Heading towards Long Acre, he waves his hand in the direction of M&S, explaining that for several centuries this was where St Giles’ Rookery, one of Europe’s most notorious slums, was situated. Overflowing with humans, dogs and hogs all living together in a stinking cesspit of their waste, it was nicknamed ‘The Rats’ Castle’.
For obvious reasons, disease and crime were rife, but such was the extent of its danger and depravity, even police and physicians feared to enter. I’m on the Death And Debauchery Tour, gaining a glimpse into haunted, terrifying and murderous London, while discovering ghosts, criminals, spooks and killers.
London is filled with nooks and crannies, with secret streets and untold stories, that day-to-day life barely scratches the surface. To get a glimpse into the real past of the capital city needs someone in the know, and with the ever-looming Olympics, walking tours springing up all over the capital.
As we cross the Rookery’s elegant piazza, Hedley describes how this square used to be packed to the rafters with prostitutes for the local aristocrats to occupy themselves with. Until, that is, “Oliver Cromwell came along and ruined everybody’s fun, shutting down all the brothels, gambling dens and drinking taverns in sight”, Hedley adds, shaking his head ruefully. Thankfully, the ever-resourceful ladies of the night found a way to keep their businesses afloat during these tough times: to advertise that she was open to receiving gentlemen callers, a hooker would drape a red stocking outside her window.
By night, the oil lamps outside would illuminate it, thus the phrase “red-light district” was born. This tour isn’t for the squemish, and also takes in tales of Sweeny Todd; grizzly barbershop surgeons; the most haunted theatre in London; and the dames who had mice living in their hair. For those who like their crime a bit more recent, there’s the two-hour Gangster London Tour. Onscreen hardman Stephen Marcus, Nick The Greek in Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, leads this walk around real and fictitious film locations associated with London’s underbelly.
Learn about the shady lifestyles and tactics of some of the most feared gangsters in 1950s and 1960s London including the infamous Kray twins, and enjoy a Q&A session with Marcus at the end of the tour over a pint. “I think people have a fascination with gangsters because they have a slight desire to live outside the law or just be a bit rebellious,” Marcus says. “Personally I get a weird adrenaline rush from the danger of meeting a person who I know has killed or could kill, also there is a strange infamy by association the same as fame by association with an actor or singer.”
Death And Debauchery. Sat 5pm, Tues
6.30pm. £20 Opp Covent Garden Tube
Gangster London. Sat 1pm (until Aug 25).
£15 Blind Beggar, E1 1BU Whitechapel
More London Walking Tours