19 Facts About London That Sound Made-Up But Are True

By M@
19 Facts About London That Sound Made-Up But Are True

By Matt Brown and Will Noble.

Londonist is almost 20 years old. In all those years, we've accumulated a bulging war chest of bizarre stories and unlikely trivia about the capital. Here are just 19 of our favourite facts, all of which sound like they're made up, but are completely true...

1. Scotch eggs were invented by Fortnum and Mason

A scotch egg sliced in half with some tomatoes on a plate
The scotch egg was originally for posh Londoners on the move. Image: Talent via creative commons

While the Scottish were the brains behind scotch whisky, they certainly weren't behind scotch eggs. These frugal meat-n-dairy globes were invented in 1738 by the opulent Fortnum & Mason department store, as an easy-to-scoff picnic thing for wealthy folk on the move. They're thought to be inspired by Indian snack nargisi kofta, so why 'scotch'? As Fortnum & Mason says "At the time, we referred to it as a ‘scotched’ egg because of anchovies added to the meat to give it a stronger flavour." We should point out there is also a claim that scotch eggs were first sold in Whitby, although with fish paste rather than meat.

2. There's no such place as Bond Street

A Bond Street roundel
Yes, there's a Bond Street station, but there isn't a Bond Street. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Once upon a time (aka 1686) there WAS a Bond Street in London, named for Thomas Bond, whose motto was 'The World is not Enough'. However, soon after, New Bond Street was built, with the original Bond Street renamed Old Bond Street. So while there's a Bond Street station (and square on the Monopoly board), there's no actual place named Bond Street. Well, not in central London anyway; if you want to be pedantic about it, London has two Bond Streets — in Chiswick and Forest Gate.

3. Bob Hope was born in Eltham

Bob Hope in a dinner jacket
Nope, Bob Hope wasn't from Palm Springs, but Eltham. Image: public domain

In Eltham, south east London, you'll find the uncannily named Bob Hope Theatre. But the nod to the golden era American comedian — known for entertaining GIs at Christmastime, and playing golf with Bing Crosby in Palm Springs — could hardly be less tenuous; Hope was born in Eltham, and lived here for the first four years of his life, before moving on to bigger and better things. Hope visited the playhouse in 1980, and when it found itself in dire straights soon after, he organised fundraising golf games to ensure it kept going.

4. A bundle of straw must be hung beneath bridges on the Thames while they're being worked on

A bale of straw inside Tower Bridge
A bundle of straw permanently hangs from Tower Bridge as part of the exhibition. Image Matt Brown

A much-peddled London myth is that cabbies must carry a bale of hay in their boots, supposedly as a hangover from days when all vehicles were horse-drawn. Alas, this doesn't hold water. There is, however, an ancient bylaw involving a bale of straw that's very much still in practice. We actually saw it in action in 2023: as IanVisits explains, when a river bridge's headroom is reduced (as happened with the Millennium Bridge recently while abseilers worked on it), the bylaw states that a bale must be dangled beneath it, as a warning to boats. You'd've thought the pendulous group of abseilers in hi vis would've done the trick, but we're still glad such olde traditions prevail.

5. The Great North Wood is in south London

A mosaic showing Norwood surrounded by trees
South Norwood library's mosaic depicts the area surrounded by woodland. Image Matt Brown

Until medieval times, much of the London area — and wider England — was covered in dense woodland. The Saxons and their Norman successors chopped down a lot of it to create farmland and garner wood for construction, ship-building and fuel. One patch that lingered on larger than most was known as the North Wood, and later the Great North Wood. It stretched almost from the Thames at Deptford right down to Croydon. How the name came about is open to debate. Even in medieval times, "Great South Wood" might have made more sense given its direction from the population centre of London. But perhaps it was named by the people of Croydon, to distinguish the wood from the Weald, which ranged to the south of the town.

Patches of the Great North Wood survive today, as a string of smaller woods along the south London hills, and it also lives on in place names such as Norwood and Forest Hill.

6. Keith Moon and Mama Cass died at the same age, in the same spot

Two 1960s music icons expelled their final breaths in the same apartment — probably the same bed. Drummer Keith Moon of The Who and Mama Cass of the Mamas and Papas both died at Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place in Mayfair. The apartment belonged to fellow 60s musician Harry Nilsson, who would lend it out to rock-and-roll friends during his long absences. Cass Elliot (Mama Cass) was staying here on 29 July 1974 when she died of a heart attack (not choking on a ham sandwich, as popular myth would have it). A little over four years later, Keith Moon was also found dead in the same room. He'd overdosed on a prescription drug he was taking to combat alcoholism. Both musicians were aged 32. After this second tragedy, Nillson sold his apartment to Moon's bandmate, Pete Townshend. The block still exists, though remodelled.

