In the Footsteps of London’s Scoundrels


By Gordon Cope

Originally appears in The Calgary Herald:

For those fascinated by the dregs of humanity, London is swilling to the brim. Armed with a day pass for the London Underground, a quick tour of the capital can turn up a bevy of spies, scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

A favourite destination is Whitechapel, the haunting grounds of Jack the Ripper (Whitechapel station, District line). Starting in 1888, a series of brutal murders, mostly involving female prostitutes, was carried out in the impoverished parish district. The victims commonly had their throats cut and various internal organs eviscerated. Newspapers whipped the public into hysteria, coining several names for the unknown assailant, but Jack the Ripper, which appeared in a letter purportedly penned by the assailant, eventually stuck.

The first victim was Mary Ann Nichols; her mutilated body was discovered in Buck’s Row, now Durward Street. Over the next three years, almost a dozen murders were attributed to the serial killer. The vicious attacks ended abruptly in 1891. Over the years, more than 100 candidates have been proposed, from butchers and surgeons to aristocracy, but no one was ever charged.

The Tower of London (Tower Hill station, District line) was founded by William the Conqueror in 1066. Since then, it has served as a royal palace, a mint, an armory and a notorious prison. Numerous ghosts of victims killed in the Tower haunt the site, including Queen Anne Boleyn (who carries her dismembered head under one arm), and the young Princes Edward and Richard, murdered by their protector, Richard III, in 1483.

Several notorious traitors have also called the Tower their home. On November 6, 1605, Guy Fawkes was imprisoned after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Under torture, Fawkes revealed how he and conspirators had smuggled 36 kegs of gunpowder into the cellars of the House of Lords in Westminster in an attempt to blow King James 1st and his ministers into oblivion. By the 19th century, the Tower had fallen out of favour as a prison, but this function was revived during the first and second world wars. Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of the Nazi party, was housed in the tower, and Josef Jakobs, a Nazi spy, was executed on the grounds in 1941.

For avid shutter bugs, the Thames Embankment by Vauxhall Bridge (Vauxhall station, Victoria line) presents an excellent vantage point to take a snap of the MI6 Building, The giant green and white office tower is headquarters to the British Secret Intelligence Service. Also known as Babylon-on-Thames due to its architectural affinity with ancient Euphrates temples, the 12-storey edifice was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1994. It has been featured in several films, including Once is Not Enough, where James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan), bursts from the building in a boat and chases a villain down the River Thames.

Waterloo Bridge (Charing Cross station, Bakerloo line), offers excellent views of Westminster, the London Eye and Canary Wharf. It is also the site where Georgi Markov was murdered in a nefarious manner. Markov was a Bulgarian dissident who had defected from his homeland in 1969. As a broadcaster and journalist, he was critical of the Communist regimes that ran the country, so much so that it is believed the Bulgarian government connived with the KGB to assassinate him. On the morning of September 7, 1978, he crossed the bridge on his journey to the BBC. As he waited for a bus, he felt a sharp sting in his thigh, and he turned to see a man wielding an umbrella.

Markov soon fell ill, and three days later, he died. Suspecting murder, Scotland Yard ordered an autopsy, and discovered a tiny metal pellet in his leg containing ricin. The police surmised that the poison (which is made from castor beans, and has no antidote), was administered to the victim using a pellet gun concealed in the umbrella. Bulgarian authorities refused to cooperate in the investigation, and no one has ever been charged in the murder. Post Communist governments in Bulgaria have recently expressed interest in resolving the case, however.

Feeling a bit thirsty after all the mayhem? Stop by the Pine Bar at the Millenium Hotel in Grosvenor Square (Bond St station, Central line).  This is where the Metropolitan Police believe Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with Polonium-210 on November 1, 2006. Litvinenko was a former KGB agent turned defector who wrote several books implicating then President Vladimir Putin with a plot to terrorize Russian citizens by bombing Moscow apartment buildings and instigating other terrorist atrocities.

On the day in question, Litvinenko met with met two former KGB officers, Andrei Lugovi and Dmitri Kovtum, for a cup of tea. Litvinenko soon fell ill. Polonium-210, a rare radionuclide produced in nuclear reactors, is normally undetectable, but health care workers familiar with radiation sickness correctly diagnosed his condition and an investigation was launched. Police soon traced the polonium back to Lugovi and Kovtum, but the pair had long decamped to Moscow. Russian authorities declined British requests for extradition, and the case remains in limbo. Enjoy your tea.

Cope is the author of several travel memoirs, including A Thames Moment. His latest book, a mystery thriller called Secret Combinations (, takes place in London. A sample chapter is available for readers at

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