London is packed with people who are essentially invisible - or at least people that we choose to ignore, because they are lonely or dispossessed and inconvenient or just simply they fill us with fear. If we donât see them, they wonât be able to harm us. Yet sometimes these figures step from between the cracks between the paving slabs to confront us, insult us, beg from us or assault us. Occasionally, the paranoia created by communal living will mean that an entirely fictitious and imagined character can step from between the cracks to haunt us. What better London character can there be than one magically created by the city itself?
Such a figure first appeared on Barnes Common in September 1837. A businessman was taking a short cut after a late night in the office when he was confronted by a bizarre figure, leaping supernaturally high over the cemetery railings, into his path. It was described as devilish with large, pointed ears and googly, glowing eyes.
The cowardly businessman ran away and all this might have been passed off as an hallucination or a prank or perhaps more logically as merely an owl riding on a Space Hopper, except for the fact that reports of the bouncy Beelzebub, who was quickly dubbed Spring-Heeled Jack, came flooding in from all over London.
Servant girl, Mary Stevens was walking through Clapham Common when an assailant grabbed her, kissed and and ripped off her clothes, groping at her with his âclawsâ which were âcold and clammy as those of a corpseâ. This prancing Phantom was scared off by Maryâs screams and disappeared into the night.
The bodice-ripping and breast fondling became a calling card of this unholy terror, yet whilst not condoning such behaviour, itâs an almost charming use of such diabolical powers. Especially compared to the gruesome, yet strangely celebrated crimes of Jackâs namesake, the Ripper. For all his exertions Spring-Heeled Jack seemed to have the imagination of a schoolboy - kissing and touching up women before realising he didnât know what to do next and pogoing off into the night, like a peripheral character from Carry On Screaming played by Charles Hawtrey.
Yet London was gripped with fear and hundreds of sightings poured in adding yet more bizarre details. Jack wore a tight-fitting oil-skin costume, he had eyes that shone like balls of fire and latterly he began shooting blue flames from his mouth into the faces of hapless Londoners. Could any of this be true, or even based on truth, or was the city caught up in a wave of hysteria, willing this unGodly creature into life?
Clearly the threat was taken very seriously. A 70 year old Duke of Wellington so insensed by the attacks that he came out of retirement, pulled on his wellies, grabbed a couple of pistols, got on his horse and rode into the night in the hope of apprehending this satanic supervillain. But what match was a septuagenarian for this flame-spewing Zebedee? The Duke claimed to have come close to capturing Jack, but the wily ghoul remained free to bounce another day.
So who or what was Jack? At the time there was a theory that the whole thing was a prank by the Marquis of Waterford, a kind of a cross between Jeremy Beadle and Henry Conway, who had provided backing for a series of convoluted Victorian hoaxes. It is true that he did have prominent eyes and was quite an athlete, but surely even he was not capable of leaping 25 feet in the air (or breathing fire) and it seems unlikely that he could have invented some kind of Victorian springy shoe (the German army invented something similar in World War II, but only succeeded in breaking a lot of German ankles). It would be a shame if the whole thing was just a posh boyâs practical joke perpetrated by a posh public school boy, though reassuringly sightings continued after the Marquisâs death in 1859.
Other theories a Jack was a mad acrobatic fire-eater, a dressed up kangaroo (but who would have dressed him and why and why was he so obsessed with human mammary glands?), even an alien used to the gravitational pull of a larger planet. But I prefer to believe that he was spewed out by London itself, a product of the madness of modern city life, making him the indisputable ultimate Londoner of all time. But with slightly better manners.