Sunday, 31 January 2021

Another Roman Ghost

Yesterday, as we were in the vicinity, we paid a visit to the village of Brenchley in Kent, principally to see  All Saints church. The church was open, so we had a good look inside, but the main interest was the churchyard, which was very atmospheric on an overcast and drizzling day; also surprisingly extensive and containing a number of large, elaborate and unusually designed tombs. 

Continuing the theme of the previous post, I had read in Alan Murdie's Fortean Times article (The Romans in Britain Part 2 FT365 April 2018 p.17) that the ghost  of a Roman soldier had been reported in the churchyard. The only reference is to a book by Andrew Green called Haunted Kent Today (1977). To quote from Murdie's article: 'we have no named witnesses for the lone Roman soldier (possibly a Roundhead) at All Saints Churchyard, Brenchley ...' The only result of a Google search for this sighting gave me a reference to the FT article, so this is hardly a well-known and attested haunting, also it seems that the figure could have been a Roundhead (!) soldier from the English Civil War, making it even less reliable. Green's obituary written by fellow ghost hunter Peter Underwood, who mentions that he used 'unreliable sources' here - he lived in Robertsbridge, not far from Hastings - see a video of a local haunting here.

Having asked where the Anglo Saxon ghosts were in my previous post, I happened to read some publicity for the new Netflix series The Dig, a dramatisation of the momentous archaeological  discoveries at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk prior to WW2. Someone commented that it was the ghosts of a group of Anglo Saxon warriors seen on the site that made locals think there was something of value buried in the mounds on the estate of Edith Pretty. See here. Last summer, when the lockdown had been eased, we spent a lovely couple of days in Suffolk, visiting Ipswich and Sutton Hoo - the site and its facilities have been recently refurbished and it was a great place to visit. All the treasures are in the British Museum

Addendum: I've just finished reading A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke and he has an interesting story from his childhood on the Isle of Wight. He was told that the ghost of a centurion haunted a wood near Bembridge, which his family often drove through. 'During the course of my research for the book, I discovered the name of this wood: St Urian's. St Urian was the name of a church and village wiped out by the Black Death. It was not rebuilt and became covered in woodland. St Urian became "centurion". The name made the ghost story.' Much more detail here.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Roman Ghosts

Why are there so few - if any - sightings of ghosts of Ice Age hunters or other prehistoric peoples in the UK? Come to think of it, I'm not aware of a plethora of Anglo-Saxon reports either. The range of what Owen Davies - in his academic study The Haunted (see below) - calls 'heritage hauntings' was supplemented in more recent years by those of Romans: usually military figures and unusually in groups (legions) rather than a single ghost. Another interesting aspect is that there seems to be a disproportionate number of these 'centurions' and 'legionaries' sighted, compared with everyday Roman or Romano-British inhabitants of these isles. The variety of Roman military equipment for identification can be referenced here for example.

While reading a Christmas present, Haunted Places of Sussex, I came across this account from Chichester, known to the Romans as Noviomagus, a walled settlement on Stane Street - the plan of the city still reflects that of the Roman street pattern. Incidentally it also is the home of one of my favourite art galleries Pallant House.  At 38 Wood Street there has been a public house since the 1780s, from 1992 named The Chichester - the building stands very close to the city's ancient walls. According to the book:

'It has long been claimed that the ghost of a Roman centurion still patrols the old walls and that his passage takes him straight through the pub. If the ghost does date from Roman times it seems more likely that he was a legionary, since a centurion was a senior soldier, a commander - but people have always called him a centurion and so it is pointless to quibble. The patrolling spectre has been seen by many people while others have felt him brush past. The whole figure is not in view, only the top half. This could be explained by different ground levels since Roman times.'  Judy Middleton Haunted Places of Sussex (2005) pp.13-14

Probably the most famous sighting of a Roman 'legion' was made by Harry Martindale in the cellar of the Treasurer's House in York in 1953, but not recorded in print until 1974. See here and here. It also includes the detail of the figures being at a lower ground level.

Another celebrated ghost of a Roman 'centurion' is said to patrol the Strood (pronounced Strode) a causeway that links Mersea Island with mainland Essex to the south of Colchester. The Rev Sabine Baring Gould was the first - in 1904 - to record the local belief that the ghost could be seen at certain times of the year, especially on the night of the autumn equinox, around 23 September. He also notes that the 'ring of swords and the clang of armour' could sometimes be heard at the spot. (Westwood and Simpson Lore of the Land 269-272).

