For much of the twentieth century, the Gorbals district of Glasgow was one of the most deprived and dangerous areas in Europe. The last thing it needed was a resident monster, but half a century ago, that’s exactly what it got. PAUL F. COCKBURN investigates the strange case of the Gorbals Vampire.
On the evening of Thursday 23 September 1954, Malcolm Nicolson made his regular series of telephone calls to Glasgow’s numerous police stations. As always, the crime reporter hoped to pick up a story worth running in the following day’s paper. What he stumbled across was a front-page exclusive for The Bulletin, a Glasgow daily of the time, that would not only be reported around the world, but also contribute significantly to a campaign leading to the passing of parliamentary legislation.
When Nicolson rang Lawmoor Street station—located in the heart of Hutchesontown, part of the infamous Gorbals district—he was initially informed that there was nothing newsworthy to report. Then he heard laughter in the background and someone saying he should be told about “the vampire”. Intrigued, Nicolson braved Glasgow’s still largely gas-lit streets and the oppressively polluted air of the city’s industrial heart to visit the station, which was located within the most densely populated and poverty-stricken ward of the city. Once there, he interviewed Constable Alex Deeprose, the officer who had attended the events in question.
That afternoon, hundreds of schoolchildren had “swarmed” into one of the city’s older graveyards, the Southern Necropolis. Armed with sticks and stones, their excited shouts and screams had eventually became so loud that “normal conversation was impossible”, and complaints had brought the incident to the attention of the police.
According to Nicolson’s published story, Constable Deeprose admitted to feeling “like the Pied Piper of Hamelin” when he faced “all shapes and sizes of children”. They were intent on tracking down and slaying “a vampire with iron teeth” that had already been credited with killing and eating “two wee boys”.
Thankfully, the policeman was able to calm the situation down, and after leading a complete search of the graveyard, Constable Deeprose managed to persuade the children to go home. Admittedly, the fact that it was getting dark and starting to rain probably helped.
According to follow-up stories in the Saturday and Monday editions of The Bulletin, a smaller number of children renewed the search for the monster the following evening, but even by the close of the weekend, most children—if asked—were now laughing at the very idea of there ever having been a real vampire.
And that, you might think, should have been that, but the story didn’t end there.
The children’s attention might have moved on to new street games in front of the overcrowded tenements they called home, but there were plenty of grown-ups who were happy to use that Thursday’s events for their own purposes. Although the local newspapers, in particular The Bulletin and its morning rival the Daily Record, initially linked the children’s vampire hunt with horror films—despite there being no evidence of a vampire film being shown that week in any of the eight cinemas then found in the Gorbals/Hutchesontown area—within a week, the assignment of blame was transferred to a different cause for concern: horror comics.
In his 1984 book A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign, author Martin Barker investigated the now largely forgotten crusade against comic books which, to put it simply, “came from a tradition of publishing very different from that previously known in Britain”—that’s to say, they were titles “primarily aimed at adults”. Brought over originally for the GIs stationed in the UK after the Second World War, growing numbers of the US-originated titles had subsequently been shipped across the Atlantic, often as ballast, until UK government restrictions on imports inspired a few enterprising British companies to import the printing matrices instead in order to reprint the titles in the UK.
According to Barker, the official story of the campaign went like this: “By 1954 a new set of comics were being reprinted, deriving from a later development in the US industry: the horror comics. Although presaged in Eerie and the like, these were different. Black Magic, Frankenstein, Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt now graced many a newsagents’ shelves or market stalls. Their appearance sparked a particularly fiery public reaction, and the Conservative Government, late in 1954, introduced a bill to control them. Known as the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, it became law in 1955. Within weeks, virtually all these comics had disappeared.”
That’s the official story, and the Glasgow Herald helped to play a part at the time. Possibly it was just coincidence, but two days after the events in the Southern Necropolis, the paper devoted its editorial comment to the fight against “the increasing circulation, if not necessarily wide sale, of the most horrific sort of strip cartoon, usually printed originally in America and re-published here from the same matrices. The lowest of them are obsessed with violent crime of almost every kind and deal with the most sordid and sensational tortures, betrayals and brutalities in a detail which no reputable newspaper would publish in its court reports.”
The editorial concluded that, despite there being “a justifiable mistrust of censorship by the state” in the UK, the “corrupting influences” of these crime and horror comics were so great that something needed to be done quickly.
And indeed it was: from reading the press cuttings, you’d think that the comics campaign must rank amongst the most effective grassroots movement in modern parliamentary history. What remains strange, though, is that the events on that Thursday afternoon—which were already being referred to as the “Gorbals Vampire” by the end of the week—were taken up as a reference point for the comics campaign, to the extent of it being cited as evidence by MPs in the House of Commons during the passing of the legislation.
According to Barker, this was despite there being reports of a boy in Stockport who had tried to blackmail a local man after reading about the crime in a horror comic. Unlike the Gorbals Vampire incident, though, that story died a complete death.
“Why the one, and not the other?” Barker asked. “The Stockport case was in many ways more clear cut than the peculiar Glasgow episode, but there was an important difference between them. The first involved a claim of a direct behavioural effect, while the Glasgow episode, if it had anything to do with comics at all, was a mental and moral effect. In tune with the change in the campaign as a whole, it was the latter which passed into legend.”
