Saturday, 14 November 2015

Top 5 London Monsters

As you would expect from a city as ancient and mysterious as London, some pretty bizarre stories have built up over the years concerning strange beasts that supposedly stalk its dank, shadowy backstreets. I have put together a list of my top 5 London monsters...
You won't find any spooks on this list; there are so many London ghost stories that they deserve a future list all to themselves, that goes for phantom beasts too, so there'll be no ghost bears of Bear Alley here...
You also won't find the likes of Jack the Ripper, or any other monstrous men on this list, as they needed to be considered as genuine cryptids to qualify.
If they've got fur, fangs or scales you can bet that they've been considered, here are my top 5!

5) The Brentford Griffin


Kicking off this list is a truly bizarre element of London lore; in the 1980s locals began sighting strange griffin-like creatures in the skies over Brentford, West London.
A man by the name of Kevin Chippendale claims that he saw an animal which looked like a dog with wings and a beak flying over Green Dragon apartments on Braemar Road in mid 1984. He saw this strange apparition again in February 1985 and said that it looked like the animal featured on the sign of the Griffin Public House.
Chippendale's friend Angela Keyhoe, along with several other passengers on a bus, also claimed to have seen the creature sitting on top of a petrol station, and resembling a giant black bird. Psychologist John Olssen also saw it whilst jogging by the Thames. 
The sightings were featured in the press and on the six'o'clock news.
What was really going on, and whether or not the whole thing was just a hoax is uncertain, we'll probably never know. What is clear however is that the area has a long historical connection with griffins. 
A local legend tells the story of how King Charles II brought a griffin to Brentford as a gift for his mistress, Nell Gwynn. One day whilst it was playing on the banks of the River Brent the poor creature fell in and was washed down into the Thames, finally coming to rest on the small river island of Brentford Ait. Assumed drowned the griffin was left to its own devices. 
Years later a second griffin was brought into the area by botanist Joseph Banks, who had returned from a trip to the Pacific aboard Captain Cook's "Endeavor". This griffin was originally housed in the pagoda at Kew Gardens just south of Brentford Ait, and before long the two griffins met up and populated the tiny island, and later the whole of Brentford, with little griffins. 
The myth itself prevails, even if the sightings were simply made up. If you visit Brentford today you can at the very least witness the griffin heavy imagery and wordplay about town; there is a Griffin Court, of course the Griffin Public House, and even the local football team plays at Griffin Park. In a town so griffin-heavy maybe it was just inevitable that sooner or later people would start to see the winged beasts swooping overhead.

4) The Rat Queen


There is an immense labyrinth of cavernous tunnels beneath the streets of London, and so it was almost unavoidable that a tradition of monster stories would have built up around them.
One such tale is that of the "rat queen", or "rat-woman", which has been passed down by the "toshers" of Bermondsey. Toshers were men who went down into the sewers to look for valuable or saleable items such as coins and scrap metal, they returned with fascinating tales of the rats that they encountered down there in the darkness.
Liz Thompson's great-great-grandfather was one such Bermondsey tosher. Shortly before his death he spoke of a liaison that he had had with a rat queen down in the tunnels during the 1840s. Ms Thompson revealed his story in the Folklore Society's 1995 newsletter and it went like this; the Queen rat would listen secretly to the men talking and deduce which kinds of women they liked. If she liked one of them in return she would appear to them in the form of their ideal girl and sleep with them. The men were strictly forbidden to speak of the encounter on pain of extreme bad fortune, which could explain why Ms Thompson's great-great-grandfather waited until he was securely on his deathbed before revealing his tale. 
Now the toshers are long gone and the rat queen has passed into legend, but who is to say she doesn't still skulk the murky depths beneath our feet.

