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‘Monsters’ of the River and other Thames Tales

An woman dropping her tea-cup in horror upon discovering the

The recent media interest into the Thames ‘monster’ spotted near the O2 is a reminder that for all our modern outlook, it seems we are still susceptible to ideas of monsters and serpents. Whilst much of the reporting has been tongue in cheek, there are still those who would like to believe that there is a ‘monster ‘  lurking under the waters of the Thames.

thames whale

The idea of serpents and monsters in the Thames goes back hundreds of years and in previous posts I have recorded how the appearance of whales in the Thames generally led to panic. In the 17th century, whales appeared in Deptford and Blackwall and were quickly killed. In the 19th century, a whale was beached in Woolwich and met a similar fate.


Perhaps the most extraordinary story of the Thames comes from the 18th century and involves a shark and a watch and is recorded in the “Annual Register” for 1787.

On January 1, of that year some fishermen were fishing off Poplar, when with much difficulty, they hauled into their boat a sick shark. Taken ashore and cut open, in its inside were found a silver watch-and metal chain with a cornelian seal, and some fragments of gold lace. It was surmised that these belonged to somebody who had fallen overboard and had become the shark’s victim. Though the fish had been able to digest the body, it had not been able to assimilate the metal articles. It was decided that the shark had died from indigestion and Thames water.

Now comes the most amazing part of the story. On examination the watch was found to bear the name Henry Warson, London, with the number 1369, When these particulars were published Warson recollected that be had sold a watch to a Mr Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, who had given it as a present to his son going on his first voyage in the ship Polly. About three leagues of Falmouth, during a squall, young Thompson fell overboard and was seen no more. News of his having been drowned reached his family, who little thought his destroyer would turn up on their very doorstep in the guise of a fish. Thompson’s father bought the shark to preserve it ”as a memorial of so singular an event”—probably the most singular of its kind on record.


In the more enlightened 20th and 21st century, you would expect people to be much more aware of the natural world ? the following newspaper reports suggest we are not quite as enlightened as we think we are !

Dolphin Hunt in the River Thames (1926)

Two men in a motor-boat fought , a thrilling duel with a giant dolphin in the Thames recently (says the London “Daily Chronicle”).

The unique contest took place between Chelsea and Wandsworth bridges, and was witnessed by thousands of spectators. It was probably the first time that the exciting sport of dolphin hunting has been seen in London, the spectacle attracted such dense crowds that traffic over the bridges was held up, and the river banks were crowded with sightseers over a distance of two miles.

For two and a -half hours the men in the motor-boat fought a ding-dong battle with the giant fish, using their boat hook and anchor as harpoons. The dolphin, submerging like a submarine, tried to shake off. pursuit by taking cover among groups of barges, and more than once nearly succeeded in capsizing the motor-boat by diving underneath it.

After a long pursuit It was beaten by sheer exhaustion and killed near Wandsworth Bridge, ropes were then tied round the fins and it was towed to Battersea Bridge, where it was hoisted ashore by a crane. It has become the pride of Battersea, and was yesterday on show in a paper-mill by the river. It measures over 10 feet, an unusual length for a dolphin. It is believed to weigh about 5 or 6 cwt.

From the unsavoury Dolphin Hunt we now move to perhaps a more whimsical report of a Thames Sea Serpent.

Thames Sea  Serpent (1928)

“Ay, she were a beauty,” said Bob Tizzard, the lighterman, puffing at his pipe and gazing sadly out over the Thames. “She’d a beautiful skin, but they’ve thrown ‘er back in the water.”. They, the other boatmen-laughed callously.

They were unaware of the honour, that had befallen them, the proud honour of seeing the first sea serpent of the season. The sea serpent had made her debut at the flatteringly named Cherry Garden Pier, Rotherhithe, recently, and broke all the traditions of sea serpents by allowing herself to be caught. The Sea Serpents’ Union is no doubt avenged by her subsequent return, chopped in two, to the Thames.

Bob Tizzard saw her first. “She popped ‘er ‘ead up out of the water at me,” he explained in a gentle, drawling voice to a London “Daily Express” representative. “I thinks to myself, ‘Better ‘ave ‘er in.’ So I threw a noose over ‘er ead.

“I thought she must be dead, but as I was hauling ‘er up I saw her wriggle, so I sent a little boy for a chopper and chopped ‘er, ‘ead off. She was about 11ft long and dark green, and she ‘ad such a beautiful skin. The problem of where the sea serpent came from remains unsolved. The boatmen who did not catch her say, she was thoroughly dead long before she put her head out to Mr Tizzard.

