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The Fleet Street Phantom- Hallowe'en 1684
Tom Cox was a well known and popular cab driver in the London of Charles II. He had previously worked for years as a labourer, grafting on building sites in the City during the vast rebuilding programme, led by Sir Christopher Wren, following the Great Fire of London in 1666. The work had been hard and brutal but Tom had saved assiduously to buy his own Hackney Carriage and a pair of fine horses and now revelled in plying his trade through London’s dark and narrow streets. Although in no way as physically demanding as his former occupation, the job had its own hazards. Cutthroats and highwaymen lurked in every alley but Tom was strong and fearless and gave short shrift to anyone who tried to relieve him of his hard-earned fares. Many a vagabond who had chanced their arm had felt the searing pain from the lash of his whip across their face.
For several years, Tom worked the City streets night and day and became a familiar sight around London with a reputation for being an honest and industrious cabbie.
On Halloween eve, Friday 31st October 1684, Tom picked up a fare little suspecting that it would be his last and he would never drive a cab again.
The evening had begun innocently enough. Tom was coming to the end of a busy 12 hour shift. He had taken a fare from White-Hall Gate to Water Lane which was a narrow street leading down to the Thames. He drove down to the end of Water Lane to turn his carriage around and headed back up towards Fleet Street stopping off at the tavern for some much-needed refreshment. After a pot or two of ale he got into his carriage and began his journey home. Just before the upper end of Water Lane he was beckoned by a man standing by one of the posts near the wall. Although it was dark, Tom could see from his attire that it was a gentleman dressed all in black and holding a roll of parchment in his hand. Tom was in two minds whether to take the fare but when he asked for the Lower Church Yard at Fleet Ditch near St. Brides Church, he realised it was on his way home and so would be no great hardship. Tom opened the door to the carriage and the mysterious stranger climbed inside.
Immediately his horses began to agitate which was unusual and Tom had difficulty in bringing them to order. He took the lash to them and they bolted causing him to lose his hat. Cursing under his breath Tom stopped the carriage and climbed down into the inky black cobbled streets to search for his hat. He searched in vain for several minutes before the stranger called out from inside the carriage and asked what he was doing. Tom told him that he’d lost his hat and would rather have lost eight shillings from his pocket than his precious hat. The stranger told him to look under the feet of the horses which he did and to his surprise discovered his hat even though it was so dark that he had to find it by touch. Tom thought this was a little odd as the stranger could not possibly have seen it but climbed back into the driving seat and continued the journey.
The horses were restless throughout the journey and when he finally arrived at the Fleet Ditch they stopped a few paces from the churchyard and would go no further. Tom tried to gee them on but they resisted and behaved in such an unruly manner that had difficulty in controlling them. He shouted to his fare from his seat that he could take him no further and opened the door of the coach with one hand whilst clutching the reins of his horses on his whip, which he had made into a bow to lengthen them so that he could reach the door handle.
The gentleman held out his hand and told the coachman to take what he would for the fare. Tom looked down and could see the man’s hand but saw no money and as he went to take it he could feel no flesh although he man was standing plainly before him. The man then emerged from the coach which caused the horses to rear up in terror and drag the coach forwards. As he struggled to control them Tom looked back at the carriage and standing where the stranger had been he saw the monstrous figure of a roaring black bear with flaming red eyes lunging towards him. Tom screamed out in terror and lashed out repeatedly with his whip as the enormous beast descended upon on him. Tom screamed and struggled for all he was worth then in a huge flash of fire and sparks the monster was gone.
Tom had collapsed on top of his carriage and the next thing he knew he was at home in Cradle Alley in Baldwin’s Gardens. His horses had taken him home where his wife found his unconscious body slumped on the coach. He was taken from the carriage and carried to bed where he remained delirious and unable to move or talk for a week.
At dawn on Thursday 6th November, his wife entered his bedroom just as the cock crowed and at that instant he roused and with difficulty spoke for the first time, telling her of the dreadful apparition that had attacked him. Tom Cox recovered his speech but was paralysed and unable to move any of his limbs. He was visited by a great many friends and scholars of the day who listened with horror to his ordeal. Many were convinced that he was one of the few men who had met the Devil himself and survived to tell the tale.
Tom Cox never regained his mental or physical faculties and was unable ever drive his carriage again through his beloved London streets. He went to his grave a broken man and the truth of what malevolence befell him on that Halloween night in 1684, remains a mystery.