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Secret London: an introduction

Secret London
Murder Ballads

I'd been living in London for about seven years when a family emergency in 1994 meant I had to move back to Devon for a while. One disaster followed another for a few years after that - a death in the family, redundancy, problems with my eyes - and it was not until 2003 that I managed to move back to London full-time.

Every foot of London pavement, I began to realise, concealed a long- forgotten story

I did so with a whole new appreciation of the capital and everything it had to offer. My years in exile - and, yes, that's exactly how I thought of it - had left me determined to make up for lost time, so I started going to the theatre every week, seeing a few of those gallery shows I'd always meant to get to and educating myself on London's history.
That last element was prompted by reading Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, a magnificent graphic novel using the Ripper killings to examine London's dark and convoluted past. The novel led me back to Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair - two of Moore's key sources - and, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Every square foot of London pavement, I realised, concealed a long-forgotten story, and I had only to step outside my front door to see the people in those stories materialising all around me.
This simultaneous experience of past and present is a gift London gives all its inhabitants and, if you'd care to stroll with me for a while on the pages that follow, you can share it too.

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Added in Nov 2013: The Cross Bones graveyard

South London’s Cross Bones graveyard began life as a dumping ground for the Bishop of Winchester’s dead whores.
      For over four centuries, this Southwark burial ground’s neighbourhood was home to London’s legalised brothels, policed and taxed by the 12th century’s Bishop William Gifford and his successors.
      Nicknamed “Winchester Geese” to reflect the Bishop’s role as their master, the girls who worked these brothels were nonetheless refused burial in consecrated ground. Their bodies ended up at Cross Bones instead.
      Since then, the horribly over-stuffed site has been used for the parish’s pauper burials, pressed into service as a plague pit and targeted by London’s most notorious gang of resurrection men. The surrounding streets have hosted Shakespeare’s own theatre, the Victorians’ most notorious slums and the wildest acid house parties of the 1990s.
      Today, this medieval burial ground is a shrine to our own era’s outcast dead, where 50,000 people a year attend regular vigils led by a shamanic local writer and attach their own offerings to the site gates. All this makes Cross Bones one of the most fascinating, yet least understood, graveyards in London. You can read its full story here.


PLUS: Weekly Dispatch disc found at last!

Our latest Letters Page includes pictures from a reader who’s just unearthed a Treasure Hunt Riots prize medallion in Plymouth. It’s the first time anyone’s seen one of these discs in well over a century, so this is major stuff.
      We also have an update on what really happened to William Game, the 9-year-old killer from 1848’s ballad Murder at Westmill. My original guess that he may have ended up on a convict ship to Australia turns out to be dead wrong.
      There’s late-breaking developments on Cross Bones’ likely future too, plus your chance to see two rare early strips by Andy Capp creator Reg Smythe. All this, and word on Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes’ forgotten stint in the gallows ballad trade too. It adds up to PlanetSlade most packed letters page yet, and you can read it all here.