The Thames Angel
London’s myths and legends didn’t simply stop at the end of the nineteenth century. They continue to the present day. One of the oddest I’ve come across is the Thames Angel, a predictably mystical white-robed floaty lady said to spread calm and feelings of well-being, who supposedly first appeared to a 16 year-old student on the South Bank in 2006. The photograph she took created a ready-made market for memorabilia as the cat-lady brigade and other members of the maniac community crept out to search for the so-called Angel of the Thames.
Suddenly the angel’s history was magically backdated from 2016 to include sightings during the time of Pepys, the Great Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz and various other London flashpoints in history. As the Angel hid its original creation story, websites, followers and an online shop appeared.
Here, fake news sites act as the handbills that were once sold immediately after public displays of violence or fright. From one Angel of the Thames website comes this typical entry;
‘There have been sightings of Angelic appearances in the same area of the Thames during both the First and Second World Wars, in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain and at other times seemingly unconnected with any other event. What the sightings do seem to have in common is that they appear in sixes. There were seven sightings in 1918 although one was later was later proved to be a hoax.’
I like that last line; it adds a touch of veracity. A TV show host was filmed gasping at the ‘Angel’ and the credulous Times ran the article, which was picked up by other papers on slow news days together with shots of whisps of smoke and a crude fake ‘etching’.
What’s missing from all this is the satisfaction of an interesting backstory. Unlike, say, the ghost of Drury Lane, the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard or even the Tower ravens, there’s no attempt to couple sightings with a royal figure or scandal from the past. The Angel has no purpose other than to be soporific and sell T-shirts. Could no-one even be bothered to tie it to a few real facts?
The excellent South London real news site Transpontine ran a piece about the origin of the Angel that rings truer because they did their homework, pointing out that it was a planned hoax, part of an attempted viral marketing campaign for a charity event by Global Angels that backfired.
And there it rests as an example of how myths are transposed into fact. But the nature of myth making has changed. It’s easy to debunk nonsense now with real news resources – but it’s so much easier to make something up.