8 British mythical figures

Eugene Byrne explores the tales of eight of Britain’s most famous mythical figures…

 

1) Dick Whittington

The Dick of pantomime fame actually existed, and really did become Lord Mayor of London in the 14th century.

The real Richard Whittington probably came from Pauntley in Gloucestershire and did make his way to London. And while he might have dreamed of streets paved with gold, he wasn’t impoverished to start with.

He made a fortune as a mercer (a textiles merchant) and was so wealthy that he loaned money to the crown. He became Lord Mayor in 1397 and held office for four terms. His wife predeceased him, and they had no children, so he left much of his fortune for the benefit of Londoners, bequeathing sums of money to help build or improve a number of landmarks, including Newgate Prison and Saint Bartholomew's hospital.

He died in 1423, and it seems he lived on in popular memory as an honest country lad who had made his fortune and consorted with kings. The first time we come across his well-known cat is in a 16th century engraving in which Whittington is resting his hand on a skull; when this proved unpopular with the punters, the engraver replaced it with a cat.

 

2) Gef the talking mongoose

Gef is a now almost-forgotten media sensation from the 1930s: a talking mongoose who befriended a couple – James and Margaret Irving – and their teenage daughter Voirrey at their farmhouse at Dalby on the Isle of Man.

Gef, pronounced ‘Jeff’, was a rat-sized creature with yellow fur who told the Irvings that he was a mongoose who had been born in Delhi in Victorian times. The family claimed that he woke them when they overslept, scared away mice, and would chatter to them from behind hedges whenever they went out walking. They fed him bananas and chocolate, left out in a saucer.

The case attracted reporters eager to see or hear the creature, but they found no evidence, though some local people besides the Irvings claimed to have seen or heard Gef. Historian and broadcaster Richard Lambert, and Harry Price – who was well known for investigating haunted houses and exposing fake psychics – went to the Isle of Man to investigate the case and produced a book about it. This later resulted in Lambert successfully suing politician and public servant Sir Cecil Levita for defamation when the latter suggested that Lambert was unfit to be on the board of the British Film Institute, as he believed in talking mongooses.

It is often claimed that Gef was the product of Voirrey Irving’s imagination, but right up to her death in 2005 she maintained that he was real.

 

3) Ossian

Ossian was the narrator of a cycle of epic poems collected in Scotland and Ireland Gaelic from oral traditions by James Macpherson (1736-1796), a son of an Inverness farmer.

The works of the third-century bard (storyteller) were hugely popular, published from 1760 at a time when there was growing interest in the ‘authenticity’ of simpler times and ways of life. The poems featured lots of heroism, wild untamed scenery and buckets of sentiment appropriate to the ‘age of sensibility’. They were quickly translated into most European languages and were still popular decades later; they were reputed to be Napoleon's favourite reading while on campaign.

But Ossian was a fake. While the poems were copied from or inspired by earlier Gaelic sources, Macpherson’s promise to produce manuscripts or documentary evidence of Ossian's existence came to nothing. Dr Johnson (famous for creating his  Dictionary of the English Language in the 18th century), who described Macpherson as a mountebank [a charlatan who profits from their deception] and a fraud, felt it necessary to carry a big stick lest the collector/author/forger seek physical revenge.

 

4) Spring-Heeled Jack

In 1837 there were reports of a strange creature attacking women around South London, which gained the name Spring-Heeled Jack because he was capable of leaping great heights and distances. Reports varied: Jack was said to have had bat-like wings, or he breathed blue flames; he had metal claws for hands, or he had special spring-loaded boots to help him jump better. Most of his victims were young women, but he doesn’t appear to have killed anyone.

Sightings continued throughout the country for most of the 19th century. In Everton, Liverpool in 1904, hundreds of people saw a cloaked figure running effortlessly across rooftops and apparently jump from a church steeple, surviving to run away. There were a few less well-documented sightings thereafter, with the last potentially being in Monmouth in 1948.

There are several theories about Jack’s identity, up to and including a stranded extra-terrestrial. It’s clear, though, that the original Jack (a circus acrobat? The mad, bad Marquess of Waterford?), who obviously had issues with women, inspired several imitators. In Britain’s 19th-century newspapers ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ became a sensationalised journalistic term for any odd-looking man attacking women in the streets.

Novelist Philip Pullman picked up on Jack’s obvious ‘superhero’ qualities and his 1989 children’s book Spring-Heeled Jack turns him into a sort of Victorian Batman.


