Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Friday, June 05, 2009

MIKE HALLOWELL: The Great Herring-Eating Shark of Whitburn

The following accounts are all true. Only my rendition of them is totally inaccurate. The names of some persons have been kept the same to embarrass the innocent. Any similarity between the characters in this blog and real persons is intentional, because that is who they are and as they are long dead there isn't much they can do about it.

In July 1822, some workmen – sorry, workpersons – were digging the foundations of a new jail that was being erected at Morpeth, Northumberland. The jail was a purpose-built place in which prisoners could be housed instead of farming them out to local B&Bs, which had been the previous practice. By keeping all the local vagabonds, ne'er-do-wells and ruffians in one place, they could get away with having only one plasma screen TV between the lot of them, thereby saving money.

Anyway, as the labourers dug down to a depth of thirteen feet, they were astonished to come across the remains of a huge oak tree thirty-eight feet in height and nine feet in circumference.

"Look!" said one, "There's an oak tree, and its thirty-eight feet in height and nine feet in circumference!"

But there was more. They also found, according to contemporary reports, "the skeleton of a deer's head". This statement puzzled me somewhat, for although I have a rough idea of what the skull of a deer looks like, I have no idea what "the skeleton of a deer's head" might be. The phrase is as nonsensical to me as saying, "the arm of a man's hand", or "the foot of a man's toe". But maybe I'm just being picky.

Anyhoo, the skull also sported "fine branching horns", which was not at all surprising, for even Geordie deer have been known to display such appendages. Except for the Great Newcastle Hornless Deer, of course, which has none because I've just made it up.

The enigma, of course, was what the deer and the oak tree were doing together at such a depth. No one ever found out.

Mind you, Geordie animals never behave conventionally.

Cryptozoological or conventional, the beasts of our great Northern Kingdom can be guaranteed to mess around for a laugh. Take the Great Herring Catch of September 1807, for example, which occurred at Whitburn. That was a hoot, that was.

What happened was this. An eight-foot long shark, weighing 300lbs or thereabouts, was swimming around off the coast of Whitburn.

"Look!" said a local fisherman - sorry, fisherperson – to his pals; "There's an eight-foot long shark, weighing 300lbs or thereabouts!"

Now shark was not common fayre in Geordie restaurants at the time, as few people had pans big enough to cook them in. However, the fisherpersons were not troubled by such technicalities and decided to worry about that later. They quickly netted the shark and hauled it all the way from Whitburn into the River Tyne and only stopped when they got to Newcastle. Here they displayed their catch to crowds of onlookers, none of whom had ever seen an eight-foot long shark, weighing 300lbs or thereabouts. Or if they had, they weren't telling.

Anyways, at some point the fishermen got bored with the Outside Bit of the shark, and decided to look at the Inside Bit for a change. But lo and forsooth, when they slit open its belly they were flabber-me-gasted when no less than !180 herrings and other small fish" spilled forth onto the dockside.

And it is for this reason, dear reader, that when the people of Morpeth brag about their "skeleton of a deer's head", the good folk of Newcastle – or maybe Whitburn – will reply, "Aye but that's nowt compared to the Great Herring Catch back in 1807".

And in my opinion they are perfectly justified.

Mind you, neither the good folk of Newcastle of the equally canny personages of Morpeth can hold a candle to those of Sunderland when it comes to animal-related japes. The Great Bull Bait – great for the bull, that is – of May 28, 1822, was proof of that.

Bull baiting was a sport – so called – in which the animal was placed in a pit of approximately thirty-five feet in diameter. Dogs were also placed in the ring, and their purpose was to "immobilise" the bull. For good measure, the idiots who took part in this event would sometimes blow white pepper up the nose of the bull to make it angry.

On the day in question, a young chap by the name of Simon Thornton was "thrown down by the crowd". What exactly this means I have no idea. Perhaps he upset his pals in some way, or maybe being "thrown down by the crowd" was part of some arcane, bull-baiting ritual. In any event, he broke his leg. Whether "the breaking of the leg" was also part of the show I have no idea either – nothing would surprise me - but in any event he died, and everyone was very sad about that. In the melee that ensued, the bull survived. The bull was presumably not very sad about that, and also presumably didn't give a toss about Simon Thornton or his leg.

Bull baiting was, thank God, outlawed just a few years later.

And we're all very happy about that.

Or should be.


fleury said...

excellent article there Mr Hallowell, or rather I like the blog of your words?

Mike said...

Dontcha just love our Geordie monsters! Thanks Fleury