In 1904, Hexham, Northumberland, was a hubbub of Victorian commerce, its streets thronged with shops and inns. Whilst its slum areas were rank with the smell of industrial waste and choked with the smoke of mass production, the surrounding woodland and countryside still belonged to a more traditional and naïve world.
The local newspaper, the Hexham Courant, was full of adverts hocking “Dr William’s Pink Pills For Pale People” and evangelical testaments to the miracle of laxatives, but on 10 December 1904 it carried a report with the headline: “Wolf at large in Allendale.” The newspaper reported that during the previous two or three weeks much commotion had been caused amongst the farmers on the higher parts of Hexhamshire, around the village of Allendale.
Loss of livestock had become so serious that many farmers were housing their animals at night. One found two of his sheep slaughtered, one with its entrails hanging out. All that was left of another animal was its head and horns. Most of the victims had been bitten severely on the neck and legs. All the hallmarks of a modern day animal mutilation epidemic, then – but the down-to-earth inhabitants of Hexhamshire were in no doubt the cause was a terrestrial one.
There was growing speculation that the most likely culprit was a grey wolf that had escaped from its owner, Captain Bain of Shotley Bridge, three months earlier. This wolf was on record in the Shotley Bridge police station as being four and a half months old (Hexham Herald, 15 Oct) and not much of a threat to either man or beast.
However, a more substantial and impressive wolf was spotted in a plantation behind Allenheads school. This report brought around 150 local residents to Allenheads, many armed with guns. The area where the wolf had been sighted was carefully searched and nothing was found, apart from an area within a wide drain where it was thought the beast might have been sleeping.
On 17 December, the Hexham Courant reported that on the previous Wednesday the wolf had committed a “great slaughter of a flock of sheep”. On Friday 9 December, the wolf was tracked by a 100-strong hunt, although it could not be driven to the place where the group’s guns were set. Despite being shot at, the wolf ran past a couple of beaters and made its escape. The following day, it made its way back to the scene of the “great slaughter”, where a corpse from its previous depredations still lay near the entry gate. The wolf devoured everything bar the head and skin.
On Saturday 10 December, a group of about 200 with 80 guns gathered to hunt it down. The search was fruitless. On Sunday, two inches (5cm) of snow fell, and a search for new footprints was started. Some tracks were spotted and guns were fired, but the wolf was not seen. Various sightings were made during the next few days, which were often contradictory, describing the beast as “black and tan” or “dun” coloured.
Panic began to set in. Lights were lit at night to scare away the wolf, and sheep were housed wherever possible. The Hexham Wolf Committee was set up to organise efforts to find the brute, and rewards were offered to fearless locals.
At this stage, the much respected Haydon Hounds were set on the trail, but without success. Not even celebrity hound Monarch could find its scent. Fort commented: “The wisedog was put on what was supposed to be the trail of the wolf. But, if there weren’t any wolf, who can blame a celebrated bloodhound for not smelling something that wasn’t?” 1
With the situation becoming desperate, a “skilled Indian Game Hunter”, Mr W Briddick, was brought in. Interviewed by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Briddick said his extensive hunting experience would stand him in good stead, and that he would find the animal “on scientific lines”. Whatever his methods, Briddick was unsuccessful. The wolf, oft spotted, seemed to leave no scent or trace of its passing.
The elusive villain and the fruitless searches didn’t stop the inhabitants of Hexhamshire making the most of the drama and spectacle, hunts becoming red-letter days with fancy dress and songs composed especially for the occasion.
The search for the Wolf of Allendale continued unabated throughout December. On the 29th, it was faced down by two men, but escaped by jumping a high wall. The following day, it was seen attacking a black-faced ewe, running the sheep into a wire.
One afternoon in late December, according to the newspaper, the wolf was encountered by some local boys and a group of women who frightened the animal by screaming in their excitement.
The panic, however, seemed to be brought to a screeching halt early in 1905, when the body of a wolf was found on a railway line in Cumwinton, Cumbria, some 30 miles (48km) west of Hexhamshire. Captain Bain sped to the scene, only to profess the beast far too mature to be the cub he had lost.
Sums of up to £40 were offered for the head of the deceased wolf by members of the public, keen to have a memento of the beast that had become such a local celebrity. Instead, it was dispatched to the Inspector of Ways and Works of the Midland Railway, on whose line it was found, destined for the wall of the boardroom in Derby.
The Hexham Courant reported on 7 January, 1905 that the wolf found at Cumwinton was not the Wolf of Allendale. Evidence put forward to the Wolf Committee suggested that the beast was still at large. The idea of Hexham’s famed wolf suddenly making off to the west for pastures new, covering more than 30 miles in a few days without being spotted or attacking any livestock is hard to swallow.
Local talk began to suggest that not just one, but a whole family of predators, was stalking the picturesque woodlands, thus explaining the differing descriptions of the animal put forward.
