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Deep in some long-forgotten tunnel, or some underground repository, or in some obscure railway yard, there sits a huge number of steam locomotives, kept maintained and ready to be pressed into service in times of national emergency.  This story has surfaced time and time again in the UK, with it also being claimed that the Soviet Union and Sweden have their own strategic reserves.

The background to this story is the scrapping of steam traction in the UK in 1968.  Steam locomotives were being built in Britain right up until 9F 2-10-0, number 92220, “Evening Star” was the last steam loco built at Swindon in 1960.  Given the huge longevity of steam locomotives – anything up to 100 years – gave credence to this story.  Why, enthusiasts asked, would we be building steam locomotives up to 1960 only to scrap them eight years later (Evening Star was withdrawn in 1965), particularly when the British Railways “Modernisation Plan” of 1955 had brought in large scale introduction of diesel and electric traction?  The withdrawl of steam traction happened alongside the “Beeching cuts” of the 1960s, when British Railways Chairman Doctor Richard Beeching ordered the closure of thousands of route miles of railway across the length and breadth of the UK.  And so the story of hundreds of steam locomotives being spirited away and mothballed for use in a time of crisis was born.

In 1979 Steam Railway magazine ran the story of the strategic reserve.  The UK had just passed through the “Winter of Discontent” when the country was racked by strikes.  Among those striking were firefighters, and the army was forced to fill in their duties.  The writer of the Steam Railway article immediately pointed to the sudden appearance of British Army “Green Goddess” fire engines on British streets, claiming that they had long since thought to be scrapped to back up the strategic reserve claim.  He also procured a meeting with a spokesman from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who stated that there was no strategic reserve but perplexingly said “Yes, but those are diesels”.

Following issues of Steam Railway contained letters of lists of supposedly “missing” steam locomotives.  However, it came to light that these engines were largely down to the poor accounting system of BR in the 1960s and as issues went on, other readers were able to account for each and every steam locomotive and the details of where and when scrapped.

People however love a conspiracy theory and the Strategic Reserve refused to die.  Some pointed to the vast reserve of “Austerity” locomotives built during World War II, many of which found their way into ownership of the National Coal Board (NCB – later to become British Coal).  Designed by Robert A Riddles FRSA (who later went on to design BR steam locomotives under nationalisation of the railways), these powerful 0-4-0ST and 0-6-0ST locomotives were purposely designed for hauling freight over short to medium distances in wartime.  Around 1000 were built and apart from these the NCB purchased many more similar locomotives directly from the builders right up until the 1960s.  Some were still working at Dalmellington Colliery, Scotland, right up until the 1980s.

And that they were working so late lends more support to the believers.  Detractors point out that as every year passes, less and less steam locomotive drivers are around.  However, there are plenty of those have driven them in and around collieries and the skill itself is not that difficult to learn and pass on (I’ve driven a steam locomotive on more than one occasion myself).

The Strategic Reserve supporters missed the point; the Austerity locomotives did indeed find their way into the NCB and all can be accounted for, as can locomotives the NCB purchased elsewhere.  Today the ones which are not found on heritage railways, either wholly or in bits, are parked in children’s playgrounds, whilst others have been scrapped.  There is not one locomotive in the UK can not be accounted for.

Yet still it would not die.  Many detractors of the Strategic Reserve claims pointed out that much of the infrastructure needed for steam traction had been destroyed.  The supporters came back pointing out that much of the same infrastructure, such as coaling stages and water towers were still standing. This was true; a steam locomotive tower water tower stood in the throat of Millerhill freight marshalling yard well into the 1980s, and Edinburgh Waverley station retains its huge water tank for replenishing steam locomotives to this day.  But these things merely stood simply because nobody had got around to demolishing them.  As long as they did not interfere with railway workings, there was no point to remove them.  As it was, the water tower at Millerhill was finally demolished only when the yard was remodelled in the 1990s.