According to Barker, this was because, while the comics campaign liked to present itself as a non-political movement made up of “decent ordinary people”, it was actually something very different. It was an extremely unlikely—and, for many years, unrecognized—alliance between right-wing elements of the British Establishment and active members of the British Communist Party. Both the far Left and far Right were united on this occasion by a mutual dislike of the growing influence of America on UK culture, but the survival of such an alliance was dependent upon there being “a lowest common denominator” to bind together its varied supporters.
All of which explains why the claim that the—never substantiated—influence of horror comics on the brave Gorbals vampire hunters was pushed as a “mental and moral effect” rather than a specific demonstrable link. A preference for the general rather than the specific, and a presumption of the “obvious nature” of unsuitable publications, became defining traits of the comics campaign, as indeed would be the case thirty years later when the so-called “video nasties” became the biggest threat to the nation’s youth.
The question remains, though: if horror comics didn’t instigate the Gorbals Vampire incident, then what did prompt hundreds of children—some travelling relatively long distances on foot—to gather together in such a way? According to research carried out by Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell (first published in Perspectives on Contemporary Legend in 1988) that September afternoon’s behaviour “was not as aberrant or unusual as [contemporary commentators] seem to have thought”.
While an appeal in the local press and media for information on the Gorbals Vampire incident itself proved disappointing, Hobbs and Cornwell unexpectedly began to collect valuable testimonials about comparable events which had taken place in similar parts of Glasgow and Paisley, events dating from the early 1930s up to more recent times. Unlike the Gorbals Vampire incident, many of the earlier hunts involved folkloric creatures such as banshees, ghosts and even Spring Heeled Jack. The latter character related specifically to the escaping gases illuminated at Dixon’s Blazes, an ironworks immediately adjacent to the Southern Necropolis that dominated the surrounding area for decades with its infernal noise and light. According to Hobbs and Cornwell, “What the events have in common is that substantial numbers of children went together to seek out some frightening figure.”
These researchers also uncovered strong evidence suggesting a connection between the Gorbals Vampire incident and—for want of a better term—the folk-tales told by the people living amongst the cramped rooms of the tenements of Hutchesontown: a belief in a “legendary monster with iron teeth” was reported to be common amongst children living not far from Hutchesontown at least as far back as the early nineteenth century. They also uncovered some evidence suggesting that such a creature had been used by generations of parents as a “bogey” to frighten unruly children into submission. “Thus the monster’s iron teeth may have reached the children, not through the much-criticized horror comics but from their mothers or their teachers!” wrote Hobbs and Cornwell in 1988.
So, it looks as if the Gorbals Vampire incident was simply a phenomenon inspired by a long-held tale told amongst the area’s children. Given the restrictions of their incredibly cramped living conditions, these children were forced to spend much of their free time playing unsupervised on the streets and in open public areas—places such as the Southern Necropolis. Again according to Hobbs and Cornwell, “If children go ‘hunting’ a frightening figure, they do so because the presence of others strengthens their curiosity at the expense of their fears.”
In which case, how can we explain the rather extreme reaction of adults to the events of that Thursday afternoon that raised it to national then international prominence as a clear example of the consequences of what might happen to future generations unless due vigilance was maintained?
Certainly, the Gorbals Vampire incident was a prime example of children acting on their own, without parental guidance. Could it be that fact which was so disturbing?
Or was the negative reaction of the Press inspired to some degree by the vivid imaginative capacity of the children? Was their imagination a faculty that had to be portrayed as something easily corruptible and wrong?
Or was it that the children were trying to cope—in their own way—with something at the time seldom discussed in public: child sex abuse? Was there actually a vampire of sorts in the Southern Necropolis? This is not to suppose a supernatural being, of course, but to invoke an all-too-human predator whom the local children could only understand through old stories passed down from one generation to the next.
Around the time of the Gorbals Vampire incident, the Daily Record and its sister paper, the Sunday Mail, ran a poisonous series of features on child molestation and homosexuality—typically not making too much of a distinction between the two. While it’s no more likely that these articles sparked the Gorbals Vampire incident than any horror comic, it’s certainly possible that they contributed to a general sense of unease and tension. After all, this was the time when the Wolfenden Committee, established by the then Home Secretary to look into the law relating to homosexual offences and prostitution, had started taking evidence and certain reactionary sectors of the Press were already employing scare tactics.
Or was the strength of the reaction ultimately down to something much more fundamental? During the final parliamentary debate on the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Bill, the Glasgow MP John Rankin, at the time representing the nearby ward of Tradeston, argued in support of the legislation, commenting on the Gorbals incident: “We can see how the children … had their minds gripped by this idea, and how easily the idea spread and their impulses were directed to a particular end. The police found exceeding difficulty in controlling these children which is an added reason why I hope that this Bill will receive unanimous support in the House.”
There, in the Mother of All Parliaments, was the expression of a simple fear—not a fear for the children’s safety and well-being, but a fear of the children, of what they were potentially capable of doing.
It is arguably a fear that has been part of every major scare about “the youth of today”, be it teenage delinquency in the 1950s, drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, video nasties in the 1980s, gangster rap in the 1990s, or the rising incidence of knife and gun crime amongst teenagers today. It is a fear based on the realization that children, in truth, don’t match the Enid Blyton image we’d like to have, in which, as Martin Barker wrote, “children are wonderful. Brought up in a right, civilised, British way, they are innocent, adventurous; they are the future. But let bad influences get to them, and there will be the devil to pay. Why, they might even dare to think…”
Paul F. Cockburn was born in Edinburgh, but now lives and works in Glasgow. He writes for a living
“It was an extremely unlikely alliance between right-wing elements of the British establishment and active members of the British Communist Party.”