London Dungeon - A Pictorial History
The original London Dungeon opened at Tooley Street in 1974, as a gory horror exhibition through some of the darkest parts of British history. The original attraction operated predominantly as a walk through attraction, like a museum, with guests able to experience exhibits at their own pace.
As its popularity grew, new more elaborate scenes were added through the 80s and 90s such as The Great Fire of London and Jack The Ripper, which started to herald the arrival of more theatrical experiences.
During the late 90s, the attraction was operated by Vardon Attractions, which was later formed into Merlin Entertainments as part of a management buy out led by Nick Varney (the current CEO of Merlin.)
During this time, a large portion of the attraction was redesigned into a batched experience, to accommodate the addition of the water ride - Judgement Day. Guests would be free to explore the torture and sin section of the museum as before, but batches would be lead into the courtroom for trial, and then through to the boat. From here on in - scenes like Jack the Ripper etc would be taken in batched performances similar to the way all the Dungeons are today.
The boat ride itself was a master piece in design in a crowded space, that began with visitors boarding a boat through Traitor's Gate to their execution. Many of the original horror tableaux were refurbished as part of a new ransacked village scene, at the start of the ride, and the the finale included a lift into the unknown, followed by a turntable and a backwards drop. The original story at the top of the drop was of an executioner with an axe, but this was later changed to a firing squad, that shot, just as guests plunged backwards down the drop!
With the success of the ride, 2000 saw the re-introduction of the Fire of London segment, which simulated the burning streets of 17th Century London and featured more detailed smoke and fire effects including a spinning trommel tunnel.
Slowly and surely more actor-led scenes were added, with the original torture models resigned to just elaborate theming in the queue line before the first show. Throughout the 2000's new scenes and shows were added virtually every year including the "Labyrinth of the Lost" mirror maze and the "Great Plague". In 2004, the Judgement Day boat ride was altered into Traitor - Boat Ride to Hell, removing the original effects and scenes to become a simple boat ride largely through darkness. Although this year also saw the addition of "Bedlam" a tight and claustrophobic jail section that included scare actors and strobe lights.
2006 saw the arrival of a Sweeney Todd segment which used surround sound and sensory effects to simulate an encounter with the titular character. This style of show has since been replicated across most Dungeons attractions, with other themes. Another ride was added in 2007, when Extremis - Drop ride to Doom, based on the hangings at Newgate gallows, raised guests 20 feet to meet an animatronic judge, priest and hangman before a free fall drop into darkness. This new ride replaced the Blood and Guts cafè.
In 2008, there were changes to the Jack the Ripper segment, which included a new ending scene in the "Ten Bells" pub. In 2009 came "Surgery - Blood and Guts", which focused on gore and anatomy and is now a staple show in just about every Dungeon worldwide. "Bloody Mary: Killer Queen" opened in 2010, in place of the "Fire of London" segment and selected a random audience member to be publicly burned as a "heretic" using smoke effects.
The last big ride for the Tooley Street location was Vengeance 5D which opened in 2011. Themed to a seance, this spinning interactive dark ride was constructed in areas of the original Jack the Ripper attraction, which was significantly shortened to accommodate the new ride. The ride never made the move to the new venue the following year.
The last Tooley Street tour took place on 31 January 2013 and ScareTOUR arranged to take the last public run that evening (group picture can be seen below). At this point - several effects such as the Sweeny Todd chairs had been relocated to the new location in County Hall, and a temporary winter show Fog Freeze filled the space.
Barely two months later, the new London Dungeon in County Hall opened its doors for a special preview of the attraction before the official grand reopening party with Brian Blessed as a special guest (his likeness was used as a projected head for Henry the 8th, on the new boat ride.) Many of the interior pictures seen below were taken with permission on that tour.
Since opening in the new location, the attraction has become even more popular as it is now located in a prime tourist area and in recent years has celebrated as the official Home of Halloween in London as well as many seasonal shows.
Pulling this history of the old venue together, made us feel sentimental for the old Dungeon, as despite it being built in old Victorian railway arches, it was easy to believe that you were genuinely stepping into a dungeon of old. Obviously the musty odour, and the smell of damp and rottenness that pervaded the show was natural, and felt more fitting than the more modern "theme park" styling of the current show.
The Dungeons continue to be extremely popular, and with the experience currently closed, we look forward to getting back to County Hall once this pandemic is over. However we do wonder how long it will be before the Dungeons brand come up with a show that references Coronavirus? Too soon perhaps?
Souvenir guide photos supplied by Nick Hutson
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