James Wentworth Day - mentioned here in previous posts - wrote that he was told about the centurion by Mrs Jane Pullen, landlady of the ancient Peldon Rose inn. She told him that she was accompanied on a walk from Barrow Hill on the island: 'The steady tramp of a man's feet, like it was a soldier marching, and he caught up with me and walked all the way down to the Strood. I could see no one, yet the feet were close beside me, as near as I could have touched him. I walked down the hill till I came on a man I knew. He was all a-tremble. He shook like a leaf. "I can hear him," he said, "but where is he? I can't see anyone." "Keep all along of me," I said to the man, "and no harm will come to you. 'Tis only one of those old Romans come out of the barrow to take his walk." (J Wentworth Day Ghosts & Witches 44-47).

In 1962 a man was digging in one of the burial mounds at Barrow Hills, when the ground gave way and he fell into a hollowed-out chamber. Archaeologists later discovered some Roman artefacts and an urn containing human ashes - the fabled centurion? At some unspecified date after this two naval officers driving over the causeway at night saw in the headlights a figure wearing a helmet and metal plates. When they stopped the car and got out there was nobody to be seen. (Westwood & Simpson ibid)

There is evidence of pre-Roman and Roman occupation of the island.

It seems that stories of Roman ghosts do not pre-date the 20th century. According to Owen Davies:

'The most recent addition to the corpus of heritage hauntings is also the most venerable - the roman [sic] legionnaire [sic]. A search on the internet reveals numerous sightings in diverse places such as London, Derby, the Isle of Wight and an old Roman road near Weymouth. Some readers will be familiar with a well-known case of a troop of soldiers seen by a plumber working in a York cellar in 1953. However, such sightings are a modern phenomenon, with almost all of them dating to the last fifty years. The earliest reports I have found concern a Roman centurion seen patrolling the Strood, Mersea Island, which was first recorded in 1904 and a ghostly Roman army that marched on certain nights along Bindon Hill, Dorset, to their camp on Ring's Hill during the 1930s. Distinguishing between the ghost of a Bronze Age warrior and an Iron Age one would be the task of an archaeologist, but thanks to "Swords and Sandals" film epics and the inclusion of the Roman invasion in the curricula, the dress of the Roman soldier has become as recognisable as that of a monk or cavalier. Clothes truly make the ghost.' (Owen Davies The Haunted p.42)

Apropos this observation is a passage from a short story by Grant Allen called Pallinghurst Barrow - information and text can be found here and here

'It's a very odd fact', Dr Porter the materialist interposed musingly, 'that the only ghosts people ever see are the ghosts of a generation very, very close to them. One hears of lots of ghosts in eighteenth-century costumes because everybody has a clear idea of wigs and small-clothes from pictures and fancy dresses. One hears of far fewer in Elizabethan dress, because the class most given to beholding ghosts are seldom acquainted with ruffs and farthingales; and one meets with none at all in Anglo-Saxon or Ancient British or Roman costumes, because those are only known to a comparatively small class of learned people, and ghosts, as a rule, avoid the learned ... as they would avoid prussic acid. Millions of ghosts of remote antiquity must swarm about the world, though, after a hundred years or thereabouts, they retire into obscurity and cease to annoy people with their nasty cold shivers. But the queer thing about these long-barrow ghosts is that they must be the spirits of men and women who died thousands and thousands of years ago, which is exceptional longevity for a spiritual being don't you think so ..?'

Fortean Times Ghostwatch writer Alan Murdie wrote a couple of very useful articles called The Romans in Britain on this topic and noted that:

'From the early 20th century, images of Romans became familiar from depictions in cinema, the years 1951-54 (before and immediately after Martindale's experience) being vintage ones for Hollywood treatments of Ancient Rome. Films included Quo Vadis (1951), Androcles and the Lion (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Sign of the Pagan (1954), with such imagery re-enforced by film posters and advertising. So could Martindale's experience have been inspired or influenced by exposure to this?' Murdie suggests a psychosocial hypothesis for such sightings, although as he admits 'Psychosocial theories remain nebulous, their appeal owing much to convenience rather than actual evidence.' Murdie also observes that there are very few first-hand accounts with named witnesses of Roman ghosts, citing the Mersea Island spectre as one of the few examples. [Alan Murdie The Romans in Britain Fortean Times 364&365 March and April 2018].

