September 23rd, 1954. PC Alex Deeprose of the Glasgow Police responds to a call of a disturbance at the Southern Necropolis – a cemetery in one of the city’s poorest areas. What he finds shocks and stuns him. As steelworks to the East and South bellow smoke and flame into the night air, they lace the breeze with a strong scent of sulphur. And before him, he watches gangs of children scour the graves and headstones. The youngest couldn’t have been older than four, whilst the leaders were in their early teens. Most were armed – with crude, homemade weapons including crosses, crucifixes, and more deadly knives, axes, and shivs.
In the dense fog and smoke-filled cemetery, they cast distorted, otherworldly shadows among the tombs and headstones. Yet they move with purpose, and as their gleeful cries and whoops reveal, they are on the hunt.
Cornering the nearest group, PC Deeprose discovers their intended target. The man with the iron teeth, also known as the Gorbals vampire. A seven-foot monster that has supposedly kidnapped and devoured two of their own.
Only the intervention of a local headmaster, and some timely Glaswegian weather, finally persuade the children to disperse. But they return for the next two nights, determined to catch the monster.
Soon after, parents and schoolteachers were asking police if there could be any truth to the tale. After all, how and why would so many children be motivated en masse to take the law into their own hands. For them, the stakes (if you’ll forgive the pun) couldn’t be higher. They had set off into the night to confront a metallic-fanged, seven-foot-tall, child-eating monster. Not the lightest of undertakings.
The story spread as quickly as the fear. It reached the National Press and even parliament. Ultimately, it impacted and changed British law.
But was there any truth to the Gorbals vampire? Its legacy, legend, and legal consequences have certainly lingered.
It appears that the story of the vampire sprung up very quickly – on the day of the first hunt. Ronnie Sanderson was eight years old at the time and was informed of the simple plan in the playground.
“The word was, there was a vampire, and everyone was going to head out there after school. At three o’clock, the school emptied, and everyone made a beeline for it. We sat there for ages on the wall, waiting and waiting. I wouldn’t go in because it was a bit scary for me. I think someone saw somebody wandering about and the cry went up: the vampire was there!”
Kenny Hughes, another of the vampire hunters, said their terror built up quickly, to the point they would only move in on the cemetery together.
A third boy, Tommy Smith, suggested the fog, and fire from the steelworks, only added to the eeriness.
“The red light and smoke would flare up and make the shadows leap among the gravestones. You could see figures walking about at the back, all lined in red light.”
On seeing a bonfire burning brightly close to the cemetery, it even began to be feared that the monster was burning the remains of those it had already killed. Yet, two nights later, it was almost forgotten – at least in the minds of the children. But uproar was to come in the aftermath.
I’ve included a link to interviews with Tommy and other witnesses to the events below.
Fangless Facts and Other Iron-Fanged Monsters
The facts show no children were reported missing, and there are no child murder cases that line up with the period. However, the Gorbals vampire was not the first monster to haunt Glasgow, and it wasn’t even the first to sport iron teeth.
Tommy Smith – mentioned above, suggested tales of the ‘iron man’, were used by parents to keep children in line. This was no Marvel superhero, but a bad-tempered ogre inclined to snack on schoolchildren.
Before him, in the 1800s, ‘Jenny wi’ the Airn (iron) Teeth’, stalked Glasgow Green. This hideous hag shares her name with another folklore favourite – Jenny (or Ginny) Greenteeth, known for dragging children to a watery grave. Although undoubtedly based on this watery witch, especially living so close to the banks of the Clyde, Glasgow’s Jenny was differentiated by her mouth of metal. She also got her own poem.
Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth
Come an tak’ the bairn
Tak’ him to your den
Where the bowgie bides
But first put baith your big teeth
In his wee plump sides
A bairn is a baby, and a bowgie is an old-fashioned spelling of another well-known British faerie – a bogie, or boggart.
It would appear, that Gorbals’ school-aged children had a few potential spurs to the imagination to choose from, if they wanted to think on iron-fanged monsters. But it’s still unclear why so many were suddenly motivated on one day, or how rumours spread from school to school in a matter of hours.
