Tag Archives: urban legends

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.


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Filed under 19th century, Crime, Food, Literature, The City

Don’t take my word for it.

Do you know what really annoys me? Apart from chavs, idiots on the night bus, engineering works on the London Underground, people who can’t use a ticket barrier, over-attentive shop assistants and Slough, that is? Urban legends.

Well, no, that’s not entirely true. I love urban legends. A good ghost story or conspiracy theory is generally pretty entertaining, even if it is utter hogwash. There’s a specific type of urban legend that really does make me facepalm in frustration and mutter “Christ almighty.” The type in question might broadly be defined as the “scare rumour.”

I came across an example of this on Facebook on Sunday. One of my friends, who shall remain unnamed and also doesn’t read this blog, had this as her status:

WARNING TO PEOPLE OF SOUTH LONDON…tip off by south london police…two major dog fights are being arranged…small dogs and cats are being stolen for blood baiting…please warn all areas

Terrible, right? I mean, it’s hard enough to get meat on a budget without some bastard stealing the dogs and cats. I’m not going back to fox, that’s for sure.

But if you’re remotely analytical, you’ll have spotted a few problems with this apparently well-intentioned warning. Notably, it’s very vague. “Tip-off from South London police.” Which police? Any names? Where in South London? I live in Colliers Wood, I’m often abroad in other parts of London that may be called “South” (and god damn I do not want to hear yet another person whining about where South London begins and ends, there’s an S in my postcode and that’s good enough for me), yet I have never heard about this. Maybe it’s only taking place in some part of South London that I don’t visit very often – but in that case PC Nameless is being unnecessarily vague.

Let’s do a bit more research. Let’s Google “South London dogfights.” Nothing. Well, nothing relevant, unless you count an advert on Gumtree. Given that Gumtree has been known to advertise apartments in Mayfair for £100 a week from non-existent estate agents, I think we can safely discount them as a reliable source.

So, a policeman or the police in general have given out a tip-off. Presumably they want people to know about these dogfights. Yet they have not gone to the press about them. Now, do not tell me the local press wouldn’t be interested in a story about cute widdle pussy-cats and puppy-dogs being kidnapped by nasty men, they’d leap on a story like that. It’d fill people up with righteous fury, sell loads of papers.

Taking that line of questioning further, how do the police know these dogfights are happening? There’s been no news of any recent busts, any caches of dogs and cats, any people running to the police in horror to say what they saw. All we have is that dogs and cats are being kidnapped. How do we know that they’re being kidnapped, as opposed to merely going missing in that way that pets are wont to do? Have a larger number of small animals than usual gone missing?

Now, I responded to said friend’s status by pointing out that it sounded like an urban legend. And Oh My God you should have seen the uproar. Now, yes, I can understand the desire to defend your friend’s honour (whatever that is), but the apparent wish for this rumour to be true verged on the disturbing. One chap kept posting links, none less than two years old, saying that dogs had been kidnapped at some point in time and space, that dogfights happened at some point in time and space, that dogfighters might use small dogs and kittens for bait and that one time a dog had gone missing in South London. Another pointed out that, no, I could be wrong, because sometimes these things happen and they don’t get reported (presumably the police are hiring psychics these days).

Notably lacking was any evidence that linked all these factors together to give us the terror mishmash of the above warning. For the sake of sating this morbid desire, I have posted a picture of a kitten being mauled below.

Assuming my picture researcher has done his job (I pay him in the moonshine I brew under my desk at work), that should satisfy some of the fearmongers.

But in all seriousness, why do people come up with rumours like this? I can understand those public information films that scare the living crap out of you to warn you of a particular danger, and even those commercials that do so in order to sell you something. But how does it benefit a person to come up with a scare story such as this? These rumours won’t net them any glory or credit, for the most part the inventor won’t even see people getting freaked out by them.

Anyway, here is my simple guide to tell whether a story is true or an urban legend:

1. Is there a reliable source?

I don’t want to diss your friends, but unless they work for some sort of journalistic organisation (as it happens, several of mine do), they might not be best-placed for all the facts. So if you hear some remarkable story, check it out for yourself. If there’s some sort of terrible ongoing crimewave, it seems unlikely that it would be known to everyone except the news.

2. Details?

Every crime has a victim (except murder, in which the victim is dead). Are there names for these victims? Or for any party involved? Are there dates and times? Where did it happen? If the warning came from the police, the police where? Vague and missing details make for an unverifiable story, which makes me stroke my beard suspiciously.

3. Has this happened before?

There are such things as copycat crimes, but it makes me twirl my moustache quizzically when I hear a rumour of something dreadful, only to hear that the exact same story has played out somewhere else, a few years ago, and similarly not made the news. In the case of email forwards, the story might even have the exact same wording. It’s my experience that when you point this out to people, they say “Well, yes, it was fake there, but this time it really did happen!

