A deadly English nursery rhyme -‘London Bridge is falling down’ (Part Two)
Continued from Part One…
(If you haven’t read part one yet, click here…)
Although there are now several bridges that span the River Thames today but did you know that there has been a bridge across the Thames for nearly 1,500 years and the bridge sung in the children’s nursery rhyme was the only one for nearly as long. Although the first bridge was built by the Romans in 43 A.D, it’s the construction and/or repair of the 2nd and 3rd bridges that are referred to in the children’s rhyme. Our famous bridge has always been situated between the city of London and Southwark, in central London.
It is historically referenced that a wooden bridge crossed the Thames in 984 and this could be the one referred to in the Norse saga the Heimskringla. In 1014 London was held by the Danes but the Saxons (under King Ethelred The Unready) were joined by a band of Vikings led by their Norwegian King, Olaf. Their mission, to sack London. After several skirmishes, the Vikings eventually rowed up under the bridge, put their cables around the piles which supported it, and pulled the bridge down. Due to historical scarcity, this particular attack has never been proven 100 percent, and the only reference we have of the incident is the collection of those old Norse poems, Hiemskringla, written in 1230.
Below, the Old London Bridge as it looked in 1710.
In 1176, the first stone bridge to replace the wooden one was built under the direction of Peter Colechurch. Completed in 1209, this new London Bridge took 33 years to build and lasted more than 600 years. It had a road 20 feet wide and 300 yards long and was supported by 20 arches that curved to a Gothic-style point. Its wooden drawbridge let ships in and kept invaders out.
However, one of the more sinister theories that have lingered about the bridge is that there were bodies encased in its moorings. The author of the book “The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894-1898)” by Alice Bertha Gomme, A.B.Gomme suggests that the nursery rhyme refers to a type of punishment and/or sacrifice known as Immurement.
Immurement was a popular form of punishment & sacrifice by many cultures from as far back as Egyptian, Greek, or Roman times to the 18th/19th century. From a sacrificial point of view, burying someone alive in the foundations of an edifice, was supposed to bring both strength, luck, and longevity. This concept stems from the ancient belief that a human sacrifice would somehow assure the stability of the structure. Many buildings across Europe have revealed skeletons within their foundations. A number of these structures were castles and churches, but one bridge in Bremen, Germany, contained an immurement sacrifice. Unfortunately, children were often the victims of these ritual sacrifices.
From Elizabeth Bathory to Edgar Allan Poe, this particular practice of Immurement has been immortalized, and as A. Gomme points to these 19th-century lyrics, “dancing over a Lady Lee” or “with a gay lady that’s how we build it” this has been recycled time and time again.
Left, Jane Austen. Sourced from Austenheritage.com.
Now enters one of the most famous English female writers, Jane Austen, and the riddle of Lady Lee aka ‘the fair lady’. Set aside the issue that the nursery rhyme hinting at the possibility of bodies being entombed within its archaic foundations, historians are still stumped by those lyrics connected to “Lady Lee” or “My fair lady”.
Here are the possibilities suggested by our scholars and aficionados thus far:
1-She may be the Virgin Mary. Supposedly, the Viking attack happened on September 8th. This is the date when the Virgin Mary’s birthday was traditionally celebrated and as the Vikings didn’t sack the city after they burned and pulled down part of the Bridge, the English claimed the Virgin Mary, or “fair lady” protected it.
2-Two royal consorts have been put forward as the potential “fair ladies.”1-Matilda of Scotland (c. 1080–1118) was Henry I’s consort and she was responsible for building many bridges that carried the road from London to Colchester. 2-Eleanor of Provence was a consort of Henry III and she controlled all of the Bridge’s revenue in the late 13th century.
3-One interesting choice is not a woman at all, but the tributary of the Thames – the River Lea.
4-The last candidate comes from the 18th-century aristocratic family the Leigh’s (also pronounced Lee) of Stoneleigh Abbey-Park in Warwickshire. Descendants of the Leigh family themselves have not only reported that bodies can be found within the foundations of a Bridge within their Estate in Warwickshire but one of their own family members was entombed under the London Bridge as an alleged human immurement sacrifice.
As it happens it’s the 4th suggestion by our scholars (The Leigh family) indirectly ties in our famous female writer, J Austen.
Below, Stoneleigh Abbey where Jane spent most of her time with her beloved Uncle the Reverend T Leigh whilst he was alive.
Jane Austen (16/12/1775 – 18/06/1817) once commented that the Leigh family home was ‘the greatest Estate in Warwickshire’ and apart from being a regular visitor, she was directly connected to the Leigh’s because of her mother, Casandra Leigh (later, Cassandra Austen). Cassandra was related to the Reverend Thomas Leigh who became its owner in 1806. As women didn’t usually inherit at this time and as the Reverend was childless, his nephew James was to inherit everything upon the Reverend’s death in 1813.
It is the Reverend T Leigh’s nephew (James Henry Leigh) his wife (Julia Judith or Lady Leigh/Lee), and their son Chandos that could be pivotal to some of the mysterious lyrics of our nursery rhyme. In a shocking revelation via her book ‘The Missing Monument Murders. Jane Austen’s Family & the Stoneleigh scandal. The Men in the Bridge’ historian J Stove suggests that a bridge constructed within the Leigh’s family Estate has bodies in it. Designed by the very famous English architect John Rennie, this bridge, which took 6 years to build and spans part of the River Avon, has within its foundations the corpses of at least 4 men, Billinges, Forbes, Proud, and Smith who labored on the bridge.
Left, The 1st Baron Chandos Leigh 1791 – 1850.
