A University lecturer has won an award for his account of a sinister figure in Victorian folklore.
Dr Karl Bell, Senior Lecturer in History, won first prize at the Katharine Briggs Folklore Awards for his book, The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures. The book is a cultural history of Victorian urban legend, Spring-heeled Jack, who first appeared in London in 1837 and terrorised the city for over a year.
During this time the metropolis was full of rumours and press reports of a swift-footed, darkly cloaked, fire-breathing figure who attacked people with sharp metallic claws.
Dr Bell said: “He was reported as a ghost, demon, or devil, and gossip and cheap penny fictions exaggerated him into a figure that could make seemingly supernatural leaps with the aid of his spring-heeled boots. Accounts persisted into the early-twentieth century but he started to fade from memory once real and imaginary figures like Jack the Ripper and Mister Hyde began to appear.
“In part, this book seeks to revive the character and return to him the prominence he had once possessed in the Victorian imagination.”
The annual book prize was established by the Folklore Society to encourage the study of folklore, to help improve the standard of folklore publications in Britain and Ireland and to commemorate the life and work of the distinguished scholar Katharine Mary Briggs, Society president 1969-1972.
There were over forty books submitted for the award this year and ten were short-listed. The award is given for the book that in the opinion of the judges, has made the most distinguished contribution to folklore studies during the year.
Dr Bell said that he was both surprised and honoured to win the award.
“One of the first books that got me interested in my current historical research was Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman, which won the Katharine Briggs Award back in 1999. I could never have imagined winning the same prize for anything that I had penned.”
Dr Bell said that his book attempted to blend folklore and cultural history and use this urban legend as a way of exploring different aspects of the Victorian’s fantastical imagination, its inherited supernatural ideas and the way they were adapted to a modernising environment.
“Drawing upon a range of nineteenth-century evidence, I used Spring-heeled Jack’s co-existing lives as a folkloric bogeyman and a penny dreadful character to analyse the relationship between Victorian oral, literary and customary cultures, and the interplay between imagination and urban and rural spaces. The book ultimately attempts to advance our understanding of how popular cultures operated in Victorian Britain.”
The award ceremony took place at the Warburg Institute in London on 6th November.