Book: Columbia Road is Linda Wilkinson’s ‘Strange Kind of Paradise’

Linda Wilkinson promoting her book on a market stall in Columbia Road

Linda Wilkinson promoting her book on a market stall in Columbia Road - Credit: Archant

The former chair of Amnesty International has returned to her roots in London’s East End in her passion to research the origins of the famous Columbia Road flower market where she was born.

Linda Wilkinson promoting her book on a market stall in Columbia Road

Linda Wilkinson promoting her book on a market stall in Columbia Road - Credit: Archant

Linda Wilkinson’s research uncovered one of London’s most gruesome serial murders involving a gang of body snatchers operating in Bethnal Green.

Birdcage pub in 1930

Birdcage pub in 1930 - Credit: Truman Archive

The retired scientist-turned-author, who quit her top job running University College Hospital’s Rheumatology Research department to become a human rights activist, chaired Amnesty UK for five years.

Columbia Market from a 19th century print

Columbia Market from a 19th century print - Credit: Linda Wilkinson

But her lifelong passion was finding out more about the working-class neighbourhood where she grew up in the 1950s. Her mum was a dressmaker and her dad worked for North Thames Gas Board.

She was in Columbia Road on Sunday running a market stall selling copies of her latest book, ‘Columbia Road—A Strange Kind of Paradise.’

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“My family have been here 200 years,” she revealed. “I trace dad’s family to Wapping in the mid-17th century, a shipwright named John Homan born in 1640. I also have Huguenot ancestors.”

Now she lives off Columbia Road with her partner Carol Budd she’s been with for 30 years.

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“We were the first women to sign Ken Livingstone’s Partnership Register in 2001,” she tells you proudly. “I am regarded as the lunatic fringe in the family, ‘Mad Aunt Linda’.”

She has seen a huge change in the area, with much of its traditional architecture now gone, especially the Victorian Neo-Gothic indoor market built in 1860 with its cathedral-like towers by philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts that was torn down in 1960.

“Columbia Road back in Mediaeval times was a walkway for cattle and sheep drovers from Essex,” she explains. “They stopped off at London Fields to fatten up their herds before heading to the slaughter houses in the City.

“The Huguenots later had their summer houses here where they would grow flowers and vegetables, before the area sunk into slums by the 1830s when cotton came in and fashions changed—the old silk-weavers had no work and poverty kicked in.

“That led to Burdett-Coutts building the massive indoor market, but it failed because she couldn’t persuade costermongers off the streets. It was far too grandiose.”

The original Flower market was the largest in London by the turn of the 20th century, but declined in the years leading to the Second World War. It slowly began to revive in the 1950s to bloom again, literally, today.

Half-way down is the Birdcage pub tracing its origins to the 17th century. The present pub appeared in 1830, although there was a tavern on the site back in the 1600s.

Columbia Road also has its dark past, Linda’s research has found, like the ‘Italian Boy murder’ by a notorious gang of body-snatchers enticing youngsters sleeping rough to lodge in the rookeries opposite the Birdcage and drowning them in a well.

The gang started as body-snatchers digging up graves in churchyards and selling the decomposing corpses for dissection in anatomical research.

John Bishop and Thomas Williams, who were living in Nova Scotia Garden opposite the Birdcage, recruited men to dig up graves. Bishop later admitted having stolen and selling up to 1,000 bodies over 12 years.

But they ran out of graves — and turned instead to grizzly murder, stalking homeless youngsters living on in the streets and enticing them with lodgings.

Their cover was finally blown on November 5, 1831, when they tried to palm off a suspiciously-fresh corpse of a 14-year-old boy to King’s College School of Anatomy in the Strand for dissection, which appeared not to have been buried.

The professor of anatomy summoned police and the so-called ‘Resurrection’ gang were caught.

The authorities searched the cottages in Nova Scotia Garden, where they found clothing down a well and in one of the privies, revealing several murders.

The police had tentatively identified the body of the 14-year-old as Carlo Ferrari, an Italian from Piedmont. It became known as ‘the Italian Boy’ case.

Bishop and Williams, however, later confessed that it was a young cattle drover who they had enticed from a pub with the promise of lodging and plied with rum laced with laudanum.

They had pitched him head first into the well, attaching a cord to his feet. The boy was dead after a brief struggle and his body was hauled up and bagged.

Another victim a month before had been Frances Pigburn who was sleeping rough in Shoreditch, lured to Nova Scotia Garden and murdered by the same method. Both bodies were taken to St Thomas’s and sold for eight guineas each (£8.40).

A boy named Cunningham was also lured with promised lodging, plied with warm beer, sugar and rum laced with laudanum, then murdered in the well and his body bagged.

Bishop, who was 33, and Williams, 26, were found guilty at the Old Bailey of murder and sentenced to hang. They were publicly executed at Newgate on December 5, 1831, before a crowd of 30,000.

Their bodies, ironically, were sent off to be dissected for anatomical research!

“The area is full of horror stories like the Italian Boy murder,” Linda recounts. “But I wanted to capture the essence of a place both architecturally and socially. There is still very little written about this part of the East End.”

Columbia Road’s fortunes have fluctuated down the centuries. But in the end, Linda found, no-one really wants to leave this strange kind of paradise.


‘Columbia Road—A Strange Kind of Paradise.’ £12.99 paperback.

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