Jenny Greenteeth: A Very Wicked Witch
As a child, the name ‘Ginny Greenteeth’ struck terror into my very soul. Lurking in the nearby canal and even closer on the banks of the Mersey, she hid just below the surface of the water, waiting to catch ‘naughty children’ who ventured near. The Ginny who terrified me was ghastly green with teeth like yellow daggers and hair like seaweed. Quick as a flash, the long-limbed bogy would reach up to snatch the ankles of the unsuspecting. Once firmly in her bony grasp, she would drag her victims down to her dark, damp lair and gobble them up for breakfast. As I grew older, I learned that Ginny was a work of fiction designed to make children wary of water. Or was she? More commonly known as Jenny, tales of her dreadful deeds are told all over the United Kingdom. No matter what name you use—Screeching Ginny, Jenny Wi’ the Airn Teeth, Ginny Burntarse, Peg Powler, or Nelly Longarms—this green-toothed grindylow is a truly wicked lady.
The term Grindylow finds its origins in the Anglo Saxon tale of Beowulf. Grendel a horrible monster, half man half human, strikes terrible fear in all but the poem’s hero, Beowulf. Associated with the shallows of boggy, weed strewn water, Grindylows are malignant water sprites. Green in colour with long spindly fingers and sharp jagged teeth, they hide themselves in rushes and pondweed near the water’s edge. Slimy, evil creatures, Grindylows dine on the bodies of children and old people, dragging them deep below the surface before devouring them.
A Strange Discovery in Liverpool
St. James’ Cemetery in Liverpool is a vast Victorian graveyard that fills a deep sandstone quarry in the shadow of the Anglican Cathedral. By day it is a pleasant green spot in the centre of a bustling city. By night it is something far more sinister. Entered via a long dark tunnel lined with graves, it becomes a Gothic nightmare. Supposedly haunted by vampires, pirates and an assortment of restless souls, it is a hotspot for local ghost hunters who wander the grounds and mausoleums in search of elusive phantoms.
The cathedral is built upon a steep hill called St. James’ Mount. According to a local writer, Tom Slemen, the mount and the site of the cemetery were once revered by Wiccans. Significantly, it is also the site of Liverpool’s only fresh water spring. In the early part of the twentieth century workmen were digging in the cemetery when they discovered a large wooden statue. The statue was buried deep underground very close to the natural spring. When it was pulled out, the life sized figure was revealed as a woman in a long green dress, her arms outstretched as if to entice you in. The plinth on which she stood was inscribed with Wiccan symbols. When it was deciphered it read ‘Jenna’. The statue has since disappeared, although photographic evidence testifies that it did actually exist. Slemen speculates that the statue was that of Jenna Green, a Lancashire witch who was thrown out of her coven for using her magic for nefarious purposes. It is not a difficult leap to connect Jenna Green with Ginny Greenteeth. Indeed, local folk still remember the cemetery lodge being pelted with eggs in the 1950s by local schoolchildren believing it to be the home of Ginnie Greenteeth. In recent years, one intrepid ghost hunter believes she has captured the image of Ginnie on camera. Karen Hargreaves snapped the figure near a grave known as the Vampire Grave. The part of the cemetery where the specter is seen is in fact impassable, overgrown with ivy and stinging nettles. Karen swears that nobody was in view when she took the shot.
Jenny Wi’ the Airn Teeth
The Glasgow Necropolis is a place of great architectural interest, a sprawling Victorian cemetery built upon a hillside, it offers a panoramic view of the city below. To the children living in the working class Gorbals area of the fifties, it was a magical playground. The Necropolis was a place where they could play, explore and let their imaginations run riot. Surrounded by factories and a massive steelworks, the cemetery was an eerie place. Often filled with the strange noises, lights and smells from nearby industry, it was the perfect place for young fevered minds to run amok.
