Urban legends- we all know one: something that was once just a made up story which has been retold until it resembles a farfetched warped reality. Everyone loves to tell them at a dinner party but how many people actually know the origins behind the fables? Fear not, next time someone pulls one of these out of their bag of lies, you have all the info you need to shoot them down and help protect the veritas of our fair city.
Ring a ring a roses
There is a common belief, first suggested in the 1940s, that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’ refers to the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665. The myth prospers despite not having any evidence in support and plenty against: sneezing isn’t the first symptom of plague, and sores aren’t big red blotches that look like roses. It’s simply a children’s rhyme form the 1870s.
Tower of London’s Ravens
It’s said that the ravens have lived at the Tower of London for hundreds of years and if they ever leave, England will fall. Yet there is no record of any ravens inhabiting the tower before the 1890s – the idea that England’s fate is linked to the wellbeing of a few birds was, again, invented in the 1940s. So don’t believe tradition just because it claims to be old.
They often tend to occupy empty buildings. But ‘That house is haunted and that’s why nobody lives there’, really means ‘because the house is empty, people say it must be haunted’. For instance, in the 1870s, 50 Berkley Square was known as ‘the most haunted house in London’ even thought nothing untoward has ever happened there. The truth is that the house was left to deteriorate and the rumour took hold that no-one would live there because it was haunted. Somebody then took a recently published fictional ghost story and applied it to the house. Each generation has added refinements and the house now features an epic list of ghostly incidents. A classic case of legend growth.
Local place names
These are a particularly fertile area for legends. Most guesses are wide of the mark simply because they are based on interpreting the modern form of the name rather than an earlier one. For example, Kingsbury is not where kings are buried, the second part comes from ‘burgh’ or town, not ‘bury’; Kingston means ‘king’s town’ rather than ‘king’s stone’; and most emphatically Kilburn is not where Catholic martyrs were ‘killed and burned’ (‘burn’ comes from ‘bourne’ or river).
There are spurious plague pits abound through every London borough. Many people seem to believe that the Piccadilly Line takes a detour at South Kensington to avoid a plague pit even though the route simply follows the street pattern above and, at 80 feet down, is far deeper than any plague pit would be.
Our advice, if you want to avoid the urban legend virus, maintain a degree of scepticism, banish the idea that something must be true because it is old or lots of people believe it and never, ever 100% trust anything you hear from a tour guide. Over and out.