Sunday, 13 December 2020

New Talk for 2021


The Folklore of Underground London went very well: over 1000 bookings and 600 viewers (it is normally around two thirds of bookers who actually show up, live or online, it would appear). Some interesting questions in the Q&A afterwards.

Secret Tunnels of England has now sold out and I must consider whether to reprint as a paperback in 2021.

There will be another online talk in February 2021 for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea's Fantasy February. The Folklore of London will be a more general overview of some of the unusual customs and ceremonies, pub lore and folkloric characters of our capital city.

The colour photograph above is from The Lions Part who enact a number of theatrical ceremonies around London during the year. 

Bookings for the talk can be made via Eventbrite here. There have already been around 100 bookings and it was only advertised yesterday evening. 

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Underground Folklore Talk


There have been over 200 bookings so far for the talk on 8 December.

As it's a virtual talk on TEAMS there are plenty of places left.

Booking here.

It will probably be the last occasion to buy a hardback copy of Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact as there are less than 10 copies left and I imagine they will all sell on the night.

Accumulator Press books can be bought here or keep an eye out on eBay.

I heard on Radio 4 the other day about an online folklore project (The Everyday Lore Project) that could be of interest to some. 

See here

When I was working on my book The Folklore of London I tried to attend as many folklore events and ceremonies in London in one year as I could, work, family and eligibility permitting. I imagine this year very few of them went ahead. Let's hope that some of them will be taking place once more in 2021.

30/11/20 I've been told that there have now been over 600 bookings for the talk! There are still places left. I'll have to start doing some serious preparation!

08/12/20  There area now over 1000 people booked for this talk, which is very impressive, if intimidating.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Corruption and Frightmare

An online double bill of horror last night - both films can be found in very watchable versions, but I won't give the links as they are available to buy, with extras.

Corruption is a 1967 British film starring Peter Cushing who was apparently ashamed of being in it, but nevertheless gives a great performance. The plot is based on the French film Eyes Without a Face, which I saw a couple of years ago and has similar gory surgery scenes. One of the chief attractions for me is the period in which the film was made - there's a wonderful swinging 60s party at the beginning in which Cushing's character, an eminent surgeon, shows how old-fashioned and square he is, although his beautiful girlfriend (played by Sue Lloyd, memorable from The Ipcress File) is a fashion model about 25 years younger than him. Her photographer - played by Anthony (later father-in-law to Tony Blair) Booth in an obvious homage to David Hemmings in Blow Up - gets into a fight with Cushing and in the melee a spotlight gets knocked onto Lloyd damaging her face. The surgeon then discovers a way of recovering her beauty, but it involves taking the pineal gland from living female flesh and the use of a laser; his (and soon her) obsession with retaining her looks leading to him becoming a Jack the Ripper style serial killer.

The murders are pretty graphic for the time - apparently there are more violent and nude versions that were shot for the overseas market - and are filmed with distorting lenses making Cushing look even more twisted and malevolent. One takes place on a train going from Seaford (where Cushing has a charming clifftop cottage) to Lewes, a journey I've made many times. This scene reminded me of the old railway carriages that had separate compartments where you never knew who you might be sharing with. About half an hour from the end there's a really abrupt change in the plot when a gang of thieves invade the cottage and threaten Cushing and his girlfriend - an unusual performance from David (Pink Panther) Lodge as a psychopathic mute. The ending is truly bizarre, as the laser, which just happens to have been brought down to the cottage (they must have had a lot of trouble fitting all that equipment into the back of his sports car), goes haywire and destroys everything. Then in the final seconds it appears to have all just been a bad dream. Despite the nastiness and misogyny (see the poster above) it's worth watching, especially for fans of Swinging Sixties cinema. The hip jazz score (Bill McGuffie) would sound good on its own, but is too intrusive and inappropriate in the way it's used here.

More information can be found here and here.

I'd read quite a lot about Peter Walker's films but never seen one, so I decided to finally dip a toe in the water and Frightmare (1974) was better than I was expecting. The story of London-based sisters who have a cannibal mother living in a country cottage, it was well shot and acted and had some unpleasant murder scenes involving an electric drill - this is a few years before the notorious Driller Killer. 

