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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

The Pusher Of Manchester

During the reign of Queen Victoria, the advent of the industrial revolution saw a sudden and uncontrollable increase in the size of Britain's northern towns and settlements. The city of Manchester was a perfect illustration of this expansion, rapidly evolving from a modest producer of clothing and textiles into a gigantic industrial powerhouse. As hungry and desperate souls flocked from all over the region in search of employment, the city's infrastructure had to evolve in order to accommodate the growing pressures it now faced.

In addition to increases in housing, transport links were also expanded, with miles of new canals carved into the rolling countryside to supplement the broadening road and railway networks. At the start of 1761, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater received permission to construct a lengthy water way to transport coal from his mines and Worsley to fuel the city's perpetually hungry furnaces. This was followed by the creation of two more canals to the east of Manchester, leading out to Huddersfield and Rochdale. But by far the most ambitious project was the final addition to the network, the Manchester ship canal, a 36 mile run that led out of the coastal port of Liverpool. Eventually, the four waterways converged at the heart of the city, creating a complex warren of junctions and tunnels.

To this day, there is little consistency to how different parts of each canal system have been maintained. Some were built over many years ago, now having no pedestrian access. Others have been lovingly sculpted and refurbished to fit in with the ongoing regeneration work within the city. But all of them are part of a dark and sinister nightmare, which remains hidden in plain sight.

The Fate of Tom

In April 2018, a 34 year old local man by the name of Tom was cycling home along the bridge water canal. It was late evening, and he was traveling home from work after a long day. As he made his way along the cycle path, he did not notice a dark figure step out of the shadows in front of him until it was too late. This figure swung a brawny forearm across his path. This sent Tom flying over the handlebars and into the deadly embrace of the nearby waters.

Fighting the freezing paralysis that instantly afflicted his muscles, Tom swam hard for the nearest bank. As he planted one hand firmly on the side and went to raise his other, a savage kick sent him flying backwards once again into the icy waters. This time the struggle to regain the surface was twice as hard as before, with every muscle and joint screaming at him in protest. Kicking his legs as hard as he could to remain afloat and raggedly gasping for air, Tom could see the shadowy figure still standing patiently at the canal side as if anticipating his next move.

Starting to tire, Tom turned his head quickly from left to right, looking for assistance, but the streets around him remains stubbornly devoid of life. Desperately, he began to scull backwards to the far side of the channel, feeling his strength fade with every stroke. Almost immediately, the silence was broken by the wail of approaching sirens. Tom's elation upon first hearing the speeding police car proved to be short-lived as the emergency service vehicle hurtles straight past, en route to another incident, but it was enough to force his assailant to retreat back into the shadows, and off into the night.

When the shaking and shivering commuter eventually made it home and told his wife what had happened, she took straight to Facebook to warn others in the community. Over the next few months, the bodies of two young men would be recovered by the police from local canal basins. Word immediately spread throughout the city like wildfire: The Pusher had returned.

The idea that a serial killer could be stalking Manchester's streets was first suggested back in 2015. Whilst liaising with the authorities about an unrelated matter, a local journalist discovered that over eighty five dead bodies had been hauled out of the canal network during the previous seven year period. When he studied this data, the reporter was astonished to discover that roughly a third of these cases resulted in an open verdict.

This is one of the more extraordinary rulings that a coroner can make, in essence admitting that they cannot define the circumstances leading up to the person's death with any degree of certainty. Disregarding incidents that were classified as murders or fatalities arising from other crimes, a total of 28 unexplained deaths remained. The victims were almost all male and in each case, the coroner had eliminated the possibility of suicide or misadventure. Worryingly, there was evidence in many cases that the victim had not been alone at the time of their death.

Nathan Tomlinson's unfortunate end

On the 17th of December 2010, Nathan Tomlinson was drinking at a canal side bar in the city with colleagues at the Christmas party. The 21 year old trained teacher had sent a text message to his mother at 10:30 p.m. to let her know that he had not had much to drink and would be home soon. The following morning, when he still hadn't arrived home, his parents called the police to report him missing, convinced something untoward happened to him. Whilst not immediately concerned, local officers were conscious that there had already been 11 water related deaths in the city that year alone, so searches in and around the local waterways were carried out. This proved fruitless however, and it would be seven long and painful weeks before Nathan's remains were finally located near to the Adelphi bridge in a stretch of the River Irwell.

