Secrets | lesser-known stories from EC1- April2016

Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.


Forget Harry Potter. A real, historical figure has a link to Platform 9 at King’s Cross: Boudicca. The famous East Anglian warrior- queen is said to be buried somewhere beneath platforms 9 and 10 at the station. The site was once a settlement called Broad Ford, where, as the name suggests, one could cross the River Fleet. It later became known as Battle Bridge, on account of the fighting seen there between the Romans and Boudicca’s army in AD 60-61.

Up until then, Boudicca and her guerilla gang had forced the Romans from the then- capital Colchester (Camulodunum) and from London (Londinium). People and places were ravaged in the process. But it was at Battle Bridge that the Roman legions regrouped and returned finally to overcome the rebels. Some contemporary sources say Boudicca fell ill and died that way; others say she poisoned herself rather than be captured. Whatever the truth, she met her end at this point.

Brill, the Romans’ nearby military camp, was just west of St Pancras station. It is remembered in the street name Brill Place. Where the banks of the Fleet once stood, various Roman artefacts and remains have been discovered over time. These include anchors, parts of a soldier’s tomb, and the skeleton of… an elephant.

The Clerkenwell area has its very own “Poets’ Corner”. Or, rather, a Poets’ Triangle. Instead of celebrating deaths, as Westminster Abbey’s famous stones do, our zone marks births: Daniel Defoe in Fore Street, John Keats on Moorgate and John Milton in Bread Street.

Defoe was born in about 1660, a plain Foe (he added the “De” later). It is said that when the Great Fire struck in 1666, only his house and two others in his neighbourhood were left standing. Debtors’ prison, secret agent, being put in the stocks – his life was a colourful one, even before you factor in his writing. He is buried locally, in Bunhill Fields.

Keats was born in 1795, in, or at least near, The Swan & Hoop Inn, where his father worked stabling horses. By the time he was 14, he’d lost both his parents; his father to a riding accident and his mother to TB. He was bequeathed a good deal of money by both his mother and his grandfather but, strangely, never laid claim to it. It seems that, shamefully, he was kept in the dark about it. 

Milton was born in 1608 and christened in All Hallows, Bread Street. There’s a plaque at 1 Bread Street to commemorate this history. When he was 33, he wed a 16-year-old; just a month into the marriage, she decided she couldn’t cope and left to return to her family. Milton was totally blind by the time he was 50. He’s buried in St Giles’, Cripplegate, which is in… the aforementioned Fore Street.

When George Birkbeck, the “founding father” of the evening class, came to London in 1804, he chose to live in Clerkenwell. It was from his home in Finsbury Square that he gained a name for himself in the capital, not only through his day job as a doctor but also through his evening work of encouraging improved learning in working-class men.

Immediately after training as a medic in Edinburgh, he was awarded a professorship of natural philosophy (science) at the Anderson’s Institute in Glasgow. It was through his teaching there that he first had the idea of holding free, public lectures on “the mechanical arts”. His efforts gained momentum, and the UK’s first Mechanics’ Institute was born.

When Birkbeck came to London soon afterwards, he set up another Mechanics’ Institute – largely with the help of a group of working men in Clerkenwell, who gave it their support. They were already holding their own ‘betterment” meetings in the evenings. The institute developed into the Birkbeck Literary & Scientific Institution, and then into the one-word Birkbeck that we know today. Classes aren’t free any more, sadly…