Opening in an atmospherically filmed empty Battersea Fun Fair (mentioned earlier in this blog with reference to the film Mutations) we see the murder of Andrew Sachs, which is the beginning of the mother's cannibal spree. After spending a period in an asylum she is deemed 'cured' and released back into society - the film, written by David McGillivray seems to be an indictment of liberal justice and the middle classes - I can imagine a large Media Studies phd industry being based on Walker's films. The film stars an impressive Sheila Keith as the mad mother and Rupert Davies as the father, with an appearance by Paul (Rosie) Greenwood - the 'good' sister, played convincingly by Deborah Fairfax, reminded me of Katherine Parkinson - the ending is a bummer. The film was not greeted well by critics - 'A moral obscenity' The Telegraph, 'A despicable film' The Observer.

More information here and here.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The Return of Fu Manchu


I watched The Blood of Fu Manchu last night. Known in the USA as Kiss and Kill and also Kiss of Death and Against All Odds (?). Released in 1968 and directed by Jesus 'Jess' Franco, it's not very good and I got bored after about half an hour. The cast is fairly star-studded: Christopher Lee reprising his yellowface role (there were 5 FM films starring Lee), Richard ('Robin Hood riding through the glen') Greene as Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu's arch enemy and upholder of British values and Howard Marion Crawford as Dr Watson, sorry, Dr Petrie (looking unwell and as if he was on the bottle, it was no surprise to find out that he died the following year at 55). 

There's even an unusual appearance by Bond girl Shirley Eaton in a short scene which seems to come from an entirely different film - in fact it did come from another film, The Girl From Rio (a Franco-directed film based on the character of Sumuru, also created by Sax Rohmer, essentially a female Fu Manchu) and Eaton only found out years later and never got a fee. 

Starting promisingly, a group of beautiful women are brought to an ancient South American temple where Fu Manchu is hiding out with his daughter Tsai Chin and 'Dacoit' henchmen - cue plenty of gratuitous whipping, bare breasts and hanging from chains. They are bitten by a poisonous snake, whose poison has the rare quality of preserving their life but spells death to anyone they kiss. The glamorous girls are sent around the world to give the 'kiss of death' to Fu Manchu's enemies, all of whom suffer, except for Nayland Smith who is blinded but survives. He travels thousands of miles to find the temple and a possible antidote.

Unfortunately the film soon changes tack and turns into a bandit film for about half a boring hour with the chief, named Sancho Lopez, straight from central casting - at least he doesn't say "Badges! We don't need no steenkeeng badges!"

We also have to put up with risible dialogue like: 

"Dr Wagner is dead." 

"Completely dead?"

"Yes, completely dead."

In the film's favour the ambassador's residence is an interesting set and the proto-Indiana Jones archaeologist played by Gotz George is quite fun and some of the locations, such as the waterfall at the end, are pretty. However, if you've never seen it you haven't missed anything. The sequel The Castle of Fu Manchu (also directed by Franco) makes it look like Citizen Kane and is truly awful. Recycled footage from A Night to Remember is used to show the sinking of an ocean liner by the evil genius and this film essentially sank the entire franchise.

The DVD I watched was a twofer of Blood and Castle, but was obviously hastily produced, as on the box the plots of the two films are mixed up. The reason I'm writing this is that a new box set has been released by Indicator of all 5 Fu Manchu films - the first three of which are worth watching (Dublin often standing in for London) - with tons of extras. The other Indicator films I have are excellent packages. Despite that enticing prospect I'm probably going to stick with the DVDs I already have. It seems unfortunate timing to bring this set out at a moment when the role of China in world affairs is held in mistrust and suspicion and Fu Manchu will always be a deeply racist character who most people under 40 have probably never heard of, but who refuses to go away. Time to also plug the book Lord of Strange Deaths.

A very detailed review here has made me change my mind about acquiring the boxset, if only for the extras - maybe a Christmas present?

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Talk on the Folklore of Underground London

It looks as if online talks will be with us for the foreseeable future.

My next online talk will be on Tuesday 8 December and the topic is Folklore of Underground London. Expect secret tunnels, strange creatures and subterranean spectres, some of which have appeared in this blog over the years.

