This article, which I wrote quite some time back, is probably mostly whimsy. But it does include some fun contemporary sources.
Were the Highgate Vampire and Spring Heeled Jack one and the same? Definitely not. Were (or are) they in any way of the same supernatural origin? Probably not, although I suppose that they COULD just about be spectrally related in some way. Did Spring Heeled Jack take vacations in Highgate when he grew weary of East and South London? Highly unlikely. Moreover – can the recollections of Highgate Villagers long since passed away, regarding ding the appearance of Spring Heeled Jack in 1830s London, help us understand more about the genus of the entity known as the Highgate Vampire which allegedly terrorised North London in the 1960s and 1970s, and still makes the odd guest appearance today?
Spring Heeled Jack and the Highgate Vampire are both inextricably linked with London’s occult history, as notorious in their respective eras as the ghost of Cock Lane. Whilst debate continues to rage as to whether the Highgate entity was a ‘blood sucking vampire’, the result of nefarious necromantic rites or an earthbound (or earth) spirit – it has become a symbol of the genus loci of Highgate (at least in the Western sense) and seems set to remain so. Spring Heeled Jack however had a much wider stamping ground, taking in Clapham Common, Peckham, Kensington, Limehouse and even Herefordshire and the north of England when he fancied stretching his diabolical legs.
And diabolical they were, for they appeared to give this widely reported devilish entity the ability to jump vast distances to escape the wrath of his victims. Scaling a church roof was no problem for Jack it seems, nor was clearing a 9ft high wall. And all this after breathing bluish white flames into the faces of and clawing at his terrified victims – usually serving girls but occasionally unsuspecting men.
One wonders if the bluish light of a gas lit alleyway, combined with an exhalation of hellish breath in the (to be expected) suddenly freezing air could account for the appearance of this phenomenon if, indeed, Jack was a preternatural entity and / or it was not a particularly cold night.
Jack’s media career differs in some regards from that of the Cock Lane ghost, in that he degenerated over time from a genuinely concerning threat into something of a pantomime baddy, whereas poor Fanny seems to have continued to pull the capital’s heartstrings long after the ‘haunting’ at Cock Lane was exposed as at least a partial hoax. The Highgate Vampire’s media career gives Elvis a run for his money in terms of post mortem popularity.
But what has Jack to do with Highgate?
In his 1918 memoirs Charles Meaburn Tatham, Esq., M.A., born in 1828, recalls his childhood and early teenage years at Highgate in the 1830s and 1840s, spent at Merton Lodge …
“built by my Father and situated in a lane, afterwards and now called Merton Lane, leading out on the right from what is now called West Hill, Highgate. The beginning of the Lane was just opposite one entrance to Holly Lodge, the residence of the then Duke of St. Albans.”
As an incidental aside, Holly Lodge was in the same century inherited by the renowned philanthropist (and socialite!) Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts. In 1844 Charles Dickens (whose parents’ graves can be found in Highgate Cemetery) dedicated his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, much of which is set in Highgate, to Burdett-Coutts. Dickens was not so fond, however, of the spiritualist medium Daniel Dunglas Home, who was known to perform star turns for Burdett-Coutts and other members of Highgate’s high society at private séances in the 1850s and to whom Dickens devoted his scathing short piece ‘The Martyr Medium’.
But to return to Meaburn Tatham’s memoirs:
“About this time people were alarmed at times in the night by the antics of some young nobleman who was known as Spring-Heel Jack, who used suddenly to jump over the hedge where someone might be passing and terrify the passer-by. My brother George and I used occasionally to walk to the Theatre and walk back, a matter of 4 miles each way, after the performance was over, and after perhaps seeing at the Adelphi a weird melodrama (one particular scene I remember in which a villain lay in wait one moonlight night to commit murder) we felt very fearful walking at 12 o’clock at night down Merton Lane, thinking too, perhaps, of Spring-Heel Jack as we went through the short lined avenue leading to the hall-door of our House.”