I’ve met people from three different universities who are adamant that the story about the student killing themselves with a couple of pencils up their nose definitely happened in an exam at their uni. The truth is, of course, that it happened at the uni that I went to.

I’m joking.

Holy craps, Tom, there are no reliable sources, no names and it’s happened fifteen times before!

Then, my friend, you most likely have an urban legend. Glad I could help you with your problem there. Anyway, I’ve got to run, I hear there are dwarf pirates terrorising the canals of Brentford. I heard it from a friend of mine, who got it from an email.

Further Reading

Inevitably, a link to Snopes. If you hear a stupid rumour, it’s probably on here.


Filed under Crime, Current events, Lies, London

This bacon smells funny

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.

This pig is not in a sewer, but you get the idea.

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.”

A sewer, London, yesterday.

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.



Filed under 19th century, Canals and Waterways, Geography, Hampstead, History, Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Plants and animals, Psychogeography, Rivers

Smile, darn ya, smile!

If there’s one thing the Internet has revolutionised, it’s the urban legend. Time was when you’d have to work for your insane rumours. These days a good story can be invented, spread round the world and debunked by Snopes by lunchtime. How did we ever manage without it?

I was recently reminded of a London urban legend that predates the Internet – or at least, widespread use of it. It seems to have originated in the 1980s. I heard it as a schoolchild in the mid-’90s. I am speaking of the Chelsea Smilers.

Blue Transit Van. Like the one from the urban legend.The Smilers, so the story goes, were a gang of football hooligans. Depending which version of the story you hear, they would either roam the streets of South London, travel around in a blue Transit Van or – if you looked particularly easy to scare – would go door-to-door.

Details varied, but the basic essence of the story was this. The Smilers would confront you and ask you if you supported Chelsea Football Club (soccer team, for the benefit of any United Stateseans who may be reading). Possibly they would ask you a series of trivia questions to prove it. In the version I was told, they would then slice the corners of your mouth – upwards if you said yes, downwards if you said no. Then they would punch you hard, so you’d scream, thus ripping your mouth into a permanent smile or frown. Some versions would add that they would then pour something on the wound, usually vinegar, so the scars wouldn’t heal properly. I’m surprised no one suggested ink.

The Joker supports Chelsea.

There are a million variants on the story. Some say that they only cut you if you don’t support Chelsea, and then only in the form of the smile. Some say this was only practised by criminal gangs in Chelsea (presumably they march around in tailored suits, terrifying onlookers with their white-collar fraud and cold-blooded acts of insider trading). To be honest, while I don’t deny that such crimes may have happened – such scarring is known as the “Glasgow smile” and, so says the Daily Express, a case is treated every day by Scotland’s hospitals. But I’ve yet to see any real evidence that the Chelsea Smilers exist.

Still, I went to school in South-West London and it was a damn fine scary story. And that’s what’s important.

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Filed under 20th Century, Brixton, Crime, History, Lies, London, London Underground, Suburbia

Five beasties to ruin your commute

Hurrah! Another Tube strike! I’m not entirely clear what this one is about, so I’ll just assume it’s because the Tube workers feel that Underground Ernie is demeaning to their profession until I hear otherwise.

This guy...

This guy...

As usual, it’s something to do with Bob Crow, head of RMT, getting his knickers in a twist. I hesitate to use the words “Bob Crow” and “dinosaur” in the same sentence, but… well, everyone else does and I’m not established enough to buck the trend.

STOP PRESS: Apparently it’s something to do with pay. It’s not clear what involvement Underground Ernie has, if any.

So it looks like we’re all going to have to do that Blitz spirit thing for the next couple of days. Still, things could be worse, which is why I present to you…


1. Werewolves

Seen in: An American Werewolf in Londonwerewolflondon


Causing delays on: Northern Line, Central Line, local bus routes

Description: Of all the supernatural creatures to become, a werewolf seems to be pretty much the worst. Vampires have that whole Rule of Cool thing going on, ghosts get to perv on everyone and possess Whoopi Goldberg and zombies don’t give a damn as long as they get their brains. Werewolves, on the other hand, are the supernatural equivalent of an aggressive drunk – go out, get in some fights, wake up the next day with no memory and chunks of unidentified flesh in their teeth. In the case of this one, he’s doomed to have his victims haunt him like the world’s worst hangover.

On the plus side, he does get it on with Jenny Agutter, so it’s not all bad.

Commuting scene: Two. First, our man takes down a commuter in Tottenham Court Road Underground station late at night – another good reason why you shouldn’t leave it to the last train before going home. Then, later on, in a scene that could definitely not be filmed today, he goes completely apeshit in Piccadilly Circus and causes a massive pile-up.

How do we stop him? Unlike most werewolves, these ones seem able to be killed by regular bullets. If you can convince the wolf to chase you into Tooting, you’re home safe.

2. Rats

DeadlyEyesSeen in: James Herbert’s The Rats, Lair and Domain.

Causing delays on: The East London Line (so nothing to worry about for the time being).

