Today (September 11) in London History – The Umbrella Assassination

Georgi Markov, the prominent Bulgarian defector, dissident, writer and broadcaster assassinated with the tip of an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge died on this day, September 11, 1978. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

My favourite London bridge? Waterloo. By a long chalk. It’s got everything going for it. Just being there makes me happy. It’s a sensory feast. Both what you see and what you see with your mind’s eye. Walking across it to the Southbank from the Strand, you’re headed toward the greatest arts complex in the world. From the vantage point of the bridge you can suddenly see – and appreciate – the architectural “fit”. Especially the Royal National Theatre. The Thames sweeps through a big bend there. The National Theatre – a low ziggurat of concrete rafts – those concrete rafts are a visual echo of that great sweeping bend in the Thames. And whenever I walk across Waterloo Bridge toward the National Theatre I always think of Ralph’s Rocket. A tradition now sadly discontinued at the National. On opening nights they would always fire a rocket from the roof of the National. It was known as Ralph’s Rocket. No theatrical tradition had a jollier backstory. Half a century earlier Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had invited Ralph Richardson and his wife Muriel to a housewarming for the Oliviers’ first home in Chelsea. Ralph Richardson always loved fireworks so he brought some along to set off in the tiny backyard in celebration. The first one – the biggest one – was positioned, primed and lit but instead of going where fireworks are supposed to go – blazing, streaking heavenwards, up into the London sky it got three feet off the launch pad and banked sharp right. It tore through the open patio window into the house, setting the curtains afire, ran amok along a crockery-laden shelf, set the cornice on fire and having made its inspection of the dining room went out the way it came and was last seen heading up toward the King’s Road. Olivier was all right about it but Vivien Leigh was furious. Richardson said to Muriel, “come on darling, let’s get out of here, these people don’t understand us.” As he went out the door handle came off in his hand. 

And that’s just to get us started. You look downstream and slightly over your left shoulder, there’s St Paul’s. Look further left, back toward the north bank, there’s magnificent Somerset House. Centuries ago when London and Westminster were separate from one another – linked by three roads, High Holborn to the North, the Strand and Fleet Street in the middle, and the Thames to the south, the north bank of the Thames was lined by a series of grand, palatial houses. The sole surviving one is Somerset House. St Petersburg on Thames I call it. And of course on the upstream side there on the north bank you’ve got Cleopatra’s Needle and the Victoria Embankment Gardens and then further upstream the Eye and the Palace of Westminster. And suddenly you can appreciate what it is about the location of the Southbank Arts Complex. Location, location, location. Because of that great sweeping curve of the Thames it’s as if the Southbank Arts complex is the hub of a bicycle wheel. And coming out from it, three spokes. You cross Westminster Bridge, the upstream of the three spokes leading out from that hub – you’re into the very heart of Parliamentary London. Cross the downstream one – Blackfriars Bridge – you’re in the City of London. And the middle one – our bridge, Waterloo Bridge – well, welcome to the West End, to the Strand and the Aldwych and Covent Garden. Never was an arts complex better positioned. 

And walking across Waterloo Bridge you can also play – in your mind’s eye – that winning hand of four bridges, four face cards. I touched on it in an earlier podcast. You’ve got the bridge you’re on, Waterloo Bridge. But you’ve also got the Ladies’ Bridge, as it was known in its early days because it was largely built by a female workforce. And you’ve got the most beautiful bridge in Europe – that’d be the first Waterloo Bridge, the one today’s bridge replaced. And finally you’ve got the dagger plunged into the heart of Nazi Germany. The temporary, army engineer’s bridge that was thrown up there when the old bridge was coming down and the new one was under construction. A temporary army engineer’s bridge that come 1944 and the Allied liberation of the continent was shipped over there and thrown across the Rhine and over it rumbled Patton’s and Montgomery’s armour, the dagger thrust into the heart of Nazi Germany.

It’s just so rich in views and associations, Waterloo Bridge. Walking across it, taking it all in, it’s an occasion every time, a joie de vivre occasion.

But now we come to it. There is, I’m afraid, something dark and sinister about Waterloo Bridge. It’s the death by umbrella bridge. And today – September 11th – is the anniversary of that death. Four days earlier – September 7th, 1978 – Georgi Markov, a prominent Bulgarian defector, dissident and writer was walking across Waterloo Bridge. Why was he there? Because the BBC World Service was at Bush House in the Aldwych. Markov worked there. He made damning broadcasts, roasted the leadership of his native Bulgaria and other Eastern bloc countries. Took the whole grim iron curtain bloc to task for its totalitarian ways. Markov had just left Bush House. He was on his way home. It was rush hour – about 6.30 pm. And 1978, that was the final innings of conservatively suited English gentlemen stock broker types, with their bowler hats and umbrellas. Suddenly Markov felt a strange prick of pain in the back of his thigh. A man behind him had jabbed him with an umbrella – a poison-tipped umbrella as it turned out. Turning, Markov saw the man pick up the umbrella – he’d dropped it. Speaking with a foreign accent, the man muttered, “I am sorry.” And then hailed a cab.

And so he should have been sorry because four days later Georgi Markov was dead, the victim of a spy novel-style assassination in the heart of London. 

Georgi Markov died on September 11th, 1976 in St James’ Hospital in Balham in South London.

At the post mortem a tiny piece of metal – less than the size of a pinhead – had show up on an x-ray. It was an alloy ball, just 68 thousandths of an inch in diameter. It had two holes, just 16 thousandths of an inch drilled into it. Those two minuscule holes contained the substance which killed the 49-year-old dissident. 

Scotland Yard said it was one of the most bizarre murders in its history. 

The killer was never identified but there was a prime suspect. He was said to have worked at the Bulgarian Embassy. And Markov had a laser red dot on his – well, not on his chest, on the back of his leg. A Bulgarian secret agent had been sent to London to warn Markov that if he didn’t shut up he’d be permanently shut up. Terminated with prejudice. Markov didn’t shut up. He soldiered on. They didn’t find the murder weapon. They found murder weapons. When the iron curtain came down 13 years later they discovered, in a closet in the interior ministry, a pile of lethal umbrellas.

And a today in London recommendation. Get on over to the Royal National Theatre, get a drink from the bar and go out onto the terrace overlooking the Thames, overlooking Waterloo Bridge, looking over at the West End. To do so is to suddenly get it about the National Theatre. It’s somehow done the impossible: it’s simultaneously glamorous and popular. Popular in the old sense of the word – a place of the people. The Royal Opera House is glamorous. But it isn’t popular, not in that sense of the word. The King’s Head Theatre Pub in Upper Street in Islington is popular but it isn’t glamorous. The Royal National Theatre – with those inviting, spacious lobbies, often with free live music, and those great riverside balconies – the Royal National Theatre is simultaneously glamorous and popular. That’s no mean feat. And while you’re out there, drink in hand, overlooking the Thames, liquid history, and overlooking Waterloo Bridge, where it happened, I’d say raise a glass to the memory of Georgi Markov – it’s the right thing to do.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History 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: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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. See ya tomorrow.

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