The event has been organised by the City of Westminster Archives Centre. 

Booking through Eventbrite. See here.

The advantage of these talks is that anyone anywhere with access to the internet can participate.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, 8 October 2020

The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridges: A Summary

A couple of 'meaningful' coincidences in the last week have alerted me to the fact that I should update the blog post on the alleged Victorian street beneath Selfridges. It's by far the most visited post and the way it's laid out is rather confusing and cluttered. So, here is an attempt to present the material in a more logical way with some added comments in the light of new material.

It was first posted on 10 April 2013.

At the talk for the South East London Folklore Society last week an audience question came up yet again about the existence of a perfectly preserved Victorian street of shops somewhere beneath Oxford Street. I think that the first time this came to my notice was when I was asked about it by Robert Elms during my first appearance on his radio show c.2001; at the time I honestly professed to know nothing about it and the whole thing seemed pretty absurd to me. It has since resurfaced (so to speak) on numerous occasions. I did say at the SELFS talk that I would look into this tale one more time and put my findings on the blog. The result has turned out to be more interesting than I might have thought.

Searching on the internet you can find a number of threads devoted to this topic. On one for example someone poses the question:

'Does anybody know anything about the supposed Victorian High Street underneath the present Oxford Street? Evidently Oxford St was raised up years ago but there is a tunnel underneath where the original cobbled road still stands and the part facias [sic] of Victorian shops. Or is this just an urban myth?'

In my Folklore of London book (2008) I wrote this [original text not the edited published version]:

‘Viewers of the 1991 Channel 4 Christmas Special The Ghosts of Oxford Street, directed and narrated by Malcolm McLaren were treated to a rare sight: behind a door in the basement of Selfridges there survives a complete underground Victorian street, perfectly preserved, with period frontages intact, supposedly lying directly beneath the modern street above. This piece of trickery has since entered London’s subterranean folklore and references to it continue to appear in magazines and on websites.’ 

My information was taken from various discussions about the film on the internet; perhaps naively I assumed that one or two of these participants had actually viewed it and remembered it accurately.

At the time that I was writing my folklore book I tried to obtain a copy of The Ghosts of London but it wasn't out on dvd and didn't appear on You Tube or anything similar; nobody I knew had recorded it. Last week, however, another audience member told me that it could now be seen on Channel 4’s tv on demand website here. So yesterday I finally managed to see this intermittently entertaining former rarity (with a ridiculous performance from Leigh Bowery) on my laptop and guess what? I cannot find the scene filmed in a perfectly preserved street of Victorian shops under Oxford Street. 

Selfridge’s certainly features heavily (the whole of part 2 of the 54 minute film is devoted to it) and there is a scene where Tom Jones dressed in Edwardian [?] costume (as Gordon Selfridge presumably) descends on an escalator to a floor of the store where the staff are dressed in period clothes – Twenties-looking to me, although the displays and products are modern. Other scenes take place inside Regency/Victorian rooms or sets or outside modern Oxford Street shops.  

The main candidate for the street scene must be the section on Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), played by John Altman, filmed in what looks like a set, dressed to signify decadent dilapidation, intended to represent shops, as an obviously non-authentic sign reads ‘Boots apothecary’. There are however no ‘perfectly preserved’ Victorian shop fronts, nothing to indicate that it lies beneath Selfridge's and, owing to the camera position, no view of a cobbled street. On the same thread mentioned above another contributor claims that:

‘John Altman who played Nick Cotton in Eastenders… was in a bit of the film apparently actually under Oxford Street where there still exists part of this Victorian Street…He claimed Malcolm McLaren let him through a hole in the basement of Selfridges.’  

In another scene the present-day (1991) McLaren chases an actor playing his younger self into the Eisenhower Centre secure storage facility in Chenies Street. The boy descends in an old-fashioned ‘cage’ lift to a dimly lit tunnel that could be part of the former deep level shelter beneath Goodge Street tube station (you can also hear a tube train in the background, although this could have been added in post-production). Security Archives appear in the credits, so it seems that this sequence was filmed within that facility.  

By a strange coincidence the deep level shelter was used by Eisenhower (in his capacity as Supreme Commander of COSSAC, later absorbed into SHAEF) and his officers for a period during the Second World War, after he had rejected an annexe of Selfridge’s at No.14 Duke Street W1 - ‘a sizeable steel and concrete structure blessed with deep basements running 45 feet down’ - which later housed the SIGSALY code-scrambling computer. 

