Early 19th century​ urban legends and supernatural stories from Britain

Hanna Hamilton

Alright, I’m gonna be honest here: I’m a sucker for supernatural stories. Even more so, if these stories are creepy and scary and bone-chilling and leave me glancing at the corners of my room waiting for something to pounce.

I’m the type of weirdo who’ll stay awake well into the night listening to supernatural horror narrations on YouTube and watching all those “Top 10 Ghost sightings” videos.  If you are one of those too, then Hail Cthulhu, brother! If you are just getting into it, then let me welcome you and say that you are never going back now. Once you get started on stuff like this, you ain’t stopping. Ever.

What makes supernatural stories so interesting?

And popular?

And turns them into major film productions?

For one, the adrenaline rush.

Most of you have watched at least one supernatural movie (unless you are like those normal people who’d rather not get scared out of their minds by apparitions and demons and monsters from the Otherworld. How do you people do that?!) and have definitely sat on the edge of your seat, waiting for whatever atrocity to pounce from the shadows.

Come on, just admit it! We’re all one big supernatural family here!

The popularity of the supernatural is pretty obvious, especially if you take a look at the number of movies and series that revolve around it, some of them claiming to be “based on true events.”

To a large degree, the supernatural owes its huge success to some of our very own primal instincts: fear and the urge to survive at all costs.

As Neil Gaiman –don’t ask; just look him up and read his books. The man is a sage of creepy literature!- said:

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear.”

Supernatural stories prey on our fears.

As humans, we love our routines; regardless of how vehemently we might deny it. We certainly are adaptable as proven by our continued survival and progress on this planet, but we generally don’t react very kindly to the unknown. It interests us and we seek it, but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily like it when we find it.

We tend to be a bit…unsavory towards things we don’t understand, ya know?

When you have “The Conjuring” playing and you’re sitting in your dark living room all alone, the feelings are mixed, right? You know that whatever is haunting the Perron family is evil and otherworldly and should be feared. But at the same time, you really want to know what it is that haunts them. Right?



I thought so too!

However, all these ghost stories and the fascination with the supernatural are nothing new. They’ve been around for centuries, tantalizing people’s minds across the globe and keeping them awake at night.

If you’ve spent even an hour researching the supernatural (and I suspect you have) then you’ve definitely come upon all sorts of stories from all over the world, with each country having something new and intriguing to offer.

This fascination with supernatural stories is one of the reasons that they turn into popular urban legends. You sure have heard of those too, right? No wonder! Urban legends have proven to be remarkably versatile against common sense. Wanna guess why? Yep, that’s right! Good old fear and survival! Studies have shown that humans are more likely to remember certain kinds of information better than others, such as knowledge that might keep us alive (ding ding ding!)

Many popular myths carry implicit warnings. When researchers analyzed 220 urban legends, they found that the stories were much more likely to mention hazards than benefits. And that’s what makes them memorable.

One theory of cultural transmission argues that stories, myths, and religious concepts are most likely to endure when they have enough familiar elements to feel plausible, but also have two to three “counterintuitive” elements that make them memorable. Knowing that an urban legend isn’t true won’t necessarily inoculate you against its virality.

But yeaaah, I’ve rambled enough!

The 1800s spawned countless tales of ghosts and spirits and spooky events. Some of them, like legends of silent ghost trains gliding past startled witnesses on dark nights, were so common that it’s impossible to pinpoint where or when the stories began. And it seems that every place on earth has some version of a 19th-century ghost story.

Considering this is an article on supernatural stories and urban legends from early 19th century England, we’re gonna focus on those. But make no mistake; there is an endless supply of creepy stories out there to satisfy even the most demanding thrill seekers!

Let’s take a look at a few of them!

Spring-Heeled Jack

Though this urban legend reached peak popularity in 1837-1839, it had already been in existence since the first decade of the 1800s.

The name Spring-Heeled Jack came to be due to the creature’s alleged abnormal ability to leap great heights and distances. In 1837, the legend gained a lot of popularity due to an influx of reports of a strange creature attacking women around South London.

Jacks’ descriptions varied: from bat-like wings and a mouth that breathed blue flames, to metal claws and spring-loaded boots that helped him execute his abnormal leaps. Most of his victims were young women but there are no reports of a body count.

Sightings continued throughout the country for most of the 19th century. There are several theories about Jack’s identity, up to and including a stranded extraterrestrial.

Regardless of his true identity, Spring-Heeled Jack inspired a lot of copy-cats and even a children’s book.

Which makes me question the type of bedtime stories parents read to their kids.

Hey mommy, tell me a story.

Of course, honey. Let me tell you about an alien with women issues…

The Black Dog

Alright, I’m pretty sure you’ve all heard about this one.

From Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” to J.K. Rowling’s Padfoot (I love you, Sirius!), the figure of the shadowy black dog is one of the most prevalent and enduring among those of British folklore.