3) The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square


In the mid 1810s a rumour swept across London that there was a pig-faced woman living in Manchester Square, a fashionable and wealthy part of town. The stories that spread claimed that she was the daughter of a wealthy noblewoman and would occassionally venture out covered in a heavy veil.
Portraits of her began to be published around 1815, the first of which included a brief bio from a woman who claimed to have attended her. It detailed that she was Irish, about 20 years old and did indeed have the head of a pig.  The attendant went on to claim that the woman spoke only in grunts and ate from a silver trough, she also went on to say that despite being paid 1000 guineas she left the pig-faced woman's service out of fear.
There began to be sightings of her; people claimed to have seen a snout poking out of windows or a silhouetted pig's head inside passing carriages.
A great number of people believed in her and she began to get coverage in the papers. The Times even printed a letter from a young woman offering to become the pig-faced lady's companion for a yearly income, but the paper later decided to denounce the rumours after receiving an advertisement from a young man wishing to marry her. 
In response to the man's prospective proposal The Times published the following;

"There is at present a report, in London, of a woman, with a strangely deformed face, resembling that of a pig, who is possessed of a large fortune... We, ourselves, unwittingly put in an advertisement from a young woman, offering herself to be her companion; and yesterday morning, a fellow (with a calf's head, we suppose) transmitted to us another advertisement, attended by a one pound note, offering himself to be her husband. We have put his offer in the fire, and shall send his money to some charity, thinking it a pity that such a fool should have any. Our rural friends hardly know what idiots London contains... The an old one. About 50 years ago, it is well recollected by several elderly people, there was exactly the same rumour. It was revived with but slight effect about 30 years since; and now comes forth again in its pristine vigour."

This however did little to crush the rumours as rival papers, Morning Herald and Morning Chronicle, stepped in to defend both the pig-faced lady and her would-be suitor. Both papers suggested that her facial deformities, although unknown to doctors, were not beyond the realms of possibility.
During celebrations to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars a huge crowd had gathered around Piccadilly, the traffic slowed right down and it was at this time that eyewitnesses claim that they saw a woman sitting in one of the carriages dressed in a fashionable bonnet with a pig's snout protruding from underneath. The crowd tried to stop the carriage but it managed to drive away through them at high speed.
Tales of the pig-faced woman persisted throughout the 1800s; it was reported that a young baronet by the name of William Elliot was bitten on the neck by a pig-faced, yet fashionably dressed, lady in the drawing room of a house at Grosvenor Square. 
In 1861 a man wrote to Notes and Queries magazine asking if anyone possessed medical or biographical accounts of the pig-faced lady, claiming himself to have had contact with an eyewitness of her. A Mr FitzHenry responded by saying that he had known the pig-faced woman's sister, a Lady H.W, and that forty years' previous he had attended a dinner party with her in which all the guests had been forewarned not to mention anything about pigs out of delicacy. A George Lloyd also replied, stating that he had seen the pig-faced lady when he was a child in Wakefield, in around 1828-29, and that he had been haunted by the image ever since.
Showmen cashed in on the pig-faced lady scare, by the 1860s Charles Dickens wrote that no fair was complete without its own pig-faced woman on display. Often the creature was actually a bear which had been drugged into a stupor with strong beer, shaved, tied up and dressed in a wig and women's clothing. It was probably one of these dressed show bears that George Lloyd witnessed in Wakefield.
It is not fully known whether a real pig-faced lady of Manchester Square ever really existed or if it was merely the phenomenon of social mania which had swept its way through 19th century society. What is clear is that our fascination for the grotesque lives on and myth will always prevail.

