London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.
So immense is London and so innumerable are its thoroughfares that it is no great surprise that, like any wilderness, rural or urban, wild tales are told of its most distant reaches. 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. Exaggeration and ridicule often attach to the vastness of London. It is said that there are more Londoners over 75 years of age than Manchester has residents; that more people shop in Selfridges annually than live in Australia; and that London has more Scots than in Edinburgh, more Irish than in Dublin and more than half of Britain’s homeless. London is an amalgam of worlds within worlds, each of which has its special mysteries and its generic crimes. Thus it is also said that great beasts still roam in the verdant fastnesses of Grosvenor Square, that there are undiscovered patches of primeval forest in Hyde Park and that the Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black pigs, which have propagated and run wild among the slimy depths, and whose ferocious snouts will one day uproot Highgate Archway.
How the legend of the Black Swine originated is hard to say. In one sense it was just a classic urban legend – someone had put it about that a sow had somehow got into the sewer, littered some offspring and fed them on the rubbish being washed into it continually. Pollution was a major problem for the rapidly expanding city of London in the 19th century. The Thames was essentially one large open sewer, and cholera was prevalent. It was only after engineer Joseph Bazalgette constructed miles upon miles of underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles of street sewers, that sewerage stopped flowing freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London. Until then, rumours of awful things like Black Swine lurking in the bowels of London were horrifyingly plausible. In another sense, the Black Swine may just have been a metaphor for the irrational elements that so terrified Victorian society at the time, and which found its expression in other similar urban legends, such as that of Sweeney Todd, Spring-heeled Jack, the Highgate Vampire and the grotesque Rat King. For whatever reason, Chinese whispers ensued and the legend of the Black Swine grew in the telling, even being mentioned in a Daily Telegraph editorial in 1859. Although to this day the truth or otherwise concerning the Black Swine has never been uncovered, no one has quite been inspired to venture deep below the streets of London to investigate for themselves whether these porcine interlopers actually exist or not.