History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Living in fear: the dangers of Victorian London

From the terror of being strangled by violent thieves to tales that the sewers were infested with a squealing band of pigs, 19th-century Londoners spent much of their time living in fear. Emma Butcher and Tim Blythe reveal what seven such scare stories can tell us about the psyche of the imperial capital

Workers repair Fleet sewer in 1854. London’s creaking sewer network sparked anxieties over what lay beneath the sprawling capital. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Published: December 22, 2020 at 8:00 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

The garrotting panic of 1862

Victorian London was a sprawling metropolis, an imperial capital, the nerve-centre of the mightiest nation on Earth. Yet it was also a city wracked by fear. Confronted by rapid industrialisation, crowded slums and graphic media reports of a thriving criminal underbelly, many Londoners may have come to the conclusion that danger lurked in every shadow. And a single mugging in 1862 apparently confirmed their fears.


On 17 July, Hugh Pilkington, the Liberal MP for Blackburn, was walking home from a late sitting in the Commons when he was choked and robbed (he survived the attack). The press latched on to this incident and ramped up its coverage on street violence, despite no indication that criminal activity had increased. The public panicked, believing that criminals stalked the streets, searching for victims to strangle or ‘garrotte’.

The media’s sensationalism linked the mythical rise in violence to ‘ticket-of-leave’ men – convicted criminals who were granted conditional parole – and the recent reduction of criminals transported to Australia. To combat this threat, Punch produced a number of cartoons demonstrating how individuals could deal with the risk of garrotting, such as by walking back-to-back in pairs or by wearing protective clothing in the form of a collar studded with huge spikes (the first Metropolitan Police officers were given these collars as standard issue).

A satirical cartoon shows a man wearing an array of anti-garrotting spikes. A single mugging in 1862 convinced many that London was at the mercy of violent thieves. (Photo by Topfoto)
A satirical cartoon shows a man wearing an array of anti-garrotting spikes. A single mugging in 1862 convinced many that London was at the mercy of violent thieves. (Photo by Topfoto)

Press coverage also criticised the ‘ineffective’ police force and called for the redrafting of sympathetic prison reform proposals. The campaign was so pronounced that parliament rapidly drew-up and passed the Garrotters Act in 1863, which brought back floggings as a punishment for violent robbery. So, although the panic itself was short-lived, the change to prison reform, favouring deterrence over rehabilitation, ensured that harsh attitudes towards criminality endured. For, as The Times noted: “It is of far more moment to a Londoner that he should be able at all hours of the day or night to walk safely in the streets of London.”


The London beer flood

During the 19th century, alcohol was increasingly viewed as a perilous substance with the capacity to cause society to crumble. Events on 17 October 1814 did little to assuage these anxieties. Horse Shoe Brewery, located just off Tottenham Court Road, specialised in the making of porter. On the day in question, George Crick, a brewery employee, noticed a breakage in the enormous brewing vats, although he thought there was no imminent danger. Unbeknown to him, pressure was building within the damaged vat until it exploded with such power that it caused another nearby vat to burst too.

The result was a tidal wave of beer, supposedly 15 feet high and approaching 1 million litres in volume. This tsunami of porter crashed out of the brewery and into the surround- ing slums of St Giles Rookery with such force that it de- stroyed walls and completely flooded basements, dashing people “to pieces”. A passing American tourist wrote:

Whole dwellings were literally riddled by flood; numbers were killed... in every direction came the groans of sufferers.

In total, eight people, all working-class women and children, lost their lives. Soon after, labourers were assigned the “distressing task” of clearing the fallout, working in the midst of “offensive and over- powering” beer fumes. Rumours were soon doing the rounds that a number died from alcohol poison- ing after gleefully drinking from the sea of beer that covered the streets. However, newspaper articles actually report the opposite, referencing the “caution and humanity” of locals in rescuing victims and paying their respect to those who died.

More like this

Regardless, the incident served as a reminder to London’s self-appointed moral guardians that alcohol posed a threat to the poor. The Morning Post even compared breweries to “magazines for gun-powder”. The message was clear: it was not only dangerous to drink beer, but also to produce it in the first place.


