Body Snatchers & a London Walks Customer Who Blew It

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.

It’s March 8th, 2024.

The pin for the day – the news story that gets the show on the road – is an exciting bit of news from the London Zoo. A good news story from the London Zoo. Babies. Newborns – ok, born is a bit of poetic license but so what. The world’s most threatened frog – it’s on the brink of extinction – is the Caribbean Mountain frog. Also known as the Chicken frog because it’s said to taste like chicken. Two of the critically endangered amphibians have bred at the London Zoo and some of the tadpoles have metamorphosed into froglets and hopped into the world. They won’t be croaking yet.

Moving on, today’s Random. By definition, London Walks is a walking tour company. We’re interested in just about every aspect of walking. The great American naturalist, essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau – like us he was a big fan of recreational walking – listen carefully to that word recreational – recreation, especially recreational walking – re-creates. Anyway Henry David Thoreau said, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” And a lot of heaven it is. A rough average of a lifetime’s walking is 150,000 miles. That’s around the world six times. Those chicken froglets are taking their first hops this morning, There’ll be several hundred London babies taking their first faltering steps this morning.

Every one of those first steps will use 54 muscles.

So don’t just honour your father and your mother. Also honour your feet.

They’ll stand you in good stead. Take you a long way in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

And on that note, let’s toddle on to our Ongoing. PRO. P for Pin, that’s the news story. R for Random. That’s for whatever catches my fancy on any given day. And O for Ongoing. Our Ongoing obsession with any and all aspects of this endlessly fascinating city and its history.

Anyway, our ongoing today – well, I’m going to have a bit of a kvetch with this one. Off the mark, anyway. What’s lit the fuse is the woman who put us to a lot of trouble – back and forth emails about a highly specialised private walk she wanted us to set up for her – we put a lot of time and trouble into getting everything into place, getting her the perfect guide – only to be told by the woman, at the last moment, that she’d changed her mind and a friend was going to show them round instead. Well, that loosed a whole lot of thought bubbles in my head. How they welled up. Starting with the point that we always make toward the end of the London Calling podcast: “You get what you pay for. But you also get what you don’t pay for.” I garnished that sage observation with what the New York Times said about London Walks many years ago – the which, if anything, is even more to the point now than it was 50 years ago. The New York Times said, “London Walks puts you into the hands of an expert on the particular area and topic of a tour.” The New York Times observation was the garnish. The spice was that bit of medical perspicacity that’s got much wider applicability: namely that if I’m going to have brain surgery I want a consultant neurosurgeon – not some schlubber with a scalpel and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy.

And now this is said directly to the woman in question, “don’t kid yourself lady, you’ve sold yourself a bill of goods. Aside here: I daresay if the lady is listening to this she’s going to learn some things she’d rather not know. None of us likes having our nose rubbed in it that we’ve done something foolish, made a crummy choice. But the greater good outweighs her individual discomfiture. People shouldn’t be under any illusions: being a guide is a craft. Like any craft it has to be learned, practiced, honed. Over many years. A friend – Joe Bloggs – can’t just walk in off the street and do it. Or in this instance, can’t just walk out on the street and do it. Sports metaphors come to mind. American football. You’re on your own 20-yard line. There’s two minutes left to go. You’re down five points. You need to march your team down 80 yards and get a touchdown. The walk you asked for, lady, you would have had Patrick Mahomes guiding your team down the field, scoring that winning touchdown. But no, you’ve got it into your head that your friend can do it instead. Well, good luck with that project. You’re going to need it. Thinking of that walk I did yesterday. Old Westminster. In the first 15 minutes we saw the forge where the modern British army was created. And the RAF. And MI5 and MI6. And Imperial College and the LSE. And the modern British Navy. Torpedoes and submarines and aircraft carriers. And where Einstein first came to London. And where that acronym that we all use made its first appearance. And we saw Batman and King Kong and SpongeBob SquarePants and the tentacle of an octopus and Mrs Thatcher biting John Major’s head off and the Dover Road and storming of the Bastille and a man on trial for his life at Newgate, charged with treason against the King of England. And we saw that row of six houses from the 1770s that accordion out like a series of Russian dolls, they get progressively smaller from right to left. You could say they march down the field. 10 yards, nine yards, eight yards, seven yards, etc. You’d never see them – or any of those other things – if you didn’t have a guide taking you exactly where you have to go to see them. And lifting the scales off your eyes. Because you’re not going to see them unless you’re told exactly where to look and what to look for. And that’s just a selection of what we saw in those first fifteen minutes. I didn’t mention the pieta and the amputated penis and the four winds and the chain links the suffragettes cut through. Well, you get the idea. The lady’s friend couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t know where to start. Wouldn’t know where any of those things are.

The storming of the Bastille and the trial for treason put me in mind – needless to say – of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. And that got me reminiscing about libraries. Six of them. Two in particular. Took me back fifty years. I was over here doing my PhD – on Dickens –  at University College London.

