This was a general Victorian nickname for a street robber who relied on speed in running to escape, and did not necessarily refer to one particular man; in Cheshire, for example, maids who had just been paid their yearly wage would be afraid to go out carrying much money, since ‘there are so many of these spring-heeled Jacks about’. There was a panic in the Barnes area of south-west London in the 1830s, culminating in February 1838 when a girl was attacked by a man who then ‘soared away into the darkness’. She described him as a demon with fiery eyes and breath, who clawed her with his talons, wearing a tight-fitting white costume and some kind of helmet. Another girl, in Limehouse, said she had been pounced on by a tall cloaked man who spat blue flames at her. The matter was taken seriously, and mounted patrols searched for the mysterious villain, but in vain.
Later, the name was appropriated for the fantastic romanticized hero of a ‘Penny Dreadful’ called Spring-Heel Jack, the Terror of London, printed in the 1870s. This Jack was a seemingly demonic being dressed in a skin-tight glossy crimson suit, with bat's wings, a lion's mane, horns, talons, massive cloven hoofs, and a sulphurous breath; he moved in gigantic leaps, easily jumping over rooftops or rivers, and was extremely strong. But he used his power for good, saving the innocent from the wicked; he was in fact wholly human (a nobleman by birth, cheated of his inheritance), and his amazing leaps were due to compressed springs in the heels of his boots. Various boys' comics and other sensational writings took up the name.
In 1907 contributors to N&Q debated whether there had ever been a real Jack. One had heard tell of ‘a lively officer’ at Aldershot in the 1870s who scared the sentries by vaulting across a canal and pouncing on their shoulders; another, of a prankster in rural Warwickshire in the 1880s using spring-heeled shoes; another, of one in the Midlands in the 1850s; another had been told by his grandmother, as early as the 1840s, that the ‘monster’ was really a Marquess of Waterford, who used to jump out at people in lonely lanes (preferably women) and pin them to the ground (N&Q 10s:7 (1907), 206, 256, 394–5, 496; 10s:8 (1907), 251, 455). Other local identifications have also been proposed, some seeing him as a joker, others as a bandit.
The figure could also be exploited as a bogey to control children. In Lewes (Sussex) in the 1890s some children were told that if they were not good he would leap up and peer in at them through their bedroom windows; they imagined him as a weirdly tall figure in white, whose springs rattled as he leapt. At the same period in Worthing (Sussex), boys used this name for a ghostly apparition reputedly haunting a certain alley (JS). Such fears seem to have been fairly widespread among children up to the First World War. Whether or not Spring-Heel Jack was a folklore figure before appearing in popular print, he certainly rapidly became one.
From A Dictionary of English Folklore in Oxford Reference.