2) The Sydenham Beast


Here is a monster story which can't be so easily dismissed.
In 2005 Sydenham man Tony Holder was attacked in his garden at 3am by a large animal that he claimed resembled a black panther. He struggled with the heavy creature, which had him pinned down for several seconds, as his 11-year-old daughter looked on from her bedroom window. In a statement he revealed "I could see these huge teeth and the whites of its eyes just inches from my face. It was snarling and growling and I really believed it was trying to do some serious damage." He finally managed to fight it off and was left with scratches to his face, arm and finger. Afterwards it withdrew to a neighbour's garden and sat watching him. The police and ambulance services were called. Holder sighted the animal skulking past again whilst he was getting patched up in the ambulance, and one of the police officers also claimed that he saw a cat the size of a labrador at the scene. 
Not only did the Met police issue a warning and mount extra patrols in the area but Scotland Yard revealed that they had received reports of a large black cat in the area back in 2002. 
The RSPCA and London Zoo were both consulted for advice.
The beast was sighted again in 2009 when jogger Roger Fleming claimed to have been chased through Dulwich Woods near Sydenham Hill Station by a creature he described as looking like "a brown cheetah". He stated "It sat there, locked its eyes on to me, sat up and - boom - it started running..." After a lengthy chase the animal apparently gave up and Fleming made it safely home, if more than a little shaken.
In 2015, David Owen realised a novel entitled Panther - Can You Control A Beast You Can't See? which was partly inspired by an even earlier recollection, before the 2005 attack, of a police helicopter circling his house one night, beaming a spotlight down into the allotments by Chesham Road in search of "The Penge Panther" (The Sydenham Beast). 
So could there really be a big cat loose in South East London? It's not as far fetched as you would think. Reports of big cats prowling the British countryside are nothing new and may be an effect of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.
After the Act came into force it was required by law for owners of animals considered a threat to public safety to obtain a special licence. It is believed that instead of paying for licences many big cat owners simply released their pets into the wild where they have continued to live ever since.
Still not convinced? Well, take these cases into consideration;
After several years of sightings a puma, a large cat native to the Americas, was captured in Inverness, Scotland, in 1980. The creature was rehomed at The Highland Wildlife Park where the zoo director concluded that it had been domesticated and enjoyed being tickled.
In 1989 a jungle cat, native to South Asia, was hit by a car in Shropshire, and two years later a Eurasian lynx, which had been killing sheep, was shot in  Norfolk. The lynx case was hushed up and only confirmed by police in 2006.
In 1994 a farm worker shot a large spotted cat on the Isle of Wight but didn't report it for fear of prosecution, however the police later concluded it had been an ocelot or a serval. 
In 1996 police in Northern Ireland shot what turned out to be a caracal, a medium sized wildcat native to Africa and Asia, and finally in 2001 a Eurasian lynx was captured alive after a chase across school grounds in North London. It was placed in London Zoo before being transferred to France to breed.
A further case study, which you may choose to discount as merely anecdotal evidence if you wish, concerns a big cat cryptid from my own home town. This animal, known as the Beast of Boxley, having been sighted around Boxley Village outside Maidstone, Kent, was once seen by my own mum on a night drive through the North Downs. She stated that it was a large slender, cat-like animal which sat half obscured by long grass, its ears tufted like a lynx. 
Even in light of all these examples there will be those who doubt the Sydenham case, and for good reason. A panther, which can be a black variant of either the leopard or the jaguar, is a very large animal. It is considerably bigger than the lynxes and other cats that have previously been confirmed as living wild in Britain, which just makes it that much more implausible. Surely there would be a greater number of sightings if an animal of this size was romaing a built up area? And you would imagine that the carcasses of family pets would be turning up left, right and centre.
Whether it is indeed a black panther that prowls the woods of suburban South-East London remains highly debatable. However, something attacked Mr Holder that night and he has the medical report to prove it. Personally, I have no doubt that at the very least some type of large, non-native cat is on the loose down there and I'm sure it isn't the last we've heard of the Sydenham Beast.

Before revealing our number one London Monster here are some honourable mentions;


Olympic Park Monster


Something monstrous may be living in the waters around London's Olympic Park.
In 2011 local filmmaker Mike Wells reported seeing a 16lb Canada goose silently disappearing into the swampy waters in the Lea Valley. Wells stated that "suddenly the bird just went vertically down into the water. I was absolutely gobsmacked. Whatever took it didn't come back up again. There was no sign of it whatsoever, but it was obviously pretty big."
In 2005 there was a similar report of a swan being dragged into the murky depths and large holes were also found in the river bank.
These stories have led to speculation that the River Lea could be home to a giant turtle, python or even an alligator. The most plausible theory however is that the silent killer was probably a monstrous pike. Whatever the truth of the matter, the take away message is clearly that you shouldn't go paddling in the River Lea!

