Fear of the dark

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Fear of the dark

When night falls, our urban anxieties loom large.

By Matt Lloyd-Rose

In darkest Hammersmith, one night in January 1804, a tax collector loaded his musket and went out ghost hunting. Frances Smith was in pursuit of a tortured soul, a man who had committed suicide and returned to terrorise the living. There had been a spree of bone-chilling late-night attacks and the community was gripped by fear. Fortified by an evening in the tavern, Smith decided to take action.

The tax collector’s daring was quickly rewarded. After only half an hour pacing the unlit roads, Smith encountered the ghost, all in white, gliding along Black Lion Lane. He called out to it: “Damn you! Who are you and what are you, damn you?” When it made no reply and continued to drift towards him, Smith raised his weapon and shot it through the head.

Kneeling to examine the spectre, he received an unpleasant surprise. Instead of laying a lost soul to rest, he’d terminated a local bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, walking home in his white work clothes. Smith ran for help and returned to the body with a night watchman. Together they carried Millwood to the Black Lion pub 20 and Smith handed himself over to the police.

“This lane is described as a very dark lane?” a lawyer asked a witness at the trial.

“Yes, very dark.”

“And it was a very dark night?”


Compelling evidence of the pitch blackness of Black Lion Lane, you might think, but the lawyer pressed on, squeezing every last lumen from the scene:

“I understand the lane is inclosed between two hedges?”

“Yes,” replied the witness, “and if it was a light night, it would be dark in the lane”.

A dark dark lane, on a dark dark night – and panic in the community after numerous sightings of a ghost. Is it any surprise that Smith responded as he did when the pallid figure of  Thomas Millwood walked his way? At the trial, it transpired that a relative had specifically warned the unfortunate bricklayer that his bright attire made him appear ghostly in the lampless streets.

“I begged of him to change his dress,” she told the court.

“Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your cloaths look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.”

It was a sorry situation. Millwood, an innocent bricklayer, had lost his life for the sake of an overcoat. Smith, the community-spirited ghost-busting tax collector, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. 21 Meanwhile, the real Hammersmith Ghost was alive and well. John Graham, a shoemaker, came forward after the trial and confessed to dressing up in a white sheet and flapping around the neighbourhood after dark, a stunt which, he could now see, had had unintended consequences. 22

Londoners’ late-night anxieties are more likely to be embodied by teenage gang members with guns, blades and teardrop tattoos.

The story of the Hammersmith Ghost begins as an old-fashioned tale of paranormal activity, but ends as a case study of the effects of the night-time on the imagination: the way that irrational fears mingle and interact with genuine threats to personal safety. The modern city has its own cocktail of real and imagined threats: fear of the supernatural may have waned since 1804, but fear of the London night has not. And although London is increasingly hailed as a 24-hour city, until the night becomes as busy and brightly lit as the day, we will continue to walk that bit faster as we make our way home after midnight. Our imagined assailants are no longer ghosts or top-hatted serial killers. Today, Londoners’ late-night anxieties are more likely to be embodied by teenage gang members with guns, blades and teardrop tattoos.

Like ghosts, gangs seem to exist in a different dimension, a violent parallel universe near to, but separate from, the everyday lives of most Londoners. And as with supernatural phenomena, most Londoners don’t understand the phenomenon of gangs and why there are children in their city at war with one another.

Gang members live on the same streets as everybody else, but theirs is a different city, with boundaries and codes that only they can see. Perhaps it’s this combination of physical proximity and social distance that makes teenage gangs such a striking presence in the collective imagination. The teenage boy, in particular, his face shadowed by a deep hood, has come to symbolise the threat to law-abiding citizens from lawless, unpredictable forces in the contemporary London night.

Gangland city

My encounters with London’s gangs began when I moved to the city in 2008 to work at a primary school in Brixton. I soon became aware that some of my seven-year-old pupils had older siblings in gangs and I knew that, in time, they too might be invited to join. Living in the area, I occasionally spotted groups of boys sprinting along the alley by our house, or squadrons of BMX bikes cruising silently around the neighbourhood. One night, a boy dashed into our front garden and crouched, panting, behind the wall, on the run from an unseen enemy.

