On 13 April 1838 the Brighton Gazette informed its readers that a local gardener had been attacked by a mysterious creature. The attack took place between 9 and 10 pm in what would now be described as the Round Hill area of Brighton. At the time, this area represented the northernmost outskirts of the town, and was largely undeveloped apart from some affluent housing on Rose Hill that had been built in the 1820s.
The attack took place within the garden of one of these houses. A growling beast ‘in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal’ climbed up on the garden wall and, even though the wall was protected by broken glass, ran across it. Before the terrified gardener could escape, the creature leaped down and chased the man and his equally terrified dog. After toying with his victims for some time, the monster abruptly scaled the wall and vanished.
This odd story was published a week after the attack. Although there was no mention of it by the Gazette’s local rival, The Brighton Herald, the story gathered national interest. The following day, the Gazette piece was reprinted in full by The Times. Why did this obscure local story achieve such prominence?
The reason was that the attack was blamed on a notorious figure who had already been terrifying London in the early months of 1838, and would go on to make unwelcome appearances throughout the 19th century: Spring-heeled Jack.
‘Spring-heeled Jack’ article from The Times, 14 April 1838
“Spring-heeled Jack” has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast. On Friday evening, between 9 and 10 o’clock, he appeared, as we are informed, to a gardener near Rose-hill, “in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal,” and having first attracted attention by a growl, then mounted the garden wall, covered as it was with broken glass, and ran along it upon all-fours, to the great terror and consternation of the gardener, who began to think it time to escape. He was accordingly about to leave the garden when Spring-heeled Jack leaped from the wall, and chased him for some time; the dog was called, but slunk away, apparently as much as his terrified master. Having amused himself for some time with the trembling gardener, Spring-heeled Jack scaled the wall, and made his exit. The fellow may probably amuse himself in this way once too often.
— Brighton Gazette
Spring Heeled Jack from The Boys’ Standard, 8 January 1886. Source: Wikipedia Commons; original source unknown.
If you have heard of Spring-heeled jack, it is likely that you will have a mental image of a character that is very different to that described by the Brighton Gazette. Later in the century, Jack was often depicted in ‘penny dreadfuls’ and other forms of illustrated popular literature. Spring-heeled Jack is usually portrayed as a devil-like figure, tall and thin, often wearing a cape, and more human than animal. No two sightings of Jack were ever alike, and he was often described with varying features such as claws, cold and clammy hands, glowing eyes, and even the ability to breathe fire. The only unifying feature among these reports was that Jack could jump unnaturally great heights.
The Gazette report seems to have been the first sighting of Spring-heeled Jack outside of London, but given the conventional descriptions of him, it may seem puzzling that the Brighton case was attributed to Jack at all. However, most of the familiar illustrations of Spring-heeled Jack were produced decades after the Brighton attack. The Gazette story is actually remarkably consistent with some of the earliest reports of Jack.
The best source of information on Spring-heeled jack can be found in a long and extensively researched article by Mike Dash. According to Dash, the first sightings of Jack date from the autumn of 1837, but they did not appear in newspapers until December of that year. Descriptions of Jack from these early encounters vary wildly, but he was commonly compared to a ‘ghost’, ‘devil’ or ‘bear’. The demonic image of Jack seems to date from reports of two similar attacks on young women in late February 1838: Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales. The Alsop case in particular was widely reported, and seems to have been the chief trigger for an outbreak of Spring-heeled Jack panic in London.
The Brighton case harks back to the earliest reports, but it is also in keeping with an unusual intervention by the Lord Mayor of London at the beginning of the year. On 8 January 1838, Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor, made public the contents of a letter he had received several days previously. The letter, as reported in The Times the following day, claimed that the recent mysterious attacks were the work of vicious aristocratic pranksters.
‘It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown), that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises — a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses. At one house he rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open the door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that, the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses, but, on seeing any man, screams out most violently ‘Take him away! There are two ladies (which your Lordship will regret to hear), who have husbands and children, and who are not expected to recover, but likely to become burdens to their families.’
— The Times, 9 January 1838
Two days later, The Times reported that the Lord Mayor had received further letters confirming the rumour, and in the quoted extracts, the description of Spring-heeled Jack as a bear occurs again. One anonymous writer, who claims to have heard further details about the culprits, fears that ‘the bet is that the monster shall kill six women in some given time’ and that he has been seen ‘in St John’s Wood clad in mail, and as a bear’. Another writer, named ‘J.C’ claimed that:
The villain mentioned… as appearing in the guise of a ghost, bear and devil, has been within the last week or so repeatedly seen at Lewisham and Blackheath. So much, indeed, he has frightened the inhabitants of those peaceful districts, that women and children durst not stir out of their houses after dark.’
— The Times, 11 January 1838
These early reports are consistent with the tale told by the Brighton gardener. The location of the Brighton attack may also be significant. Spring-heeled Jack’s early appearances all took place in the less populous villages surrounding London, and the Round Hill area was also on the fringes of the town. With the London reports still fresh in the minds of the local press, this explains why the attack was readily identified as the work of Spring-heeled Jack. It also explains why the Gazette was so quick to claim that the attack was the work of violent hoaxers. But why, after his early escapades in London, would Spring-heeled Jack have made a trip to the South Coast?