Gustave Dore 1876

Gustave Dore Angels 1876

A paranormal experience  in Essex during World War One which had a great similarity with the Angel of Mons phenomenon  illustrates it is not just creatures in the water that can  cause excitement on the river.

The Angels of Peace (1917)

A strange spiritual obsession has laid hold of the minds of hundreds of persons in the little riverside town of Grays, Essex (says a correspondent of the “Express”), who emphatically assert that for several nights past, about 9.30, while the after-glow of the sun suffused the sky, three unmistakable apparitions, angelic in form, have appeared in the heavens with wings out- spread, above the training-ships in the river. Eye-witnesses tell me that they could neither believe nor deny the evidence of their senses. One said:–“ I am neither a dreamer nor a believer in spiritual phenomena. but at the same time I plainly saw three figures outlined against a rainbow which answered in all respects to Gustave Dore’s pictures of celestial beings.

Within the exceptions of the Angels, all the story of ‘monsters” are actually sea creatures that had mistakenly  made their way up the river, their unfortunate demise suggests that perhaps that the real ‘monsters’ were of the two legged variety who live on land.


The Greenwich Whale and other Thames Whale Tales


The Greenwich ‘whale’

Last week saw a lot of excitement on the Greenwich foreshore opposite the Isle of Dogs with an appearance of a whale, however it turned out that it was only a fibre glass model and was part of the Greenwich and Island festival.

It  did however highlight one of the strangest aspects of London life is that very occasionally whales do make their way up the Thames often getting beached in Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs causing considerable interest to the local population but usually ending in the poor creatures demise.

One of the earliest eye-witness accounts is by the diarist John Evelyn in 1658.

3rd June, 1658. A large whale was taken between my land abutting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, horse, coach, and on foot, from London, and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats, but lying now in shallow water encompassed with boats, after a long conflict, it was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head, out of which spouted blood and water by two tunnels; and after a horrid groan, it ran quite on shore, and died. Its length was fifty-eight feet, height sixteen; black skinned, like coach leather; very small eyes, great tail, only two small fins, a peaked snout and a mouth so wide, that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but sucked the slime only as through a grate of that bone which we call whalebone; the throat yet so narrow, as would not have admitted the least of fishes. The extremes of the cetaceous bones hang downward from the upper jaw, and are hairy toward the ends and bottom within side: all of it prodigious; but in nothing more wonderful than that an animal of so great a bulk should be nourished only by slime through those grates.

In 1690 an etching was made of a beached whale at Blackwall Dock.

thames whale

Unlike our more enlightened times, the first inclination was to kill these visitors as quickly as possible being viewed as ‘monstrous fish’.

A more scientific approach was recorded by Francis Buckland in the 19th Century in his Curiosities of Natural History. However this approach  nearly had tragic consequences for a certain Mr Clift, the assistant to Mr Hunter of the Hunterian Museum.

Some years before I was born, a large whale was caught at the Nore, and towed up to London Bridge,the Lord Mayor having claimed it When it had been at London Bridge some little time, the Government sent a notice to say the whale belonged to them.

Upon which the Lord Mayor sent answer, ” Well, if the ‘whale belongs to you, I order you to remove it immediately from London Bridge.” The whale was therefore towed down stream again to the Isle of Dogs, below Greenwich. The late Mr. Clift, the energetic and talented assistant of his great master, John Hunter, went down to see it He found it on the shore, with its huge mouth propped open with poles. In his eagerness to examine the internal parts of the mouth, Mr. Clift stepped inside the mouth, between the lower jaws, where the tongue is situated. This tongue is a huge spongy mass, and being at that time exceedingly soft* from exposure to air, gave way like a bog, at the same time he slipped forwards towards the whale’s gullet* nearly as far as he could go. Poor Mr. Clift was in a really dangerous predicament ; he sank lower and lower into the substance of the tongue and gullet, till he nearly disappeared altogether. He was short in stature, and in a few seconds would, doubtless, have lost his life in the horrible oily mass, had not assistance been quickly afforded him. It was with great difficulty that a boat hook was put in requisition, and the good little man hauled out of the whale’s tongue.

In 1895  a  whale 21 ft. in length made its way up the Thames to London, and, becoming injured by a steamer, was stranded on the Recreation Ground on the Isle of Dogs.

In living memory the most famous case was the whale in 2006 that got stranded near Battersea and the Houses of Parliament.