Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Strange History of Spring-Heeled Jack (2)

1886 — Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London No. 26, by the author of Turnpike Dick, the Star of the Road, London: Charles Fox, 48 numbers

by John Adcock

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” — Shakespeare

“The Antiquary brings his treasures from remote ages and presents them to this; he examines forgotten repositories, calls things back into existence, counteracts the effects of time, collects the dust of departed matter, moulds it into its pristine state, exhibits the figure to view, and imports it with a kind of immortality.” — William Hutton, 1839

“The condition of an Author, is much like that of a Strumpet… and if Reason be required, Why we betake ourselves to so Scandalous a Profession as Whoring or Pamphleteering, the same exclusive Answer will serve us both, viz. that the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistence, which we are much asham’d of.” A Trip to Jamaica, by Ned Ward, 1698

MORNING NEWSPAPERS. In England in 1837 telegraphs and telephones did not exist. Evening reading was mostly done by candlelight. The streets were lit by gas which could appear quite dim on a misty day. Messages were sent by street-messengers or by the two-penny post, parcels were sent by foot or by coach. The railroads were in operation, but not one route had been completed by 1838. There were seven daily morning newspapers; the circulation leader was the Times, followed by the Morning Chronicle, Morning Post, Morning Herald, Morning Advertiser, and the Public Ledger. Many proprietors published an evening edition as well.

A harried subeditor had to rely on his own gut instinct as to the veracity of the penny-a-liner reports deposited overnight in the newspaper mailbox. Fraudulent reporting was not uncommon in the scribbler’s subculture. The Waterloo Bridge Mystery of early October 1857 is a perfect example; human remains discovered in a carpet bag caused a newspaper sensation. It turned out to be a manufactured hoax by a “well known penny-a-liner,” low in funds during a slow news period.

STEEL JACK. On December 23, 1837, Parliament was prorogued by the Queen to the sixteenth of January. While parliamentary reporters were paid leave through the holiday, the penny-a-liners were left to their own resources. Five slow news days later, on December 28, 1837, the Morning Chronicle reported that “some scoundrel, disguised in a bear-skin, and wearing spring shoes, has been seen jumping to and fro before foot passengers in the neighborhood of Lewisham…”

EFFECTS OF ARISTOCRATIC EXAMPLE. For the last two or three nights several “larks,” as they are called, have been played off at Greenwich, and which are assigned by rumour to certain parties who have recently figured before the public in an unenviable character. Among other pranks these persons demolished a valuable statue placed in the garden of Mr Collins, painter, in Blisset Street. Crackers were also attached to the door of Mr Painter, of No.16, Royal-hill, at midnight, and set fire to, and the noise occasioned by them seriously alarmed the family, who had retired to rest. The fellows, it is stated, next attempted to remove the sign board at the Fox and Hounds, No.8, Royal-hill. It is likewise currently reported that some scoundrel, disguised in a bear-skin, and wearing spring shoes, has been seen jumping to and fro before foot passengers in the neighborhood of Lewisham, and has in one or two instances greatly alarmed females. This feat, it is said, is to decide a wager; he having undertaken to play off these freaks for a number of nights in nine different parishes without being apprehended. A sharp look out, however, is being kept after him, and there is little doubt that he will be the loser. He has been named STEEL JACK by the inhabitants of Lewisham, many of whom are afraid to leave their houses after dark. 

THE MARQUIS OF WATERFORD. The headline could only have referred to the waggeries of Lord Waterford and his drink-sodden companions, Edward Horner Reynard, Sir Frederick Johnstone, the Hon. Mr. Villiers, and Captain Grantham, who lived for perpetrating the drunken ‘larks’ described. Waterford’s drunken exploits in April, 1837 had been reported in all the London newspapers and at the time of the ‘Steel Jack’ report he was said to be residing in London. This newspaper column, which clumsily mixed two separate stories, was to bond Waterford and Spring-Heeled Jack together in the public mind forever. Other than newspaper innuendo no evidence backs up the theory, but I have found another suspect and the evidence against him is much more compelling.



The first section of this story is straightforward enough, with dates and addresses, but the second part contains no facts that can be checked. In fact it merely resuscitates the old story reported in the New Times (London) on January 16, 1826, under the heading REMARKABLE GHOST, wherein the ghost, clad in steel armour and a pair of spring boots vaulted over a ten-foot wall. That report was superseded by the account in Pierce Egan’s Life in London in 1825 which reported on the New Hammersmith Ghost who was supposedly a nobleman’s son who carried on his pranks for a wager. The ‘steel’ in ‘Steel Jack’ reflected the ghost’s appearance in armour. The writer had a long memory.