Iron and Steel
Two metallic monstrosities dominate the story. The first is the iron teeth of the vampire, and the second is the steel industry and its impact. The area was heavily laden with air, noise, and light pollution. The work itself was dangerous and those not in the factories, were still subject to their fumes and imposing presence. The foundries were active 24/7 and constantly backlit the night sky with hellish plumes of orange and billowing smoke. It wouldn’t take much to imagine a demonic denizen dwelled nearby.
Gorbals was also an area stricken by poverty. As a home for heavy industry, it attracted significant numbers of immigrants, not just from the surrounding Highlands, but also Irish Catholics, Jewish, and Italian communities. A huge amount of people (up to an estimated 90,000 by the late 1930s), were crammed into a little over a square mile. Gorbals was known for a high crime rate, and its equally high infant mortality rate. Perhaps these factors made it the perfect place to inspire a story about a monster with iron teeth that killed children.
After all, it’s not hard to imagine this story was a personification of the hazards faced by the residents and workers crammed into Gorbals. And nearly a century before, in 1867, Karl Marx alluded to the similarities between industrial capitalism and vampires.
“Capitalism is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour…”
Karl Marx, Capital
To me, as an amateur with an interest in the strange and monsters especially, this makes sense. We now know that a cultural knee-jerk response to tragedy is to make monsters. Whether it’s Japan’s post-Hiroshima Godzilla, or America’s post 9/11 Cloverfield, they usually aren’t far behind disaster and difficulty.
But a scapegoat would help avoid the accountability implied by over industrialisation and the impoverishing of society.
A Comic Craze?
By the time the story reached parliament, a plausible yet convenient culprit was firmly in the sights of the outraged public. American horror comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, were polluting young minds and driving them to such madness.
A 1953 issue of Dark Mysteries was especially cited, after featuring a story titled ‘The Vampire with the Iron Teeth’.
The labour MP for Gorbals, Alice Cullen, led a debate in the House of Commons, backed by a coalition of teachers, Christians, and communists – the latter joining the fight on terms of limiting the influence of American culture. For everyone else though, the accusation was that these stories inflamed imaginations with graphic images of monsters and mayhem. The result was the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which banned the sale of ‘repulsive or horrible’ reading matter to children. It is still in place today as ‘active’ legislation.
Monsters, Mass Hysteria, and ‘Magination
So, it was back to The Beano for Gorbals’ monster-hunting school kids. But in hindsight, there are several issues with placing the blame on the comics. First and foremost, it seems none of the children involved had access, or had even seen such American comics. Experts suggest they were more likely to have gotten hold of the Crown Jewels than one of these – which had very limited circulation and availability anywhere in the UK, let alone Gorbals.
As for that conveniently titled story in Dark Mysteries, research suggests this was published in December 1953, over three months after the events in Gorbals, and notably, also after the story had been heavily featured in the National Press.
As Bob Hamilton, and several of the monster hunters admitted, they had no idea what a vampire was. They were just swept up in the idea of a monster hunt and joined in with everyone else.
The Southern Necropolis is a graveyard for over 250,000 Glaswegians. But in the early 1950s, for the children of Gorbals, it was ‘the gravy’ – and a playground. Swapping trees for tombstones, and nursery rhymes for scary stories, it’s not hard to imagine their thoughts were haunted by the macabre.
It’s not the first time that mass hysteria among children has led to a monster hunt. It’s not even the first time it happened in Glasgow. In the 1870s, the Cowcaddens area saw a hunt for hobgoblins. In the early 20th century, spring-heeled jack became their quarry. In 1964, Liverpool saw a lively hunt for leprechauns. More recently, and with more tragic consequences, the slender man stabbing in 2014 showed the dire consequences of believing such stories, and the international reach of the phenomena.
And as cases such as the Highgate Vampire and the Cardiff Giant show, adults are not immune either.
I was first introduced to the Gorbals vampire when I visited Glasgow for a friend’s wedding and stayed in a hotel opposite the mural depicting the legend. In more recent times, the monster has been the subject of a locally staged play and many works of art and sculpture.
I am left with two thoughts. The first, that it’s not entirely implausible, despite the lack of record, that a dishevelled, down-and-out steelworker fabricated himself a pair of metal teeth and got his kicks by scaring children in the graveyard. The second is, seventy years on, the only slaying a teenager is likely to do is via Call of Duty. But back in the day, they heard about a monster, believed it, and made killing it their first order of business. One thing is clear; don’t mess with the kids from Gorbals.