by MJ Steel Collins | Follow on Twitter
Not so much piece of folklore, but a relatively modern phenomenon with folkloric undertones, the event that was the Gorbals Vampire still has people scratching their heads. It was quite a peculiar affair that had surprising repercussions, the most significant of which was the 1955 Children and Young Person’s (Harmful Publications) Act, which restricted access to gory horror comics imported from America to kids. How that came about will become clear later.
It all began one evening in September 1954 when hundreds of children, pupils at the various schools in the Gorbals, descended on the Southern Necropolis cemetery in Caledonia Road, after hearing rumours of a seven feet tall vampire with an iron jaw who had killed and eaten two local boys in the graveyard. If a vampire hunt was going to be held anywhere in a Glasgow suburb, no better place could have been chosen.
At the time, the Gorbals was a notorious slum packed with decrepit tenements. The Southern Necropolis is a vast cemetery, entered from Caledonia Road through a gothic gatehouse. At the time, it was backed by the Dixon’s Blazes iron works, which operated round the clock. After sunset, the sky around the works would be lit with an atmospheric red glow that no doubt added to the creepiness of the Southern Necropolis. It was against this backdrop that the children, armed with various rudimentary weapons, went in hunt of their vampire and swarmed the cemetery.
The local police were used to having to deal with the odd act of vandalism in the Southern Necropolis, and when calls came in from residents of Caledonia Road relating to kids running amok in the graveyard, it seemed to be another routine call. PC Alex Deeprose was sent out to deal with it and he was gobsmacked by what he saw. He was faced by hoards of children drowning each other out trying to tell him what was going on, as well as concerned parents asking him if what the kids were saying was true. The shaken officer hid in a close to pull himself together, and then went out sort it out. Eventually, the children only dispersed after the headmaster of a local school addressed them.
The following day, assemblies were held in all the Gorbals schools, in which the pupils were told there were no such thing as vampires and that they weren’t to go carousing around the local cemetery looking for them. The tale of the two boys the vampire was supposed to have murdered was unfounded, as there were no children reported missing in the Gorbals at the time. Despite this, there were still impromptu stake outs in the Southern Necropolis, until it eventually died down.
It’s probable that the entire event would have been consigned to obscurity if a reporter hadn’t been making routine calls round the police stations in search of stories for now defunct Glasgow newspaper, The Bulletin. At first, the reported got the stock answer that there was nothing happening, before there was a fit of laughter and he was told about the vampire hunt. After featuring in The Bulletin, the story of the vampire spread like wildfire, eventually coming to the attention of the international media. Questions were raised in Westminster about how on earth the children got the idea in the first place.
Attention soon turned to the luridly gory horror comics that were freely available to children at the time. These were American imports, and featured fairly graphic and grisly tales. It was argued that a child, having read such a comic, then cooked up the vampire lurking around the Southern Necropolis. This coincided with a growing campaign in the British Isles to bring about legislation preventing children accessing the horror comics.
There were sceptics who didn’t think that the vampire came from a comic; some had even gone through the comics and failed to find a story that matched the seven foot, iron jawed vampire described by the Gorbals children. The sceptics pointed to other things that could have provided the germ of inspiration. One was a passage in the Bible, Daniel 7:7, which vividly described an iron mouthed monster, to a poem written by Alex Anderson in the 1870s called Jenny Wi’ The Airn Teeth, featured in several anthologies used in schools in the 1950s.
The poem in Scots describes a female monster with iron teeth, stealing off into the night with children who cried and fussed during the night. Despite this, the anti-comics lobby held sway, and the Gorbals vampire hunt brought about the 1955 Children and Young People (Harmful Publications) Act, which stopped children’s access to graphic horror comics.
In 2010, the vampire hunt was featured in a short Radio Four documentary, in which the now elderly vampire hunters recalled the exciting night. The documentary also highlighted a story that appeared in a 1953 issue of the Dark Mysteries comic called “The Vampire With The Iron Teeth” that may have inspired the Gorbals vampire after all. This was also discussed by a blog, The Horror Of It All, in 2009. On the face of it, it would seem that the anti-comic brigade might have been onto something after all. But again, like the Daniel 7:7 passage and the Jenny Wi’ The Airn Teeth poem, it’s just another piece of speculation. Like any classic folktale, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know the true origins.
Jenny Wi’ The Airn Teeth can be read on The Scottish Poetry Library website.