See London's Hidden History for Free (10 Locations to Visit)
Exploring Free London
London is a busy and vibrant city that’s packed with history, but much of it is hidden from immediate view. The majority of tourists go straight to the obvious attractions and soon discover that entrance fees are high. However, there's a lot to discover for free if you know where to go.
Here are 10 unique locations that are often missed by visitors, where you can truly experience London’s history.
1. The Original London Coliseum
London began as a Roman settlement called Londinium in AD 43. Although not as big as Rome’s Coliseum, an amphitheatre was built here in AD 122 where gladiators fought against animals and each other, usually to the death.
In 1988 during alterations to London’s 15th-century Guildhall, remains of the amphitheatre were discovered. It was originally made of wood, and later rebuilt in stone.
Visitors can view the remains underground and imagine the history of the fierce events that happened there. In the Guildhall courtyard, look out for a large dark stone circle. This is the outline of the amphitheatre that lays 8 metres below. While you’re there, explore the Guildhall, the medieval crypts and the Victorian Art Gallery.
2. Silvertown, The Birthplace of Broadband
Silvertown is part of London’s original Docklands, a major Victorian industrial area, which is now being restored and redeveloped. It was named after Samuel Winkworth Silver, who established a rubber and electrical factory here, named the India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works Company.
One of Sam’s achievements was to accidentally invent the foundations for broadband in 1852. He decided to house copper wire inside a rubber cable for submarine wiring, inventing what was needed for broadband and ultimately the internet. Sam’s factory also created some of Alexander Graham Bell’s early telephones.
Silvertown was soon jam-packed with factories and warehouses, and many small terraced homes sprung up near the factories to accommodate thousands of workers.
When World War One began in 1914, the Government ordered one of the factories to make explosive TNT for bombs. In January 1917, one of the biggest explosions ever known in London occurred in the factory following a fire. The sound could be heard over 100 miles away. Much of the factory was destroyed, along with over 900 homes. 73 people were killed, and over 400 were injured.
You can visit a memorial to the explosion that lists the factory workers killed at Royal Wharf, close to the site of the old factory. The area is under development, so traces of the original factories have now disappeared. However, you can still walk around Silvertown and explore the original docklands, along with enjoying fine views of the Thames Barrier.
To get around London, I recommend buying a 1-, 3- or 7-day Travelcard which gives you unlimited travel on all of London’s public transport for one price. You can use the underground, Docklands Light Railway, overground trains or any bus on one ticket.
3. Shakespeare’s Original Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre was reconstructed in 1997 on London’s South Bank, where thousands of tourists gather for photos daily, but this is not the original theatre.
If you want to walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps, head around the corner to Anchor Terrace in Park Street, where the original theatre was discovered in 1989. Here you will find a curved outline of the first theatre in the paving and a memorial plaque that marks the spot.
The Globe presented many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including Hamlet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Macbeth. During the staging of one play, Henry VIII, the roof caught fire when a cannon filled with gunpowder was fired for special effect. The theatre burned to the ground in less than an hour. It was rebuilt with a tiled roof and remained the home for Shakespeare’s plays till the closure of all theatres by the Puritans in 1642, when it was demolished to make way for homes for the poor.
4. King Henry VIII's Birthplace
Close to Cutty Sark station lies a fascinating area of London. Here you will find the Old Royal Naval College and Greenwich Park, the site of Palace of Placentia (also known as Greenwich Palace). This is where Britain’s most notorious king, Henry VIII, was born.
The palace was built in 1417 for the Duke of Gloucester. In 1485 when the Tudors came to the throne, Henry VII enlarged and modernised the building. It was here on 28 June 1491 that his son, Henry VIII, was born and baptized in the nearby St Alfege Church.
Henry VIII considered the palace as his main home and he held banquets, jousting matches and many parties here. Both Henry’s daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were born at the palace, and Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn was arrested here and taken to the Tower of London before being beheaded.
By the 1660s, the palace was in a dilapidated condition and King Charles II decided to build a new palace in its place. It wasn’t completed, but sections of it now form part of Greenwich College.
You can wander around the college grounds, and enjoy amazing views across London from the park. Here also, at the Royal Observatory, you’ll find the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the world’s Prime Meridian Line. It’s the only place in the world where you can stand with one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere and one in the West. There’s an entrance fee for the Observatory and its well worth a visit, but if you want to experience the Meridian Line for free, head for the tennis courts in the park where a blue line marks the world’s meridian passing right through the middle of the courts.
5. Newgate Prison, the Centre of Britain’s Justice
The road outside the original Newgate Prison was famous for public executions. From 1783, for almost 100 years, criminals were hung, and often beheaded, in front of huge crowds in Old Bailey Road next to the prison. Three women were burned at the stake here.
Nearby is the Church of St Sepulchre. Inside the church, housed in a glass case, is the original Execution Bell. On the night before an execution, a bellman would ring the bell and chant prayers whilst walking the corridors of the prison.
