I enter the Viaduct Tavern pub on Newgate Street with my guide from City Wonders. For the past 90 minutes he’s been telling me tales of how 19th Century London was riddled with criminals and of a society obsessed with their public punishment…
I know this pub well, having been here with my father a couple of months before after we spent some time sitting in on a case at the Old Bailey directly across the road. I too am a little obsessed with criminal London; with crime and retribution in my beloved city, which seeps as much dark history from every concrete patch and inch of parkland as it does tales of marvel and merriment.
The Old Bailey
Little did I know that in the cellar of this pub are prison cells from the days of the horrendous Newgate Prison, which stood exactly where the Old Bailey reigns supreme today. As part of the tour I am taken down there to see the evening’s stories come to life.
Newgate Prison cells under the Viaduct Tavern pub
Upon special request, the pub allows prying eyes into the chilling, eerie room, where rotting cell beams rust in the dank air next to a room full of beer barrels. The rumble of pub banter can be heard overhead, but in those days all the prisoners would have heard from these parts was the ringing of the priest’s bell as he led people from the connecting Saint Sepulcher Church to the prison grounds to meet their fate.
The bell rung by the priest at midnight before the executions of Newgate prisoners
This is where the tales of criminal London come to an end, but not before you are whisked through the city and its square mile of corrupt characters…
You begin in the Bank area at the famous Exchange building, learning about those who were wise with money and clever in the act of embezzlement. It was around here that a bank clerk named Peter Whitehead was found guilty of forgery and hanged in 1812. His sister was so devastated by his death that she would turn up at the bank every day dressed in funeral attire asking where her brother was, the bank soon paying her a large sum never to return again.
These iconic buildings, narrow streets and courtyards hold more stories than you thought possible, but luckily the guide delivers old tales of petty crime and criminal dealings in manageable chunks. The evening drawing in to a close adds to the sombre mood.
Site of the last remaining section of wall from Newgate Prison, hidden in a residential area
You’ll take in the site of the Guildhall Art Gallery where the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (once used for the public execution of criminals) were found, and later pass the infamous headquarters of the London City Police. Based in this part of the city since 1989, this was where the Ripper case was painstakingly dealt with.
The Guildhall Art Gallery and black marble ring denoting where the amphitheatre once stood
Call for police assistance
One of my favourite finds was a church tower a short walk before St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Spitalfields meat market – the last surviving watch tower where once men stood guard over gravestones and newly buried bodies. With the hospital needing corpses for medical purposes, up sprang a new breed of criminals known as body snatchers who dug up the bodies, dragged them to the pub across the road and presented them to the surgeons who would haggle for a good price.
Bodysnatcher church watch tower
Without a guide, tucked away alleys would look dainty but lack their true historical substance and little would you know when you were walking over a plague burial site or a murderer’s path. You might even miss the site where William Wallace (better known as Braveheart) was hanged, drawn and quartered, marked now only by a commemorative wall plaque. Much of criminal London is paved, hidden or known only by a few – you have to know where to look.
Original tudor building. Hidden stories
It was, of course, the tales of Newgate Prison that stuck most in my mind – the images of the public processions that would accompany the public hangings, of crowds surging with mob mentality that formed all the way from Marble Arch in the West to the Bank area in the East. It seems we are still to this day all to eager to listen and learn about the latest criminal trial, downing a pint or two, just as criminals would jump “off the wagon” to drink bowls of ale from the masses before they met their fate.
Still, it’s far more interesting to wander within the heart of the city and let an expert talk you through what the walls can’t tell you.
I was a guest of City Wonders and their evening Criminal London Night tour. All opinions remain my own, including my interpretation of grim tales and criminal acts formulated from this bite sized history lesson.