Many stretches of lonely road feature a tale or two about a phantom hitchhiker. They’re always eerily similar in structure. A driver stops to pick up a stranger, often a young woman. During the journey, she vanishes from the back of the car.
Sometimes, the driver goes to the address she gave him to investigate. Did she get home okay? When he gets there, he discovers his mysterious passenger died some time earlier. In some variations, the hitchhiker died on the spot (or somewhere near) the place where they were picked up.
The urban legend about London’s Blackwall Tunnel relocates the story from a lonely country road to a road tunnel beneath the Thames. And there’s one other crucial difference.
This phantom hitchhiker favours motorcyclists, not drivers.
So let’s see if we can find out a bit more about this spectral passenger. As always, hit ‘play’ to listen to the episode or keep reading!
Where is the Blackwall Tunnel?
The Blackwall Tunnel runs under the River Thames to connect Greenwich and Tower Hamlets. I lost count of the number of times I heard reports of heavy or delayed traffic there on the morning news when I lived in London.
Two Blackwall Tunnels run under the Thames. The original tunnel dates to 1897, designed to improve trade in the East End.
But it became apparent by the 1930s that one tunnel couldn’t handle the traffic demands. In 1967, a second tunnel opened to alleviate congestion. In previous decades, pedestrians, drivers and cyclists all used the tunnels. Now, it’s just vehicles.
The main tale of the phantom hitchhiker seems to date to 1972.
A motorcyclist spotted a hitchhiker at the southern entrance to the northbound tunnel. The motorcyclist stopped to pick him up and the hitchhiker gave an address in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
When the motorcyclist reached the other end of the tunnel, he realised his pillion had disappeared. Worried the hitchhiker had slipped off the bike in the tunnel, he turned to look. No one lay in the road. The passenger had vanished into thin air.
Curious and now concerned about his passenger, the biker went to the address he’d been given. Maybe his passenger had made it home by other means.
He hadn’t. It turned out the passenger died several years previously, killed in an accident in – you guessed it – the Blackwall Tunnel. According to some versions of the legend, the biker learned that several motorcyclists had picked up the phantom hitchhiker over the years.
The tale varies with the telling.
Some versions have the biker pick up the phantom hitchhiker at the southern entrance, others the northern entrance. Occasionally the tale even has the motorcyclist pick up his ghostly passenger within the tunnel itself.
One or two stories even cite the passenger as being female. But the common consensus is the ghostly hitchhiker is a man.
So who is this phantom hitchhiker?
Versions of the legend describe him wearing biker leathers. Which would imply he’s a motorcyclist himself.
A letter apparently appeared in Fortean Times in 1994, in which a reader described an incident from 1960. He’d been staying in Blackwall Lane with his wife and father-in-law. They heard an accident outside and later learned a motorcyclist was killed. A week later they heard the same sound at 2 am, but the tunnel was empty.
I couldn’t find any other mention of phantom sounds in the tunnel. But it would make sense. The accepted wisdom is that when a violent incident occurs, it leaves a psychic imprint on the environment. A traffic accident that kills a person is just such an incident.
But it could explain who the mysterious hitchhiker is.
Or could it? I’ve checked the newspaper archives online and can find no mention of a traffic accident in the Blackwall Tunnel in 1960. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. After all, there are still newspapers that haven’t been added yet. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can say “yes, my son/brother/husband/father was killed in the tunnel in 1960” to support the story.
The story does have more of the ring of the urban legend to it. I haven’t been able to locate the source of the original story. Articles about it, like this one, reference the 1994 letter or the 1972 story. But there’s no primary evidence available.
Weirdly, there are few reports of the phantom hitchhiker apart from the most famous tale from 1972.
Phantom Hitchhikers Get Academic
Ernest W. Baughman created the Type- and Motif-Index of the Folk Tales of England and North America in 1966. In it, he identified the phantom hitchhiker story type. He classified the motif as E3126.96.36.199, under E – The Dead.
Ghost of young woman asks for ride in automobile, disappears from closed car without the driver’s knowledge, after giving him address to which she wishes to be taken. The driver asks person at the address about the rider, finds she has been dead for some time.(Baughman 1966: 148)
There are a range of subcategories to account for the variations in the stories. Our boy from Blackwall falls under E3188.8.131.52(g), hitchhikers who just want a lift home (Baughman 1966: 148).
Obviously, the London tale varies from this generic template. It’s a male hitchhiker, not a woman. He disappears from the back of a motorbike, not from inside a car. That said, he does give his address. And when the good Samaritan asks about his passenger, he discovers he’s already dead.
But that’s part of the fascinating thing about urban legends. They grow, evolve, and downright change depending on the teller. You can usually spot them when they begin with “A friend told me about this thing that happened to a friend of a friend…”
Keep your wits about you
Central London has relatively few roadside ghosts compared to other country lanes around the UK. Ghostly children have been heard running along Gloucester Drive in Finsbury Park. And reports tell of a phantom cyclist in Highgate Village.
But if you are a biker travelling through the Blackwall Tunnel, keep your eyes peeled. The tunnel is sometimes cited as one of the most dangerous tunnels in London. And that’s just from the traffic.
Being vigilant can keep you safe. Or who knows? You just might end up being flagged down by a spectral passenger…
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Baughman, Ernest Warren (1966), Type and Motif-index of the Folktales of England and North America, The Hague: Mouton & Co.
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