27 April 2009


I want to thank everyone who was responsible for the excellent ‘London Lore’ conference held on Saturday 25th at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. Brilliantly organised by Scott Wood, from the South East London Folklore Society (SELFS), it presented a packed schedule of talks on London lore and legend, rumour and ritual. I’m sorry that I neglected to promote the event here, but as the venue was packed, I doubt Magonia’s intervention would have made much of a difference.
It’s good to see the way that neglected and forgotten ceremonies and rituals are being revived. Sarah Crofts explained how the chance finding of an old photograph led to the revival of Deptford’s ‘Jack in the Green’, (illustrated) returning a touch of rural magic to drab south London, and Sonia Ritter told how actors associated with Shakespeare's Globe on the South Bank helped to create new traditions around the food markets of Southwark and the money markets of The City, and adding to the City’s own traditions as described in another talk by folklorist Doc Rowe.

Paul Cowdell and Neil Rooney covered the urban legends of animal life in London - feral cats, urban foxes, omnipresent rats, and the ravens of the Tower of London (a very ancient legend tracing all the way back, apparently, to 1954!), and Scott himself delved into the history of the legend of the ‘Helpful Terrorist’ who warns a kindly stranger against travelling on the Tube on a certain date. Scott has traced this back to stories about nurses tending German PoW’s in First World War field hospitals, and is looking for earlier examples.

I had never heard of Edward Lovett before, but now want to know more about him and his works. In his Croydon home he assembled a huge collection of folk-artefacts: amulets, good-luck charms, dolls, tokens, printed ephemera, etc., gathered from the back-streets and markets of South London and the East End. A former work colleague of mine, folklorist and local historian Steve Roud, outlined Lovett’s life and work, whilst Neil Gordon Orr, of Southwark’s Cuming Museum, and Ross MacFarlane of the Wellcome Collection discussed the artefacts which Lovett had donated or sold to their own institutions.

Honorary Magonian Mark Pilkington revealed the secrets of the Brompton Cemetery time-machine, which of course I am not allowed to divulge in a public forum!

There is a small piece of waste ground in Southwark which was once a graveyard where the remains of the ‘Winchester Geese’ were buried. The ‘Geese’ were the prostitutes who operated in the ‘stews’, the brothels, conveniently across the river and outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, but effectively licensed by the Bishop of Winchester who owned the area. Forbidden from burial in hallowed ground these women, and other ‘outsiders’ - the lame, the maimed, the mad, the prostitutes babies - were buried in an unhallowed graveyard and forgotten.

In recent years their mass graves have been revealed through building work in the area, and excavations for railway extensions. The site is now known as the Crossbones Graveyard and local people, including the ‘urban shaman’ John Constable have started to honour and celebrate these ‘outsiders’ and seem to have convinced the local council and the GLA to make a permanent memorial garden on the site after the railway works have finished in a few years time.

Appropriately, as the last item on the programme, before we all hurried off to the pub, Tony Clayton entertained us with a few tales, legends and exotica of London pubs.

Talking to Scott afterwards it seems that one of his main problems in organising the event was deciding what to leave out, so it looks like there may be an opportunity for another event like this in the future. If so I promise I’ll give you a bit of notice next time!

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