Description: Radiation is a bugger, isn’t it? One minute it’s helping to treat cancer, the next it’s causing rats to become really big somehow. These ones are approximately dog-sized and have a ferocious appetite for, yes, human flesh. Actually, most mutations that don’t actively result in superpowers seem to cause a ferocious appetite for human flesh. I suppose that’s why the area around Chernobyl is so deserted.

Commuting scene: You know when the train stops in the middle of the tunnel for no apparent reason? Well, imagine how much worse it would be if the reason was huge bastarding rats swarming through the window. Suddenly signal failure doesn’t seem so bad.

How do we stop them? Well, luckily for us, it seems that in addition to becoming huge, these creatures also have a hive society. Kill the Queen and the rest will follow. Alternatively, I heard that what you need to do is get two dishes, right, and you fill one with a mix of flour and cement powder and the other with water. The rats go for the flour and scoff it down, then they get thirsty and drink the water. A few hours later, bam! Concrete rats!

3. The Infected28dayslater_l4e9

Seen in: 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, ripped off by most subsequent zombie fiction.

Causing delays on: Piccadilly Line, Jubilee Line, Docklands Light Railway.

Description: The horror movie genre would be so much poorer if only people would just pay attention to the regulations. If the scientist says “Don’t let the chimp out because it’s infected with a disease that’s gonna hella kill everyone,” then assume he knows what he’s talking about. If your infected wife’s in quarantine, don’t go in for a snog. See, people joke about the fact that so many action films involve climactic fights in industrial locations with seemingly no safety precautions (The Terminator, Batman, The Fellowship of the Ring). But having seen the way people in movies behave, you can guarantee that if you did put a handrail up, someone would decide to jump over it anyway.

As a result, London is full of incredibly angry zombies. And I know, plenty of geeks will point out that they’re not technically zombies, but I’m too busy running to argue.

Commuting scene: In 28 Days Later, our heroes make their way along the Docklands Light Railway elevated track into the East End. In a deleted scene, they come across a DLR train that has been converted into a makeshift hospital. I don’t know why you’d think a DLR train would make a suitable hospital. By the way, am I the only person who still thinks it’s fun to sit at the front and pretend to be the driver?

In 28 Weeks Later, our heroes decide to venture into the Underground, because the best place to be when there are zombies running around is in a cramped and pitch-black tunnel. Filmed, like many movies set on the Underground, at the abandoned Aldwych station and the old Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross.

If zombies are too much for you, you could always take a taxi…

How do we stop them? Well, as noted above, these zombies aren’t technically undead. They’re just really, really pissed off. Regular bullets will do for them. Fire looks pretty cool, but ultimately you end up with a dude running around on fire and making a nuisance of himself.

4. Martians

Seen in: Quatermass and the Pit (TV and movie version)hob

Causing delays on: Construction work on the Victoria Line, possibly the Piccadilly Line. Listen out for announcements.

Description: There’s always some excuse with TfL, isn’t there? “Signal failures.” “Defective trains.” “During construction work we came across an ancient alien spaceship and now it’s causing everyone in London to start bashing one another’s heads in.” The Quatermass BBC TV serials and subsequent film adaptations are an obvious influence on the later Doctor Who, and Quatermass and the Pit, in which occult shenanigans turn out to be a malign ancient alien influence, is the obvious precursor to the stories The Daemons and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. That tells you most of what you need to know – these aliens came to Earth, did some genetic nastiness and live on in our collective memories as the Devil.

Commuting scene: It’s mentioned in the original serial that they caused trouble when the fictional Hobb’s Lane Underground station was opened in 1927. I’d suggest, given the date and the fact that Hobb’s Lane is somewhere in Knightsbridge, that this was the Piccadilly Line.

In the Hammer remake, the spaceship is unearthed during construction work on the Victoria Line at Hobb’s End. This was the second worst discovery during construction, the worst of all being when they realised they’d be going through Stockwell.

How do we stop them? Well, the bad news is that they’re already dead. However, given that they form the basis of our belief in demons, poltergeists and all that jazz, a little study of the occult may come in handy.

5. Mutant tube workers

Seen in: Death Line (released in the US as Raw Meat)Deathlinerawmeat

Causing delays on: Piccadilly Line

Description: Yet another good reason not to leave it until the last train before going home. Death Line concerns a family of mutant cannibal wossnames that have descended fromVictorian underground workers and now dwell in the incomplete Museum station. They lead a carefree existence, picking off and eating commuters from Russell Square and Holborn. Yr. Humble Chronicler, who works in Bloomsbury, now prefers to walk the extra distance to St Pancras.

Commuting scene: Pretty much the whole thing.

A still from the film. Can you spot the mistake, Tubeheads?

A still from the film. Can you spot the mistake, Tubeheads?

How do we stop them? Send Bob Crow down there and wait for them to go on strike.

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Filed under 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Current events, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Psychogeography, Transport, West End