Saturday, September 4, 2010

London Bridge, England

This account is about the London Bridge site in London. I have to be specific, because the current London Bridge is not the one that stood there during the 19th century. That bridge that was bought by a developer and moved to an artificial lake in Arizona (no, seriously, it was, some stories are just too weird to not be true), and it is also said to be haunted. So, understand that I am talking about the London Bridge site that is in London, and not the bridge in Arizona. Okay? Okay.

Oh, and one other thing. Many folks confuse London Bridge with Tower Bridge. This is Tower Bridge:

This is London Bridge:

Photo from

Alright, now on with the creepiness...

London Bridge crosses the Thames to the east of the Tower of London. A bridge has been in roughly this spot since 46 AD, when the Romans built the first wooden bridge near this location. That bridge was destroyed, and another built. That bridge eventually collapsed, requiring another wooden bridge to be built, which also eventually collapsed, which required another to be built, and so on and so forth - just go listen to the old nursery rhyme to figure out the rest. A stone bridge was constructed during the Medieval period, and this bridge not only allow transport across the river, but also held houses, shops, and a church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket on it's span. That bridge was replaced in the 1830s, and the 19th century bridge (which was the one sent to Arizona) was replaced in the 1970s.

During the Medieval period, and through the Renaissance, the heads of those convicted of treason were placed on spikes on the gates of the bridge. This includes numerous famous individuals (such as Sir Thomas Moore and William Wallace) as well as lesser-known offenders. Given the Medieval standards of jurisprudence, it's open to debate just how many of the executed were truly guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. It is unsurprising that ghost stories have been attached to this location.

It has been said that sounds of screams and crying come from the vicinity of the bridge. Sometimes these sounds are attributed to the spirits of a group of Jewish refugees. In 1290, the Jews of England were expelled - similar events occurred throughout Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, whether formal decrees pushing the Jewish population out of a country or violent pogroms that terrorized the Jewish population. A ship containing Jews expelled from England sank on the river Thames, drowning those aboard.

Another story for the origin of the screams and cries is that it comes from the spirits of the people who had been executed on the bridge and had their heads placed on spikes on the bridge's gates.

A few portions of the medieval bridge still stand. One is a portion of a wall on the south side of the Thames. It's not much to look at, but there is a story that people sometimes see a Roman soldier standing near it (why a Roman soldier would be near the remains of a wall that came 1,000 years after he died is open to question), and people sometimes report seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of the eye.

Naturally, many of the photographs taken of the bridge have the ever-present "orbs" and streaks of light, said by many enthusiasts to be spirit energy. Likewise, apparitions of people from many periods in time are said to be seen crossing or near the bridge.

Underneath the bridge's south footings are a series of tunnels, long disused. These tunnels were bought recently to build a facility called "The London Bridge Experience" which is described by The Londonist as:

Part museum, part CGI scare-fest, the LBE will take visitors on a historical tour of the 2000 year-old crossing, and down into previously disused catacombs beneath the bridge.

While working on the facility, workers uncovered a pit filled with human skeletons. It didn't take archaeologists long to work out that this was a plague pit (pretty much what it sounds like, a pit where plague victim's bodies were tossed for mass burial). After the plague pit was found, workers reported that strange things began to occur. Light bulbs would explode without any identifiable cause, tools began to disappear, and workers reported a general sense of being watched as well as the sounds of footsteps when nobody was present to produce the sound. After the initial discovery, even more skeletons were found, and workers reported that the initial manifestations increased and they began seeing strange figures out of the corners of their eyes, and shadowy figures were seen in the tunnels. It may be worth noting that some of the skeletons had holes in their skulls, possibly indicating an end from violence rather than disease.

The London Bridge Experience has become known as one of the top "fright attractions" in the U.K., with it's CGI baddies and animatronic beasts entertaining and shocking visitors. For those craving something a bit more, the company running the attraction allows groups to stay overnight to experience the paranormal. They even note on their website that overnight visitors might encounter two ghosts known as Emily and the Shadow Man, though no description of these two is given.

Commentary: There are alot of really fascinating things about the ghost stories surrounding this landmark. Let's start with just the basic history.

