The Terror of London: Spring-heeled Jack and the Victorian Metropolitan Press – Conway Hall

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The other night I attended a talk organised by the Conway Hall Ethical Society and the London Fortean Society, on the theme of Spring-heeled Jack, the legendary Victorian figure made famous by late nineteenth century penny dreadfuls. The event was held at Conway Hall, a building near Holborn which hosts many talks, events and courses.

I know of Spring-heeled Jack, a mysterious figure of urban folklore, mainly through his incarnations in Victorian fiction and later, including Philip Pullman’s novel. This talk, delivered by Dr Karl Bell, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, focused on his origins at the beginning of the Victorian era.

The legend of Jack supposedly grew out of the reported sightings of “local” ghosts throughout London, including the “Hammersmith ghost” that terrorised Londoners in the south west at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the autumn of 1837 a sighting of a white bull was reported in Barnes, swiftly followed by a bear in East Sheen. In the next few weeks the creature appeared to transform, being seen as a man and a devil, heading out as far as Hampton Court and attacking a carpenter in Isleworth, who reported that the creature wore polished steel armour. The creature continued to traverse west London, causing some individuals to comment that he appeared to be making use of the Great Western Railway: he was sighted in Uxbridge, Ealing and Acton before eventually surfacing in Lewisham and Blackheath. A mention in the London Metropolitan News in early 1838, and a letter to The Times, brought the affair to the attention of the general public.

When the Mayor requested descriptions of the mysterious figure so that attempts could be made to catch him, he was inundated with widely conflicting accounts. The thing was a devil, a person, a ghost; he was covered with a white sheet or metal armour; he breathed fire, which was sometimes blue. An odd creature, whose raison d’être was apparently to frighten, rather than harm, people: he would terrify them out of their wits then casually wander away. At this stage there was no mention of the springs attached to his shoes that would help him leap ten feet into the air and vanish along the housetops. It was rare to find a first-hand account; most stories came from someone who’d heard that their second cousin’s neighbour’s daughter (or some such connection) had encountered Spring-heeled Jack.

Dr Karl suggests that there were three reasons in particular that helped this character to become so well-known. Firstly, his appearance and character evolved, becoming distinctive and memorable, and it helped that satirist magazines printed vivid images. Secondly, his name, “Spring-heeled Jack”, was particularly memorable, even though he didn’t receive a name until he had been around for about four months.

Finally, the combination of oral gossip and press interest overlapped and fuelled growing interest, ensuring that Spring-heeled Jack entered the public consciousness. It wasn’t until the 1860s that he received his “terror of London” epithet, but it seemed particularly apt for a creature that had been terrorising the city for, by then, over twenty years.