Masters of Disguise | Fresh Water in the City

They say what you can’t see can’t hurt you. These three literally hidden secrets from EC1’s history prove otherwise


There was no shortage of water this summer, despite the fears. For a moment, though, the drought warnings reminded us how much we all take having water on tap for granted.

In the 17th century, fresh water supplies in the City were a real problem. Clerkenwell and a wealthy man after which areas of it are named came to the rescue. Sir Hugh Myddelton, a self-made man and jewellery supplier to King James I, led the charge on the ambitious New River scheme. The idea was to channel water from streams 20 miles away in Hertfordshire into the city. Into Clerkenwell, to be precise, to a site near Sadler’s Wells. It opened in 1613 and was in use for centuries.

It was the New River that supplied water to the famous Aldgate Pump at the junction of Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street in the late 19th century. However, fresh this water was not. When people started complaining of a funny taste, it was discovered that it contained liquid human remains, which had leeched into it from London’s graveyards. Hundreds died.

But the “Pump of Death” had form. Before using water from the New River, it was supplied by a natural spring. The water was known for its health-giving properties… Until someone worked out that all the calcium in it came from – yes, you guessed it, human bones. With this history, it’s unsurprising that it got a reputation. A bouncing cheque became known in slang as “a draught upon Aldgate Pump” and “Aldgate Pump” in Cockney rhyming slang meant to get the hump.

However, with the New River closed and engineering advances, history was forgotten by the 1900s. So much so that Whittard, the tea sellers, used the Aldgate Pump for filling their kettles “so that only the purest water was used for tea tastings”. They did boil it first, though, we hope. The pump, a late 18th century stone obelisk with a wolf-head spout, still stands (inoperable) today. Meanwhile, the site of the New River, on which the grand headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board were built in 1904, is populated by flats – all with mod cons and water on tap, of course.



Use Chancery Lane Tube? Next time you’re there, take a diversion down Furnival Street and think of John le Carré. Furnival Street used to be more significant than you’d imagine – and it was due to one of its most unassuming- looking buildings: a dull façade, a goods hoist and two unwelcoming doorways. This was one of the entrances to a huge secret bunker.

Below ground was a mini town full of bustling staff. In the warren of 100-feet- deep tunnels were kitchens with serving hatches, dormitories and recreation rooms with full-sized snooker tables. The passageways were even given “street names” such as Third Avenue. There were also copious amounts of equipment, a vast telephone exchange and more than 300 miles of cables. This “town” consisted of the Chancery Lane deep shelter and Kingsway telephone exchange. The tunnels were originally built as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, although they were never used. The phone exchange operated until STD codes meant that you no longer had go through an operator to make a call.

The complex was then taken over by MI6 and used during the Cold War as a back-up bunker to one called Pindar under Whitehall, and as a telecomms hub filtering messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev at height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For one fortnight in 1962, no-one was allowed in or out of the bunker except for Harold Macmillan and his Cabinet members. No wonder staff said there was an odd, musty smell about the place.


Not long ago, it was in the news that a prisoner, murderer John Massey, had escaped from Pentonville prison. He scaled the wall using a rope he’d made from some netting. He was recaptured soon after but his story was reminiscent of another famous break-out in the area, at this time of year, nearly 300 years ago. It was 1724. Jack Sheppard, a good-looking, daring, young petty thief, hit the headlines when he escaped prison four times in seven months. His second break-out, from Clerkenwell Bridewell, off Sans Walk (it later became the House of Detention), made him an instant celebrity.


It was the stuff of legend. He cut his way through his chains and the wood that barred his cell window, and abseiled into the adjoining exercise yard using a rope made from the petticoats of his wife Elizabeth (Bess) Lyons, a prostitute who was locked up with him. He then scaled the 22-foot wall with Bess on his shoulders. No mean feat, apparently – she was not a small lady.

Recaptured and thrown in Newgate jail, he escaped again. Bess, who was free, helped him flee, disguised in one of her dresses. He was returned to Newgate just days later and put in the innermost cell called The Castle. But he managed it again. He opened his handcuffs with a nail, wriggled out of his leg irons, climbed the chimney in his cell and found himself on a deathly high ledge. He then returned to his cell to collect sheets to lower himself down. He lived the life of Riley before being turned in by a double agent a month later.

People queued up to visit his cell, and a crowd of 200,000 watched his execution at Tyburn on 10 November. Daniel Defoe wrote an account of his life, The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, and William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1839 bestseller Jack Sheppard outsold Oliver Twist.

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