With the Olympics not long past and the Paralympics still upon us, I thought that this might be an opportune moment to consider the haunted history of the UK’s capital city. There is certainly no shortage of material to draw upon when investigating the strange past of London, for just as it has been central to many of the major event’s in the nation’s history, it has also been equally famous as a city of vice, sin, crime and bloodletting. The grim legends of Jack the Ripper, Springheeled Jack and Sweeney Todd continue to cast a menacing shadow over the grimy streets of the East End. Bram Stoker may have made London Dracula’s main preying ground in his iconic horror novel, but the dark Count is seemingly very far from the only vampire – real or fictional – who has flitted through the city’s shadows. Similarly, the plot of Jonathan Landis’s American Werewolf in London also has its terrifying basis in reality. Many of the phantoms that are said to roam the capital are an essential part of British history, folklore and legend. The Tower of London, for example, is reputedly England’s most haunted building precisely because of the many who perished within its walls. There is an old saying that ghosts only ever appear in places that have known either great happiness or great misery, and the buildings and the haunted streets of London have certainly known both in abundance. The countless numbers of people who have lived and died in London in the course of its almost two thousand years of history had known every human emotion – among them hope, joy, love and, of course, terror. In consequence, there is not one square inch of old London town that is not imbued with the memories and experiences of its former citizens.
The Ten Bells Pub is indelibly linked with the story of Jack the Ripper. Indeed its interior has hardly changed since the early hours of 9 November 1888, when Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s final victim, left the pub. Ever since those dark days, terrifyingly, staff whose bedrooms were on the upper floors of the building have complained of alarming encounters with a ghostly old man dressed in Victorian clothing. They would often be awoken by an uneasy feeling in the dead of night, and turning over, find his phantom form lying beside them on the bed! No sooner would they cry out in shock than the figure would disappear. Similar accounts have been given by those with the misfortune to work at other sites of Jack the Ripper’s grim handiwork, such as Westminster Bridge, Mitre Square and Hanbury Street. The other forbidding figure from East End folklore, Sweeney Todd – the so-called ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ – seems to be an equally fertile source of tall tales. The grotesque Todd was said to cut the throats of his clients while he was supposed to be shaving them and, even worse, their bodies would then be turned into meat pies that were sold at the shop next door! Despite the fact that several books and articles have confidently assured their readers that Sweeney Todd did exist, there is absolutely no historical figure by that name and indeed no barber by the name of Sweeney Todd ever found himself on trial at the Old Bailey charged with murdering his clients and, with the aid of his mistress and accomplice, using them to create killer recipes. This has not stopped accounts resurfacing every now and again of deadly encounters with barbers in the East End and a certain suspicion being attached to meat pies sold there ever since the dark days of Sweeney Todd.
London always seems to have been the nation’s crime capital as much as its political centre. Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and founder of the city’s original police force – the Bow Street Runners – was once moved to comment: “Whoever indeed considers the Cities of London and Westminster… the great irregularity of their Buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts and bye-places, must think that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived”. Casual violence was a common feature of city life in Tudor times, when the population was rising fast and almost all men routinely carried side-arms. Careful analysis of 17th century court records for Southwark reveals that the murder rate was six times as high as it is today. In London the opportunity for crime and the temptation to commit it were everywhere. In consequence, the line between vice and virtue was all too easy to cross. London’s role as Britain’s largest port ensured the constant presence of discharged sailors and rootless newcomers ready for recruitment into the ranks of crime. Schools for inducting juveniles into the art of cutting purses existed at least two centuries before Dickens described Fagin and the Artful Dodger teaching Oliver Twist how to pick pockets in their ‘Thieves’ Kitchen’ on Saffron Hill. Authors like Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Henry Fielding did much to reflect a widespread fear of crime while simultaneously feeding it.
Highwaymen operated on the approaches to London wherever travellers were forced to cross stretches of uncultivated land. Although they considered themselves the aristocrats of crime, there was in truth nothing gentlemanly about their exploits. The notorious Gregory Gang, led by Dick Turpin, used to terrorise and torture the inhabitants of isolated houses until they revealed their valuables. Turpin’s sordid and vicious exploits became so much the stuff of legend that a century after his execution (for horse-stealing) his name was still known to every transportee in the penal colonies of Australia. The popular novelist Harry Ainsworth set the seal on Turpin’s falsely heroic status by inventing his famous (and entirely fictional) ride to York in Rookwood, the novel that launched Ainsworth’s literary career. Other infamous London crimes include the Ratcliffe Highway mass murders and the Thames torso murders, whose victims still remain unidentified. There is also the persistent urban legend concerned with the film London After Midnight. This lost film, which starred ‘The Man with a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney, is not only eagerly sought after, it also has an ominous reputation for it is said that anyone who watches the entire cut of the film from the first reel to the last will go utterly, incurably, insane before dying horribly. Even the novelisation of the film, written and published in 1928 by Marie Coolidge-Rask, is itself a rarity. Intriguingly London After Midnight was used as a part of the defence for a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park in 1928. He claimed Chaney’s performance drove him temporarily insane, but his plea was rejected and he was convicted of the crime.
Turning to the subject of vampires, many popular books both on London and on ghosts mention a vampire which purportedly haunted Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s. The publicity was initiated by a group of young people interested in the occult who began roaming the overgrown and dilapidated cemetery in the late 1960s, a time when it was being much vandalised by intruders. On 21 December 1969 one of their members, David Farrant, spent the night there, according to his account written in 1991. In a letter to the Hampstead and Highgate Express on 6 February 1970, he wrote that when passing the cemetery on 24 December 1969 he had glimpsed ‘a grey figure’, which he considered to be supernatural, and asked if others had seen anything similar. On the 13th, several people replied, describing a variety of ghosts said to haunt the cemetery or the adjoining Swains Lane. These ghosts were described as a tall man in a hat, a spectral cyclist, a woman in white, a face glaring through the bars of a gate, a figure wading into a pond, a pale gliding form, bells ringing, and voices calling. They were all said to be in the service of a ‘King Vampire’ from Wallachia. The most famous vampire of all, Count Dracula, is as much a representation as a character. In the novel Dracula, Stoker depicts London as both the heart and image of the British Empire, using its familiar locations to heighten fears of invasion, contamination and disease. Dracula is, of course, from the east, and regularly associated with it. He comes ashore on the east coast at Whitby and takes a house at Purfleet on the Thames at the eastern edge of London. As several critics have shown, Dracula’s association with the East End links him with foreigners, especially Jews from eastern Europe and ‘oriental’ foreigners, as well as with an area associated in the public mind with crime and violence.
Two classic werewolf films, The Wolfman and An American Werewolf in London, draw upon persistent myths of ‘beastmen’ prowling the streets of London on nights of the full moon. Almost certainly such tales are based on stories concerning the inmates of the city’s numerous lunatic asylums escaping from their confinement to terrorise the sane inhabitants of London. The origins of the many other ghost stories, tall tales and urban legends mentioned above are somewhat harder to define. Considered by some to be a mass of chaos, pollution and overpopulation, and by others to be a buzzing multicultural, cosmopolitan experience, there is no escaping the fact that London can create a strong emotive response in almost all who visit. Samuel Johnson was moved once to comment memorably that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. However, in the equally memorable words of William Blake: “Hell is a city, much like London”. There is no doubt that from a paranormal point of view at least, Britain’s capital city has one of the highest densities of ‘the weird stuff’ in the world, and seductively beckons all those truly interested in such things.