Subsequent CCTV enquiries tracking back from where the body was found showed that Nathan had taken an unnecessary meandering route, over 2 miles in the opposite direction to his home address. At times, in the footage, he could be seen breaking into a run, looking over his shoulder as if he was being followed. When it was discovered he was missing his wallet, passport and coat, Nathan's mother told the police she believed he had been attacked and mugged. Their curt response was that there was no evidence of this. Nathan had sustained no obvious signs of injury and the missing items could easily have been lost when he had entered the water. Despite her desperate pleas for further investigation, the case was closed.

Death of the student Souvik Pal

On New Year's Eve, 2012, arts student Souvik Pal was socializing in the city with friends from his college course. By the time they had arrived at a local club to end their evening, they had become separated into smaller groups. Souvik arrived alone and was refused entry by the door staff for being too intoxicated, despite several determined attempts to get in. Whilst his friends continue to party inside the nightclub, assuming he was already inside somewhere, he sent a number of text messages, but due to the network being busy, these were not received until the following morning.

The club's CCTV cameras showed him remonstrating, with the door staff, before walking off down a nearby canal lock in the company of another male. The two figures were briefly picked up on a camera attached to one of the club's neighboring buildings, before disappearing down into one of the more secluded stretches of the Bridgewater Canal. Half an hour later, one of the two were seen to emerge before disappearing off into the depths of a nearby industrial estate. Souvik's body was eventually found 22 days later. The officers investigating the death told his family they believed that he and the other male had been trying to find somewhere where they could cross the canal, and then sneak into the club's smoking area.

They believe that Souvik had fallen into the water and had been unable to get out due to his level of intoxication. The student's father rejected this theory, stating his son would easily have been spotted by the club's bouncers, particularly if he had swum across the canal as officers were suggesting. He also asked why-if this was the case-the other man Souvik was with had not identified themselves or even tried to seek help for his son. Once again, the death was filed as unexplained, against the family's wishes.

By far, the most mystifying and disturbing case of attributed to The Pusher is that of David Plunkett, a University student who disappeared on his way home in April 2004. When his parents received a phone call from one of his friends at 1:30 am, concerned that David had become separated from the main group, they immediately called his mobile phone. The call was not answered until the third attempt and when it connected, David's mother could not get a reply from the person on the other end.

She desperately tried to get David to speak, pleading with him to tell her where he was so she could come and find him. But all she could hear was the sound of the person on the other end of the call breathing, apparently walking around somewhere outside. After 8 minutes of frantic attempts to get David to speak, his mother was horrified to hear the sound of an anguished and terrified scream before the line went dead. When subsequent calls failed to connect, she called the police. Two weeks later, David's bruised body was found submerged in water, less than a mile from the pub where he had been drinking.

The family were told that the weather that night have been particularly poor and David's injuries were consistent with having drunkenly fallen into the water. Again, David's mother and father refused to accept the official explanation. If he had been drunk and looking for a taxi, the canal was the last place he would have been. At no point in the call had she heard the sound of splashing or any other noises consistent with him falling in the water. They could think of no reason for him not to have responded to them unless he had been under duress and were convinced that his final horrifying scream must have been the realization he was going to be killed.

With somewhere in the region of 500,000 residents, Manchester has a population roughly half that of Birmingham or Amsterdam, both of which possess urban canal networks of comparable size. And yet, the number of water related deaths in those cities is nowhere near as high, indicating that something very sinister might be taking place in the north of England. The Legend Of The Pusher is widely known, having attracted no small degree of national interests at the time it was first publicized, and yet the drownings have continued to occur. This is despite the best efforts of Greater Manchester police, who have deployed a combination of both uniformed and undercover officers onto canal footpaths at night to try and keep revelers safe.

The deaths are of particular concern to Manchester's Homosexual Community, with several waterways running directly through the Canal Street area, where most of the city's LGBTQ bars and nightclubs are located. There have been regular complaints to the police that it is gay victims who are being targeted by the unidentified killer, and that attacks and incidents are underreported, as those involved are not prepared to identify themselves to officers.

In reality, the figures do not appear to bear this out. Canal Street and the surrounding area only account for nine out of the 28 identified cases and homosexuality does not seem to be a factor that significantly links the victims. The police maintain that the high death rate is more to do with the poor local drinking culture and a rabbit-warren of old fences and alleyways where drunk people try to traverse the canals on their way home and inevitably come to harm. However, there are too many unanswered questions about the Manchester drownings for this argument to feel fully comfortable.