The pig-faced woman of Manchester Square

In summer 1815, the night-skies of London were lit up to celebrate Britain’s victory at the battle of Waterloo. But not all eyes were on the bright lights. A magnificently dressed woman was seen sitting in a carriage driving about the sights, but on closer inspection, observers were shocked to see that she had the face of a pig.

Previously, a rumour had swept London that a pig-faced noblewoman lived in Marylebone, who ate from a silver trough, and when spoken to, replied only in grunts. Although the woman was reported to be “most delicately formed, and of the greatest symmetry”, atop her neck sat a “hideous face”. Her blend of beauty and beast inspired various artists, such as the famed caricaturist George Cruikshank, who drew her playing piano in an alluring white dress, with a transparent veil covering her snout.

The media suggested that the pig-faced woman had come to London in order to find a husband, and some suitors went as far to write into the papers to appeal to her: “A SINGLE GENTLEMAN…,” wrote one, “is desirous of explaining his Mind to the Friends of a Person who has a Misfortune in her Face. His intentions are sincere.”

Other suitors called on her in person, only to find she was far from wife material. One baronet was reported to have called upon the “great lady”, only to recoil from her with shouts of horror as she attacked his neck, causing an injury that required treatment by a surgeon.

A contemporary portrait of the pig-faced woman, who embodied fears that women could be “enigmatic, other-worldly and ultimately dangerous”. (Photo by Alamy)
A contemporary portrait of the pig-faced woman, who embodied fears that women could be “enigmatic, other-worldly and ultimately dangerous”. (Photo by Alamy)

Theories on the origins of such stories vary. It’s been suggested that they were inspired by a real-life woman with a facial disfigurement, or, alternatively, that they were based on a mythological history of pig-faced women dating back to the 1600s.

Either way – presented as violent, repulsive and sexual in equal parts – the pig-faced woman posed a threat to traditional gender roles. She showed that women did not necessarily fit into Victorian ideals of beauty, and could instead be enigmatic, other-worldly and ultimately dangerous.


The train for the dead

In the winter of 1854, a new railway line was opened in London. The Illustrated London News was full of praise, writing joyfully of people leaving the dense city to “reach the open country with the speed of the winds”.

There was just one difference about these country-bound travellers: many of them were dead. London’s Necropolis Railways was built in response to the crisis of overcrowding in the capital. Graveyards were stretched to their limits; sewers and chapels were broken into to dump bodies; and the ongoing cholera epidemic of the 1840s and 50s led to thou-

Enter Richard Broun and Richard Sprye, entrepreneurs who proposed a solution: to transport bodies and mourners to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking in Surrey, which wasthe largest cemetery in the world and affection- ately named ‘the city of the dead’.

Despite his good intentions, Broun made an unfortunate blip in advertising. In stating his belief that all deceased should lie “in one vast heap... mingled together”, he triggered a very English panic – one that reveals a great deal about Victorian anxieties over class. Respectable, middle and upper-class Londoners believed fervently that they should be separated from the ‘great unwashed’ even in death. The bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, violently opposed “persons of opposite character carried in the same conveyance”. The idea of a respected church member being carried alongside a profligate would “shock the feelings of his friends”.

Soon, the carriages had been divided according to social rank, as was ‘Cemetery Station’ in London, with the third-class waiting room on the bottom floor, and then second and first-class receptions, accessed by a grand staircase.

Despite these problems, the railway was so successful that it ran until the Second World War, carrying more than 200,000 Londoners to their final resting place through a portal between the living and the dead.


Haunted to death at Berkeley Square

“The cobwebs in the windows lie, And dirt and dust are there; What is the unknown history, Of 50, Berkeley square?”

These words, written by the Victorian poet Frederick Doveton, reflect the unease and mystery surrounding a run-down townhouse in the affluent London district of Mayfair. In the late 19th century, it gained a reputation as being the most haunted house in London, with people driven mad at the sight of a horrible apparition in an attic room.

Soon, 50 Berkeley Square’s evil aura was the talk of dinner parties, and manna from heaven for the press. In 1879, The Mayfair Magazine reported that a Lord Lyttelton had shot at something through the darkness, which left no trace but the bullet holes in the floorboards. The periodical Notes and Queries published a letter that wrote of a maid, who was found, “lying at the foot of the bed in strong convulsions”. She was hospitalised with insanity and died the following morning.