On 21 January, 1905, the local newspapers were full of the news of Russia surrendering Port Arthur to the Japanese. But in the back pages, the story of the wolf was taken up once more as the hounds were sent back into the woods. Frost interfered with the hunt, which was aborted. The wolf, though, was allegedly seen by many eyewitnesses, including a postman. The creature’s loyal public, and the local reporters, must have breathed a sigh of relief.
At this time a London paper, The Bystander, ran a piece commenting on the continuing destruction of livestock even after the discovery of the Cumwinton corpse. This story was not backed up by Hexham’s local press, which, although keen to keep alive the idea of the immortal predator, reported no further slaughter. It did, however, print excerpts from the article, wowing its readership with the condescending interest of the capital.
By the end of January 1905, reports had diminished sharply, and interest began to wane. There is a brief report of a sighting of the wolf with a snare attached to its leg – perhaps a reporter drawing a veil over proceedings with a fictional exit scene? Finally, the sightings and killings ceased altogether, and the Wolf of Allendale was relegated to local history.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the case is the reluctance to accept that the corpse found on the railway line was indeed the culprit. Perhaps this was fed by Capt. Bain’s assertion that the dead wolf was not his, which Fort dryly pointed out was probably motivated by the desire to avoid claims for compensation. Afterwards there is a short-lived burst of sightings, as if people could not accept that their wolf had met such an ignoble end – and in another county at that.
Also interesting are the inconsistencies in eyewitness descriptions of the animal(s), particularly in regard to colour. These differences, instead of being seen as weaknesses in the case, were used to embellish and elaborate the scare by hinting that more than one animal was at large, despite the lack of any evidence of this and the fact that more than one creature was never spotted at the same time.
The events in Hexhamshire were not the only peculiar goings-on at the time; Fort commented that this period seemed to see an unprecedented level of weirdness gripping Great Britain. Strange lights were following Mary Jones, founder of a hysterical religious revival in Wales, elaborate accounts of which appeared in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (19:80) the Occult Review (1:113) and the Liverpool Echo (18 Jan, 1905 – “Wales in the Grip of Supernatural Forces!”)
Fort recorded many other reports of strangeness around this time in Lo!, including, “teleportations in a butcher shop” (p109), “mysterious rappings on a door of a house in Crewe, and of a young woman in the house who was said to have dropped dead” (p110). There were also reports of “mysterious fires” over this period – “Blyth News, Feb 28… Neighbours broke in, and found the body of the occupant, Barbara Bell, aged 77, on the floor. Her body was burned, as if for a long time it had been in the midst of intense flames”. (p113)
Was the country in the thrall of the paranormal, or were these reports the death throes of a common imagination both irrational and prosaic? Literacy was increasing exponentially at this time, supposedly strangling the ignorant and superstitious beliefs of the British working classes; rationality and civility were qualities which all could, and should, aspire to. The Wolf, then, must have seemed to embody everything the progressive and self-improving Victorians deemed wild, contrary and distasteful.
Or, on the other hand, was there really something lurking, appetite unquenched, in the Hexhamshire woods? Was it a beast of nature, or of supernature? Fort, in Lo!, comments on the apparently ‘obvious’ connection between the escape of Capt. Bain’s wolf and the killing of sheep in Hexhamshire thus: “We have had some experience with conclusions that were said to be obvious”.
At the turn of the millennium, the very same woods stalked by the wolf were home to countless sightings of Alien Big Cats. This time, the reports, in the still extant Hexham Courant, were more subdued and not the pretext for communal celebration, fear and spectacle. They were, nevertheless, novel enough items to run for the majority of 2000–2001.
Again, variations in the colour of the animals spotted gave rise to speculation that a whole family of lynx-like felines was prowling the woods and fields of Hexhamshire. Other tantalising continuities include the prevalence of women and children as witnesses and the mention of a school as a stalking ground. In fact, St Joseph Middle School, Hexham, was said to be the permanent home of the ABC.
Hexham is also noted for the well-known fortean case of The Hexham Heads (see FT15:5; 59:43). In the early 1970s, a pair of supposedly Celtic stone heads were dug up in a humble back garden in a council estate not 10 minutes walk from the woods of the wolf. These uncanny artefacts were seemingly protected by an animalistic presence that would crash about in whichever house the Heads happened to inhabit. Interestingly, witnesses of this bizarre primal presence described it as being half-man, half-beast; the beast part was a wolf.
It’s interesting to ask just how much environment might play a part in the production of phenomena. Perhaps our surroundings sometimes trigger flashbacks in the collective unconscious or, more mundanely, give rise to fascinations quite appropriate for a community nurtured in the woodlands of prehistory.
It does appear that a likely, and usual, suspect is our own unconscious, whether in the creation of these thought-form embodiments of our savage origins or in the building of an acceptable framework by which we classify these sightings, even if the original identities of such apparitions can never be deciphered.
Woods have been a potent metaphor for the dark and unexplored depths of our own wild past ever since we crawled out of them; and as long as there are woods in our countryside and in our minds there will undoubtedly be something lurking deep within them.