7. Tower Bridge was turd brown until the 1970s

Inside the Tower of London we see steel beams painted brown
The bridge's toilet hues can still be seen on steel framework inside its towers. Those are dummy workers, by the way.

Those bold red, white and most-of-all blue colours are so striking it would be natural to assume that Tower Bridge has always been that way. But up until 1977, the span was a turdsome brown, or "bright chocolate brown" as the bridge's official website spins it. Apparently, this was Queen Victoria's favourite colour — a revelation we don't quite know what to do with. The bridge was given its modern colour scheme to mark Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, proving that you really can polish a turd. The original browns can still be seen on a tour of the bridge, where interior ironwork maintains those feculent hues.

8. London doesn't actually exist

Well, does it? When we say "London" where exactly do we mean? There's the tiny City of London (the Square Mile), alongside the City of Westminster, both of which lie within Greater London (the 32 boroughs plus the City). Demographics often speak of Inner London and Outer London. But is there any political or territorial entity that is just plain old "London"? The term seems to be used as a kind of fuzzy shorthand for Greater London rather than having status in its own right. But that's as it should be. No tourist would say "I'm catching a flight to Greater London"; the "Mayor of Greater London" sounds a bit of a mouthful; and we're definitely not changing our name to GreaterLondonist. Curiously, the one place where London was an official, political name was as a European Parliament constituency. Now we've left the EU, London has ceased to exist. (More discussion here, with some excellent comments.)

9. London was briefly known as Augusta

What was the name of our city in Roman times? If you answered "Londinium" then you are mostly correct. The city was founded under that name (for reasons unknown) and flourished for over 300 years. Around the year 368, the city was renamed Augusta, as shown on numerous coins from the era. It is thought that the name was predominantly used by officials, as a way of highlighting the city as an important imperial centre. It wouldn't last long. A few decades later, Rome withdrew its soldiery and Londoninium-Augusta gradually withered away.

10. There was a plan to move the Thames to Peckham

A map of a diverted Thames through Peckham
Map by Matt Brown

Admittedly, it was a plan that never got further than one man's demented drawing board. But, yes, back in 1933 architect William Walcot really did suggest diverting the river through south London. The traditional riverbed would be paved over to serve the motor car. Meanwhile, all the railway stations would be closed and replaced by one huge hub at Kennington, complete with rooftop aerodrome. More details here.

11. There's no London statue of Charles Dickens

Weird fact... London has more statues of Guy the Gorilla than of its greatest novelist. It was Dickens's dying wish that he should not be commemorated with a statue. His written works were all the memorial he needed. And look, though you might, all across this good city and you will not find one public statue to the scruffily bearded pensmith. The nearest we get is a small bust on private land within the Holborn Bars courtyard — built on the site of one of Dickens's former homes. (Guy the Gorilla, in case you're wondering, is commemorated in both the Natural History Museum and Crystal Palace Park.)

12. The District line used to go to Windsor and Southend

Several underground lines are today shorter than was once the case. Most famously, the Central line once carried on from Epping to Ongar — a section now covered only by heritage railway. The Met line, meanwhile, went much further than Amersham, reaching beyond Aylesbury to some super-obscure villages in Buckinghamshire. More usefully, the District line (then part of the Metropolitan) once ran all the way to Windsor (1883-1885) in the west and Southend in the east (1910-1935).

13. The Kray twins were among the last to be imprisoned at the Tower of London

The Tower of London is associated with many a famous prisoner, from Anne Boleyn to Guy Fawkes. The penal tradition continued well into the 20th century, with spies from both world wars put under lock and key within the Tower. Among the last to be incarcerated were the Kray twins, who spent a few nights behind bars here in 1952 after failing to report for National Service. The unlikely sounding bit of trivia is confirmed by Historic Royal Palaces, who oversee the Tower.

14. The geographic centre of London is south of the river

a computer generated map of greater london with red crosshairs showing a point in lambeth

Everyone knows that the official centre of London — from which all distances are measured — is Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I. A plaque there says as much. But what about the geographic centre, the point on which you could balance London were you to find a cosmically scaled pinhead? Well, back in 2010 we did a little experiment (balancing a cut-out of London on a knitting needle). The centre of gravity turned out to be close to Lambeth North tube station. Our crude methodology was refined four years later when a tech-savvy reader used GIS software to pinpoint the centre of London. The result? On a housing estate just round the corner from the Old Vic. Lambeth is officially the centre of London.

