The Gorbals Vampire

Author’s note: We’ve talked about vampires and witches before, and it seemed right to bring up another one for this Halloween season. Regular coverage will resume once I finally finish boning up on the newest topic, but until then please enjoy this bite sized treat.

The entrance to the Southern Necropolis today. Photo Credit: Lynn M. Reid

The Gorbals is a chunk of Glasgow along the south bank of the River Clyde, with a long history of dense population and some of the worst British slums built for working class families.[1] The space was a maze of brickwork buildings, cobblestones and soot. A neighborhood like the Gorbals came with plenty of challenges. For children, grinding poverty, domestic and gang violence compounded an utter lack of recreational or green spaces for play. Children improvise however they can, and for many the refuge became the Southern Necropolis. The graveyard is a sprawling city of the dead even today, site of over 250,000 internments in its long service to Glasgow.

A graveyard in 1950’s Glasgow is a spooky place indeed. Beyond the obvious physical spookiness, the heavy industrial pollution from the nearby ironworks meant an all pervasive gloom most days, casting its own pall on this city of the dead. Tom Smith, one of the Gorbals children later recalled, “The red light and the smoke would flare up and make all the gravestones leap. You could see figures walking about at the back all lined in the red light.”[2] Sounds like a perfect habitat for a vampire.

In Ronnie Sanderson’s retelling,

“It all started 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 somebody saw someone wandering about and the cry went up: ‘There’s the vampire!’[3]

In the telling of his would be hunters, the Gorbals Vampire of 1954 towers over seven feet tall, sporting a full set of iron teeth. And like many stories before or since, the Gorbals Vampire was purportedly behind a spate of disappeared children. Yet in contrast to other moral panics, the instigators were the children of the Gorbals themselves. Rather than flee, over 200 children and even some parents flooded the Necropolis with knives, stakes, dogs, and other weapons of all kinds. For three tense nights they searched the Necropolis for their nemesis.

This is how Constable Alex Deeprose found them on September 24, 1954. Answering the complaints from homeowners bordering the graveyard Constable Deeprose relays,

“when I appeared I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. All shapes and sizes of children streamed after me, all talking at once and telling me of the ‘vampire’ with the iron teeth. This I could handle, but when grown-ups approached me and asked earnestly, ‘is there anything in this vampire story?’ it made me think”.[4]

So what was the Gorbals Vampire, apart from smoke and a rumor run wild? Part of the story feels fundamental, weirdly aligned with the American Satanic Panic of the 1980s, or the more recent and unfounded fabrications of Pizzagate and Qanon regarding child sex trafficking. As it often is, the Glaswegian flavor of this meal was seasoned by a couple of local stories. Traditionally children in the area were threatened with a monster known as Jenni wi’ the Airn Teeth, a monster from a poem by Alexander Anderson. Jenny fits pretty neatly, in a poem told from her perspective as she snatches misbehaving children to,

Tak’ him to your ain den,

Where the bowgie bides,

But first put baith your big teeth

In his wee plump sides;[5]

NOPE. Photo Credit: Silly Nonsense on Facebook.

This fits the bill perfectly, and several academics at the time said as much at the time. But for social crusaders, it’s never worth letting a good crisis go to waste, and for parents in the area they surely weren’t responsible for the nightmares in their children’s psyche. For several years a strange alliance of communists, teachers, and moralizing Christians had been pushing for a ban on American horror comics. The argument hadn’t come from nowhere, a similar moral outcry had swept Rockwell era America few months prior, but the outcry had struggled to gain traction in Britain. Part of the issue was that few schoolchildren could actually get their hands on a copy of Tales from the Crypt.[6]

The Gorbals Vampire was the opportunity this hodge podge coalition needed. As luck would have it, in 1953 Dark Mysteries #15 featured a story of a Vampire with Iron Teeth. While it’s unlikely that any of the Glaswegian children had seen it, the thru-line was drawn, and a moral outcry gained immediate momentum. Just three days later the Daily Record ran an editorial with major 1990’s “video games cause violence” energy:

“[after quoting three contemporary comics] Charming, isn’t it? Harmless, isn’t it? Yet this is the sort of terrifying rubbish that any kiddie with a few coppers can buy. There isn’t even a moral at the end….it is time the would-be broad minded people among us realised in full the terror such comics must produce in a young mind….Do not laugh off Glasgow’s “vampire scare” as a monstrous hoax….These comics…must be banned”. [7]

Never mind that few children would have seen one, and no surviving witness remembers reading this story at the time. Regardless, Gwilym Lloyd George, Viscount Tenby, introduced the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 which, for the first time, specifically banned the sale of magazines and comics portraying “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors. The act remains on the books today.

The 1953 comic. It’s well worth checking out the whole thing. Just as interesting to see that the discussion around the comic’s role continues today. Regardless banning comics was a blinkered and hysterical reaction, and one planned well ahead of the Gorbals Vampire.

If anything the brief life and ‘death’ of the Gorbals Vampire feels downright quaint compared to modern conspiracies. After less than a week sunlight found the monster and purged it from Glasgow’s psyche.[9] That’s preferable to haunting a nation’s soul for years on Reddit and Channer boards. Yet its legacy persists in a censorious and ridiculous law that all modern scholars acknowledge had no basis in the incident that prompted its passage.

Today the Gorbals Vampire occupies the rough same space as the Gloucester Sea Serpent. The Gorbals now honors him with a mural erected by Ella Bryson and Art Pistol. In 2016 the Citizens Theater also re-enacted the incident with the 50 personish ensemble play Tales from the Gorbals Vampire.[8] Yet the Vampire’s life, and undeath, is ultimately heartening in a strange way.

Rather than run, the children of the Gorbals came out to fight the monster. This wasn’t really out of character for them. For all the hardships they faced growing up in soot and brick of the Gorbals slums, they faced them together and the bond of community was extremely strong. Just two years later many of these same children participated in the Florence Street “massacre”, a day long offensive against the ever pervasive rats in the neighborhood. Other specters had come and gone in the 1930s, a banshee, Springheeled Jack himself, and a ghastly “White Lady”. The Gorbals children had seen them all off, what was one more vampire? Even today some of the surviving children feel pride at the memory. Faced with terror of night and shadow, rather than flee these children banded together and grabbed a stake.


[1] Which after several iterated bad ideas were mostly demolished and replaced prior to the 2000’s

[2] Nicholson, S. (2010). Child Vampire Hunters Sparked Crackdown. BBC. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/8574484.stm

[3] Ibid.

[4] Glasgow Family History (2014). Vampire in the Southern Necropolis. Available at: https://www.glasgowfamilyhistory.org.uk/blog/Pages/Vampire-in-the-Southern-Necropolis.aspx

[5] Anderson, A. Jenny Wi’ Airn Teeth. The Scottish Poetry Library. Available at: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/jenny-wi-airn-teeth/

[6] Doubtless for the lucky few who did so, this was a treasure worth hiding.

[7] Glasgow Family History 2014

[8] One shudders at the blocking challenges alone.

[9] Sure beats centuries of Tuberculosis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s