Newgate closed in 1902 and two years later, Britain’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey) opened in its place. It’s here that many of the UK’s most serious criminal cases are heard, including murder, rape and terrorism. Public galleries are open in all 18 courts to watch trials in progress. Just round the corner in Amen Court stands a single remaining wall of the original prison.
Opposite the Old Bailey is a traditional public house called the Viaduct Tavern. If you politely ask the bar staff, you’ll be able to view the original prison cells from a debtor’s jail connected to the old Newgate Prison.
6. Take a Picnic on a Great Plague Burial Pit
The quiet haven of Golden Square in Soho is a favourite city picnic spot, but it has a secret history as a plague pit. Every night, the dead victims of London’s Great Plague were tipped in a pit beneath today’s tranquil square.
The Great Plague, spread by fleas living on black rats, arrived in London in 1665, and almost 100,000 people died in just a few months, so plague pits were hurriedly dug all over the city, as there wasn’t enough space in the city’s graveyards.
Victims suffered from vomiting, a high temperature, horrendous pus-filled swellings and a swollen tongue, and they eventually died in agony. The bodies were collected by carts every day and disposed of in hastily dug pits, one of them being in Golden Square.
7. Thomas Farriner’s Bakery, Origin of the Great Fire of London 1666
On 2 September 1666, a fire started in a tiny bakery owned by Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane, where a plaque has been erected marking the spot where the fire began. The fire went down in history as the Great Fire of London when it burned out of control, destroying most of the city.
Thomas had gone to bed, accidentally leaving the fire alight in the oven. He woke up to the smell of smoke and was trapped upstairs with his family. They managed to escape by climbing through a window of the next-door house. The fire burned for four days, leaving thousands of people homeless. They were forced to live in tents while the city was rebuilt.
A monument to the Great Fire was erected in Monument Street in 1677 and stands 61 metres from the site where the fire began in Pudding Lane. Visitors can climb to the top of the monument for amazing views across London, although there is a modest entrance fee.
8. Bedlam, London’s Notorious Lunatic Asylum
If you arrive at Liverpool Street Station, you don’t have to go far to find Bedlam. Close to the station entrance, there’s a small blue plaque on a wall by the Andaz Hotel. On this site in 1247, the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem opened a 12-bed hospital to nurse the poor. It grew to house 59 patients, many of whom had mental health issues and were described as “mad”.
Bethlehem Hospital was later shortened to Bethlem and later pronounced Bedlam, which came to mean “a state of wild uproar and confusion”. This was a good description of life inside the hospital where people were kept in filthy conditions, often in chains and hungry. If a patient became hysterical, he or she was forced into an ice-cold bath or spun round and round in a chair suspended from a ceiling.
By 1664, the hospital was overcrowded, and a new building was opened in 1676. That site is marked by a blue plaque at 145/149 London Wall, a short walk from the first site. The hospital moved to another site in 1815 to a building that’s now the Imperial War Museum. By this time, it mostly housed criminals found guilty of murder or attempted murder.
Today, Bethlem Royal Hospital is based in a beautiful green space in the county of Kent and treats a variety of mental health issues.
9. Crystal Palace, in the Footsteps of Queen Victoria
Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, wanted to showcase Britain’s industry to the world and came up with the idea of a Great Exhibition. It was housed in the purpose-built Crystal Palace and was initially sited in London’s Hyde Park. The Palace was built with 294,000 panes of glass and covered almost 93,000 square metres of exhibition space.
After the Great Exhibition, it was dismantled and rebuilt in Crystal Palace Park in south London to become a year-round public attraction. A disastrous fire took place in 1936 and the whole building was destroyed. Although the building has been destroyed, you can still experience a little of its Victorian history.
The Italian Garden terraces survived the fire and now make a fabulous viewpoint across the rest of the park. The steps leading from the upper to the lower terraces are bordered by some of the original statues—male and female figures, and sphinxes. One of the attractions inside the Great Exhibition was a group of life-sized dinosaur models. These models can still be seen in the park today.
10. The First Red Telephone Box
It’s a common sight to see tourists surrounding London’s iconic red telephone boxes. Despite almost everyone having smartphones, the British public have fought hard to keep these much-loved kiosks in their towns and villages, although these days they are more likely to house a defibrillator, mini library or even a takeaway coffee shop!
In Piccadilly, opposite Fortnum and Mason (which is famous for its incredible afternoon teas and luxury groceries), stands the Royal Academy of Art. This is where some of Britain’s most famous artists perfected their craft. Entry to the galleries is free, but before entering the black-and-gold iron gates, stop and look just inside the arched entrance.
Here you will find Britain’s very first Red Telephone Box, a wooden prototype that was the winning entry in a competition held by the Post Office in 1924. The second box on the other side of the entrance is one of the first cast-iron boxes that were then made and distributed across the country.
© 2019 DHWebb