15. One of the most profound thoughts in human history happened at a pedestrian crossing in Russell Square

A phone box vending tiramasu
Tiramisu from a phone box... NOT the most surprising thing that happened on this corner...

In 1985, Diana Ross and the Bee Gees found themselves in the middle of a chain reaction. One man who got there half a century before, though, was Leo Szilárd. The Hungarian physicist was waiting to cross the busy junction of Southampton Row and Russell Square in Bloomsbury. As the lights changed he stepped off the kerb and something clicked in his brain. Szilárd had dreamt up a way to unlock atomic energy; a method to smash neutrons into atoms and start a chain reaction. It proved to be one of the most consequential thoughts in human history, leading (via the work of many other researchers) to nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and utterly transforming the rules of geopolitics and the balance of power for decades if not centuries to come. Go to this unremarkable spot today, and you'd never guess its importance.

16. As a young man, Karl Marx drunkenly smashed up the gas lamps of Tottenham Court Road

Karl Marx talking in a pub with a pint
Non-artist's impression of how a drunken Karl Marx might not have looked. Image Matt Brown

Szilard wasn't the only émigré to take inspiration from the streets of London. Karl Marx was smashing things up on the edge of Bloomsbury 80 years earlier. But rather than firing neutrons into nuclei, the bearded communist was hurling stones at gas lamps. It all happened after pub crawl along Tottenham Court Road. Marx and his friends got into an argument with some boozy Brits about the merits of the German people (some things never change). The confront were starting to turn ugly, and the friends decided to leave. According to the memoirs of Wilhelm Liebknecht:

Now we had had enough of our 'beer trip' for the time being and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over a heap of paving stones. Hurrah, an idea! And in memory of mad students' pranks he picked up a stone and Crash! Clatter! A gas lantern went flying into splinters. Madness is contagious — Marx and I did not stay far behind, and we broke four or five street lamps.

You can still do a Karl Marx pub crawl along Tottenham Court Road today, but please don't smash the street furniture.

17. Ring-necked parakeets are one of the most common birds in London

A parakeet flies towards an open hand
Image Matt Brown

Every now and then, a message pops up on our local community forum: "Has anyone lost a parrot? Just saw a big, green bird flying around." Somehow, large swathes of the population remain oblivious to London's parakeets even though the birds are bright, loud and obvious — and everywhere. Nobody really knows how many there might be in the London area, though some estimates put it at over 30,000. In 2015, the RSPB's Big Garden Bird Watch found that the ring-necked parakeet was the seventh most frquently spotted bird, ahead of robins, crows and common gulls. Quite where the birds came from is something of a mystery. Folklore theories say that they're either descendants from birds who escaped from the set of The African Queen, or else from a breeding pair released by Jimi Hendrix in the 60s. Both have been debunked, and the boring answer is probably that the population slowly built up from escapees from various aviaries.  

18. Fitzrovia didn't exist as a place name until just before the second world war

The Fitzroy Tavern entrance mosaic
Image Matt Brown

People often bemoan new coinages for existing, like Midtown or "the Knowledge Quarter". But area rebranding is not a new thing. The lands north-east of Oxford Street were considered as a continuation of Soho until well into the 20th century. It was only in the 1930s that people started to use the term Fitzrovia, taken from the Fitzroy Tavern which was popular with writers, artists and intellectuals. We recently found the term in use in 1930, a few years earlier than previously documented. So it's still less than 100 years old.

19. James Bond and George Smiley were neighbours (with Alex Rider)

The two most famous spies in popular fiction lived within metres of each other. George Smiley, protagonist of numerous John le Carré novels, is given the address of 9 Bywater Street, Chelsea — a real address. Bond's home is never stated precisely, although it is described by Ian Fleming as a "plane-tree’d square” off the King’s Road". A good fit is Wellington Square, and this location was used by both William Boyd and John Pearson in their own James Bond writing. Wellington Square is directly opposite Bywater Street, so Smiley and Bond may have been on nodding acquaintance. To further cement Chelsea as a hotbed of espionage, boy-spy Alex Rider is also a local lad, living somewhere between the King's Road and the Thames. To bring things full circle, Rider's author Anthony Horowitz would go on to pen a trio of James Bond novels.

Last Updated 21 November 2023