The most common rumour was that 50 Berkeley Square was occupied by a Mr Myers, who had been jilted at the altar and now wandered the house in a state of lunacy. Another was that the house belonged to a Mr Du Pré, who “shut up his lunatic brother there in a cage in one of the attics… the poor captive was so violent that he could only be fed through a hole”.

Regardless of the truth, the house’s dilapidated and enigmatic state allowed it to embody contemporary anxieties that ranged from the rising interest in spiritualism and the occult, to the mannerisms and treatment of mentally ill people. It was not merely the subject of a fireside story, but an embodiment of the dark side of Victorian high-class society.


The sewer swine of Hampstead

Most people have heard the myth that alligators roam the sewers of New York. But did you know that London’s underground waterways were rumoured to be infested with a squealing band of sewer pigs? In the mid-19th century, increasing urbanisation meant that London’s sewer system was breaching its limits, the streets overrunning with human filth.

Nobody knew the extent of these unsanitary conditions better than the ‘toshers’, who sifted through sewer matter for treasure. In his book London Labour and the London Poor, the journalist Henry Mayhew interviewed these sewage sifters along with other characters of the Victorian underworld, revealing

the city’s dark and disturbing secrets: “There is a strange tale in existence among the shore-workers, of a race of wild hogs inhabit- ing the sewers in the neighbourhood ofHampstead. The story runs, that a sow... littered and reared her offspring in the drain... this breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous.”

The image of an army of stinking swine haunting the underground tunnels captured the imagination of the media and the public, highlighting the uncontrollable vastness of an ever-growing London, and the types of beasts that feed on urban waste. In 1859, The Daily Telegraph reported: “London is an amalgam of worlds within worlds... and the ignorance of its penetralia [hidden spaces] common to us who dwell therein. It has been said that Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black swine... whose ferocious snouts will one day up-root High- gate archway.”

At the end of the 1850s, London sewers were overhauled and the story of the black sewer swine became nothing but an urban legend. But the fact that it had such an impact on popular culture demonstrates the anxieties all classes felt over London’s infrastructure and the enduring fears of what monsters lurk beneath cities’ subterranean spaces.


Spring-Heeled Jack’s reign of terror

Victorian London is known for blurring the line between man and myth. The same streets that bore legendary and real-life monsters, such as Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, were also home to one who straddled both fact and fiction: Spring-Heeled Jack. He may be little remembered now, but Jack haunted Londoners’ dreams for almost a century.

Descriptions of Jack are inconsistent, but his appearance is frequently portrayed as devil-like, and he was apparently able to leap over walls, fences and, in some cases, small buildings. Characteristically, he was known for ambushing pedestrians, ranging from lone wanderers to mail coachmen.

Although Jack did attack men, the assaults that attracted most attention were those on women, which often involved him clawing at their bodies, scaring them into fits. In some cases, he attacked them while vomiting blue and white flames.

In the 1830s, Jack’s escapades were brought to the attention of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, by an anonymous letter, which blamed some individuals of “higher-rank” who had taken part in a reckless wager. Although sceptical at first, The Times follow-on report led to south Londoners coming forward with similar stories, and, eventually, new crimes were attributed to him in all four corners of the United Kingdom.

On the one hand, Jack was a terrifying symbol of criminal and sexual degeneracy; on the other he was a prankster and ‘bogeyman’, used to frighten children into behaving. He became a recurrent character in several penny dreadfuls (one-penny fiction) and even replaced the devil in Punch and Judy shows. By the 1900s, Jack had lost the spring in his step, described by The Idler as “gaunt and weird, with a tangled beard”. Yet his persistent presence throughout the Victorian era shows how the anxieties of the age rippled through layers of reality and imprinted themselves on the macabre and the bizarre.

Emma Butcher specialises in Romantic and Victorian literature and culture at the University of Leicester. Her books include The Brontës and War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Timothy Blythe is a freelance historian based in the south Shropshire hills


This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine


Sponsored content