Take This Terrifying Walk Along The Thames

David Fathers
By David Fathers Last edited 12 months ago
Take This Terrifying Walk Along The Thames

Londonist favourite David Fathers has a new illustrated walking guidebook, Bloody London. In it, he invites you to traverse city streets brimming with blood-curdling stories and tragic tales. Here's an extract featuring a 4.5 mile walk along the Thames, from Westminster Bridge to the Prospect of Whitby.

Image: Shutterstock

The River Thames, as it ebbs and flows through the centre of the metropolis, has witnessed a massive amount of tragedy and murder over 2000 years. The Tower of London, by the banks of the river, has become synonymous with torture and execution, especially during the reign of Henry VIII. For some, with murderous intentions, the waterway is seen as a waste disposal system for their victim’s body. The dark, murky Thames waters seems to attract those who would take their own lives; the waters swallow them up, hopefully, they believe, forever. Man’s interaction with water, be it for business or pleasure, is not always a happy one and accidents do occur. Some are just individuals falling from a boat, while others are large-scale shipping disasters. The River Thames does seem to have seen a disproportionate amount of death over its history.

1. Frenzy

In the opening sequence of the film The Lodger (1927), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a female body is discovered in the Thames. Some 45 years later he repeats this with a similar scene in the film Frenzy. Since 1939, Hitchcock had largely lived and worked in the US but he welcomed the chance to make a new film based upon a London that he knew as a child: Covent Garden, the East End and the Thames. At the beginning of Frenzy we are above Rotherhithe and Wapping, flying west along the Thames. This cuts to a politician making a speech, outside County Hall, about cleaning up the river. At this point a body is discovered in the water nearby. The film goes on to be one of the director’s most gruesome productions. As in the real world, the river is used as a sewer to dispose of unwanted cadavers.

2. The umbrella assassination

While standing on Waterloo Bridge in September 1978, Georgy Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, author and broadcaster, suddenly felt a sharp pain in his right thigh. He saw a man pick up an umbrella and depart in a taxi. Several days later Markov died of ricin poisoning. Through his works Markov had criticised the Bulgarian communist regime. It is believed that he was killed by the Bulgarian secret police with the assistance of the KGB. During the autopsy a tiny ricin-filled pellet was discovered in Markov’s leg. It had been injected through the tip of an umbrella. No one has ever been charged with his murder.

Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo in his 1972 film, Frenzy

3. The Bridge of Sighs

When Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817, pedestrians were charged one penny to cross over it. Some contemplating suicide were deterred by the cost and so went elsewhere. Others willingly paid, knowing the bridge would be quiet enough to contemplate their last moments before descending into the cold, murky waters.

4. RNLI station

Historically Waterloo Bridge has a higher than average suicide rate on the river. So it is no coincidence that the RNLI’s busiest lifeboat station is located immediately adjacent to the bridge.

The underside of Blackfriars Bridge - site of a mafia murder? Image: Shutterstock

5. God's banker

Roberto Calvi was chairman of Banco Ambrosiano when it collapsed in 1982. The bank had been found guilty of illegally exporting billions of lira, which led to Calvi being prosecuted though not imprisoned. It was Italy’s second largest private bank and nick-named ‘God’s bank’ for its connections with the Vatican. On 18 June 1982, Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge with $14,000 and five building bricks in his pockets. He had fled Italy on a false passport several days earlier. An initial postmortem declared that he had committed suicide following the bank’s collapse. Calvi was a member of the illegal Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge, often referred to as ‘frati neri’ or ‘black friars’. Was it a coincidence that his place of death was under Blackfriars Bridge? A second inquest, conducted in 1983, produced an open verdict. With new evidence his family believed that the Mafia had murdered Calvi. Despite a lengthy investigation and trial in Italy, no one was ever charged with his murder.

6. Our Mutual Friend

In the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend (1865) by Charles Dickens, we encounter Lizzie Hexam and her father Gaffer, rowing along the Thames in "a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance" between Southwark and London bridges. They were looking for floating bodies; the bodies of those who had committed suicide by jumping into the river or had been murdered, who would, on the ebb tide, float past this stretch of water, between the moored ships and barges. Once the body was hauled aboard, Gaffer Hexam would empty the deceased’s pockets of cash and valuables before handing the victim over to the authorities. Though this is a fictitious account, such activity did occur upon the Thames.

