Between Jack the Ripper, the Kray Twins and Sweeny Todd London has been home to its fair share of scary characters. That’s why Halloween marks the busiest time of the year for tour guide Richard Cobb, who is quite literally run off his feet leading tourists around the city’s spookiest spots.
East End Tours operates around 15 walking tours per week, covering just about every inch of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, as well parts of the Square Mile. The company offers two Jack the Ripper tours, as well as walks dedicated to notorious gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and various other heroes and villains of the East End. Richard has been a guide with the operator for the last five years, having developed a “morbid obsession” with Jack the Ripper at the ripe old age of 12.
“It was 1888, the 100th anniversary of the murders and there was lots of documentaries and stories floating around at the time and I found the whole thing fascinating – I was hooked,” he says. It seems the rest of the world shares Richard’s preoccupation with the city’s most famous serial killer, as East End Tours’ dedicated Jack the Ripper tours receive upwards of 50 bookings every night of the week at this time of year.
The Kray twins have also enjoyed resurgence in notoriety, according to Richard, thanks to the 2015 release of the film Legend starring Tom Hardy as gangster brothers Ronnie and Reggie.
But while there are plenty of gruesome characters jumping out of the pages of history books, it seems there’s still an appetite for a good old-fashioned ghost story. Richard also leads the popular London Ghost Walk from St Paul’s, which covers the most haunted locations in the City of London every evening.
Somewhat surprisingly in amongst the ghosts of executed criminals hanging around the Tower of London, it is the alleyways surrounding the Bank of England that usually get people jumpy after dark.
The bank even has its own ghost: a grieving woman whose brother, a cashier, was charged with forgery in 1811 and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. Sarah Whitehead visited the bank every day inquiring after the whereabouts of her beloved brother, even in death. There have been reported sightings of ghostly figure walking up Threadneedle Street asking passers by, ‘have you seen my brother?’
“There have been loads of strange goings on in those alleyways,” Richards says.
“Some unexplained shadows, paranormal sightings, orbs that appear in photographs – I mean it could just be the street light but you never know.”
Richard describes himself as “neutral” on the subject of ghosts, admitting that he’s never seen one himself, but doesn’t doubt those that claim they have. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love a good ghost story; a tale about an East Ender named Herbert Bundle with a great set of teeth amongst his favourites.
“Herbert was known in the 1700s for his pearly whites and back then, people didn’t keep their teeth for very long,” Richard says.
“People used to find old teeth in the street and nail them to a board, and they often commented that they would like to get their hands on Herbert’s.”
The story goes that when Herbert died of cholera, he was buried in a crypt in one of the City’s churches. That night, his grieving father had a dream that poor old Herbert was standing at the foot of his bed bleeding from the gums. Herbert continued to haunt his father’s dreams until he could take no more of it and marched down to the church crypt demanding to see his son’s body.
When the priest opened the crypt, they were shocked to discover Herbert’s corpse had been removed from its coffin and relieved of his pearly whites by opportunistic (and most likely toothless) thieves. Apparently he’s still looking for them to this day.