What dark episode in Britain’s past is marked by a black mark on the clock tower at Horse Guards Parade? Why was Marble Arch moved two miles across London to its current location? And what makes steam come out of New York’s sidewalks?
The answers can be found in a fascinating new series called Searching For Secrets, which asked experts from around the world to – literally, in some cases – unearth intriguing historical gold nuggets as a means of telling more elaborate stories about some of the the world’s largest cities.
The series kicks off Monday on the Smithsonian Channel with a dive into New York’s hidden history. London, Berlin, Paris, Singapore and San Francisco will be featured in future episodes, but first here’s a taste of some of the historic treats in store…
THE MOVING MONUMENT OF QUEEN VICTORIA
Experts from around the world explore the hidden histories of the world’s greatest cities in the fascinating new series Searching For Secrets. Pictured: Marble Arch
Having had five children in the first six years of her marriage to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria was short of space at Buckingham Palace and urgently needed a new home or a major extension to her existing home.
“She chose to expand when she discovered she didn’t have enough space, but there was a problem,” London history expert Katie Wignall explains on the show. “Something got in the way…”
That something was Marble Arch, the grand entrance to Buckingham Palace at the time. Depicting scenes from the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar, two important British victories during the Napoleonic Wars, the magnificent edifice made of Carrara marble and completed in 1833 was too valuable and historically important to simply be demolished.
So in 1850, teams of workers and craftsmen, led by architect Thomas Cubitt, moved the castle nearly two miles across London and rebuilt it as the grand entrance to Hyde Park, where it still stands today.
A newer front wing of Buckingham Palace was built on the site where Marble Arch once stood and now, more than a century and a half later, it takes an expert’s eye to see the royal compound.
“Look closely at the iconic front of the building, complete with the balcony where the royal family greets the public – then look away to the right,” says Katie Wignall.
‘The older building on the right is slightly behind the other and is of a different stone. This is the key to understanding that these are two different buildings.”
A MOOD STORY FROM NEW YORK
Steam heating company Steve Mosto, revealed that the steam coming from manhole covers in The Big Apple (pictured) comes from the Great White Hurricane of March 1888
The opening New York episode explains the steam coming from manhole covers in The Big Apple. “It all stems from the Great White Hurricane of March 1888, a blizzard that covered the city with 3 feet of ice and snow and destroyed power lines,” said Steve Mosto, founder of the steam heating company.
“The authorities dug miles of trenches so that the power lines could be laid underground, away from the threat of storms.” Inventor Thomas Edison used the trenches to install pipes that pumped steam for heating city buildings.
“They do that to this day,” Steve says.
Edison’s 100 miles of pipes heat 1,800 buildings in Manhattan, including the Chrysler Building. It leaks out every now and then.’
WHO BLOWED THE UP STATUE OF LIBERTY?
The viewing platform was severely damaged after German agents blew up a depot on nearby Black Tom Island in July 1916. Pictured: Black Tom Island after the explosion that damaged Lady Liberty
Sitting under the flame in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand is the top viewing platform at the Statue of Liberty. But it’s been out of action for more than 100 years because it’s just too dangerous to use, explains Dr. Timothy White of New Jersey City University.
Contrary to America’s support of the British during World War I, German agents infiltrated an ammunition depot on nearby Black Tom Island and blew it up in July 1916.
“It caused explosions that registered on the Richter scale and the shrapnel hit Lady Liberty’s right arm, damaging it in such a way that the viewing platform it supported was totally unsafe. Unfortunately, that remains the case to this day.’
ESCAPE THE GALLOWS
A small round stone, trampled on by thousands of shoppers and office workers every day as they make their way along Marble Arch and onto Oxford Street, marks the site of the Tyburn Tree, the gallows around which up to 100,000 people would gather to witness the hangings – and sometimes miraculous reprieve.
Burglar John Smith survived for 15 minutes, dangling in the air with a noose around his neck, on Christmas Eve 1705, before word came of a judicial reprieve. He was known as Half-Hang Smith for the rest of his life.
The London episode also explains why city taxis owe some of their unique design to Victorian gentlemen and their top hats, revealing the sharp and potentially dangerous power source beneath the streets that has left a gas-powered street lamp out for over a century. the Savoy Hotel flickers.
A BLACK STAIN ON OUR HISTORY
London history expert Katie Wignall, said the black spot on the clock (pictured) on the Horse Guards building in Whitehall marks when King Charles I was executed
Easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for is a black mark on the clock on the Horse Guards building in Whitehall. Legend has it that it marks the time – 2pm on a frigid January day in 1649 – when King Charles I was executed outside the nearby Banqueting House.
“Most of the onlookers were supporters of the monarchy, so there was no cheering, just silence and then a terrible moan,” says Katie Wignall. “According to legend, the mark represents the black mark on the country’s history that caused the beheading.”
Search for Secrets, Monday, 8 p.m., Smithsonian Channel, available on Freeview.