It should also be borne in mind that the now defunct Mail Rail/Post Office Railway (opened 1927, closed 2003) runs around 70 feet down, just to the north of the section of Oxford Street on which Selfridge’s stands. The Central line, opened as the Central London Railway from Bank to Shepherd’s Bush on 30th July 1900, also runs under the bustling thoroughfare. All the above is covered in my book Subterranean City, beneath the streets of London (now - October 2020 - out of print and just waiting for an enterprising publisher to request an updated version).

My copy of The Twopenny Tube by Bruce & Croome (1996) says on p23: ‘The large store of Harry Gordon Selfridge was being built near Bond Street station in 1908 and opened on 15th March 1909. Selfridge used many innovative marketing initiatives, but his suggestion that Bond Street station be renamed Selfridge’s was cold shouldered by the railway.’  

I have never had a behind-the-scenes tour of Selfridge’s myself, but a reporter from Time Out who has, certainly did not uncover anything unusual, although it’s interesting that while she makes no mention of the ‘preserved street’ she does refer to an alleged ‘abandoned tube station’ (article posted on the Time Out website on 10 November 2006):

‘We start by heading down into the basements. Myths abound about this subterranean world and, sadly, most of them are just that. There is no abandoned tube station, though Selfridge did lobby to get an underground tunnel built from Bond Street station up into the store – and have the station renamed ‘Selfridges’. Neither was there a river running through it – though there was an artesian well that served the building for years.

There are two levels of basement beneath the lower-ground shop floor: the ‘sub’ and the ‘sub-sub’, descending 60 metres below street level. These are split into two more areas: the dry sub and sub-sub, and their ‘wet’ equivalents. The wet area, more dank than watery, is beneath the original building, while the dry is under the rear building, known as the SWOD (after the four streets – Somerset, Wigmore, Orchard and Duke – that once enclosed it). 

During WWII, the SWOD’s basement was used by 50 soldiers from the US Army Signal Corps; there were even visits from Eisenhower and Churchill. The building had one of the only secure telex lines, was safe from bombing, and was close to the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. According to Jarvis, a tunnel was built from Selfridges to the embassy so that personnel could move between the two in safety. Interrogation cells for prisoners were hewn from the uneven space available.’ 

With reference to the last two sentences, do we have another folkloric ‘secret tunnel’ to add to the hundreds supposedly under London? This is the first time I've seen reference to a tunnel from Selfridge’s to the American Embassy, but as it was constructed during wartime, as many other similar tunnels and shelters were, it cannot be dismissed totally. Perhaps when the American Embassy site is vacated in 2017 more details will come to light. 

If you think about it logically, had this street really managed to survive intact, it is incredible that it has not been opened to the public as an attraction or 'vintage retail experience' – especially given its hugely busy and tourist-heavy location.

Could this now firmly established piece of subterranean folklore be based on a misremembering of a small part of the Ghosts of Oxford Street that was, as far as I know, only shown on the one occasion in 1991; the urban legend does not appear to predate that year (Robert Elms asked me about it ten years later). The film had not subsequently been readily available on video or dvd (although some people must have taped it presumably?) so this fascinating misinterpretation (possibly coupled with the John Altman comment –if indeed that was ever actually said - or deliberate misinformation from the arch-prankster and former Situationist McLaren) became known through word of mouth, programmes such as the Robert Elms show and the internet? I shall have to go with this theory for now.

On 10 April 2013 I added the following;

As I intend to talk about this topic tomorrow night at Kensington Central Library I thought it was about time that I asked Selfridge's Press Office about this long-standing rumour. They told me that it was  a myth started by the Ghosts of Oxford Street film, as I suspected. Funnily enough, a few months ago, I was emailed by someone at the City of Westminster Archives Centre who had been contacted by a man who swore that he had visited a street of shops beneath Selfridge's in his youth.

On 23 June 2015 I added:

During research for my next book [Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact] I found out that Selfridge's is adding to its underground domain:

'In 2004 Selfridges announced a multi-million pound refurbishment and expansion programme for the store, which will include the construction of a tunnel connecting it to the recently-acquired Nations House in Wigmore Street, probably for the use of its 3000 staff, rather than customers.' Iain Withers 'Selfridge's picks team for revamp of flagship Oxford Street store' Building 27 February 2014.