In failure of the 1984-85 UK miners strike saw a great many collieries close; not just those deemed uneconomic before the strike, but those who had fallen into disrepair during the strike.  It devastated and effectively closed down the UK mining industry.  With no coal to fuel them, that should have put paid to the Strategic Reserve stories.  The response from some believers was to damn Conservative Prime Margaret Thatcher for ordering the scrapping of the Strategic Reserve locomotives.  Maggie did a lot of terrible things in the eyes of many, the wholesale scrapping of non-existent steam locomotives was not one of them.

One would have thought that would have been an end to the Strategic Reserve myths.  But no, it just would not lie down and die.  Some believers pointed out how the government before the strike had stockpiled coal at power stations, so why not stockpile coal at the Strategic Reserves?  Others argued that coal ships, similar to those which fuelled power stations later in the strike could supply us with the coal needed.

Apart from these arguments supposed sightings of locomotives were reported.  There was a supposed eye-witness account, dated 2005, from a London Underground Line employee being asked to carry out the Health & Safety supervision for two structural engineers of “disused rail tunnels adjacent to LUL running lines”.  The story goes on entering the sealed tunnels, he found three 8F Class 2-8-0 locomotives in each tunnel with rods off and their bunkers boarded over. Engineers allegedly stood on these boards to inspect the tunnel roof. This inspection regime is said to be regular. The supposed location is the Hampstead old Northern line tunnels at the rear end of Finchley depot.

The problems with this story?  Well right away if that was a Health & Safety assessment, I don’t think much of the employees commitment to such, given he and two others apparently stood on timbers which could be up to 40 years old.  No H&S expert worth their salt would ever do anything so foolhardy.  That apart, the only London Transport depot at Finchley is from trams only. But the real clincher is the class of locomotive mentioned. Class 8F was a locomotive type built by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway between 1935-1946.  Being a heavy goods locomotive they were built to the maximum height possible to clear most UK standard gauge tunnels of 12 foot 10 inches. They simply would not fit into the Northern Lines tunnels, which are 12 foot or less diameter in places.

So with the Strategic Reserve of steam locomotives roundly destroyed, what is one to make of the MoD statement “those are diesels”?  If any reserve of locomotives existed, diesels would not make sense.  A national emergency could see supplies of diesel fuel greatly reduced.  In the event of war, refineries and fuel depots would be among the first places to be targeted.  If we are talking a nuclear conflict then the electromagnetic pulse from atomic explosions could knock out solid state components in the locomotives. These things aside, just like steam, all withdrawn diesel locomotives in the UK can be accounted for.  Railway enthusiasts are obsessive creatures and the build details, numbers, withdrawl dates and places of scrapping (or preservation) can easily be found on just a quick internet search today.  There was only ever one withdrawn diesel locomotive in the UK I can think of which would fit the bill and that was the “Warship” class B-B diesel-hydraulic locomotive, D818, “Glory”, which stood at Swindon Works for many years.  This locomotive was scrapped in 1985, apparently in a fit of pique, on the day the government announced the closure of Swindon Works.

Either the MoD spokesman was humouring the Steam Railway journalist, or he was referring to a small number of diesel shunting locomotives at various military depots around the UK at the time.  Hardly a Strategic Reserve capable of running the railways of the UK, and besides, defence cutbacks have put paid to many of these locomotives since.

So what of the claims of the Soviets and Sweden having strategic reserves of steam locomotives?  It is worth remembering that the entire myth came out of the Cold War.  Why Sweden?  Because it is roughly halfway between Russia and the UK.  Sweden has always flatly denied having a Strategic Resource (but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?).  As for the Soviets, well some Soviet states including East Germany were still relying upon steam traction right up to the late 1980s.  They had no need to hide their steam locomotives, they were using them openly.  The fall of communism has shown absolutely no evidence of any Soviet Strategic Reserve.

Yet the Strategic Reserve stories continue, which is not surprising.  Like any urban myth, it is hard to quash.  And not surprising when one considers that steam locomotives are not the only thing to be considered.  There have been similar stories about a squadron of Spitfire fighter aircraft supposedly buried in an Australian desert.  Although just how the UK government would get them from Australia to the UK at the drop of a hat is beyond me.  Another one involves a load of Sherman tanks dumped in the sea off Scotland, just waiting to be lifted off the seabed during an emergency – which of course Russian submarines and aircraft would never notice.

