The hidden history of London that the guide books leave out

London's first drinking fountain, opened in 1859 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, which you can see at the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct
London's first drinking fountain was opened in 1859 Credit: Alamy

For any lover of history, our capital offers enough famous attractions to keep you entertained for years, but there is also a hidden history that seeps through the very stones of the city.

Take the time to step away from the guide books and discover the more unusual historical spots, monuments and oddities off London's beaten tourist track.

London’s only Roman amphitheatre

That the Romans populated London is well-known – but for hundreds of years archaeologists were unable to locate a single amphitheatre within the old city walls until, in 1988, a stunning example was found hidden beneath the Guildhall Yard. Originally dating from AD70, up to 6,000 people at a time would crowd the arena for animal fights, public executions and gladiatorial combat – before the place was finally abandoned in the fourth century.

The Guildhall Yard, London Credit: Alamy

To find it now, enter the Guildhall Yard and look at the floor – an 80m wide curved line marks the edge of the amphitheatre – and then buy a ticket to the art gallery. Follow the steps down and eight metres below London you’ll be treated to an impressive preservation project, that includes remains of the original amphitheatre walls and even the sand which was used to soak up the blood of fallen combatants.

The oldest terraced houses in London

By the border of Hackney and Islington, on the west side of Newington Green, is an unassuming terrace of four buildings… that also hold the distinction of being the oldest surviving terrace in the city. Built in 1658, the houses survived the Great Fire of London, the Plague, numerous upheavals and disasters… as well as two world wars.

As if that were not enough, a former resident of Number 54 was one Dr Richard Price, an 18th-century preacher, dissident and friend of the American Founding Fathers: extraordinarily, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams all visited Dr Price at this very house.

William Wallace’s execution spot

Just around the corner from the Museum of London lies an area with a gruesome past. During the Middle Ages, as well as being an area for jousting and summer fairs, The Elms, Smithfield, was London’s favoured place of execution. Countless died here. Heretics were burned at the stake, and those accused of treason endured the worst fate of all – to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

First they would be dragged around the square by horse, hanged until almost dead, disembowelled, beheaded, and eventually chopped into four pieces. Each of those body parts would be taken to a different part of the city and put on display, with the heads taken to London Bridge and mounted on spikes, as a warning to any other would-be dissidents. Among those to die here was Scottish patriot  “Braveheart” William Wallace. The only memorial to the fact is a small inscribed plaque in a corner of the square – the last words of which read: “Death and Victory”.

The home of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Hidden down a sidestreet by London Bridge station is the site of the Tabard inn, a 14th-century Coaching Inn and notorious hangout of criminals, prostitutes, drunkards and cockfighters – as well as pilgrims making the journey to Canterbury.

The Tabard Inn, now the George Inn (pictured)

Among them was one Geoffrey Chaucer – who made the inn the starting point for his most famous work of literature, as well as making its proprietor, Harry Bailey, the host of his book. Sadly no longer here, the inn was finally demolished in 1873 – but the old square where it once stood remains and is well worth a look for any lover of literature.

London’s first drinking fountain

During the Victorian era, the explosion of London as a centre for trade, business and industry had led to such an increase in population that the city’s infrastructure simply couldn’t cope, most notably with the provision of clean drinking water. Things got so bad that by the mid 19th century doctors were even recommending drinking beer as a safer alternative. Finally, in 1859, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was founded, with the aim, in their words, “for providing free supplies of water for man and beast in the streets of London”.

In that same year they opened their first drinking fountain – which you can still see today at the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct, dug into the railings of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate church. At its peak, this single fountain was being used by 7,000 people every day – doubtless saving hundreds of lives in the process. More than 150 years later, the inscription can still clearly be seen: “Replace the cup”.

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