On 19 April 2016 I added:

The mystery of the Victorian street under Oxford Street deepens (perhaps). A fairly old online post that somehow eluded me previously states that in fact the remnant of Victorian shops could be found several levels below what was the Lilley & Skinner shoe shop at 356-360 Oxford Street (very close to Selfridge's) and it was this location that Malcolm McLaren used when filming the Ghosts of Oxford Street. The cobbled street gets a mention and we are also told that the council had a 'preservation order' on it. The building is now a branch of Forever 21. I shall endeavour to check this out as soon as I can.

Another personal account was given to me in the pub (so my recall may not be perfect) after the hugely successful Subterranean Saturday talks at Conway Hall on the 9th of this month. A man told me that in the late 1960s he had delivered some clothes to Selfridge's - he had to take them down to a basement area that had been dressed to resemble a Victorian street. 

Now this is all very possible: that period did start to become fashionable in the late 60s and it is understandable that a large department store would want to evoke a Dickensian/Victorian atmosphere, especially around Christmas. But surely this arrangement would not have survived for another 20 years or so, when the Ghosts of Oxford Street came to be filmed? 

Later, I tried contacting Forever 21 to ask about the lost street beneath their premises, but to no avail, so one day, as I happened to be in central London I visited the store on Oxford Street. I have no recollection of visiting the Lilley & Skinner shop that was once based there in my youth. The building has only one lower-ground floor - this was confirmed by a member of staff - there are no lower levels - at least not accessible these days, if there ever were. It is on one side of Stratford Place, a fascinating historical cul de sac and close to the route of the 'lost' river Tyburn. I couldn't use Bond Street station as the area adjacent to the store is being prepared for Crossrail. See Westminster City Council's site here - under Stratford Place - where you can download a pdf.

In October 2020 I found that the estimable Survey of London had recently published a volume devoted entirely to Oxford Street, which has made what I always thought rather a dull street (apart from the thousands of bustling pedestrians) come to life and is packed with interesting architectural detail, maps and lovely photographs old and new. There is a long section (pp179-206) devoted to Selfridge's and contains all the detail you would need about the ownership of the land, plans for construction, the building and fitting out of the department store and the various expansions over the decades. Nowhere, of course, is there a mention that during its construction it was decided to preserve a row of Victorian shops in its basement area. In fact the building stands on what was previously the London branch of furniture makers Gillow & Co, who occupied part of the site from 1769 to 1906. There is also a very comprehensive history of the store by Gordon Honeycombe, Selfridge's Seventy-Five Years of the Store 1909-1984 (Park Lane Press, 1984).

Another very interesting blog post suggests that an early Medieval cistern under Stratford Place next to Forever 21 (once Lilley & Skinner) may be responsible for the belief in an underground structure of some kind in the vicinity of Oxford Street. See here. There is also a comment from 2017 written by a lady who says that she worked at L&S and saw the famed subterranean street with her own eyes.

See also a follow-up post here with other eye-witness claims that the street really does exist.

It looks as if this one will run and run - although a medieval cistern - fascinating as it sounds - is not a street of well-preserved Victorian shops with a cobbled street, which is what the original story is all about. For the history of water supply in the area see The Lost Rivers of London and books by Tom Bolton amongst others.


Thursday, 16 July 2020

Another Online Talk

The Whistler talk that I delivered online through TEAMS on Tuesday went very well and there was a lot of positive feedback.

I've agreed to do another Decadent London talk remotely from my dining room on Tuesday 29 September.

It's FREE and you can book through Eventbrite here.

My books are available from Treadwells, Watkins, Atlantis and Gay's The Word. Also online through the Big Cartel.

I recently branched out onto eBay and I wonder why I waited so long. So far it has proved an excellent platform for not only selling books but offloading some books, CDs and DVDs that I no longer require. 

Secret Tunnels, Decadent London and Netherwood can also be purchased there. There are less than 10 copies of Secret Tunnels remaining.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain


Good news about the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain.

According to the gallery's website they will be reopening on 27 July.

The Beardsley exhibition has been extended to 20 September. It's a great show and I can thoroughly recommend it. The gallery should also be selling copies of Decadent London in the shop.