The six libraries I worked in were the UCL Library, the Senate House Library, the V & A Library – one of its treasures is the manuscript of A Tale of Two Cities, a manuscript that I pored over for six months – the Newspaper Library at Colindale. And of course the British Library and the London Library. The British Library – along with the Bodleian at Oxford and the Library of Congress in DC – is the greatest library in the world. It’s a copyright library. Or, in the official parlance, a Legal Deposit Library. What that means is that the British Library gets given a copy of every book published in this country. The publisher doesn’t sell the book to the British Library. They give it to the Library. They’re required to do so by law. And of course because it’s a copyright library – a library of record as it were – most foreign publishers want their publications to be on the shelves of the British Library. So the BL gets given a vast number of foreign publications as well. The British Library has 746 kilometres of books. That’s nearly 464 miles of books. You want to visualise that – 464 miles is the distance from London to Bern in Switzerland. That’s books lined up from central London to the outskirts and then down to Dover and across the channel and across France and on into Switzerland. Or if you want a bit less France you take the Belgium-Luxembourg-France-Switzerland route. Or you go in the other direction, that’s a row of books that stretches from London to Aberdeen. That’s a lot of books. And that row of books gets longer every year. Five miles longer every year.

Now all of that is fun. And very impressive.

But there are two conspicuous disadvantages to the world’s greatest library. One, you can’t take books home. And two, you can’t go into the stacks. Can’t go look for the book you want, fetch it yourself.

Different story at my favourite library. The London Library. You can take books home. And you can go into the stacks.

And that brings me to the two words that are like lone trees on the distant horizon – lone trees by which I charted the course of this podcast. Those two words are propinquity and serendipity. Propinquity of course means proximity, being close, being close by. And serendipity means happy accident, good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries.

And that’s what you get in the London Library – in the stacks – that you can never get in the British Library. You’re in the London Library stacks looking for a certain book and out of the corner of your eye you spot a title next shelf up or next shelf down that’s perfect for part of your research and that you didn’t know about. The happy accident of your catching sight of it was pure serendipity, the skids of which were greased by propinquity.

I had one of those propinquity-serendipity moments yesterday. I was doing a little forward planning for the London Calling podcast. Thought I’d do a piece on the last person to be executed at Newgate. That was 122 years ago. In 1902. So there I was looking at the newspapers of the day. Trying to find out about George Woolf and his crime. And I did find out. That one’s in the oven. Cometh the anniversary I’ll tell you the story. But as it happened, while I was looking for material on George Woolf and Charlotte, the girl he murdered – looking in this instance at the January 3rd, 1902 edition of the Telegraph, my eye fell on a subtitle or small headline a couple of columns over. The headline read: An Interesting Diary.  Well, I was interested. It was a brief news story about the inquest into the death of a woman who’d lived in Clapham. The coroner said that they’d found what he described as “a very quaint and interesting diary” in the deceased woman’s room. It was an old diary that somebody had started in 1828. It recorded the deaths of George IV and the accession of William IV and the opening of London Bridge and the swearing-in of a Lord Mayor of London and the rejection by the House of Lords of the Reform Bill and the coronation of Queen Victoria. And then – wait for it – there it was – a brief account of the execution at Newgate of Bishop and Williams, who, the diarist said, were “professed body-snatchers, and in their confession admitted five murders and the selling of above 1,000 bodies in twelve years.”

Well, that set the synapses tingling. I’d never heard of Bishop and Williams. But a thousand resurrections in twelve years and killing five people – making your own cadavers – turning living people into cadavers to sell – rather than having to go to all the trouble and hard work up digging up fresh graves – well, that’s a story. I knew from the dates that the executions of the body snatchers and murderers would have been public. And I wanted to find how many people were in attendance at that double event. And what the crowd’s reaction was. That I was able to find out. And I’ll be recounting same in a future London Calling podcast. What I also wondered – and will go on wondering about – there won’t be any answers forthcoming about this – I also wondered, “what happened to that diary?” It’d be fascinating to see it.

The final thought in this connection – it’s so often the case with my particular turn of mind – was language. It turns out that the parlance of the day was that Bishop and Williams had burked people. Get it? Get the reference? William Burke and William Hare were a couple of Scottish body snatchers and murderers. They’d killed 16 people over a ten-month period in Edinburgh. They’d sold the corpses to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures. Hare turned state’s evidence and got off. Burke was tried, found guilty and hanged. His corpse was dissected – just deserts, I’d say – and skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School, where it can be seen to this day. Well, the Burke and Hare case caused a sensation the length and breadth of this land. And sure enough, Burke’s name became a verb. Bishop and Williams burked five people and sold their corpses.

Delightfully macabre, isn’t it. What a place this is. What a species we are.


You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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