As noted above, the first London Bridge was constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. It was a pontoon bridge that was soon replaced by a piled bridge. This bridge was destroyed by Queen Boudicca in 60 A.D. After Boudicca was defeated, another bridge was built by the Romans. When the Romans left, the bridge fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed (or was pulled down - the history is unclear). Another bridge may have been built at some point after that but before the late 10th century. In the late 10th century, a Saxon king named Aethelred made use of a bridge at this location, and epic poems of the time indicate that this bridge was destroyed in 1014, though whether this is true or poetic license is not known. A Saxon bridge is recorded as having been at this location in 1016. After the Normans conquered England, they either built another bridge in this location or made use of the existing one, which was destroyed in 1091 by, of all things, a tornado (welcome to London, Oklahoma). The bridge was rebuilt again, and this time destroyed by fire in 1136. Really, you'd think that people would catch on that maybe the River Gods didn't want a bridge at this spot, no wonder the damn thing ended up haunted.

In the late 12th century, it was proposed that the wooden bridge (which had been partially rebuilt after 1136) be replaced by a stone structure. This was likely a move to support the pilgrimage to Canterbury (where the shrine to St. Thomas Becket was), which used the bridge, as well as a desire to have a more stable bridge and a monument of sorts. In the center of the new masonry bridge, a cathedral to St. Thomas Becket was constructed, providing a stopping point (and place to collect revenue in the form of tithes and offerings) from the Canterbury pilgrims. This bridge also had draw bridges and gates to allow for better defense of both sides of the river from invading armies (as well as to protect the facilities on the bridge). In 1209, King John allowed houses and shops to be built on the bridge as a way of raising revenue. However, this also resulted in many obstructions and distractions on the bridge, which slowed traffic and led to many people relying on the ferries and water taxis rather than using the bridge.

...and residents of my state think that Caltrans is guilty of bad planning...

Drawing of Medieval London Bridge

Although the bridge was built of stone, the houses and shops were made of wood, and the bridge was prone to fires, and several thousand lives were lost in fires from the 12th through the 18th centuries. In the mid-18th century, an act of parliament allowed for the removal of all houses and shops, as well as other modifications to the bridge, all of which was carried out by 1762. However, the bridge was still too narrow for the growing city, was an obstruction to river traffic, and was falling apart - as one might expect a 600-year old structure to do.

In 1799, a competition for designs for a new bridge was held. The engineer John Rennie won, and his five-arched stone bridge was adopted as the new design. The new bridge was built near the old bridge (which continued in use until it was demolished in 1831). The new bridge (which would eventually become known as the "old" bridge) was widened in the early 20th century, and this widening placed too much weight on its foundations, which began to sink into the river bottom. The bridge was placed on the market and bought by an American real-estate developer named Robert McColloch, who moved it to Lake Havasu, Arizona as a centerpiece for a real-estate development*. I'm not sure which is stranger, the London Tornado, or the fact that London Bridge ended up in Arizona.

The current London Bridge was completed in 1972, and has served as one of the busiest bridges in London. It has also had it's share of misfortune, such as a collision by the warship HMS Jupiter in 1984, but continues to serve nonetheless. It has distinctive red lights that were put in place in 2004. These lights were placed on many bridges within London as part of a Remembrance Day celebration event, but were left on London Bridge alone.

As to the ghost stories, let's start with the bridge. There are many events that occurred on the bridge to which the screams and cries could be attributed: numerous attacks, fires, executed traitors, and so on. And yet these cries are often attributed to the sinking of the Jewish refugee vessel. I find this interesting, as it may represent a manifestation of a national guilty conscience being expressed through folklore. It may be an acknowledgement that England committed a great wrong in expelling Jewish citizens, and the notion that this sin is permanently etched on a prominent part of the English landscape is interesting. Alternatively, it may simply be that, due to the religious and political nature of the Jewish expulsion, this is simply the most visible historic event in which numerous people died, even though a larger number of people died in at least one of the fires on the bridge. Either way, that many attribute the phantom sounds of agony to the sunken ship suggests a place of raw nerves in the English historical psyche.

