Tonight is Hallowe’en, a time for carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, apple bobbing, lighting bonfires, trick or treating, divination games, visiting haunted houses and telling spooky tales of ghostly happenings. Within the Christian tradition it begins the observance of Allhallowtide, a time within the liturgical year when we remember the dead, including saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed by lighting candles on family graves.
It’s thought that many Hallowe’en traditions may have been influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festival traditions, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, which had pagan roots. This was later adopted as All Hallow’s Day, along with its Eve, by the early Christian Church. Some theologians however think that Hallowe’en had its roots solely as a Christian holiday being the vigil (evening) of All Hallow’s Day.
The Thames Foreshore is an exceptionally spooky place at this time of year, heavy with ghosts from the past, mysterious sounds and a supernatural, sometimes unearthly atmosphere. So, draw the curtains, throw an extra log on the fire and buckle up for my selection of some of the eeriest tales and places on the river.
A good starting point for ghostly atmosphere is, without a doubt, the Wapping Foreshore.
The Prospect of Whitby is one of the most atmospheric pubs in London and a favourite watering hole of mine in Wapping. Once known as The Pelican, the adjacent river stairs are still referred to by this name – Pelican Stairs. It was also known locally as The Devil’s Tavern because of its foul reputation – a haunt of pirates, thieves, cut-throats and an unsavoury assortment of criminals who frequented it, using it as their base for robbing unsuspecting sailors who’d come in for ale having disembarked from their boats and barges on the Thames.
Wapping is blessed with a number of narrow and spooky little alleyways that offer access to the foreshore, though some of the stairs have long since washed away or are damaged. Dark and dimly lit in days of yore, they were the perfect place to lie in wait for an unsuspecting individual who, perhaps the worse for wear for drink, would stagger out of the Prospect of Whitby or other taverns, only to fall victim to a mugging and wake up in the early hours without valuable possessions and sometimes even clothes. Of course, there was never a witness about when you needed one. It is probably no surprise to learn that because of the appalling crime in this area, even by the lawless standards of the day, Wapping became the home of the Thames River Police in 1798, the forefathers of modern policing and London’s first proper police force.
It is thought that Wapping Old Stairs lead to the infamous Execution Dock which had been used for executions for four hundred years. The ‘dock’ consisted of a scaffold for hanging pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been sentenced to death by Admiralty Courts. The last executions here took place in 1830. Execution Dock was where the notorious sailor and pirate Captain Kidd, having been charged with five counts of piracy and one of murder, which he denied, was executed on 23 May 1701. Not just once, but twice, as initially the hangman’s rope broke and Kidd survived only for the process to be repeated again, this time successfully. His body was then taken and gibbeted over the river Thames at Tyburn point, where it remained for three years as a warning to others.
Moving on to the strange tale of the Blackwall Tunnel ghost, known locally as ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker.’ This is a relatively recent and strange ghost story and one in a long tradition of ghostly hitchhikers who turn up in various parts of the country.
The original Blackwall Tunnel had been built to carry a road under the Thames from Greenwich to Tower Hamlets, and has since been modernised to meet the needs of modern traffic. In 1972 however, it’s said that a motorcyclist stopped to pick up a young man he saw hitchhiking at the southern end of the tunnel. The young man gave the motorcyclist the address where he wanted to get to and then climbed up behind the rider. But when the motorcyclist left the tunnel he found that his passenger had mysteriously disappeared.
He turned and went back to look for him but to no avail. Later he went to the address he’d been given and was told a young man answering the description of his mysterious passenger had once lived there but been killed in a traffic accident some years ago.
Greenwich is also the location of another eerie ghost story. It happens to be the location of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the photograph above showing the Island Gardens entrance and exit, the Greenwich entrance and exit located by the Cutty Sark across the river. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel runs beneath the Thames linking Greenwich, south of the Thames, with Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames. It was built in 1902 to to allow workers from the south to get to London’s Docklands, specifically Millwall Docks.
The tunnel is 370 metres long and has cast iron rings surfaced with 200,000 glazed white tiles. The Northern end was damaged by enemy bombing during the Second World War and had to be repaired with a thick steel and concrete inner lining.
As you walk through the tunnel it’s common to feel uneasy as the atmosphere is cold, damp and dimly lit. Some people report feelings of being watched and followed even though there is no one else there. Others have reported sightings of a Victorian couple walking hand in hand along the tunnel, but the couple mysteriously vanish as they pass by leaving only a pocket of very cold air.
The Tower of London is also a well known eerie place where ghostly unexplained sounds and sightings proliferate throughout centuries of its bloody and gory history.
For hundreds of years prisoners have been brought to the Tower complex for incarceration and/or execution. Many of them would have been brought here by boat along the Thames and would have entered via what has now become known as Traitors’ Gate. One of the most famous prisoners who was brought here through Traitors’ Gate was Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on the 17 March 1554, on the orders of her half -sister Mary I who suspected the young Elizabeth of plotting against her. It must have been a terrifying experience for the young princess not knowing whether she would come out of this desperate place alive.
Traitors’ Gate itself was part of a lengthy building project started by Henry III (1207-1272.) In 1240 and 1241, a series of fierce storms undermined the foundations here and the gate collapsed killing a number of labourers. As a result, various spectral sightings occur within the vicinity of this wall and a priest once claimed to have seen the ghost of St Thomas Becket banging the walls near the gate with a gold crucifix. Others claim to have seen the ghost of the Saint banging on the walls with his crosier.
Henry III’s son, Edward I, later rebuilt the wall and towers, including a chapel, as an offering to St Thomas Becket, within one of the towers where Traitors’ Gate now stands. So perhaps the ghost story isn’t as fanciful as it first sounds. Yet it wasn’t until the Reformation that the gate was formally named Traitors’ Gate, ironically thought to have been so named because some Protestants viewed St Thomas as a traitor to the then King (Henry II.)
Continuing the ghostly stories associated with the location of the Tower of London, it’s surprising how many people don’t notice a very eerie place situated under one of the arches of the bridge on the north side of the Thames.
This is Dead Man’s Hole, located in an alcove directly under the steps on the north side of Tower Bridge. Essentially a Victorian Mortuary, though no longer functioning as one, take a peek next time you’re passing the Tower of London. A remnant from the 19th century when bodies of poor souls used to regularly wash up on this particular stretch of the river. An ‘L’ shaped set of stairs curves round to the Thames under Tower Bridge to make it easier to reach the bodies. There was also once a hooked pole near the stairs to help with the retrieval of the dead.
Bodies were then kept in the mortuary until collected or buried anonymously if no one came forward to identify them. The white tiles served a useful purpose because they could be easily and quickly wiped down whenever a bloated corpse exploded due to build up of chemicals and gases.
Access to Dead Man’s Hole is fenced off and kept locked but it can be seen through the iron fencing as you walk past en route to the Tower of London. Many people walk straight past without noticing the grim history of what lies here under the bridge.
There are so many stories of ghosts and grisly happenings on the Thames that this blog has only just scratched the surface. The river lends itself so well to eerie tales and a sinister unearthly atmosphere. And as the light fades and the mist rises it’s easy to imagine you can see spirits from the past and hear the cries of lost souls.