Spring-Heeled Jack, a devil-like character of British urban legend, escapes from an angry mob at Newport Arch in Lincoln, 1877. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

5) The Beast of Bodmin, and other ABCs

Reports of big cats from various parts of Britain going back to medieval times have become a torrent in recent decades. The red-top press is particularly keen on stories of what cryptozoologists (people who study animals which may not even exist) refer to as ‘ABCs’ – Alien Big Cats. We’ve had newspaper reports of the Beast of Bodmin (Cornwall), the Beast of Bevendean (Sussex), the Beast of Exmoor (Devon and Somerset), the Beast of Buchan (Aberdeenshire) and many more.

Reports are of actual sightings, and of farm and wild animals mauled to death in a manner suggesting a big cat attack.

The usual explanation is that these are pets or animals in private zoos that have escaped, or been released. A more exotic theory is that they are species that have survived in remoter parts of Britain since the Ice Age.

There is no compelling evidence of an ongoing population of big cats in Britain. The handful of definitive cases of them being killed or captured (a lynx in Devon in 1903, a puma near Inverness in 1980, a lynx in Norwich in 1991, another lynx in London in 2001 and a few others) does not account for all the witness testimonies.

While there have undoubtedly been some escaped pets and zoo animals, experts tend to believe that most sightings are distorted or mistaken views of regular cats. Or perhaps there really are big cats out there stalking the moors…

 

6) The Black Dog

Nowadays fading into obscurity, one of the oldest and most persistent mythological creatures, common to most regions of Britain, is of the ‘black dog’ – a ghostly and usually malevolent creature, often frighteningly large.

They go by various regional names - Gytrash, Padfoot, Hairy Jack, Black Shug, the Yeth Hound, Cù Sìth (Scotland), Tchico (Channel Islands), Gwyllgi (Wales), and many more. Meeting one of them is not good; in many local traditions, an encounter with the dog is a portent of death. However, in the Quantock Hills area of Somerset, it used to be said that the ‘Gurt Dog’ was a protector of children, while Hairy Jack in Lincolnshire is also more of a guard dog.

The most famous fictional black dog is, of course, Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, which appears in a story inspired by the legend of a 17th-century Devon squire whose ghost went hunting at night accompanied by a pack of black dogs.

 

7) Sawney Bean

Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean or Beane and his extended family of cannibals are supposed to have lived in a cave at Bennane Head, near Girvan in South Ayrshire, in the 16th century. Or maybe the 15th century. Or quite possibly not at all. Not that this has prevented a small tourism industry growing up around the legend.

Bean was supposed to have been a ne’er-do-well, with an aversion to honest work, who took up with an equally feckless woman. Over the years they had several children and grandchildren, the family extended further through incest.

They made a living by robbing passers-by and then eating them, pickling the leftovers after each feast.

Obviously the locals noted the regular disappearances, but the family kept a low profile, and people assumed no one could live in the caves.

They came a cropper when attempting to rob a man who was a skilled and well-armed fighter. He held the Beans off and they fled when more passers-by arrived. James VI and I then ordered a massive manhunt, and the Beans were captured and taken to Leith, or Glasgow where the men had their feet and genitalia cut off and bled to death. The women were forced to watch this before being burned alive.

And the documentary evidence that any of this happened? Very little before the 18th century, by which time the story may well have been used as anti-Scots propaganda on account of the Jacobite uprisings.

 

8) The Loch Ness Monster

Whatever students of Nessie might tell you, sightings of the monster before the 20th century were scant. What changed everything were two sightings in 1933, which turned into a classic media sensation during the summer ‘silly season’ when real news is in short supply.

The monster does, though, fit a tradition of ‘lake monsters’ which are supposed to exist elsewhere in Scotland and other parts of the world. Take, for instance, the Storsjöodjuret (‘great lake monster’) from Storsjön, the fifth largest lake in Sweden.

In the 1980s the Swedish authorities approached the British embassy in Stockholm with a letter beginning: "I am so sorry to bother you with an inquiry which will, no doubt, be greeted at first glance with gales of laughter."

In what many might call a case of bureaucrats having too much time on their hands, the Swedes sought British advice on legal protection for their monster (should it exist) from poachers and adventurers. The inquiry sparked a series of discussions between the Scottish Office, the Foreign Office and what was then the Nature Conservancy Council.

It was decided that the monster (should it exist) would already be protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. As such it would be a criminal offence to "snare, shoot or blow up with explosives" Nessie. Following this advice, Sweden went on to pass legislation offering similar protection to their monster.

Eugene Byrne is a freelance journalist and fiction writer.

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