JACK BOWMAN notes his fascination for the legendary London bogeyman, the mysterious Springheel’d Jack
As a London lad, it’s odd to think Springheel’d Jack has only been with me since 2000 when I discovered him in a book of the unexplained. As his entry unfolded, describing his rise from infamy to legend, I began to wonder why I had never heard of him. The capital has built itself on great stories of historical and legendary figures that wove themselves into London’s DNA, yet here was the ‘terror of London’ himself, a genuine phenomena for over seventy years whose name struck fear into all, who had faded away into obscurity. Why?
It also stuck me that while this was seen as something of a footnote in London’s history, it nevertheless had the potential to be a truly thrilling story. However, it wasn’t until 2007, after a brilliant suggestion from Robert Valentine, my writing partner-in-crime, to pitch it as a radio series to the Wireless Theatre Company, that the work began on shaping ‘The Springheel’d Saga’. It has all the elements you need for a slice of genuine Victorian ‘derring-do’: a devilish villain, distressed damsels, social panic, many real-life figures, police investigations, vigilante man-hunts, a press obsession, rumoured attacks on the British army… Jack’s exploits spanned the entire Victorian Era, a time when London, Britain and the world was changing forever.
A major initial hurdle was the lack of research material. Apart from a hard-to-source book by Peter Haining, The Strange and Bizarre Crimes of Spring’d Heeled Jack, which is not exactly known for its accuracy, we just had what information there was on the internet, and the online archives of The Times at our disposal. There was also a graphic novel and an out-of-print children’s book Phillip Pullman out there, but nothing of much use to us. However, since we started our work in 2007, the amazing research of Steve Ash and Mike Dash has brought so much more detail to light for those who are interested in the truth of Springheel’d Jack. Luckily for us, we were more interested in the legend.
Since 2007, it seems like that Springheel’d Jack’s legend has steadily returned to the fore. When he first appeared, Jack was a sensational story that broke when modern journalism was taking shape. He was the bogeyman on which a journalist, a pub gossip or a penny dreadful writer could weave an exciting tale to provide blockbuster entertainment for the masses. And all these years on, I began to suspect why he may have been forgotten; in time, the press moved on to newer, fresher stories of gruesome murder, social injustice and political scandal; these were actual provable events that could serve their readers needs in the same way that, until then, had been fulfilled by Jack. In time, as his crimes faded into memory, Jack’s press crown was taken away, handed over to the real-life horrors of British society, and he became a forgotten bogeyman. Forgotten… but not gone.
It seems strange, but since the first series of The Springheel’d Saga was launched, Springheel’d Jack is having a long-overdue revival. There are new books, graphic novels, YouTube videos, stop-motion shorts, animations and songs about him, and right now Mike Dash is busily working on a new tome that will surely be the definitive work on the subject. Wireless Theatre receives emails from all over the world asking for more information about this strange figure, and an episode of Primeval loosely touched on his legend, as did a two-part Luther on BBC One. It seems his time has come again, and Jack is fast becoming the 21st Century Londoner’s bogeyman of choice. He is a wonderful myth, and one we’re determined to see live on into the future. Here’s to the legend that is Springheel’d Jack. Welcome back.