Did East-end designer, Alexander McQueen really sew a hidden insult into the jacket of Prince Charles? Did a lost Zeppelin descend onto Hackney Marshes in 1916 allowing a tall, eye-patched man to ask a couple for directions to Silvertown? Did a construction worker really defecate in one of the Olympic rings and have it welded shut?
Author and co-organiser of The London Fortean Society, Scott Wood delves into the city’s rumours, folk tales and the stories passed on by “foafs” (the friend of a friend) in his new book London Urban Legends, a collection of historical and contemporary tales based on the seeds of anecdotes that have evolved and been passed on.
The London underground is a good place to start for mysterious goings on
Stemming from lies, pranks and publicity stunts, London has seen recurring urban legends over time, and Wood tries to answer what makes the stories last.
“I was actually asked this the other day,” he said.
“I think the secret is to tie something that makes someone want to pass it on, like a warning of some kind. It also needs to have something that everyone can relate to, such as travelling on the tube.”
The great-nephew of a spiritualist, Wood had a keen interest in the paranormal from a young age, however it was reading the small digest magazine, The Unknown as a “precocious pre-adolescent” in the mid 80s, that really captured his imagination.
The Unknown magazine, 1939
“It was the same story in the same place which then changes to fit different areas and different groups of people.”
And in each of the 22 chapters, Wood explores the link between urban legends that have somehow spread across the world.
“The story of the corpse on the tube in London where a girl is murdered and held up between two men as if she was alive is told in America as a dead drunk on the subway who is staring at a woman, who then slaps him.
This drunk isn’t dead but it could be where the legend began
“It’s also told elsewhere as a family on holiday who have to smuggle their dead Granny back.”
But before you go suspiciously eyeing up every trio on the tube, Wood says that the idea of the urban legend isn’t to tell the truth and he actually believes very few of the stories in London Urban Legends are based on real events.
“It’s perhaps much more about the story then the sighting of the “big cat” or “ghost” that allowed people to express themselves;
“Maybe they’re all stories?”
And what of it? In a world where people are “creatures of narrative”, Wood says we need the tales to help us make sense of things and sharing is the way to do it.
“The world has always been big and difficult to understand and stories are way of explaining things.
Eddie’s got some great stories
“People think about folklore as an ancient thing passed on by the oldest person in the village, but it’s not. It’s the stories that don’t belong to the government of the church or the authority; they belong to the people whether it’s at the canteen, or the water cooler.”
And despite the prevalence of story-telling in pubs and tea shops across the city, Wood said that he first started writing a blog called Living Lore due to the distinct lack of books and writing about urban legends in the UK which later inspired the book.
“In America, there are a lot of good writers on the subject, but in England it’s usually in the comedy section or in newspaper columns.
Llorona, the angel of death, is a pretty big deal in the US
“Since The Tumour In The Whale in 1978, (by Rodney Dale) I think this is the first urban legend book.”
Having collected lots of stories over the last few years, Wood had to decide on what to put in his book and managed to split them up into three sections which he feels reflect our current values.
“The first section illustrates our relationship with celebrities and the Royals and the idea that they live a different life which sometimes interacts with us and changes the atmosphere.
“Someone ordinary, can leave a hidden message, like an artist or architect and it shows that we have always been utterly obsessed with those thought to be above us.
They have no idea a stinking secret may lie within those rings
“Section two highlights the fact that people are suspicous of those who are not like them and the the idea that the criminal conspires against us, its not random, its a conspiracy, and we can bump into them in shops or fast food joints.
“The third part is all about animal stories and brings about our sense of wonder which is the positive thing out of this.
“The idea that there’s a big cat in Plumpstead or the parakeets in West London are all descendants of the birds Jimmy Hendrix once kept; you can’t just have a ordinary story.”
No words needed
One of Wood’s favourite urban legends is the tale of The Hackney Bear, where four young boys from Lower Clapton encountered a “giant great growling hair thing” on Hackney Marshes.
With lots of strange information seeping out of the story, including a couple throwing snowballs at the boys to drive them away, and the ex-drummer of 90s Brit Pop band Kula Shaker coming forward to identify the “bear” as his dog, a man called Ron finally stepped up and said it was he who was the bear; in fancy dress.
Paul Winterhart and “The Beast of Hackney Marshes”
Other East End tales such sightseeing spots of The Kray’s murder sprees, plague pits underneath Algate stations and those accused of being the infamous Jack The Ripper, are all included in London Urban Legends, and Wood suggests the rich culture of the area has something to do with it’s memorable stories.
“I hear a lot more stories from the East of the city. I’m not sure whether it has something to do with the creative people who live there and who might like telling stories more, or whether it’s a hangover from Cockney hospitality.”
East London also provides a meeting place for The London Fortean Society, an idea for a group that came from a night in the pub.
“We were talking about pagan events and skeptics in London and we decided we wanted to be a grey area between disbelief and we welcome anyone with an open mind.
A werewolf or an unshaven man? Discuss
“We invite speakers to provide a discussion on something, be it whether Shakespeare is really Shakespeare to the professor at the British Museum who wants to completely rebuild Noahs Ark.”
At home, Wood says that started to read his 5-year-old son, Arthur, some mythology as his bedtime story.
“I had to stop in the end, it was just a list of mythological creatures, there was no story.
“But when I stopped, Arthur started shouting “I WANT MYTHOLOGY, I WANT MYTHOLOGY”. I was trying to get him to sleep at the time, but I was so proud. So proud.”