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Thought you knew London? 37 amazing facts about the UK capital, from a bridge that was a wonder of the world to a bizarre floating police station and Britain’s first McDonald’s

London – one of the greatest cities on earth and so familiar to, well, just about everyone.

Yet so few know its secrets and hidden gems.

Author Christopher Winn lifts the veil in fascinating book I Never Knew That About London (Ebury).

The publisher says: ‘[The book] unearths the hidden gems of legends, firsts, inventions, adventures and birthplaces that shape the city’s compelling, and at times, turbulent past.’

Here we reveal some of the fascinating facts within… all courtesy of the author and Ebury Publishing.

LONDON BRIDGE – A FORMER WONDER OF THE WORLD

The first London Bridge was built around AD 52 by the invading Roman army of Emperor Claudius, somewhere near the site of the present bridge (above)

‘London Bridge is where London began,’ explains Winn. ‘The first bridge was built around AD 52 by the invading Roman army of Emperor Claudius, somewhere near the site of the present bridge.

‘The first stone bridge was begun in 1176, in the reign of Henry II. When it was finished in 1209 it was 20ft (6m) wide, 900ft (274m) long and had 20 arches. This bridge became one of the wonders of the world and was to last 600 years.

‘By the 15th century, buildings lined the whole length of the bridge, some of them seven or eight storeys high and touching at the top, making the bridge into a tunnel.

‘In 1722 the Lord Mayor ordered that bridge traffic should keep to the left, the first time the rule had officially been made compulsory in Britain.’

Winn explains that in the 1960s, a replacement bridge built in 1831 was bought by Robert McCulloch from Arizona for $2,460,000. He had it shipped over to Lake Havasu City on the Colorado River. It was recognised by The Guinness Book of Records as ‘the largest antique ever sold’, Winn notes.

RICHARD THE LIONHEART’S BURIED HEART

‘The heart of Richard I (the Lionheart) is said to be buried somewhere in the north part of the churchyard of All Hallows by the Tower, beneath a chapel built there by Richard in the 12th century,’ explains Winn, who adds: ‘The chapel is long gone.’

THE OLDEST CONTEST

‘The oldest annually contested sporting event in Britain, The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, is a four-mile (7.2km) rowing race from London Bridge to Chelsea,’ reveals Winn. It dates back to the year 1715.

MARX MADE HIS MARK

Winn explains that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was first printed by J E Burghard at 46 Liverpool Street in 1848.

ENGLAND’S FIRST THEATRE

Actor James Burbage built England’s first theatre in 1576 in Shoreditch, Winn notes. Its name? The Theatre.

FIRST LOTTERY

St Paul's Cathedral was the site for the first lottery in England

St Paul’s Cathedral was the site for the first lottery in England

England’s first state lottery was held in 1569 at the west door of St Paul’s Cathedral, reveals Winn.

CROSS-EYED STATUE

London’s only cross-eyed statue is of political commentator John Wilkes (1725-97). It stands, explains Winn, at the corner of Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane in the City.

FIRST-EVER MOVING PICTURES

Some of the first-ever moving pictures were taken at Hyde Park Corner in 1888 by William Friese-Greene, inventor of the kinematograph, reveals Winn.

NAOMI CAMPBELL DISCOVERED

‘Supermodel Naomi Campbell was ‘discovered’ at the age of 15 while shopping at Covent Garden,’ explains Winn.

FIRST GRAPEFRUIT

Winn reveals: ‘Jack Smith introduced the first grapefruit into England on his market stall in Berwick Street in 1890.’

RITZ HOTEL MADE ENSUITE HISTORY

The Ritz hotel, which opened in 1906, was the first hotel in London to have all ensuite rooms, Winn reveals.

BRITAIN’S OLDEST CHEESE SHOP

At No.93 Jermyn Street is Paxton and Whitfield, Britain’s oldest cheese shop, reveals Winn. It was founded in 1742. The author explains that Stilton cheese was first sold in London here.

THE FIRST TRAFFIC ISLAND

St James’s Street is home to what’s thought to be the oldest traffic island in London. It dates from the early 18th century, Winn reveals.

DOWNING STREET – HUE GOES THERE?

The bricks of Downing Street used to be yellow

The bricks of Downing Street used to be yellow

‘The houses in Downing Street were originally built of yellow brick, which over two centuries became blackened by pollution,’ says Winn. ‘The bricks were then painted black after restoration work in the early 1960s.’

