We all know about London's blue plaques. But what about its black plaques? The book, Black Plaques London, commemorates unsavoury moments in the city's history. A brutal execution outside Westminster Abbey. Sex toys sold in St James’s Park. An intruder at Buckingham Palace with royal undergarments stuffed down his trousers. This is not sort of historical subject matter that authorities choose to grace a building’s facade. In fact, many might hope that such indecorous and inconvenient episodes remain quietly overlooked. So let's look at some in detail.
1. A red hot needle to the brain at St Paul’s Cathedral
The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the medieval St Paul’s and with it, the backdrop to a peculiarly awkward chapter of Tudor history. In 1514, tailor Richard Hunne was accused of heresy and incarcerated in the Cathedral’s prison where sometime later he was found hanging from the ceiling, prompting his ecclesiastical captors to reveal that remorse had driven him to suicide. The corpse’s guilt was confirmed by a trial in the Lady Chapel, but suspicious details in the cell led the coroner to conclude otherwise: Hunne had been pinned down and a red hot needle thrust up his nose into his brain, following which, church officials ineptly contrived the illusion of suicide. Needless to say, much time will be wasted searching for this tale in the guide book.
2. Taking the piss in Berwick Street
During the 18th century — an era when anyone could set themselves up in medicine — opportunists were not slow to glimpse gold at the bottom of a chamber pot. The reputable procedure of examining a patient’s urine to assist diagnosis suddenly became ‘piss prophecy’ in which no ailment was too complex or indeterminate to be identified by a sample’s shade and bouquet. And to truly impress distraught invalids, flavour might be added to that analysis, because as well as taking the piss, some practitioners even tasted it. A low watermark was reached courtesy of Theodor Myersbach, whose encyclopaedic ignorance of medicine did not dissuade him from establishing a highly lucrative practice in Berwick Street.
3. Torturing Nazis in Kensington Palace Gardens
What is perhaps the grandest residential street in London was the scene of a particularly dark episode which has been all but erased from public consciousness thanks to careful national amnesia. In 1940, Numbers 6-8 were secretly requisitioned by MI19 — the division of Military Intelligence responsible for obtaining information from enemy prisoners of war. Two grand mansions were converted into a prison camp to hold the Allies’ most valuable prisoners — high ranking Nazis, rich in information but particularly hard to crack. An SS officer described the various forms of extreme discomfort he endured (torture being another word for it), however the precise nature of the camp’s ‘secret gear’ for assisting interrogation still remains a mystery.
4. Spanked with stinging nettles at Fulham Palace
During the reign of Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary, the Bishop of London was correspondingly nicknamed Edmund ‘Bloody’ Bonner — indeed his appetite for the live cremation of heretics at Smithfield is well known. But Bonner also favoured a more hands-on approach to religious conversion, and had the theologically misguided brought to his palace at Fulham for a more personal approach. There, prisoners were led to his orchard, their breeches slackened, and the portly Bishop would thrash their bare buttocks with birch sticks. As a means of winning over his prisoners’ hearts and minds it proved as ineffective as burning — though it did not discourage him from substituting the sticks with stinging nettles.
5. Self-castration in London Bridge
In 1840, dredging work on the Thames dragged up a curious item from the riverbank beside London Bridge. It was a bronze tool, ornately decorated with the heads of cult deity Cybele, her partner Attis, and the eight deities associated with the Roman week. Its purpose? To clamp around a scrotum while its owner hacked himself free of the items inside it with knife — although a flint or broken potsherd also amply served the purpose. Such drastic actions, followed by dashing through the city and tossing the testicles into someone’s house, were perfectly routine for those wishing to become a priest in the cult and like any Roman city, Londinium undoubtedly hosted the spectacle.
Written by John Ambrose Hide. His book, Black Plaques London: Memorials to Misadventure is available to buy now from good bookshops and online, rrp £8.99 (buying via this link will help support our site with a small commission)