Highgate Vampires


In the 1970s the national media sensationalised the claims of an "occult expert" who stated that Highgate Cemetery was infested with vampires, and the impressively gothic necropolis has attracted the attention of monster hunters ever since.
The original claims were given clout by local occultist David Farrant who reported supernatural encounters at the cemetery during the late 1960s, a time in which graves were already being desecrated by persons unknown in a seemingly ritualistic fashion. The story was picked up by a second local man, Séan Manchester, who later claimed to have performed holy rites at the cemetery in order to exorcise the malevolent undead who resided there. Intially the two men supported each others' claims, detailing similar findings such as dead foxes at the cemetery, but later fell out over conflicting accounts.
The rivalry between them, which remains to this day, inflamed public interest in the story. On the night of Friday 13th March 1970 just hours after ITV broadcast interviews with both Farrant and Manchester, a mob on a mass vampire hunt descended on the cemetery, over its walls and locked gates, despite police efforts to keep them away.
Over the next few months tombs were broken into and corpses desecrated. The remains of a woman, charred and headless, was discovered at the site, and Farrant was even arrested when he was discovered near the cemetery holding a crucifix and a wooden stake.
Whatever your opinion on the existence of vampires, this is a great example of modern mass hysteria in London over perceived forces of evil.

1) Spring-heeled Jack


Was there really any competition as to which London monster would make it to the number one position?! If you haven't already been acquainted with the legendary Spring-heeled Jack here is a brief summary of his bio...
So-named for his ability to jump over high walls, Spring-heeled Jack was said to be some kind of demon who terrorised the residents of Victorian London and caused a moral panic at the time.
A report on Jack featured in The Times and he was even discussed by the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan, during a public session at Mansion House in 1838.
Described as terrifying in appearance, with glowing red eyes and huge metallic claws, Jack was first sighted in 1837 when he attacked a girl named Mary Stevens on Clapham Common. Mary noted how he jumped right in front of her, clawing her clothes and kissing her face before fleeing with great speed. He was reported again the following day when he jumped in front of a stagecoach causing it to crash, afterwhich he fled the scene in fits of uncontrollable high pitched laughter.
Sightings of Jack began to appear far and wide but, perhaps the best known accounts were the attacks on two teenage girls, Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales.
The Alsop case occurred in Bow, East London, in February 1838. Jane Alsop answered a terrible knocking at the door to the house she shared with her father and two sisters and was greeted by a shadowy man who told her that he was a police officer, and in need of a light as he had captured Spring-heeled Jack. On presenting him with a candle the man held it to his chest revealling a hideous appearance and began to vomit blue and white flames! As Jane tried to run Jack caught her head under his arm and scratched at her all over with his metallic claws, tearing her dress and arms, and pulling out clumps of her hair. Her father and sisters came running on hearing Jane scream and managed to get her into the house. One of her sisters then called out of the window for a policeman, at which Jack leaped into the shadows and out of sight. The Alsops were in fairly good standing in the community and so the case was taken seriously by local police and was reported extensively in the papers.
In the Lucy Scales case, Lucy and her sister were walking through an alley in Limehouse a week or so after the incident at the Alsop's home. Lucy noticed someone lurking in a nook just ahead. As she drew nearer the cloaked figure spurted blue flames in her face; Lucy collapsed instantly and began having a seizure. Her sister, trying to hold Lucy, could only watch as the figure walked calmly away. The girls' brother who had his butcher's shop nearby, came running when he heard screams. The two of them got Lucy back to the shop, and she and her sister made a full report to Lambeth police.
After Jack caught media attention his legend inevitably grew and people began to sight him all over the country, from Brighton to Lincoln, and even in Scotland. The last reported sightings of Jack were in Everton, Liverpool, in 1904.
It is unclear who, or what, Jack was, what he wanted or where he went. It was suggested in an article published by Flying Saucer Review in 1961 that Jack could have been a stranded extraterrestrial. However, the author of the piece, J Vyner, took many liberties with the details in the reports to basically reimagine the Jack story to fit his agenda and so his interpretation is fairly uncredible. That said we still have no idea what exactly took place and really any theory is as good as the next. There has never been a plausible explanation as to how Jack managed his incredible feats. What is evident is that something truly strange occurred during that 67 year period of sightings, the like of which has never been repeated. Spring-heeled Jack survives to this day in legend, his home was right here in London.

What did you think of this list, and which London monster stories are your favourites? Did I leave out any that you felt deserved a mention? I'd love to hear from you so let me know all of your thoughts and comments and I'll try and get back to you.