had been for up to 40 years. Don't try to help them: they are imprisoned entirely of their own will. Our bemusement that anyone could elect such an abominable fate manifests the cultural distance between the middle ages and our own times, and a very different attitude towards extreme solitude. 'Anchorite' is derived from the Greek anakhorein, to retire or retreat, since anchorites and anchoresses had sequestered themselves from the world to contemplate God thereby, they hoped, assuring their salvation. You may listen to their stories but don't try to touch them — physical contact is a damnable offence, as is trying to leave. Even when they die, some will be buried underneath their cell. One handbook encourages anchoresses to "scrape up earth every day out of the grave in which you shall rot" — and what better memento mori? You may be surprised to learn that there are long waiting lists for anchorholds. And why not? You can be reasonably confident of a place in heaven and parishioners will value you as a counsellor, fortune teller, safety deposit box or just someone to annoy and pester and try to damn with idle gossip. The church won't let you starve and anchoresses — who outnumber anchorites five to two — can find the perfect escape from an unhappy marriage. The anchorites were finally ejected from their cells during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, squinting in the sunlight as they rejoined the society of sinners.

Last Updated 28 October 2016