Clearly although spiritualism and the paranormal have historically appealed to the fashionable and notable of Highgate, this 90 year old aristocrat and Barrister-at-Law preferred to relegate this childhood memory to the superstitious folly of youth. It is interesting that Meaburn Tatham also seems to consider it accepted fact that ‘Spring-Heel Jack’ was a hoaxer of the noble class, and not an apparition to be afforded any legitimacy. To this day there is speculation as to whether Jack may have had a very human origin, although it is fair to observe that if accounts of his agility bear any semblance to truth he would have found it impossible to perform his giant leaps without the assistance of supernatural agency. However Meaburn Tatham does reveal that the residents of Highgate (albeit most likely in common with the rest of 1830s London) were not only aware of but frightened by the rumours of Spring Heeled Jack. This early image of Merton Lane is certainly evocative of the remote and relatively rural aspect which Highgate enjoyed in the nineteenth century, and it is not difficult to imagine nocturnal ramblers feeling the same dis-ease which those passing through Swain’s Lane after dark still experience today. Additionally it is worth observing that although this chapter of his narrative is largely taken up with his domestic life at Highgate, Meaburn Tatham does not make it explicitly clear whether he is referring to the attacks by Jack in parts of London where they are otherwise recorded, or in Highgate itself.
Is it possible that Meaburn Tatham’s gently self-mocking fear of Spring Heeled Jack was based on rumours which placed the entity in Highgate itself? Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831 – 1894) also spent his boyhood in Highgate in the 1830s, and recollects the following in his 1885 somewhat Pepys-esque manuscript ‘Fifty Years of London Life: Memoirs of a Man of the World’:
“Almost my earliest terror was excited by the narrative of the adventures of ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ – a ghost which had been playing up its pranks, springing onto the women and nearly frightening them to death, and the scene of who’s adventures some of the narrators, knowing the advantage of local colour, had laid in Highgate. I believe there was no foundation for this statement, though it caused a perfect panic among the little boys.”
Again, with the hindsight of age, the author dismisses his childhood fears of the monster as humorous but unfounded trivia. And it is the opine of the author of this essay that he is most likely correct; if Spring Heeled Jack himself was abroad in Highgate in the 1830s, is it not probable that we would have evidence of sightings of this very distinctive entity in the popular press, as with the other recorded incidents of his attacks? We certainly know that the newspapers were having a field day with his exploits in other parts of London. Equally it is likely that people hailing from other ‘unmolested’ parts of London would, in later life, have similar recollections of their childhood fears of the flame-breathing bogeyman. Jack was known, after all, for traveling between several parts of London (even venturing as far as Liverpool in his later years) in search of young ladies to ‘frighten half to death’.
However the recollections of these two unconnected individuals (who perceivably may have been playmates despite a slight age gap, due to the relatively small population of Highgate at the time) do raise an interesting point. Hodgson Yates’ memoirs give us a tantalising clue as to just how at least the children of Highgate Village concluded that Spring Heeled Jack was bothering their neighbourhood. He mentions undisclosed ‘narrators’. In all of the multitudinous newspaper accounts, penny dreadfuls and even plays dedicated to the exploits of Spring Heeled Jack, we have yet to come across one which refers to attacks in Highgate (although contributions on this subject are of course welcomed). The natural conclusion therefore is that the ‘narrators’ in question were local, and that this ‘information’ was passed down orally.
Most of us will have our own childhood memories of being told to eat our greens or comb our hair lest the ‘bogeyman’ gets us. But Hodgson Yates specifically refers to the assaulting of women by Jack, not children, implying that he and his young friends were frightened of actual accounts of Jack and not of parental threats that he would come and ‘get them’. Meaburn Tatham’s concept of Jack is of an assailant who leaps over hedges, of which the rustic lanes of Highgate were plentiful unlike the urbanised parts of London where Jack preferred to stalk his prey. Alleyways, doorsteps, walls and roofs seem to have been his preferred places to attack in or from, and we find no contemporary accounts of Jack jumping over hedges. Of course it could be simply argued that the tales were homogenised to fit the Highgate landscape by the frightened brothers.
But what if there is more to this theoretical homogenisation? Could the recollections of these two diarists point to something altogether different – that Highgate had its own, home grown spectral assailant, which in the absence of an existing moniker (the term ‘Highgate Vampire’ was not coined until 1970) became translated to roving visits from Spring Heeled Jack?