William Wallace was one of the first to have his head displayed on a spike on London Bridge

7. The decapitated

At the northern end of London Bridge was a stone gatehouse where the heads of decapitated traitors were displayed, on pikes and poles, as a warning to all who entered London. One of the first heads to be displayed was that of William Wallace in 1305. After 1577, the ‘display’ was moved to the southern end of the bridge and by the eighteenth century it went back across the river to Temple Bar. Among those to feature on the poles were Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

8. Shooting the rapids

London Bridge, which opened in 1209, had 19 narrow arches. This restricted the tidal flow so that the difference in height of the water could be as much as 1.5m at high or low water, between the east and west sides. For boats and their crew attempting to pass under the bridge, this could be a white-water event. Passengers often disembarked on the high water side and re-joined the boat on the lower side. During the 18th century it is believed that about 5,000 people (about one per week) were killed while ‘shooting the rapids’.

9. Tower Hill

Tower Hill is a short distance to the north-west of the Tower of London and is where around 125 people, usually titled, were publicly executed. The first execution occurred during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Fourteen-year-old King Richard II had travelled to Mile End to negotiate with the rebels, while another group of rebels simply walked into the Tower (the gates had been left open), ransacked the palace and executed several senior royal administrators including the Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, on Tower Hill. Sudbury’s head was placed upon a pike at London Bridge. During the Reformation (1517–1648), Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, and Sir Thomas More, then chancellor, were beheaded here. Both had been imprisoned within the Tower. In 1747, during the execution of the Jacobite, Lord Lovat, a spectators’ stand collapsed, killing several spectators.

The Peasants' revolt of 1381 led to the first execution at the Tower of London. Image: public domain

10. The Tower of London

Following William I’s invasion of England in 1066, he still needed to consolidate his hold on the country and strengthen London against uprisings. So an armed fortress was built upon an old Roman defensive hill to the south-east of the City, by the shore of the River Thames. By 1078, the temporary wooden structure was replaced by a stone fortification, built with limestone imported from northern France. The central four-storey fortification, or keep, became known as the White Tower, as in 1240, Henry III had the tower whitewashed to increase its image of power and domination over the surrounding land. At 36m long, by 32m wide and 27m high it was the largest structure in London. Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, became the first prisoner to be held in the Tower in 1100, for selling church appointments. He was also the first prisoner to successfully escape. Over the space of several centuries, further defensive walls, buildings and a moat were added. Initially, the Tower of London was used as a royal palace and a fort. However, its uses expanded over the centuries as it became the Royal Mint, a menagerie, an arsenal and home to the Crown Jewels.

11. River Neckinger

On the southern bank of the Thames is a warehouse-lined inlet named St Saviour’s Dock, which was once the mouth of the River Neckinger. The name of this short drainage stream is derived from the devil’s neckerchief or hangman’s noose. For it was at this point that pirates and mutineers, once convicted by the Admiralty, would be hanged and their bodies left in place as a deterrent to others.

12. Hermitage Riverside Memorial Garden

Within this small Thames-side park is a memorial to the tens of thousands of men, women and children who were killed during the German bombing raids of the Second World War. Much of the East End of London suffered firebombs that rained down between September 1940 and May 1941. This site was formerly a warehouse; Hermitage Wharf, which was destroyed on 29 December 1940, during such a bombing raid.

Rotherhithe station - former sites of the Thames Tunnel tragedy. Image: TfL

13. Execution Dock

The location just west of Wapping Overground station is the spot where pirates and mutineers would be hanged at low tide. Once convicted by the British Admiralty, those sentenced would be carried by cart from Marshalsea Prison to the Execution Dock. They would be offered their last quart of beer at the Turk’s Head pub (no longer standing), before being hung by a short rope that asphyxiated them rather than breaking their necks. These events were very popular and crowds would flock to the banks and take to boats to watch the executions. Three tides had to wash over the deceased before they could be cut down. In 1701, one of the most notorious people to be hanged here was Captain Kidd, who was sentenced to death for piracy and murder. A facsimile gibbet stands on the shoreline adjacent to the Prospect of Whitby pub.

14. Thames Tunnel flooding

The Thames Tunnel, in attempting to become the world’s first underwater subway, was beset with construction problems. When Marc Brunel became its chief engineer he introduced a cutting shield that made the process safer when cutting under the Thames. However, the river did occasionally seep into the tunnel and on 12 January 1828, a massive and sudden influx of water killed six workers. It would be another 15 years before the tunnel would open to the public. Today it is used by the London Overground rail network.

Bloody London features 20 walks in London, tracing its gruesome and horrific history, with a foreword by Ben Aaronovitch. Published by Conway/Bloomsbury RRP £9.99.

All images and text © David Fathers 2020. David Fathers can be followed on Twitter @thetilbury and his website

Last Updated 27 June 2022

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