THE SUBEDITOR. The most important job on a daily newspaper like the Morning Chronicle, where Steel Jack made his debut, belonged to the subeditor, “the real heart and centre of the great machine whose influence is felt all over England.” The tasks of the subeditor began about seven o’clock in the evening and ended when the newspaper was “put to bed” between four and five o’clock in the morning, for “midnight is the noon of the daily paper office.”

he it is who knows the night before what the paper of the next morning is going to contain; who decides whether the ‘copy’ which poor Flimsy the penny-a-liner has dropped into the box with fear and trembling an hour before, shall be accepted and paid for, or flung carelessly into the wastebasket; who writes the short, stinging notes at the end of letters of disagreeable or wearisome correspondents… who compiles the readable summaries of the day’s news… and under whose direction the whole of that vast array of close reading, the law reports, accounts of meetings, accidents, ceremonies, and races, letters from foreign correspondents, and miscellaneous items of information which made up the bulk of every modern newspaper, are gathered together, condensed, digested, and arranged…” ‘Scissors and Paste’, in Chambers’s Journal No. 207, December 14, 1867

FLIMSY. In order to make up five or six copies the penny-a-line author used a ‘flimsy’ made of silver paper and lined with oiled tissue, which was written on once with a stylus made of polished agate or ivory. Flimsy was greasy to the touch and subeditors frequently resorted to hand-washing during a shift. The subeditor was also responsible for trimming the verbosity of the liners ramblings from a column to a few lines. The liner’s long-winded ‘English’ was adopted in order to receive as large a price for the copy as possible. “On an average not one-tenth of the mass of ‘flimsy’ manuscripts received every night by the subeditors of the morning papers is accepted and printed.”




The major news departments consisted of six departments although the employees sometimes worked for more than one department. The typographical department was made up of about sixty compositors, the commercial department handled supplies, advertising, management and accounts, and the reporting department was made up of parliamentary reporters, police reporters, and penny-a-liners. Foreign correspondents had a department to themselves and it was one of the most expensive to manage. The Editorial department included editors, subeditors, and authors of leaders, articles on fine arts, literature, and drama. The sixth department was general, consisting of day and night porters, messengers, assistants, couriers employed on Foreign Service and labourers.

SENSATIONAL STORIES. Searches through all issues of that week show that sensational unsubstantiated stories like that of Steel Jack were not commonly printed by the Morning Chronicle. Thursday’s paper ran to four pages. Six cases of crime were brought before the courts, a few drunks, a case of bigamy, one burglar, an embezzler, an assault, and the capture of a smuggling vessel on the Thames River. Friday’s edition featured another four pages with coverage of five petty crimes ranging from shoplifting to forgery. There was no follow-up to the Steel Jack story or the aristocratic pranksters on Friday or Saturday and the Morning Chronicle didn’t publish on the last day of the year, Sunday, December 31, 1837.

So near the end of December 1837, a strange being, known as ‘Steel Jack,’ later to be dubbed ‘Spring-Heeled Jack,’ was reported to be haunting the suburbs of London alarming females. The first mention, in the Morning Chronicle, tossed ‘Steel Jack’ off as an afterthought to a notice of pranks known to be played by the sporting gentry. The West Kent Guardian reprinted the Morning Chronicle column on December 30, 1837. On January 6, 1838, the Guardian published another scoffing account under the headline ‘Spring Jack.’ He was to be seen “day and night, at the corner of every lane, street, and road…”

THE MORNING CHRONICLE. The Morning Chronicle was a Liberal newspaper owned by Sir John Easthope, a stockbroker, and two others, Simon McGillivray, and James Duncan. The editor was John Black. The Morning Chronicle branched off with an evening paper titled the Evening Chronicle on January 31, 1835. The subeditor of the Morning Chronicle on December 23, 1837 was John Payne Collier, Shakespearean scholar, antiquarian, barrister, and parliamentary reporter.

…the premier literary scholar in London…
JOHN PAYNE COLLIER. John Payne Collier (1789-1883) was born January 11, 1879, the year of French Revolution. He was a research scholar who contributed to the publications of the Camden Society, the Percy Society, and the Shakespeare Society. The Percy Society collected ballads, songs, plays, and popular literature of ancient times. By 1850 J.P. Collier was celebrated as the premier literary scholar in London.

John Dyer Collier, his father, worked as a penny-a-liner filling the columns of periodicals and newspapers. He was the editor of The Monthly Register in 1802 The prosperity of the family had its ups and downs moneywise but the family home was host to Henry Crabb Robinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt as well as John Dyer’s colleagues in newspaper journalism. The boy John Payne helped keep the family by colouring engravings (possibly for the Cruikshank family manufactory) and at fifteen, after mastering shorthand, joined his father as a penny-a-liner. Old Dyer was hired by The Times and Payne became his paid assistant aged fifteen (1805). He learned his journalism firsthand from parliamentary and police reporters and counted among his friends Charles Dickens, George Cruikshank and Thomas Hood. 

