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Not Quite “The Walking Dead,” But Getting Close: Cannibals on the Rampage

Over the decades and centuries, some very strange and sinister stories have come out of the U.K., all revolving around nothing less than tribes of cannibals hiding out in the wilds of the country and eating people. In the U.K.?! Surely not? Well, it all very much depends on the extent to which you buy into the stories. Or, if you don’t buy into the stories. Let’s take a look at one particular case: The London Underground’s British Museum Station closed its doors on September 25, 1933. For many years prior to its closure, however, a local myth circulated to the effect that the ghost of an ancient Egyptian haunted the station. Dressed in a loincloth and headdress, the figure would emerge late at night into the labyrinth of old tunnels. In fact, the story gained such a hold that a London newspaper even offered a significant monetary reward to anyone who was willing to spend the night there. Somewhat surprisingly, not a single, solitary soul took the newspaper up on its generous offer. The story took a far stranger turn after the station was shut down, however. The comedy-thriller movie, Bulldog Jack, which was released in 1935, included in its story a secret tunnel that ran from the station to the Egyptian Room at the British Museum. The station in the film is a wholly fictional one dubbed Bloomsbury; however, the scenario presented in the film was specifically based upon the enduring legend of the ghost of British Museum Station. Some suggest the story developed from tales of  devolved Zombie-like creatures.

(Nick Redfern) My good friend Buffy Clary hangs out with a flesh-eater

Oddly enough, on the exact same night that the movie was released in British cinemas, two women disappeared from the platform at Holborn – which just happened to be the next station along from the British Museum. Strange marks were later found on the walls of the closed station, and more sightings of the ghost were reported, along with weird moaning noises coming from behind the walls of the tunnels. Not surprisingly, tales began to quickly circulate to the effect that the police had uncovered some dark and terrible secret – about a paranormal killer on the tracks – that had to be kept hidden from the populace at all costs. London Underground officials were, for a significant period of time, forced to dismiss the story, and there has always been an outright denial on the existence of a secret tunnel extending from the station to the museum’s Egyptian Room. Nevertheless, the story was resurrected in Keith Lowe’s novel of 2001, Tunnel Vision, in which the lead character states, while trying to both impress and scare his girlfriend at the same time: “If you listen carefully when you’re standing at the platform at Holborn, sometimes – just sometimes – you can hear the wailing of Egyptian voices floating down the tunnel towards you.” Rumors suggest that the “Egyptian” was just one of many who lurked deep in the old tunnels and…fed on people who got in their way.

(Nick Redfern) Creature-seeker, Jon Downes

Now, let’s get to another saga of Cannibals in the U.K. Jonathan Downes, the director of the U.K.-based Center for Zoology has looked into this case at length and says this of the counties of Devon and Cornwall: “From the Cannibals of Clovelly to the Brew Crew of Treworgey, the whole area has attracted people who wish to live outside of our recognized society; and these people have often degenerated into a wild and lawless existence, sometimes even reverting to a surprisingly primitive lifestyle.” Preserved in an eight-page chapbook in the Pearse-Chope collection at Bideford, England is a sensational and controversial story of one John Gregg and his assorted family of murderers and thieves. The text is estimated to date from the latter part of the eighteenth century and it recounts the story of how the Gregg family took up residence in a cave near Clovelly on the north coast of Devon in the 1700s, and from where they were to live for an astonishing twenty-five years. So the legend goes, during this period they passed their time by robbing more than a thousand unfortunates, and merrily devoured the corpses of all those they robbed. Such was the horror the story generated that even the king himself – along with four hundred men – allegedly resolved to bring to an end their prehistoric-like and abominable existence. The cave was supposedly discovered and reportedly contained, according to the chapbook, “…such a multitude of arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet, of men, women and children hung up in rows, like dry’d beef and a great many lying in pickle…” Gregg’s distinctly less than charming family was found to consist of a wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters all begotten by incest – and many said to have been as mad as hatters – and all of who were taken to Exeter, Devonsihire and on the following day executed at Plymouth without trial.

It was suggested by A. D. Hippisley-Coxe, in his 1981 book The Cannibals of Clovelly: Fact or Fiction that this bizarre and horrific tale was simply that: a tale, and one created to ensure that the superstitious locals kept away from the myriad local caves used by smugglers at the time. And, indeed, the area around Bideford and Clovelly was a hotbed for smuggling. Broadly, the same legend appears in a number of other chapbooks – such as The Legend of Sawney Beane, that places the scene of the action in Galloway, Scotland. The tale of Sawney Beane was first recorded in 1734 in A General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen by Captain Charles Johnson, a pseudonym of none other than Daniel Defoe, who had visited north Devon in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain and from where, in 1714, he reported that he “could not find any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling.” So, we have a story of people gone wild – and horrifically so, in the saga of the Clovelly cannibals – but one so steeped in legend, folklore and probably a very high degree of fabrication, that the complete picture will probably never become clear to the point where it satisfies everyone who has sought out the truth of the matter.

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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