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.

11 comments on “The Thames Angel”

  1. Davem says:

    Brilliant, never seen this one before 🙂

  2. Bill says:

    I want to make money as a psychic. Of course, I’m about as psychic as a frying pan, anybody/everybody is, but I’d like to make money that way, anyway.

    Maybe I should have visions of the BVM. And an agent.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Similar to the Angels and bowmen seen at the First World War Battle of Mons which was a piece of fiction written by horror author Arthur Machen well after the battle. He wrote it in the first person as a parish priest and it appeared in newspapers, later repeated in church newsletters. People actually believed it – a bit like Orson Welles and War of the Worlds.
    It seems people actually want to believe fake news, especially if an angel is involved.

  4. Roger says:

    The trouble is, you’ve got to keep a straight face, Bill. No matter how deranged it gets, you must look like you believe it all. Only sincerely stupid and humourless people can do it.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    There is a lot of work for angels along the Thames: Parliament, the City, … .

  6. keith page says:

    Conan Doyle was a firm believer in the Cottingley Fairy photos even though they were such blatant fakes.Maybe his belief in spiritualism and related subjects clouded his judgement , although this is hard to credit.

  7. admin says:

    Keith! There you are! Your emails are bouncing back!

  8. Bill says:

    Thank you, Roger.

  9. Vivienne says:

    This is a new one on me but, given the amount of inebriation that can be found along the embankments, it’s surprising there haven’t been more visions.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Please, may I ask something pertinent to the site but not to this particular column? Do editors or authors ever check the names they’ve given to characters? A friend and I have recently come upon two characters (separate books) with identical names to very public Canadian figures and we’re wondering about the authors. One is Olive Diefenbaker, a very minor character in a novel but the actual name of the wife of a former Prime Minister, now deceased. The other is a major character in a novel called The Good Girl, a character named Colin Thatcher. Now, we had a premier of Saskatchewan named Colin Thatcher, a man who was found guilty of murdering his ex-wife. It was an ugly case, the trial was headline making for quite some time and the name still resonates. Using that name for someone involved in an ugly kidnapping as the author did seems odd and certainly unfortunate. Does anyone check names?

  11. Ian Luck says:

    It sounds very like the ‘Vicar Of Ratcliff Wharf’ all over again. A local paper blatantly invented a story of the ghost of a clergyman being seen on the riverside. It didn’t take long before people contacted the paper to say that they had seen him, too. Suggestion is a powerful thing. I live in a rural part of England, and years ago, some friends of mine got bored, and started telling people in their little village, that some ‘thing’ was attacking farm animals, throttling them with it’s bare hands. They called it ‘The Witnesham Strangler’. It didn’t exist. No animals were harmed, but people ‘saw’ things lurking in copses, and one summer evening, as I cycled home from visiting a friend in Westerfield, which is very near to Witnesham, a man walking his dog told me to keep alert, as someone has said that “The Strangler’s about”. I had to bite my tongue. Very hard. It was a local thing, that I’m sure the local copper knew about, perhaps even knew who was behind it.

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