The Strategic Reserve is a nice myth, but that is all it is – a myth.  And one which people allow their hearts to rule their heads with.  The Steam Railway journalist did as much when he made wild comments about the British Army Green Goddess fire engines, which contrary to his claims were never a secret.  They were well known about.  Just because something is out of sight does not mean it has been mothballed in some covert way.

And yet, Steam Railway made an interesting point at the end of their article.  With the number of heritage railways and railway museums in the UK, could not their locomotives and rolling stock be commandeered in an emergency?  We may have a Strategic Reserve right under our noses and most people do not even realise it.

The wonderful world of Urban Myths.

hitchhiker

“I went to that new Chinese place last night. Lovely meal.”

“Oh you don’t want to eat Chinese.”

“Why ever not?”

“Mate of mine, he had a friend went for a Chinese meal. Started choking. Rushed to hospital, they found he was choking on a bone.  When they got it out, it was a rat bone it was.”

Many people may recognise the above story in another guise.  Sometimes it is a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it is Indian. Sometimes it is a rat bone, and sometimes the bone came from a cat.  Sometimes the individual concerned survives, and sometimes he chokes to death.

The fact is there never was a restaurant, of any ethnicity.  There never was anyone choked, was rushed to hospital, or died. There was never any bone, be it from a rat or a cat.

This story is an urban myth; one of the most fascinating and entertaining forms of modern folklore.  And all the more so because so many people believe it and are all too willing to pass it on, maintaining that it is absolutely genuine.  Indeed, when I pointed out the fallacies in this tale to one woman once, she became quite irate and adamant that it really did happen.

This type of urban myth is known as a “FOAFtale”; being the acronym of “Friend Of A Friend”.  The narrator of the story never knows the person the incident supposedly befell. It is always a friend-of-a-friend, a friend’s brother, sister, mum, dad, third-cousin-twice-removed.  There is never any newspaper, police or medical evidence to back the story up.  It just gets started by some fantastical storyteller, passed by someone gullible enough to believe it without checking the facts, then because human beings can be gullible, it takes off from there.

It is not lost on me that the bone in the Chinese meal / curry tale has racist connotations.  It is not the only such tale.  Another one is of the couple driving in an old-style Volkswagen Beetle through an area with a large black population.  They are set upon by a bunch of black men and the boyfriend hits the gas and guns the car away with one black guy hanging on to the back until they get away from him.  When they get home and the boyfriend is examining the damage to his car, he finds four severed black fingers in one of the vents of the Beetle, which of course is always white, cut off by the engine fan.  Firstly, a grown man could not get his fingers into the vents in the back of a VW Beetle.  Secondly, even if it were possible, he would have to have really long fingers to reach the engine fan.  Thirdly, if the fan cut the fingers of, then logically they would not be stuck in the vent, as the fan would come between the two.

The above story is in fact a racist twist upon a 1960s urban myth which was equally bigoted against hippies.  The original has a guy driving past Stonehenge in England in a Ford Zephyr, or similar fast car of the time.  He sees a hippy standing trying to thumb a lift by the side of the road. He slows down to give the hippy a lift, then notices a mad look in his eyes, and suddenly speeds up and drives off, noticing the hippy waving and gesticulating wildly in his rear view later.  A little later he pulls in for petrol and the pump attendant, about to fill the car, either recoils in horror or faints. Wondering what is wrong, the motorist gets out and finds the hippy’s fingers or hand wrapped around the passenger door handle.

Prejudice in urban myths stretches across the English Channel to France and other countries on the continent (readers outside of Europe more than likely have their own regional variations).  There is the story of an English couple whom a friend knows or is related to who are travelling through France with their dog, which being France, has to be a poodle.  They are hungry and finally find a restaurant who will admit them and their dog.  Knowing little french and enjoying a glass of wine while perusing the menu, they don’t want to leave their pampered pooch out of the meal.  So pointing to the dog, they try to ask the waiter to feed him too.  After a look of misunderstanding, the waiter leads the dog into the kitchen, where they think it will be fed.  A little later the waiter comes back with a huge tureen, which he lifts the lid off to reveal, yep, you’ve guessed it, the cooked dog.

It is quite easy to poke holes in this story immediately.  Why would an English couple knowing little French ever try to travel through that country?  This story comes from the days before “pet passports”, so how would they get their dog across the Channel at a time when there were strict border controls on dogs in the first place?  Of course, one would hard pressed even nowadays to find any restaurant which would admit any dogs unless they were guide dogs.  Finally the actual cooking of the dog is nothing less than pure anti-French bigotry.  In this story one can see clear parallels to the bone in the Chinese meal / curry FOAFtale.

Another story is of a British family (friends of a distant aunt’s close friend, etc) touring the continent.  In this case the elderly grandmother is with the family. Somewhere in France, Italy, Spain, or some other corner of the continent, they find the old lady has died in her sleep.  Wishing to take her home to Blighty to have her buried, the manager of the hotel / guest house agrees that the family can wrap her in the bedroom carpet, which they do, and string the body to the roof rack of the car.  Driving back across the continent, they stop somewhere for lunch one day, and when they go to continue the journey, somebody has stolen the carpet – complete with granny inside.

For a start in most counties across the globe, and certainly in Europe, a death certificate would be required.  As it was a sudden death, an autopsy may have to be carried out.  And what callous bastard would be insane enough to wrap their grandmother in a carpet and strap them to the roof rack?  What hotel / guest house manager would even allow that without contacting the police?  As totally absurd as this story is, it still does the rounds to this day and there are people gullible enough to believe it.

There is an older variant of this tale which has a family travelling across Europe and a female family member (always female for some reason), either a grandmother, mother, or more commonly a daughter takes ill with either a contagious disease or poisoning in a hotel and dies in the night.  The family go off to get the authorities but when they come back there is no sign of the daughter, the room she was staying in has been completely redecorated and the hotel staff all deny any knowledge of ever having seen met any of the family ever before.  The parents go to the room they were in to show police their luggage in there.  Except their keys don’t work and when the manager uses the pass key, that room too has been redecorated and there is not one piece of luggage or clothes in the room.  Alternatively there is a further twist to this story in which one policeman spots an earring lying on the floor, he lifts it and turning to the mother, she is only wearing one earring matching the dropped one.  The manager then confesses to disposing of the body to save the reputation of his hotel.

It is believed that the above urban myth can be traced to an obscure horror story, which has been retold at some point as fact.  And it is not the only time this has happened.

In the USA there was the story of a man in old fashioned clothes suddenly appearing in the middle of Times Square, New York City in 1950.  Looking around himself in astonished wonder, the man suddenly appreciates the danger he is in with the bustling traffic, attempts to get to safety but is knocked down and killed.  His body taken to the city morgue, the police go through his pockets and find a beer token for 5 cents from a saloon (which subsequently is unknown even to older residents), a bill for keeping a horse and washing a carriage from a livery stable on Lexington Avenue which is not listed in any address book, $70 in out-of-date yet crisp banknotes, business cards with the name Rudolf Fentz giving an address on Fifth Avenue, and a letter sent to the Fifth Avenue address dated June 1876.  A Captain Rihm of the NYPD goes to the Fifth Avenue address and finds it is a business.  Further tracking leads him to a Rudolf Fentz Jr, whom he subsequently discovers has died but his widow is still alive in Florida.  When he contacts her, she tells him that her husband’s father, Rudolf Fentz Sr, had gone out for a walk one day in 1876 and never returned.  A subsequent search of missing persons for the year 1876 shows that a record for a Rudolf Fentz tallies exactly with the man killed in Times Square in 1950.

The above story is was believed by a great number of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, for many years.  Some even claimed to have seen Rudolf Fentz appear and being knocked down in Times Square in 1950.  With the UFO flap years of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it appeared in many books and was held up as proof of a timeslip, or an eddy in the space-time continuum.  It still makes the rounds as an urban legend and in paranormal literature to this day.  In fact, the entire story was from a short story I’m Scared by American Sci-Fi author Jack Finney, and was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 15 September 1951.  Yet such is the gullibility of mankind, there are people to this day will quite adamantly tell you that the Rudolf Fentz case was genuine.