A dark tourist?
I think there are two broad explanations for this. The first depends upon whether the attacks were ever the work of a single being or group of men. Many attacks on young women were attributed to Jack in spite of little evidence to support this, and Dash cites several cases of feeble attempts by copycat pranksters who were caught by the police. It is possible that the Spring-heeled Jack attacks were discrete assaults that had become connected by popular rumour, and eventually inflated by newspapers into an early media myth. But if there were a core number of attacks by one or more people, as the authorities suspected at the time, who was responsible?
Although Jack often appeared in ghostly or demonic form during the 1837-38 attacks, the contemporary press was keen to dismiss the idea that he may be a supernatural being. This was probably deliberate, and may have been a result of political or police pressure to try to prevent mass panic. More recently, Jack has been cited by ufologists as evidence of a visit by an extraterrestrial being, on the basis that his extraordinary abilities, such as leaping great heights, could not have been faked by humans. However, if we accept that more worldly explanations are more plausible, it seems likely that Spring-heeled Jack was the work of one or more hoaxers.
The 8 January letter revealed by the Lord Mayor suggested that the culprits were noblemen, and a wealthy young man with few responsibilities may have had the time and resources to carry out the hoax. A 1977 book by Peter Haining identified the Marquis of Waterford, Henry Beresford, as the man responsible. Waterford was a notorious violent prankster, and is a plausible suspect, but there is no hard evidence to support this theory. Indeed, the identity of Spring-Heeled Jack, like that other infamous Jack of the 19th century, Jack the Ripper, is unlikely to ever be proven. But if a wealthy aristocrat like Waterford were responsible, Brighton is precisely the sort of place such a man may have visited. Brighton’s fame as a health resort since the 1750s had always been closely followed by its reputation as a place of pleasure, and by the late 1830s it remained a favoured town for fashionable visitors. Perhaps ‘Jack’, wary that he might be caught in London, decided to take his props for a trip to an unsuspecting seaside? This is pure speculation, of course, but the repeated assertion that Jack was the work of an ennobled miscreant is consistent with the class of visitors who came to Brighton at this time.
The second explanation is that Spring-heeled Jack’s appearance in Brighton is a reflection of the town’s relationship with London. Although the description of Brighton as ‘London by sea’ is often regarded as a modern phrase, it dates back to the early nineteenth century. The need to accommodate and attract fashionable visitors to the town required the comforts and pleasures of the capital to be replicated in Brighton. As people flocked to the town looking for work and business opportunities, Brighton grew rapidly. In 1801, the population of the town was just over 7000 people; by 1831 it had over 40,000 inhabitants: a fivefold growth in just thirty years. Brighton was changing rapidly in the early nineteenth century, and transforming into a sophisticated urban settlement.
Considered in this context, Spring-heeled Jack may have simply been another cultural import from the capital. It is possible that a strange but vague story from the fringes of the town was reinterpreted according to the spreading legend. The attacker was labelled as another tourist coming to the town, a more sinister sort of fashionable visitor. Spring-heeled Jack’s brief appearance in Brighton may tell us more about Brighton than it does about Jack.
It is also possible that the Brighton sighting was a publicity stunt. The Brighton Gazette’s report is comparatively non-sensational, but we know very little of the origin of the story; the report suggests that it has not come directly from the victim of the attack. It may seem odd that a seaside resort would try to promote itself through the presence of a vicious monster, although we know from studies of dark tourism that sites of death, suffering and tragedy attract visitors. It is certainly curious that less than two weeks after his appearance in Brighton, a rival seaside resort, Southend, claimed that Jack had appeared there. On 28 April 1838, the County Herald & Morning Advertiser ran the headline ‘Spring-heeled Jack comes to Southend’, reporting that a young woman had been attacked on the cliffs by a ‘gentleman’. Dash notes that this case has ‘little… in common with the modus operandi of the “real” assailant,’ and that it was ‘a good indication… of how far the general panic had spread,’ but does it also hint at an expression of rivalry, perhaps even unconsciously, between the two seaside resorts?
After April 1838, there seem to have been no new sightings of Spring-heeled Jack in the country for several decades. A further spate of appearances occurred in London, Aldershot and Sheffield in the 1870s, and he was reported in Edinburgh and Liverpool in the following decades. He receded from memory in the first half of the twentieth century, although the myth was revived by the growing ufology movement from the 1960s onwards. The memory of Spring-heeled Jack is still occasionally invoked in reports of mysterious leaping figures, such as this Surrey Comet story from February 2012.
Spring-heeled Jack has never returned to Brighton since his encounter with the Round Hill gardener. But Jack has left one legacy in our collections. Take a trip to the Wizard’s Attic in Hove Museum, take a look around the display cases, and you will find box of spring-soled children’s shoes called ‘Spring-Heeled Jacks’.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer