THE LEGEND OF THE IRON MAN
“Where did he come
How was he made?
(The Iron Man by Ted Hughes – Poet Laureate 1984 -1998)
Do you remember when we were children
our parents, grandparents and the older folk of Knottingley telling us,”
Don’t go near the canal because the Iron Man will get you.”? I do. I even
knew the exact metal culvert on the banks of the canal near Shepherds Bridge
where it was pointed out to me by an older school boy who told me, “That is
where he lurks; he looks out for little boys and girls who wonder along
the tow-path. He will suddenly jump out and carry you off back inside his
layer and you will never to be seen again”. That was enough to frighten
the socks off me.
Didn’t the older boys always like to
show their seniority in that way?
But that older generation in the 1950’s
did tell their children tall stories, such as the Iron Man legend and other
equally frightening fables as a way of keeping us out of danger. All were
intended to scare us so much that we did not trespass, fall into the canal or
get into bother with the natives. Or so they thought, not that it ever stopped
of us; it was all part of our childhood learning process in those days.
We were warned too of the bank walker
who lived in the grey stone house next to Kings Mills. If he were to catch us
he would give such a thrashing that we would not be able to sit down for a
week. In his daily trek along the canal bank he surely had good reason,
because I understand that his only son was drowned and he never recovered from
the loss. I am never sure which of these two stories acted as the main
deterrent, but I know that most youngsters of my own age never went near the
“cut”, as the Knottingley folk called the canal. The only time that we did was
when we ran from Weeland Road School, down the side of the Anvil Inn to the
Greenehouse to play football on Friday afternoons. Then we ran like merry hell
until we reached the pitch. Whether this is because we thought the Iron Man or
the bank walker was on our tail or simply because we were keen footballers, I
The questions I would pose are these.
Where did this legendary Iron Man tale come from, and is it just part of
Knottingley colourful history, or do the stories extend further afield? If it
were told by our parents and grandparents, then it must have been as old, if
not older than they were, and not just something that was merely dreamed up by
that generation. May be it is as old as the canal itself and that was
constructed between 1820 and 1826. Who knows, do any of the older generation
who are still alive today in Knottingley know the roots of this extraordinary
If we explore myths and legends we see
that there are tales of Iron Men stretching down over the centuries.
Interestingly enough they can be found in literature, both classic and comic
One recalls the creepy story of the
Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas. He tells the story of the French
royal twin who was caged in an iron mask and incarcerated for life in an
island fortress by his tyrannical brother. How he was rescued from his
prison cell by the Four Musketeers and given his rightful place on the throne
of France. In his place, fettered for life was placed his brother onto whose
own head was riveted the same grotesque iron mask.
There is the classic story called Men
of Iron by Howard Pyle a yarn written in 1919 about knights of old and the
glorious age of chivalry. But, I hardly think that such a gallant tale would
prompt creepy submersible goings on in an old and smelly Yorkshire canal.
In American strip comics one can find
stories of the Invincible Iron Man who of course has super human
powers, as one would expect. How far these stories go back into American folk
lore I have been unable to find out. However, I think it unlikely that these
lurid comic stories have links with canals and other watery stretches in a
small Yorkshire outback town. But this story, like many other Knottingley
tales, has been in my memory from childhood, so I have to wonder whether the
comics we read in the playground had any influence on the way we thought and
behaved during our most informative years?
The Yorkshire author C J Cutcliffe Hyne,
writing under his pseudonym Weatherby Chesney, wrote a book of short stories
that was published in 1898 and now exceedingly rare called The Adventures
of a Solicitor. One of these bizarre imaginative pieces was called The
Mechanical Burglar. It tells the story of an invention and the building of
a metal automaton that was programmed to steal silver, gold and jewels. It
finally comes to a sticky end when his pursuer on one dark and stormy night,
throws his gold hunter watch into a bog, this being the only way he can think
to lure and outwit the thing. The motorized burglar, with its bright shining
eyes follows the loot, sinks and dies an almost human death.
Hyne was also know to be an amateur
inventor, world traveller and creator of the fierce, breezy, irascible Captain
Own Kettle. He was brought up in Bradford but lived during his later years at
Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales. He was in himself a mystery man and little
is know about his life, even by his own family. But, he was a Yorkshire man,
as was… Ted Hughes…
I thought last year that I had found the
source of the fable when I spotted on the shelf of a London antiquarian
bookshop, a first edition of Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man.
I could not wait to pull this slim volume, complete in dust wrapper from the
shelf. The cover illustration depicted this huge iron monster with lamps for
“The two lights rose into the sky.
They were the giant figure’s eyes”.
But still there was no mention of
Hughes’ monster man coming up out of a canal and unfortunately the first
edition was dated 1968. This was far too late to have influenced the minds of
Knottingley folk of the 1950’s. But this did raise the question, whether the
origin of the iron man story lies much deeper and is actually part of
Yorkshire Folk Lore.
I am told on reliable authority that
Castleford and Allerton Bywater children were also deterred, as late as the
1960’s, from going near the canal with stories of Green Eyes. Now there
is a coincidence. They were told - “Don’t go near the canal because Ol’
Green Eyes will get you”. Was it by sheer chance that the iron man of the
Hughes story also had green eyes?
“The eyes and top of the head
appeared for a moment…Now the eyes were green”. (Hughes)
Or, is it that Hughes himself was
influenced when he was a young by parallel stories voiced to him in his South
Yorkshire community that were similar in imagination to the ones that we as
children were told?
Ted Hughes, English poet, short story
writer and literary critic was born in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, but raised
from early childhood in Mexborough, South Yorkshire, where he attended the
local grammar school, before going on to Cambridge. He specialised in
mythological systems on which it is said he based his poems.
Whilst at university he met and married
Sylvia Plath an American writer and for a short time the couple lived in the
USA, his wife later committing suicide. One may speculate that with this Trans
Atlantic link and his Yorkshire background, this might have prompted him to
write about the Iron Man in a book that he wrote primarily for his own
children. In 1984 Ted Hughes was elected Poet Laureate and remained so until
the year of his death in 1998.
It would be mere conjecture if I were to
claim that the story of Knottingley’s Iron Man is part of Yorkshire
Legend rather than an isolated local parable. However, instinct suggests that
it could be something that is told in various ways to children in other towns
throughout the county. Ted Hughes himself may also have been frightened by a
similar tale as those of Knottingley’s Iron Man, as were the children of Allerton Bywater with Old Green Eyes. And maybe, just maybe,
somewhere in these writings by two Yorkshire authors is the answer to the Knottingley myth. Can it have been the influence of stories told as far away
as the USA or ones spoken much nearer to home that prompted our parents and
grandparents to tell them to us? Does the answer today lie dormant in the
minds of Knottingley’s older generation? If anyone knows, do write in and
And children, is the story still told in
the playground today? "But, fear not ’tis only a tale". Or is it?
"Every legend and myth known to mankind is not
without its authentic foundation".
Also by Roger Ellis:
Sunday School Days
School Days is Happy Daze