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Taken from Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

as sure as the devil is in London
A provincial saying casting aspersions on the virtue of Londoners. The proverb also crossed the Atlantic.
‘Ay!’ says the [Somerset] landlord, ‘we have a saying here in our country that ’tis as sure as the devil is in London, and if he was not there they could not be so wicked as they be.’
Henry Fielding, in The Covent Garden Journal (23 April 1752)

St Mary-le-Bow belltower

as the bell clinks, so the fool thinks or as the fool thinks, so the bell clinks
A foolish person believes what he desires. The tale says that when Dick Whittington ran away from his master, and had got as far as Highgate Hill, he was hungry, tired and wished to return. The bells of St Mary-le-Bow began to ring, and Whittington fancied they said: ‘Turn again, Whittington, lord mayor of London.’ The bells clinked in response to the boy’s thoughts.

don’t be a sinner, be a winner
The mantra of Philip Howard (b.1954), sometimes known as ‘megaphone man’, who around 1994 began haranguing West End shoppers with anti-consumerist, pro-faith messages. In 2006 he was served with an anti-social behaviour order, banning him from amplified preaching in the vicinity of Oxford Circus. He subsequently made appearances elsewhere and sometimes quietly distributed tracts at his old locus standi.
Last summer he was cleared of harassment, and, satisfied, told journalists: ‘This proves once and for all that Satan won’t win.’ He’s a London landmark, a red-faced Big Ben or shouty Nelson’s Column.
The Guardian (5 May 2006)

a fool will not part with his bauble for the Tower of London
An ancient proverb, coined before 1500, when the Tower was the storehouse of the nation’s wealth.
There the silver, the mint of money; and there the brass and iron to defend it, the armoury and storehouse of ordnance; yet fools so dote on their darling fancies, that they prize them above all this treasure.
Thomas Fuller: The History of the Worthies of England (1662)

open to all

justice is open to all; like the Ritz hotel
The more money you have, the better access you have to the legal system. This oft-quoted remark, or words to the same effect, has been attributed to Lord Birkett, Mr Justice Mathew, Lord Bowen and others.
Very few supposedly ‘normal’ people could afford to take a photographic agency to court … thus reinforcing the truth of the old saying that ‘justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel’.
Richard Ingrams, in The Independent (10 May 2008)

London Bridge was made for wise men to go over and fools to go under
A saying dating from before the removal of the medieval London Bridge in 1832. Navigation through the arches of the old bridge was notoriously dangerous because of the swirling currents.

a London jury hangs half and saves half
A very old saying implying that busy Londoners had no time to carefully weigh up the arguments in a trial but simply consigned every other defendant to the gallows. It was also said of Essex and Middlesex juries. The city’s historians have been at pains to deny this, stressing that London jurors have almost always inclined ‘to the merciful side in saving life, when they can find any cause or colour for the same’, as Thomas Fuller put it, in his History of the Worthies of England (1662).

London Stone

so long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish
An old saying referring to the supposed Trojan origin of London Stone and its mythical significance to the city.
(London Stone is a block of oolitic limestone set into the wall of No.111 Cannon Street. It is an ancient relic of uncertain history. The present stone is merely a chunk (perhaps the uppermost part) of the original, which was described as a ‘pillar’, set deep into the ground. There is no record of how or when it came to be fragmented or what happened to the rest of it, but the diminution must have happened several centuries ago; a woodcut of c.1700 shows a stone of the same size as it is today. London Stone has been the subject of various legends, including that Brutus brought it here, that it marked the site of Druidic sacrifices, and that London’s prosperity depended on its safekeeping. The antiquary William Camden thought it to be the point from which the Romans measured distances; another theory is that it was an Anglo-Saxon ceremonial stone or a focus for judicial proceedings. Edward III made it the axis of the city’s trade in 1328, when he granted Londoners the right to hold markets within a 7-mile (11-km) radius of London Stone, as it had by then come to be known.)

Tottenham shall turn French
Most lexicographers assert that this was an ironic old saying of the ‘pigs might fly’ variety, referring to something that would never happen. However, Francis Grose, in his Provincial Glossary (1787), renders the proverb as ‘Tottenham is turned French’, and explains it thus:
After the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII a vast number of French mechanics came over to England, filling not only the outskirts of the town, but also the neighbouring villages … This proverb is used in ridicule of persons affecting foreign fashions and manners, in preference to those of their own country.

you must go into the country to hear what news at London 
This 17th-century proverb was not intended to cast particular aspersions on Londoners’ awareness of events in their own city, but rather to suggest that one may often apprehend the most accurate news of home when one goes abroad.

A small selection from the proverbs, sayings, phrases and expressions in Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (excluding images), published September 2009

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

Text and selected images are reproduced with the permission of Chambers but may differ from the published versions
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