Well, I finished reading that book, Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead. I was disappointed to discover that actually, it had almost no mention of said black swine. This cannot be allowed to stand, since it actually sounds like a hell of a good story.
The book does briefly mention said hogs in the form of an editorial from the Daily Telegraph. from 10 October 1859. I shall quote the relevant part of said editorial, because I rather like it.
This London is an amalgam of worlds within worlds, and the occurrences of every day convince us that there is not one of these worlds but has its special mysteries and its generic crimes. Exaggeration and ridicule often attach to the vastness of London, and the ignorance of its penetralia common to us who dwell therein. It has been said that beasts of chase still roam in the verdant fastnesses of Grosvenor Square, that there are undiscovered patches of primaeval forest in Hyde Park and that Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black swine, which have propagated and run wild among the slimy feculence, and whose ferocious snouts will one day up-root Highgate archway, while they make Holloway intolerable with their grunting.
The pigs in question started out as an urban legend – Henry Mayhew discusses the story in London Labour and the London Poor.
The story runs that a sow in young by some accident got down the sewer through an opening and, wandering away from the spot, littered and reared her offspring in the drain, feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continuously. Here, it is alleged, the breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous.
Spooky pigs are not unknown in British folklore – Yr. Humble Chronicler’s father, Shropshire-born, notes that there was a local legend in his village of a ghostly black pig haunting the churchyard, and a white one has supposedly been seen near Newbury in Berkshire. Perhaps the pigs of Hampstead are simply another version of this? Or perhaps, if we’re to be cynical, it has something to do with the fact that Mayhew’s flushermen would “generally take a drop of rum” before venturing into the sewers. Certainly there’s no evidence to back these pigs up other than hearsay. Sewer workers have reported frogs, ducks, terrapins and even snakes down there, but no pigs. The flushermen interviewed by Mayhew mention rats as big as “good-sized kittens.”
The story seems to have been reasonably well-known in the mid-nineteenth century, but these cryptids have been largely forgotten in the present day. Leave it up to Neil Gaiman, then, to revive the legend in what might be the best-known work of London fantasy – Neverwhere. In this book, London possesses its own subterranean Labyrinth, and its own equivalent of the Minotaur. A character describes said beast thus:
“Now, they say that back before the fire and the plague there was a butcher lived down by the Fleet Ditch, had some poor creature he was going to fatten up for Christmas. (Some says it was a piglet, and some says it wusn’t, and there was some that wusn’t ever certain.) One night the beast runned away, ran into the Fleet Ditch, and vanished into the sewers. And it fed on sewage, and it grew, and it grew. And it got meaner, and nastier. They’d send in hunting parties after it, from time to time… Things like that, they’re too vicious to die. Too old and big and nasty.”
Given that the Fleet Ditch in question runs through Hampstead, and given that for much of its length it was bricked over and used as a sewer, I’d say we have a much-embellished version of the story of the black swine. The book, if you haven’t read it, is well worth grabbing – it’s basically a retelling of more-or-less every lost myth of London. The main character, significantly, is Richard Mayhew.
It’s a shame that, whatever else we may have in London’s vast network of sewers, storm drains and underground rivers, the black pigs of Hampstead are no longer believed in. Maybe the story was lowering property values in the area or something. No, if you want sewer monsters, I’m afraid you’ll have to take the alligators of New York and be done with it, Sunny Jim.