On another occasion there was a racket in Bob Marley Way, the cul-de-sac behind the house, like the sound of oil drums being beaten. A dozen teenage boys were running along the tops of the parked cars, jumping from one to the next, denting the roofs. They circled round and round as though performing some kind of mystic rite. Nobody called the police and none of us went outside to stop them. I suspect that those of us watching from our windows were stunned into inaction. These were just children acting up. We knew we should go out and tell them off, but the absurd and pointless violence of their behaviour, their total lack of respect for people’s property, made them suddenly frightening. If they’d jump up and down on your car, what else might they do?

In his afterword to the 2009 Good Childhood Report, Rowan Williams described the conflicted feelings these kinds of encounters inspire – an uncomfortable mixture of concern for, and fear of, certain young people. “On the one hand,” he wrote, society views children as “appallingly vulnerable, mentally as well as physically; the chief need of a child is protection from what will assault and corrupt. On the other hand, the child is potentially menacing […] and society needs to be protected from them.” Confronted with violent, vulnerable young people, our impulses polarise: as part of us rushes to lower our defences, we find that another is busily engaged in raising them.

A few years later, after I’d moved from the classroom into educational research, I decided to sign up as a Special Constable in Lambeth, working Friday night shifts in the area where I used to teach. I wanted to see the shadow side of my borough – its crimes and challenges – but I also wanted to see the shadow side of London childhood: the young people who sit through trigonometry and Hamlet by day, and rob and fight turf wars by night.


On my first police shift, a 13-year-old shot a firework at our van. It missed, flashing past the windscreen like a magnesium pigeon. We swerved to the curb, sprinted after the boy and caught him just before he reached his estate.

Gang members live on the same streets as everybody else, but theirs is a different city, with boundaries and codes that only they can see.

While we were searching him, half a dozen hooded figures emerged from the estate and began shouting at us, ribbing us, letting us know they were watching. I was very used to spending time with young people in school corridors and classrooms; the sudden transition to a hostile street corner stand-off made me extremely uneasy. I felt like a teacher in fancy dress; I wanted to step out of character, sit everyone down and talk things through calmly. There was no appetite for a quiet sit-down, however. If anything, the boys appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Within a couple of minutes, it was all over. We found nothing suspect on the young pyrotechnician, gave him a talking-to and let him go. The others dispersed and returned to their evening’s activities.

“I do this job to arrest criminals, not to be a social worker,” said a regular officer to me later, as we queued for a kebab. “The problem now is there’s all these f’ed up families expecting us to be social workers – but we’re not.”

Bloodied brothers

In my view, it is the job of the police to deal with whatever comes their way, but I understand my colleague’s frustration. It isn’t satisfying dealing with gang issues; they’re complicated, deep-rooted, and the same people and problems boomerang back at you over and over again.

Running around after teenagers was a staple of my Friday night shifts. We chatted to them in dark playgrounds, searched them for drugs in stairwells, pulled over their cars, consoled their victims after robberies. We dealt with the aftermath of their fights: one night we closed a branch of Tesco Express after a stabbing in the confectionery aisle; another time, I bagged up a boy’s bloody clothes after the paramedics had cut him out of them; and, on one of my final shifts, I patched up a 15-year-old who’d been stabbed in the face with a broken bottle.

The Met Police estimate that there are roughly 225 gangs in operation, with a total of about 3,600 members from their teens to early twenties.

Due to the shadowy, shape-shifting nature of gangs, it’s impossible to know exactly how many young people are involved with, or affected by them. The Met Police estimate that there are roughly 225 gangs in operation, with a total of about 3,600 members from their teens to early twenties. If that sounds a small number in a city of 8 million people, they make their presence felt; the Met believes that gangs are responsible for 7 per cent of robberies, 17 per cent of serious violence, and 40 per cent of London’s shootings.