Naturally, other people attribute these sounds to the spirits of executed people whose heads were placed on the bridge. This is probably a culturally safer place to put the blame for the sounds. However, when one considers both that at least a portion of the people convicted were likely not actually traitors (it was common for Medieval rulers to execute rivals both real and perceived as traitors), and others (such as Thomas Moore) are considered heroic by modern people, this is also a potentially culturally fraught subject. It may not have the sting of anti-semitism, but political oppression isn't exactly seen as classy behavior by modern people.

The appearance of apparitions from many periods of history on the bridge provides a classic type of ghost story. While I have little to say about this detail, I will say that I really like it. The appearance of the Roman soldier and the indistinct apparitions near the remaining Medieval wall is also classic, but I have little to say about them other than that I really enjoy these details.

The orbs and streaks of light in photographs are another story. The origins of these types of features on photographs are well known, and they are simply artifacts of the photographic equipment (and occasionally of careless camera operators). While it is common to hear paranormal enthusiasts claim that certain types of light streaks or orbs "can not have been caused by anything natural", close investigation of these claims routinely proves these claims false. Basically, if your evidence of a haunting is a weird light streak or an orb, you don't actually have any evidence at all. In fact, it's worth noting that orbs have become the spirit photo du jour in large part because general public knowledge of modern technology allows people to recognize false photos for the frauds that they are, preventing more impressive "spirit phots" from being accepted. It's similar to the way in which the rather more specific spirit mediums of the 19th and 20th century gave way to people such as Jon Edward, who appears to be playing charades with the spirits, given the vague and often silly things that he spouts during readings.

Okay, let's get on to the catacombs beneath the southern portion of the bridge. These were apparently built for storage, but have long been unused. During the construction of the London Bridge Experience, they were renovated, and it was in 2007 that the first skeletons from the plague pit were found. Although most of us think of "the plague" as meaning bubonic plague, there were many periods of deadly, communicable disease sweeping through Europe, all of which were referred to as "plague". This particular plague pit appears to date to the Black Plague of the 17th century, which was in fact bubonic. Reports of the time indicate that deaths were occurring at such a high rate there wasn't time for proper burials or even funeral rights**. Mass graves and anonymous burial were the order of the day.

On my other blog, I once wrote about the tendency that people in the United States have to blame alleged hauntings on "Indian burial grounds. In that entry, I asked what people in Europe blamed hauntings on. In researching London's plague pits for this entry, I got my answer. These pits are found throughout London, and are often associated with haunted places (and a few allegedly haunted places appear to be blamed on plague pits even when there is no evidence that one is nearby).

The stories associated with the plague pit opening are fantastic. This is the sort of stuff that great ghost lore is made of. What is interesting to me, however, is that, in reading the various media accounts of these hauntings, everyone mentioned the phenomena described by the London Experience personnel, but nobody ever mentioned the fact that these guys were building what is essentially a haunted house attraction, and these sorts of stories are good for business. Whether or not construction personnel experienced anything, I am sure that the management was more than happy to find real burials during construction - it's free advertising of the best kind for this sort of attraction. Regardless, it's also a good story, and a great entry into the already busy ghost story lore of London.

*There is an urban legend that McColloch thought that he was buying Tower Bridge. This is, in fact, not true. Records indicate that he knew precisely which bridge he was buying. Nonetheless, the story continues to be told.

**Interesting bit of information: These plagues had been sweeping Europe for centuries, due in large part to the close proximity of people and atrocious sanitation in cities and towns. Some anthropologists and historians think that these waves of plague in the cities and towns may have prepared the immune systems of the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia for general and regular attacks by pathogens, as well as resulted in the proliferation of strains of disease. This may explain why the Europeans entering the Americas were relatively unharmed by disease, while the native peoples were laid waste by viruses and bacterias.

Special Videos: The Londonist spends the night in the catacombs.

Sources: The Londonist, BBC, blog, Wikipedia, The Illustrious Internet, DayVisits, London Bridge Experience Official Website, and the ever-reliable (and highly entertaining) guide of the London Walks Ghost Tour.

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