ANTIQUARIAN BOOKS. It was then he had his first introduction to antiquarian books in the bookshop of Thomas Rodd, a friend of John Dyer’s. Seven years later (1812) the young journalist left The Times for the Morning Chronicle. Three years later (1815) he was back at The Times as Parliamentary reporter. He was dismissed mid-1823 by Thomas Barnes and returned to the Morning Chronicle until 1847. He was the subeditor of the Morning Chronicle from October 16, 1837, until May 1838 when he was replaced by Thomas Fraser. By 1850 John Payne Collier was celebrated as the premier literary scholar in London.

THE OLD CORRECTOR. On January 31, 1852, in The Athenaeum, Collier announced a startling find, a Shakespeare Second Folio dated 1632 corrected by a mid-seventeenth century hand. It became known as the ‘Perkins folio’ based on an owner’s inscription on the cover and was published in one volume in 1853 and in six volumes in 1858. Collier blundered by presenting the original annotated manuscript to the duke of Devonshire in 1853. The manuscript was then loaned to the British Museum in May 1859 where it was carefully examined by Frederic Madden, keeper of manuscripts, assisted by N.E.S.A. Hamilton and Nevil Maskelyne. John Payne Collier’s sterling reputation would come crashing down in July 1859 when Hamilton published the results of his examination of the folio in The Times.

“It turned out that the old corrector was a modern myth. He had first made his corrections in pencil, and in a modern hand, and then he had copied them over in ink, and in a forged ancient hand. The same word sometimes recurred in both handwritings. The ink, which looked old, was really no English ink at all, not even Ireland’s mixture. It seemed to be sepia, sometimes mixed with a little Indian ink.” ‘Literary Forgeries,’ in Books and Bookmen, Andrew Lang, 1886 

FABRICATIONS. It is now well known that his literary fabrications go back as far as 1831 with the publication of a History of English Dramatic Poetry and Annals of the Stage, in which according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “fabrications of historical evidence and documentary text are interspersed in an otherwise meticulous and original scholarly work.”



FACT. J.P. Collier was working for The Times on December 7, 1809, when they published the account of the man with the curry comb headlined MONSTER.

FACT. J.P. Collier was a reporter on the Morning Chronicle on December 31, 1824, when an account was published under the headline THE HAMMERSMITH MONSTER (not the first account, which was THE NEW HAMMERSMITH GHOST – December 12, 1824 – published in Pierce Egan’s Life in London).

FACT. J.P. Collier was a parliamentary Reporter on the Times on December 13, 1833 (RESUSCITATION OF THE HAMMERSMITH GHOST).

FACT. J.P. Collier was the subeditor on the Morning Chronicle on December 28, 1837 (EFFECTS OF ARISTOCRATIC EXAMPLE). Collier had been employed as subeditor on October 16, 1837, replacing Charles Mackay. In 1839 Collier was demoted from subeditor to reporter.

FACT. J.P. Collier, like many other prominent literary figures, started his career as a penny-a-liner, a free-lance newspaper reporter. Although he claimed “I never engaged but with The Times and Chronicle, and my work for country newspapers was both political and literary – comments and criticisms,” it seems most likely that he (like many literary men) supplemented his income with penny-a-line contributions to a variety of newspapers. In his Old Man’s Diary Collier did confess to writing for the Morning Herald. It’s not impossible that he had contributed the majority of early Monster reports to six newspapers at a time. Curiously Steel Jack and his predecessors almost always made their appearance in newspaper columns in the month of December when Parliament was prorogued, a slow news time of year.

FACT. J.P. Collier was well-acquainted with Joseph Haslewood, the man who purchased the pamphlet The Wonder of Suffolk (1677) from the auction of George Nassau’s collection in 1824. He may also have examined the Earl of Oxford copy that was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1814. If anyone in England was familiar with The Wonder of Suffolk it would have been Collier, who had access to every major antiquarian collection of broadsheets and pamphlets in England. (See my previous post on Spring-Heeled Jack HERE).

None of these facts are decisive however. Collier may have been an innocent bystander to the events of 1809, 1824, 1833 and 1837 but he is a more plausible suspect than the “Mad Marquis” of Waterford ever was. If Collier was in fact the perpetrator of all these newspaper columns he was the first to portray the MONSTER with claws, the first to mention the wearing of armour, the first to document the spitting of flames, and the first to describe the wearing of spring-heeled shoes. 

NO MATTER HOW YOU SLICE IT. John Payne Collier, the 19th century’s most notorious fraud, forger and hoaxer, was the subeditor responsible for giving the okay to the ‘Steel Jack’ report published on December 28, 1837, in the Morning Chronicle, and that may not have been his last contribution to the myth of ‘SPRING-HEELED JACK.’

[ To be continued in our next — ]


Mike Dash (compiler of the indispensable 
Calendar of Sources, 1996), 
David Clarke, Paul Chambers, 
Theo Paijmans, Mike Davis, Petr Janacek  

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