The red light and the smoke would flare up and make all the gravestones leap. You could see figures walking about at the back all lined in red light.— Tam Smith
When Constable Alex Deeprose received a call one evening in September 1954 to attend a disturbance in the cemetery, he probably expected to find one or two young people engaged in minor vandalism. What he saw when he arrived at the Necropolis was a scene that caused headlines across the world. Hundreds of children armed with metal bars, wooden stakes, catapults and even dogs were scouring the cemetery for what became known as the ‘Gorbals Vampire’. A rumour had quickly spread around the local schools that two small children had been abducted by a vampire with iron teeth. For three nights the children persisted with their heroic task, completely convinced that they would discover the kidnapped children and kill the vampire. Eventually, the Headmaster of a local school persuaded the children to give up their fruitless search. At the time American comic books were blamed for the mass hysteria, with many adults pointing the finger at the lurid stories and illustrations they contained. This may well have been the case. However, the Gorbals was a poor area and American comics were rare. What is more likely, is that tales of ‘Jenny wi’ the airn teeth’ had become entwined with modern tales of vampires. Used to terrify children who wouldn’t sleep by Scottish mothers, the iron fanged Jenny would drag children back to her lair before eating them.
What a plague is this o' mine,
Winna steek his e'e,
Though I hap him ow'r the head
As cosie as can be.
Sleep! an' let me to my wark,
A' thae claes to airn;
Jenny wi' the airn teeth,
Come an' tak' the bairn:— Alexander Anderson
Peg Powler makes her home in the River Tees near the town of Darlington. An old hag with green tresses, she drags naughty children into the water to drown them. Also known as the High Green Ghost, she is sometimes seen roaming the river banks looking for her prey. Her favourite day for gobbling up young children appears to be Sunday. Local children are warned they will be safer in church rather than playing near the banks of the river. To this day, the thick white foam churned up by the fast moving river is known as Peg Powler’s Suds and the thinner froth near the banks as Peg Powler’s Cream, neither of which are recommended for washing!
Nellie Longarms, as her name implies, is a woman with long sinewy limbs. Nellie mainly lurks deep in the wells of Cheshire. Lean too far forward as you are drawing water and her long arms will reach up and snatch you down. This bogart doesn’t confine herself to wells and ponds alone. At night she takes to the trees. Those that listen carefully can hear her moaning and sighing on the breeze. She also haunts Wybunbury Moss, an area of peaty moss and bog. Interestingly, Nellie has a male equivalent, Nicky Nye whose deeds are almost as dastardly.
The boggy fen lands of Eastern England can be treacherous by day but in the darkness they can become deadly. The ghostly lights of will-o-the-wisp or ‘foolish fire’ have lured many travellers to a watery death. Caused by marsh gas, the glowing lights look like a lantern flickering in the distance. For those seeking a supernatural cause, Ginny Burntarse provides a solution. An old river hag, she waves her lantern at unsuspecting travellers, luring them from the safety of the path to a watery grave.
If you ever visit Garston Railway Station in Liverpool, you may notice a very strange plaque upon the wall. Garston is an area which borders the boggy estuary of the River Mersey, a marshland with extensive mudflats. The plaque commemorates an event in the 1950s when a group of children were chased from the docks by a witch, known locally as Screeching Ginny. The witch pursued the children until they were almost home before giving up the chase. When the terrified children recounted the tale to their parents, they were told that the witch was the ghost of a local woman who had been crossed in love and thrown herself on the tracks at Garston Station. While this may well be true, there is evidence that Screeching Ginny was lurking in the Liverpool area long before the railway was constructed. When the local bridewell was abandoned and fell into disrepair, local children renamed it ‘Screeching Ginny’s Castle’. Interestingly, today the ancient bridewell stands next to a Victorian water tower.
Today in many places in Northern England, the name Jenny Greenteeth has become a synonym for the green weeds that cover ponds and stagnant pools. But in truth, most children have probably never heard the story of the witch that lurks near water.These days most people choose less horrifying ways to warn their offspring of danger. That doesn’t mean the old hag isn’t there though, lurking just below the surface, her yellow teeth sharpened, her sinewy arms poised, waiting, waiting, waiting, to snatch away the careless child that wanders just a little too close.
Come into the water and bathe my love,
Come swim in the swirling pool,
Come down in the damp with the rocks and the boats,
You’ll swim with me now sweet fool.— Nicole Murray, Cloudstreet
Do you think it is important that children are told local folktales and stories?
Dangerous Minds: The Gorbals Vampire
scotsman.com: The Gorbals Vampire, Claire McKim
Tales From the Past: Tom Slemen
Liverpool Echo: Is this the ghost of Ginnie Greenteeth?
The Fairy Investigation Society
Paranormal Merseyside: S.D. Tucker
Faeries: Froud and Lee
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore: Theresa Bane
Myths and Legends of Cheshire
The Encyclopedia of Superstition