THE ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE ‘TOE THE LINE’

‘Running along the carpet of the centre aisle that separates the two sides of the House of Commons,’ writes Winn, ‘are two red lines exactly two sword lengths and one pace apart. No member may put his foot beyond the line on his own side – this is to prevent members from arguing their case with swords and gives us the expression “toe the line”, meaning to behave.’

FANG-TASTIC PLACE TO LIVE

St George’s Square in Victoria is the only London square built to face the river, reveals Winn, who adds: ‘Bram Stoker (1847-1912), the author of Dracula, died at No.26.’

LIMEHOUSE IN THE LIMELIGHT

Limehouse is something of a celebrity magnet, attracting residents including Lawrence of Arabia director Sir David Lean, Sir Ian McKellen and Steven Berkoff.

FLOATING POLICE STATION

Waterloo Pier used to be home to the only floating police station in Britain, the author says.

OXFORD STREET

Selfridges opened in 1909, run according to U.S founder Harry Gordon Selfridge's mantra of 'the customer is always right'

Selfridges opened in 1909, run according to U.S founder Harry Gordon Selfridge’s mantra of ‘the customer is always right’

The first of the famous stores to appear in Oxford Street, Winn reveals, was John Lewis, which opened in 1864. Selfridges opened in 1909, run according to U.S founder Harry Gordon Selfridge’s mantra of ‘the customer is always right‘.

Winn adds: ‘The first HMV store was opened by Sir Edward Elgar at No.363 Oxford Street in 1921. And it was here, in 1961, that The Beatles cut their first demonstration disc.’

MEGA INTERESTING

Sir Samuel Morland (1625-95), the inventor of the megaphone, lived on Hammersmith Terrace.

WATERSHED MOTORING MOMENT

On the railway bridge near Putney Bridge station, reveals Winn, is a plaque to motoring pioneer Frederick Simms (1863-1944), whose first workshop was sited there. He established the Daimler Motor Syndicate, one of Britain’s first car companies, and founded the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) in 1897.

BATTERSEA SQUEEZE

At just 40ft in width, Battersea Bridge, reveals Winn, is London’s narrowest road bridge.

CELEBRITY TENANT

The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) spent three years living in Sword House in Wandsworth, the author explains.

BREAKING PETROL STATION NEWS

I Never Knew That About London, by Christopher Winn, is available from Amazon and elsewhere

I Never Knew That About London, by Christopher Winn, is available from Amazon and elsewhere

Britain’s first self-service petrol station opened at the south end of Southwark Bridge in November 1961, reveals Winn.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S LONDON HERITAGE

Charlie Chaplin was born in East Lane, Walworth, on April 16, 1889, the author divulges – and grew up on the Kennington Road.

DEPTFORD – BIRTHPLACE OF THE ROYAL NAVY

‘The “deep ford” at the mouth of the Ravensbourne [river] is the birthplace of the Royal Navy,’ explains Winn. ‘The first royal dockyard was established here in 1513 for Henry VIII, who was living in nearby Greenwich. Within 20 years Deptford had become the most important dockyard in Britain.’

MORE DEPTFORD CLAIMS TO FAME

Band Dire Straits formed in Deptford in 1977, Winn notes.

FIRST MCDONALD’S

The first McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in Britain opened in Woolwich in 1975.

MORE WOOLWICH CLAIMS TO FAME

‘Britain’s first permanent building society, The Woolwich, was formed in the upstairs room of a Woolwich pub around 1844,’ explains Winn.

HARRODS HISTORY

In 1898, the first escalators in Britain were installed at Harrods. Ladies who made it to the top were offered brandy to calm their vapours

In 1898, the first escalators in Britain were installed at Harrods. Ladies who made it to the top were offered brandy to calm their vapours

Harrods opened in Knightsbridge in 1849. It was a wholesale grocery owned, Winn explains, by Charles Henry Harrod (1799-1885).

Winn continues: ‘In 1898, the first escalators in Britain were installed at Harrods. Ladies who made it to the top were offered brandy to calm their vapours.’

ST JAMES’S STREET – A LOT OF HISTORY

St James’s Street packs a punch in the history stakes.

Winn reveals that at No.3 is Britain’s oldest wine merchant, Berry Bros and Rudd, established as a grocery store in 1698.

Next to Berry Bros is Pickering Place, the smallest public square in Britain.

At No.9 is John Lobb, Britain’s oldest bootmaker.

At No.71 are Truefitt & Hill, Britain’s oldest barbers.

I Never Knew That About London, by Christopher Winn, is available from Amazon and elsewhere.

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