Gang members are a tiny minority of the city’s young people – most have nothing to do with them whatsoever – but they’re a group who haunt the modern city, who inspire fear, do great harm, and are greatly harmed, in turn, by their experiences. To be a child in a gang is to lead a double life: to transform yourself at night, to manufacture a myth around yourself, as John Graham did when he put on a white sheet and haunted Hammersmith. Central to this transformation are the names gangs give themselves, macho monikers like Guns and Shanks, Tell No 1, Ghetto Boys, Murderzone, All Bout Money, Dont Say Nothin, Loyal Soldiers, Easy Cash, Shankstarz. These names indicate how gangs want to be thought about and how they want to think about themselves. They’re an attempt to intimidate rivals and attract new joiners. Above all, they make each gang seem like more than the sum of its confused, vulnerable parts.

A lot of people know, interact with and want the best for these young people – families, communities, teachers, mentors, social workers, police officers, Youth Offending Teams. And yet, despite so much energy and good will, the issue can seem intractable. “We go into schools when they’re Year 7-ish and talk to them about gangs,” a member of the Lambeth Gangs Taskforce told me. “Talk to them about the myth of gangs versus the reality of it. The myth is that they’re a big family and they take care of each other. The reality is, if something happens to you, you just get replaced. But it doesn’t make a difference. The gangs are recruiting in schools all the time and, at the end of the day, the kids think they’re cool.”

Dispatching fear

Teen gangs are a symptom of a range of stubborn urban realities: poverty and unemployment; the market in drugs and weapons; inadequate housing, education and care. Dealing with gangs effectively is a long-term strategic challenge, requiring institutions and agencies to work together to tackle the patchwork of issues that fuel them. In the meantime, an array of inspiring initiatives encourage young people to leave gang life and support those affected by gang violence. One that you can visit is the Good Hope Café in Hither Green, run by the family of Jimmy Mizen, who was murdered in a bakery in 2008. The café was set up as a community hub and safe haven for local teens, and raises money for the family’s anti-gang charity.

For those of us not involved in addressing this issue day to day, a small, but important, thing we can do is make sure that it doesn’t slide from the spotlight or start to feel like a normal, if regrettable, aspect of city life. Simply by taking an active interest, we can help to stop the problem being overlooked because of its complexity and lack of easy solutions.

The Evening Standard’s commitment to covering gang issues in recent years has played an important role here. Likewise, director Paul Blake’s 2016 documentary Gangland, in which London gangs filmed their nocturnal escapades with Go-Pro cameras, stimulated a great deal of debate and offered an unvarnished glimpse of a reality that is hard to imagine.

Understanding gangs better also allows us to avoid buying into their hype. Gangs project a fierce public image through their combative names and their posturing YouTube videos, an image that’s often picked up and amplified by mainstream media. Approaching gang branding critically can help us to unpick real issues from mythic threats and ensure that our ideas about these young people don’t lapse into caricature.

If we think of gangs as an uncontrollable enemy within, we will struggle to remember that they’re made up of several thousand individuals in need of our care and commit­ment. And if teens in hoodies become faceless symbols of threat and dysfunction, we risk forgetting that the vast majority of young people, hooded or otherwise, have done nothing to earn our suspicion. Just as the 18th and 19th centuries beat back their superstitions about the London night, we need to notice and challenge our own unchecked attitudes. Stereotypes about young people in gangs need to be dragged from the shadows, floodlit, and seen for what they are. What could be sorrier than for a city to fear its own children?

  • 20 Still serving in Hammersmith – haunted, some say, by the ghost of Thomas Millwood.
  • 21 The shoemaker began haunting Hammersmith to spook his apprentices, who had frightened his children with ghost stories.
  • 22 The sentence was commuted to a year’s hard labour. Smith’s problematic case is well known in the legal community as an example of murder based on a sincere, but mistaken, belief.