Well, we had to, didn’t we? Seeing as how we mention zombies nearly every day, we could hardly let Halloween pass by without some kind of tribute. (And, yes, we know it’s more properly written as Hallowe’en, but apostrophes and search engines mix about as well as the ingredients to the woeful Halloween punch we attempted to brew in Londonist’s coffee machine.)
We’re not the only ones on the All Hallows bandwagon, of course. You may have seen Time Out’s special feature on ghosts, mostly reanimated from Richard Jones’ surprisingly addictive ‘Walking Haunted London’. But anything they can do, Wiccan do better. Instead of yet another trawl through the routine spooks and ghouls, we thought we’d try and do something a little more in keeping with Halloween’s pagan origins. So here’s a witch's brew of London’s warlocks and demons, superstitions and mysteries, the crafting of which kept us up well beyond the witching hour, and all with a broken coffee machine!
It ain’t the way, according to Stevie Wonder. But millions of Londoners choose to ignore his sage advice. Here are just a few of the odd traditions we still observe to protect from evil:
•Many of our roads, including Park Lane, Commercial Street and Strand, lack a number 13.
•We automatically say ‘bless you’ if someone nearby sneezes, a legacy of the Great Plague.
•MacBeth, written and first performed in London, must never be named by actors, lest it bring ill luck.
•Every tourist knows that if the ravens kept in the Tower of London ever escape, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. The Tower employs a Ravenmaster (currently named Derek) to make sure this never happens.
•Many parishes still ‘beat the bounds’, an annual ceremony in which costumed participants chase away the devil with large sticks.
Every so often, London seems to debouch ne’er-do-wells by the name of Jack: revolting peasants Cade and Straw; popular burglar Jack Sheppard; Kray-bothering Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie; and, of course, the Ripper himself. All were mortal and of this Earth. But during a 60 year period, almost exactly spanning the reign of Victoria, London disgorged its own demon, in the sinister form of Spring-heeled Jack.
Although this phantom has largely slipped from modern consciousness, the gravity-defying imp reigned supreme in the Victorian pantheon of villainy (at least until his more famous, and lethal, namesake began etching his reputation in the bowels of East-end whores).
Spring-heeled Jack was sighted many times in his unique career, from Barnes to Bermondsey and Limehouse to Lewisham. His roughed-up victims, nearly always female, described a demonic figure, dressed in tight oil-skins and a diabolical mask. He would appear from nowhere, breathing blue fire before dragging his metallic claws across their breasts and vanishing once more, often by leaping improbable heights to evade capture.
His most famous attack came at an isolated cottage in Old Ford, close to the future Olympic Stadium. Local girl Jane Alsop was attacked in her own doorway by the scratching, fire-vomiting Jack and only escaped with the aid of her family.
Over the years, Jack was reported by hundreds of witnesses, shot at by soldiers, hunted by veterans of Trafalgar and celebrated in newspapers and ‘penny dreadfuls’, but he never came close to being caught. His last ‘official’ appearance was in Liverpool, 1904, where he taunted the locals while bounding from rooftop to rooftop.
Genuine devil, or crazed circus performer, late of Pablo Fanque’s fair? The theories are as numerous as his appearances. Jack continues to say the occasional hello, and has now gone international. His modern-day exploits have been recorded as far apart as Delhi and the USA.
Ley Lines ancient and modern
Many attempts have been made to understand the geography of London in terms of mysterious lines of power connecting important sites. Most famously, Iain Sinclair put forward a (frankly unconvincing) case for the hidden alignment of Hawksmoor’s churches, in his book Lud Heat.
Others have pointed out that a line drawn along the Mall extends through Buckingham Palace to Oatlands and Fulham Palaces, passing through many churches and ancient sites. Indeed. And it also passes through City Thameslink and Liverpool St Station. How spooky.
More convincing, in our completely unbiased opinion, are Londonist’s own attempts at divining Leys. We’re quite proud of this one, in particular, and have also spotted a future alignment of tower blocks.
She’s a witch…burn her
London has a strong tradition of witchcraft, and many unusual ladies were burned or hanged at Tyburn or Smithfield. Joan Peterson, from a forgotten part of Shadwell known as Spruce Island, was hanged from the Tyburn tree for witchery in 1652. The evidence was damning. Not only did she have the audacity to cure the sick; the Old Bailey were also told:
[She] Bewitch'd a Child, and rock'd the Cradle in the likenesse of a Cat; how she frighted a Baker; and how the Devil often came to suck her, sometimes in the likeness of a Dog, and at other times like a Squirrel.
Now there’s an idea for a web site.
Around the same time, Camden was home to a famous healer and soothsayer known as Mother Damnable (the name is something of a giveaway). According to Peter Ackroyd, her dwelling was on the site of Camden tube station, and Wikipedia suggests that The World’s End pub was once known as Old Mother Damnable’s.
Witchcraft continues to play a part in the London story. The Old Bailey was troubled with its last witchcraft case only in 1944, when Helen Duncan was arraigned for channelling D-Day secrets. Churchill visited the sorceress during her 9-month incarceration, after describing the trial as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’. He later repealed the Witchcraft Act.
As related in last week’s Time Out, witches still practice in London (and meet monthly at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, if you want to join in). Sadly, the darker side of witchcraft is also still with us. Disturbing cases of ritual sacrifice and torture, most famously the Thames torso murder, are a tragic reminder that 21st Century London is home to dangerously credulous minds.