In a bizarre turn of events, a controversial court case in 1844 was to vindicate a part of Jane Austen’s family. At its core was the accusation of murder by Richard Barnett & George Shaw who had worked on the Leigh Family’s Estate during the bridge’s construction, 1812-1818. Barnett, not only accused one other employee but Chandos Leigh and his mother (Julia Judith) of murdering 4 people, 2 of which had their throats slit, Billinges & Forbes, by the hand of Chandos himself.
However, the problem was that by the time these accusations came to light, Chandos Leigh was now the 1st Baron Chandos Leigh (in part due to his unhinged & power-hungry mother) and a member of parliament both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Not only was Chandos involved in making decisions connected to the building of the new bridge in London (1824-1831) but such a scandal would have ruined the family.
Why this particular court case in 1844?
Well, it’s quite ironic that this particular accusation started to circulate shortly after the death of Chandos’s power-hungry and alleged murderous mother, Lady Leigh/Lee. However, there would have been a multitude of problems faced by the solicitor from the outset.
The first, until 1829 England didn’t have an official police force, never mind detectives who would have had the ability or know-how to detect crime some 15 years previously.
Secondly, the British Establishment very rarely prosecuted aristocrats or landed gentry.
Thirdly, the murders were a collection of stories from different people who worked at the Stoneleigh Estate at different times. It not only took time to find all the witnesses but also to get them to testify in these circumstances.
Although this court case did make the national papers, not surprisingly it was very quickly suppressed and quashed with the solicitor, Charles Griffin, eventually going to prison for libel. He was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment. Finally, and not within the remit of this blog, but J Stove suggested that Chandos or the 1st Baron Leigh and his mother had a total of 13 murders levied against them as well as a fake funeral. One of the13 people to be murdered (John Leigh) would have inherited the Stoneleigh Abbey/Park on the death of Chandos.
And Jane Austen?
As it happens Jane Austen would have been alive whilst some of these murders had been committed but not all. Did she know or suspect any foul play, well this is the million-dollar question? However, it must be noted that rumors connected to the various murders were circulating well within Janes’s lifetime. For example, part of the evidence put forward in the 1844 trial was a statement by Ann Burford when she spoke about her time as a maid at Stoneleigh Abbey (1818-1821). She claimed that not only was there many rumors in circulation about the family but when she, and other servants, took a boat trip and sailed under the bridge at Stoneleigh, “a group of male servants said Come now, we must drink to the dead men” (Burford evidence in report p21). Finally, J Stove argues that this case in 1844 was the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as she believes there were several minor court case’s against the Leigh family starting as far back as the 1820s.
Is it possible that any of the Leigh family’s improprieties are concealed within any of Jane’s novels?
There may well be. 3 years after the Stoneleigh Abbey bridge incident/murders, Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey was finally published. Apart from Lord Byron being referenced within the novel, the main male protagonist, Henry Tilney, repeatedly talks about secrets & problems within his family compounded with how J Austen portrays Henry’s tyrannical father, General Tilney.
For all those Jane Austen aficionados amongst you, you will know that some literary scholars acknowledge that the works of Jane Austen can be used as a genuine-looking glass at life and love in The Regency Era (amongst the upper classes) as well as changing ideology within society itself. For example, within her novel Mansfield Park (1814), Austen briefly touches on the changing attitudes towards ‘black gold’ as it was known then, or slavery, within England during the 19th century. Although each of her novels addressed various themes one theme that was always constant, the way she looked at the dynamics between the individual families and the dilemmas faced by those individuals when deciding whether or not to marry for love or money within the tedium of high society. Finally, the characters within her books were influenced by authentic places & people such as family members or friends to notable people of the day.
What’s the connection?
Left, the BBC’s movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The main male protagonist H Tilney is played by JJField and the main female protagonist Catherine Moorland is played by Felicity Jones.
As it happens Chandos Leigh or the 1st Baron Chandos Leigh was not only a good friend of the famous poet & politician the 6th Lord Byron but he greatly admired Byron so much so that he even tried to mimic him with his poetry and writings. But alas, Chandos was no Byron. J Stove also suggests that Chandos was Lord Byron’s fag when they attended Harrow together. Now did you know that the word fag is not to be confused with today’s connotation, that is, someone who is gay? In the 19th century ‘fagging’ or being referred to as a ‘fag’ meant that you, as a younger pupil, were expected to act as a servant to an older boy. It is to be noted, however, that Austen may have been referring to Lord Byron’s great uncle, ‘Lord Byron the 5th in her novel, Northanger Abbey.
As for Henry Tilney, on his many encounters with Catherine Moorland he refers several times to the darker side of the Abbey, “the dungeons, the sliding panels, skeletons and the strange unearthly cries in the night”. Henry also tells Catherine when asked to reveal the Abbeys secret he replies “No, just let’s say that all houses have their secrets and Northanger is no exception”.
Mr. J Thorpe who was Catherine’s admirer throughout the novel said to her “I’m not altogether happy to see you with the Tilneys. The whole family has a terrible reputation”. Catherine also comments on the Abbey not being “a happy home” and “this house holds a terrible secret”. Not only does Henry comment on the Abbey possessing a type of vampirism but his despotic father displayed throughout the novel, was not unlike Chando’s mother, obsessed with seeing the children doing well and titled.
Finally, A Gomme flags up this particular lyric “take the key and lock her up” or a verse in another variation of the song in the past.
“Off to prison, you must go,
You must go, you must go;
Off to prison, you must go,
My fair lady”.
So, was Austen disclosing her family’s improprieties via Northanger Abbey and is the 1st Baron Chando’s mother, Lady Julia Judith Leigh/Lee, our mysterious fair lady in the nursery rhyme, and is she the one that must be ‘off to prison’ & the one they must ‘take the key and lock her up’ for her murderous deeds? Well, I’ll let you do your own research and decide but one thing’s for sure, it’s a tantalizing thought that Jane Austen may have been connected to a family of murderers.
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