If any readers have never encountered the oldest urban myth of them all, then I will assume you have been living in caves all your lives, because it can easily be reckoned everyone has encountered it in one form or another; the phantom hitch-hiker.

One of the most common versions of the story is that a driver on a lonely road sees a teenage girl trying to hitch a lift by a crossroads.  Being the gallant type and afraid for the girl’s wellbeing, he stops and offers to drive her home. While driving along she shivers and the driver gives her his sweater which she drapes around her shoulders.  At her house, she thanks him and says he need not come to the door as her parents would be angry, and runs off.  The following day the driver realises that he never got his sweater back and sets out for the girl’s home.  When he gets there a woman comes to the door and he explains the situation to her.  The woman suddenly breaks down in tears and says “That was my daughter.  She was killed at the crossroads a year ago yesterday.” Incredulous and not believing her, the mother leads the man to the nearby graveyard, where her daughter is buried.  And there, draped across the girl’s gravestone is the man’s sweater.

The phantom hitch-hiker takes on a great many forms.  In some of these there is the horror story of the girl in the car while her boyfriend goes to get petrol who suddenly hears thudding on the car roof.  Then lights suddenly goes on and a voice on a megaphone tells her to get out the car slowly then run to the light.  When she does so, she reaches police and an ambulance and turns to see a maniac on the roof of the car, thudding on it with her boyfriend’s severed head.  A campfire ghost story, sure.  But you would be amazed just how many people think that it actually happened.

Some places are very proud of their phantom hitch-hikers.  On Unst in the Shetland Isles, Scotland The White Wife is described as an apparition of an old lady who stands by the road late at night, trying to wave down a lift, always from young male drivers.  Once she gets in the car she sparks up a conversation with the young man, telling him things about his life and family which only he could know.  Startled, when she stops speaking, the young man will turn to look at her – only to find an empty seat beside him.  The White Wife is so famous that Valhalla Brewery named one of their strong ales after her.

As I have said, the phantom hitch-hiker is the world’s oldest urban myth.  European versions of it can be traced back to the 1700s, and involving horse-drawn carriages, and the illustration attached to this article is a wonderful 19th century cartoon based on the subject.  It is thought however to be Chinese in origin, with a man encountering a woman or girl who asks him to accompany her home, but insists she walk behind him. When they get to her home, she has disappeared.

Reading these stories, the reader must think that people were completely gullible in the past.  Human nature however does not change.  The internet hosts more hoax stories than we have ever had in the past.  Even a quick trawl through Facebook any day is almost certain to throw up one story or another which are blatant hoaxes.  Some are harmless enough in their own way, such as saying something is bad for you when it is not.  Others are downright cruel and the products of sick minds, including stealing pictures of sick children, and even children who have subsequently died, and putting them on spurious posts saying if they get 1 million “likes” then the kid will be cured.

Investigative pages such as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer have done little to nothing to convince people that they have been had, with the result that many of these tales are destined to become urban myths in their own right.  Indeed, when I recently pointed someone on Facebook to a Snopes page refuting their post that the energy drink Red Bull was dangerous, they angrily rounded on me and insisted that Snopes must be wrong.  Some people not only prefer to be fooled, they would happily shoot the messenger who points out the fallacies they believe in.

Is that however so surprising?  The entire phenomenon of urban myths and FOAFtales shows us that not only the vast majority of people gullible, many want to be fooled.  There are a great many people in the world who have what I call “Fox Mulder Syndrome”; like the poster in the office of the character in the TV show The X Files, they want to believe, and woe betide anyone who dare to question that belief.  We live daily surrounded by misconceptions of “well known facts” and as well as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer, TV shows such as Mythbusters and QI have done nothing to ever change that.

Urban myths have been with us since time began.  They will be with us until time ends.  And love them or hate them, they all make up part of our wonderful tapestry of folklore.

A pointer to this fact is the story that every year the average person swallows six spiders while the y are sleeping.  That story was in fact a deliberately created myth started by two scientists who posted it on the internet to see how far it would go.  Sorry folks, but that latter part, about the two scientists, is in fact just another urban myth – or is it? 😉