I’m sure most of you know the children’s rhyme;
This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at home, This little piggy had roast beef, This little piggy had none. And this little piggy went… “Wee wee wee” all the way home…
Well what if home wasn’t a quaint old pigsty on a lovely farm, but the entrance to London’s sewer network?
I think most of us have a strange relationship with what sits beneath our streets and houses. Underground; dark, dirty, wet, smelly, dangerous. We’d probably not rather think about it if we have to, but we are willing to believe in the most part that these places are capable of also being mysterious. Possibly this is linked in with the whole Hell thing, the more subterranean you get the closer you are to the Devil and normal rules don’t apply?
One of my favourite supposed urban myths is that the labyrinth of sewers beneath London’s streets are home to a large drift of oversized pigs who sustain themselves on the fetid human waste deposited from those above. The story changes with the telling. Sometimes it’s pigs, sometimes it’s boars, but every time they’re definitely oversized. Some tales say that there will come a time when the numbers of swine get so large that they will burst from their dark abode and reek chaos and havoc on the City’s streets.
One strand to the myth is The Black Swine supposedly to be found in the sewers of Hampstead. It’s a Victorian urban myth which has been very resilient over the years, refusing to go away. How the legend started is not a matter of record, perhaps someone did see a pig enter the sewer, or could it have been an alcohol induced story around a blazing pub fireplace, or even a tale to keep people away from a certain part of the system. It must be taken into consideration that the sewers could at the time be accessed by anybody brave enough to enter them. A great place to hide stolen items away and what better deterrent than a story about a wild boar to deter the curious.
Pollution was a major problem for Victorian London. The Thames was essentially an open sewer, so was the tale in some sense allegorical? This the greatest city in the world, but which had it’s streets and lanes running with fetid filth while a group of porcine predators feast on the city’s corruption in the bowels of the earth. Campaigners to clean up the city may have put the rumour about to aid their cause. Just a word here and there and a classic urban legend is born.
However, the Black Swine may just have been part of the irrational fears that so preoccupied and terrified Victorian society at the time. Its contemporaneous with other similar urban myths. Spring Heeled Jack, the Highgate Vampire and the bizarre Limehouse Golem. It says a lot about the way the tale crept into every strata of society even being mentioned in a Daily Telegraph editorial. To this day the authenticity of the tale has never been proven, but at the same time it has never been disproved. Today when security is of paramount importance our sewer networks have limited access and so it is unlikely that an intrepid porcine patrol will ever venture through the thousand or so miles of the network to find out once and for all. For what it’s worth I think that there could be some fact in the myth, although I’m a bit sceptical that they may still survive in the 21st century.
Recently on a visit to Farringdon I stopped to have a listen through a road grating to the buried River Fleet. In between the traffic noise the gurgling stream could be clearly heard, but did my ears deceive me, was there the faintest sound of squealing and grunting coming from somewhere far off in the subterranean tunnels?