If these are indeed simply cases of people falling into the water through either intoxication or misjudgment, why are survivors not regularly being encountered by people who are walking past? Surely, there should be more instances of victims being found who are either still immersed in the water experiencing difficulties or are unresponsive but managing to cling to life? What is making it so difficult for the victims to swim a short distance and clamber up out of what is relatively shallow water? In fact, many of the areas where bodies are found can be waded. Why do deaths continue during the summer months, when the water temperature is much less likely to cause paralysis and nerve damage? The canal network is a closed system, with no reason for the bodies to float away from the point where they entered the water. So where do they go prior to being discovered many weeks on from the event?

Every year in the United Kingdom, there are between 400 and 500 deaths as a result of drowning. The victims in these cases are statistically most likely to be male, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths, with the bulk of those involved being either young or middle-aged. Is there some strange syndrome or psychological condition that either draws males towards water or causes them to completely disregard the dangers that await them? Or is there some force of work in nature, that we as a species do not yet fully comprehend? The concept of so many unsolved disappearances and deaths taking place so close to densely populated areas where emergency services and other members of the public are on hand to assist is one of the key arguments for the 'Missing 411' theory by retired police detective David Paulides.

Paulides' Research

Paulides conducted research into mortality rates across America's national park network and identified hundreds of unsolved cases where victims have been killed in seemingly impossible or incomprehensible circumstances. Some were pulled out of sight whilst walking in the company of friends and family. Others left forensic evidence or personal effects at the scene that completely contradicted any conceivable hypotheses for how they died. His conclusion is that there is a mysterious phenomenon or entity that haunts the fringes of our society, striking and killing lone victims before retiring back into the shadows.

On the more rational side, drowning has always been somewhat perceived as the perfect means for getting away with murder. Recovering criminal evidence from a body that has been submerged for any length of time has always proven notoriously difficult for investigators, with blood and fiber transfers washed away and vital DNA evidence quickly degrading beyond effective use. The Manchester pusher incidents are uncannily similar to the alleged smiley face murders in the United States. A pair of retired NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte have spent the last 20 years arguing that the deaths of numerous young men across 11 Midwestern states were the work of an individual or organized group of killers.

In the 45 cases they identified, the majority of the victims were college-age white males, who were found drowned near a graffiti art that contained a smiling face painted somewhere within it. All of the bodies were in isolated locations and were preserved in remarkably good condition, despite having been missing for sustained periods of time.

There are of course a number of arguments against the existence of The Pusher, which use evidence from a variety of different studies to undermine and discredit the theory. The first of these is that the 28 cases are not restricted to just Manchester City Centre, but instead extend out for miles along the network to neighboring towns such as Bolton and Wigan, naturally skewing the overall results.

Academic studies carried out in Holland have identified that the majority of deaths that occurred in Amsterdam's canals were due to misadventure and over half were directly linked to excess alcohol consumption. In 10% of cases, the victims flies were found undone, indicating they had been trying to urinate at the time they had entered the water. Tests around the effects of alcohol on the human brain have found that male subjects in particular failed to effectively acknowledge danger or risk and struggle to judge distance correctly, particularly at night time.

After drinking a couple of beers, victims trying to clamber or climb over obstacles do not factor in issues such as bad weather, or the freezing cold temperature of water until it is too late and with shock already setting in, there is also the possibility that some of the victims may have been under the effects of drugs as well as alcohol. Over the years, the cost of illegal substances has dropped whilst availability has only increased. A mixture of drink and drugs would effectively render a victim incapable of carrying out simple tasks and traces of the substance in the blood stream would be destroyed in the water.


For the last five years, stories of the Manchester Pusher have circulated and swirled around the public consciousness showing no signs of dying away. It is a theory that is simply too attractive for people to disregard as a possibility and the stubborn resistance of the authorities to acknowledge it only makes it even more compelling.

In each of the three examples we mentioned, there is overwhelming evidence that at least one person was directly involved somehow in each death. From the individual who was chasing Nathan Tomlinson, to the mystery man who accompanied Souvik Pal and whoever it was that David Plunkett was screaming at with his final dying breaths, whether this was the Manchester Pusher or indeed a number of different attackers, it feels as if the necessary inquiries into the matters were curtailed and far too early a stage.

Whilst those charged with investigating these incidents may be satisfied that they occurred purely as a result of alcohol and accident, this will sadly never be a sufficient answer for the families and friends of the victims. Our final thoughts are with those who so inexplicably lost their lives. We hope that in sharing their memories and stories, something positive may yet come to pass, that bring some final closure to their loved ones. And in the meantime, if you are one of the many people who frequents bars and clubs close to waterways, all we can say is watch your back!


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