I began this post by assuring readers that it is not my intention to suggest that Spring Heeled Jack was abroad in Highgate. There is simply not enough evidence to justify this proposal. However I do believe that there could be some merit in comparing summary twentieth and twenty first century accounts of the entity which has become known as the Highgate Vampire with some of the characteristics of Jack – and that if the entity predates the twentieth century this could explain some of the fears of Highgate residents who were alive during the 1830s and 1840s that Jack was haunting their locale.
Although it has been sighted at many points along the ley lines which criss cross Highgate, the epicenter of the Highgate haunting is without doubt Highgate Cemetery. The entity, typically sighted in the form of a tall dark figure with red glowing eyes, sometimes sporting a top hat and always cloaked, appears to be especially fond of Swain’s Lane, the steep old droveway which divides the East and West Cemeteries with its foreboding stone walls. It has long been observed that bouts of psychical phenomena are often triggered by substantial building work or alterations to natural landscape, be it the demolition of an older part of a house or the re-opening of a disused well.
In 2005 a significantly impactive property development known as 85 Swain’s Lane led to the erection of a large house in the modernist style, abutting the cemetery grounds. The Highgate entity seems to manifest in a somewhat cyclical fashion, and around this time incidents of sightings, especially in Swains Lane, began increasing dramatically. It has been proposed in the past by David Farrant who has investigated the case for many years, that this fresh rash of sightings was presumably a result of the entity’s displeasure at the disruption being caused to one of his main haunts, and the psychical and energetical repercussions of such disturbance in a such a psychogeographically sensitive location.
Highgate Cemetery was officially opened in 1839, on the grounds of Ashurst Manor House. Substantial landscaping including the creation of sunken tombs and the erection of at least 15 large mausoleums began some years before this, altering forever the geography of the area. It is entirely conceivable, especially in context of 2005’s manifestations, that such intensive changes to the environment could have altered the psychogeography of the vicinity and triggered a bout of psychical activity in the environs of the cemetery and the cemetery itself. The first alleged sightings of Spring Heeled jack occurred at Barnes Common, South West London, in 1837, where ‘a businessman, taking a short cut home, witnessed a figure propel himself high over the railings of the adjoining cemetery before bounding away into the darkness (Dr Merlin Coverley, ‘Occult London’, pg 72). This places the popularised career of Spring Heeled Jack in the precise era that enormous earthworks were being carried out in Highgate during the creation of the cemetery.
Spring Heeled Jack’s utter disregard for walls or barriers of any kind also resonates with sightings of the Highgate entity. When David Farrant sighted the entity that life altering night in the winter of 1969, it was located within the locked cemetery gates (known as the top, or north gate). Martin Trent who witnessed the apparition in 2005 describes seeing it glide through the main gates which were also locked at the time. His encounter also took place after nightfall, as have the majority of sightings of both entities under discussion. When sighted in Swain’s Lane, the Highgate entity often appears to vanish without trace in parts of the lane which are lined with 15ft high walls. This was the case when as recalled by David Farrant a young nurse was thrown to the ground there by the entity, which she then saw vanish in the headlamps of an approaching car. Exhibiting rather less athletic prowess than Jack (no prancing about for our entity), it has on occasion been recorded as slithering over the cemetery walls taking the form of a presumably ectoplasmic substance resembling treacle.
Invariably, in common with Spring Heeled Jack, the Highgate entity is not pleasant to be around, with its seemingly compulsive tendency to assault people who cross its path (or more often whose path it crosses). I am only aware of one encounter, in this instance by members of the North London Paranormal Investigations team, in which the entity appeared as psychically communicative in a non-threatening fashion. Although Martin Trent’s encounter did not result in a physical assault, my various interviews with Mr Trent indicate that he was left feeling extremely unnerved by what he saw – and heard. Indeed some seven years later he exudes a certain uncomfortableness when discussing it, as if recalling with photographic precision something which refuses to fade from memory. Spring Heeled Jack was often unable to contain his glee at frightening – or indeed hurting – his human counterparts, and would apparently often let rip a tremendously evil cackle as he leaped off into the night. It seems that the Highgate entity, unlike Jack is capable of comporting itself in a rather more erudite fashion when the mood suits it, as on this occasion it addressed Mr Trent in a well-spoken if somewhat anachronistic manner, with the words ‘Good evening to you sir.’ Even this rare display of civility was tainted with vague menace however, as the entity somehow threw its voice and whispered directly in Mr Trent’s ear from a distance of some 8ft. Mr Trent, perhaps wisely, chose not reply.