Ghostly and usually malevolent, often frighteningly large, the Black Dog –often identified as a Hellhound- is common to most regions of Britain and has been around for hundreds of years.

According to the legend, seeing a Black Dog is almost always a bad omen and a portent of death.

While the creature has mostly faded into obscurity nowadays, the Black Dog is certainly one of the most popular and enduring figures of British mythology.

The Hotwells Haunting

In April 1831, a retired lawyer, his daughter, and three servants moved into an old house known as Hotwells near the city of Bristol. Less than two weeks later, two of the servants left, complaining that the house was haunted by a phantom black dog and a large ape. They also heard frightening noises in the attic and courtyard, as though people were being beaten and strangled.

Although the house drove several more servants away, the lawyer didn’t see or hear anything unusual until November, when a loud scream woke him up in the middle of the night. The scream came from above, on the roof, and then he heard the sounds of 20 or 30 men ripping off the roof tiles and throwing them into the garden.

When the lawyer went to investigate outside, he found nothing in the garden or on the roof. After a few more incidents like this, the lawyer decided to sell the house in 1832. The subsequent owners also experienced trouble, however, and the house was torn down.

The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square

Imagine the uproar during the heavy winter of 1814 that swept through London when rumors spread about a pig-faced woman living in fashionable Manchester Square.  In some reports, she was described as the daughter of a noblewoman from Grosvenor Square.

It was claimed that she would occasionally venture out of the house in a carriage, hidden by a heavy veil; several letters to the London newspapers reported sightings of a snout protruding from a window or a veiled, silhouetted pig’s head in a passing carriage.

The Pig-faced Lady of Manchester Square became a leading topic of conversation in London. She soon began to be reported in newspapers as fact, and thousands of people believed in her existence. On 9 February 1815, an advertisement appeared in the Times from a self-described “young Gentlewoman”, offering to be the Pig-faced Lady’s companion in return for “a handsome income yearly and a premium for residing with her 7 years”.

Like, ouch! No consideration for the poor woman’s feeling!

It’s called empathy people! And tact!

The Ghost of William Field

In 1804, William Field, father of James Field, the local wheelwright, hanged himself in his barn at South Moreton with the ‘hair line’. Various people were terrified shortly afterwards by an apparition in the stockyard, just south of the barn, which was supposed to be his ghost. This became so alarming that a body of eleven clergies from the neighborhood met together to lay the ghost in the pond that was in the yard of the premises.

Two laboring men, John, and James Parkes, desirous of seeing the result, hid under the straw in the barn. As the clergy proceeded with the ceremony the ghost manifested his presence and demanded, which would they give him, the rooster on the dunghill or the two mice under the straw? Fortunately, they offered the rooster! Instantly the cock’s head flew off and the body was torn to pieces; but it seems that the ghost was laid, for nothing more was seen or heard of it.

An exploding rooster? Really, Sir Ghost, tone down the drama a bit, will you?

The Willington Mill Haunting

Between 1831 and 1847, businessman Joseph Procter Jr. and his family lived in Willington Mill, a mill house built on land that was once the site of a witch’s cottage. While the first few years of their stay there were uneventful and ordinary enough, things changed 1835 when the family started being bombarded by unexplained occurrences.  The Procters and their servants began to hear inexplicable footsteps pacing across an empty room above their nursery. Other strange noises, like knocks, ringing bells, and voices, could soon be heard all over the house.

Nobody in the house was spared from the haunting. The children’s beds not only shook but were circled around by invisible footsteps at night. One of the girls reported seeing the disembodied head of an old woman staring at her in bed, while another saw a woman without any eyes sitting on her mother’s bed. (I would have screamed bloody murder and ran the hell out of there! Seriously people, it’s called self-preservation!)

The number of other apparitions seen at the Procters’ house was seemingly endless: A large white cat that walked into a furnace, a ghost who stared at neighbors through an upper-story window, and a dancing handkerchief-like object that flew outside the home were among a few of the ghosts spotted by the Procters and their friends and visitors.

I think it’s very obvious that as humans, we have a love-hate relationship with ghosts and other supernatural entities. I mean, I like watching about them, but I definitely wouldn’t want to wake up to a shadow staring at me from a corner in my room. That’d mean the immediate evacuation of the room.

And the burning down of the house.

And an exorcism!

So, when mysterious circumstances occur out of the corner of your eye, where 19th-century noises are heard and items disappear from shelves and reappear on another, watch out for what could be lurking in the shadows!

*Note: In the United Kingdom, the Regency is a sub-period of the Georgian era (1714-1830) and runs from 1811 to 1820. It is named after the Prince of Wales who, as Prince Regent, took over rule from his ill father, George III, during this time. For the purpose of this article, we consider the Regency era to be from 1800 to 1837(when Queen Victoria rose to the throne).

Written by Hanna Hamilton

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