Whilst the Highgate entity does not appear to possess the ability to breath blueish white flames in the face of witnesses (perhaps it considers this far too vulgar a display of power), its general M.O. appears to be to attack indiscriminately, both physically (in some recorded cases knocking people to the ground) and psychically by seemingly mesmerising witnesses (assisted by prolonged and intense eye contact, much like the way a wild cat freezes its prey with fear) and then draining them of energy.
The nervous effects of experiencing such a psychic attack do indeed resemble what we know about the rapidly deteriorating health of those who were unfortunate enough to encounter Spring Heeled Jack. Letters from a variety of correspondents recording his attacks, and presented to the public for inspection by the Lord Mayor of London in 1838, recall his female victims being scared into “dangerous fits” and in some cases being confined to bed for a period of convalescence – in the worst scenarios with no anticipated hope of regaining their wits. It certainly seems to be the case that anyone who genuinely has sight of the Highgate entity is distressed, disturbed and troubled by their experience. In some cases even hospitalisation has resulted, with one witness’s hair allegedly turning white over night after he collapsed from shock.
And let us not forget Jack and the Highgate entity’s most distinctive ocular feature. The popular press inspired penny dreadful of the 1860s, ‘Spring-Heeled Jack – The Terror of London’, informs readers that Jack’s eyes ‘resembled red balls of fire’, and this seems to be characteristic of most sightings of Jack. Twentieth century eyewitness accounts of the Highgate entity almost invariably invest it with the red glowing eyes of all one’s better monsters; indeed, David Farrant described the eyes of the entity which he sighted in 1969 as resembling two red points of light. Not quite red balls of flame; but then neither does his stripped down account of his sighting resemble the sensationalist exaggeration of a penny dreadful.
Did the memories of a generation now in their 60s and 70s, including David Farrant, of hearing rumours in childhood of a tall figure vanishing through the cemetery wall, evolve from the popularly held beliefs of TWO Highgate generations preceding them? Or did the entity proper come into existence in the late 1960s as been alleged by some who doubt its antiquarian status? What exactly does Hodgson Yates mean when he refers to his oral narrators ‘knowing the advantage of local colour’ in what he considers to be their transposing of Jack’s activities to Highgate? This could lend itself to the mundane explanation that the story was simply transposed to Highgate by the storytellers in order to frighten the listeners. Equally it could imply the village’s extant reputation as a haunted location. Sadly the author does not elaborate for the benefit of those of us who were not present in 1830s Highgate.
It is beyond the scope of this article to debate the supernatural or otherwise nature of Spring Heeled Jack. Neither have I deliberately ignored what he did NOT have in common with the Highgate entity. It is my opinion that if one had encountered a violent, malignant entity with red glowing eyes which was able to vanish from (or into) confined spaces at will, one would not be especially concerned if it was attired in the rather changeable wardrobe of Spring Heeled Jack or the ubiquitous cloak of the Highgate entity, should one be lucky enough to stumble across a comparative entity, seen by others, which confirmed one’s own sense of sanity.
It has simply been my intention to raise for debate the possibility that the people of Highgate were seeing SOMETHING spectral in the 1830s and 1840s, and that they approximated what they were seeing to the only similar entity which they had heard about elsewhere. There are undeniably many similarities between what we can infer that they were seeing, and what scores of witness in the proceeding two centuries recount. Without this proliferation of sightings, my interpretation of the two diarists’ memories would seem superfluous. But personally I feel that as I DO have a bulging archive of sightings of a red eyed, dark clad, violent roadside entity, my observation, although it can only remain a subjective matter for conjecture, certainly does suggest ramifications worthy of debate.
Oh, and if Jack gets you going then do keep an eye out for forthcoming (hopefully!) collaboration between authors and historians Mike Dash and Dr David Clarke – ‘Spring–heeled Jack: Sources and Interpretation‘. Updates on how to order the book will hopefully be available at the following links in the very near future: mikedash.com and drdavidclarke.co.uk