Ah, but it was all different a century ago. No one understood genetics back then, and although respect for wildlife in general, other species specifically and our fellow human beings had advanced tremendously since the early 19th century, things were far from perfect. There was still an attitude prevalent in some parts that “freaks” were really only good for exploitation. If your child can’t work in the mines or the mills, hey. don’t worry! Stick ‘em in the circus and make a few bucks!
Not everyone was so callous, however. There was a genuine naiveté on the part of many, who saw both humans and animals with genetic disorders not as “freaks” but as “wonders”. To some, it was almost as if such aberrations were God-given; something that wasn’t quite right, but nevertheless helped us focus on the mysteries of creation.
In September 1905, Sunderland was an economically struggling location. Large areas were impoverished, and gruelling, blue-collar work such as mining and shipbuilding was the staple means of eking a borderline existence. Precious little happened to bring light and laughter into the lives of the working class, and so no opportunity for personal enrichment was missed. Some sought solace in the church, whilst others imbibed excessive amounts of gin and porter. Yet others just waited for that “something special” to come along. Most times it never did.
But there were exceptions, as a Mr. W. Hall discovered when he found himself in possession of the legendary Double Duck of Pallion.
Pallion is a relatively unremarkable area of the City of Sunderland, but it has played a rich part in the area’s history. At the turn of the 20th century, many residents had taken to keeping livestock in their back yards and gardens as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes. Rabbits, hens, chickens and ducks were bred with enthusiastic abandon to ensure a ready supply of meat and eggs. Mr. Hall was no different, and he was no doubt delighted when one duck in his possession laid a clutch of seven eggs. He waited patiently, and, one by one, they hatched. Eventually six young ducklings nestled under the wing of their mother, whilst the seventh egg, slightly larger and thicker than the rest, remained intact.
Some days passed, and Mr. Hall decided that it might be necessary to lend Mother Nature a hand. He took the seventh egg and ever-so-gently cracked it, hoping that if there was a live duckling inside it would now be able to brake free. It did, and what Mr. Hall saw would baffle him for the rest of his days. Inside the shell was no ordinary duckling. As the chick struggled free he saw to his horror that it actually possessed two heads. More than that, it also had four wings and four feet. Truly, this was a duck like no other.
Mr. Hall, after recovering from the shock, showed the strange creature to his next-door neighbour. Before long, the entire populace of Pallion was talking about the strange arrival in Mr. Hall’s backyard. The local press got to hear about it, and reporters began to turn up on the doorstep, along with a priest and other local personages of some distinction.
The fate of the duck, at least in the detail, is unknown. We do not know how long it survived, but it was reported that Mr. Hall was determined not to let its demise rob him of his new-found fame. He placed the body of the duckling in a large bottle filled with “spirits of wine” and preserved it for posterity.
Bizarre quirks of nature like the Double Duck of Pallion are not unknown. In 2007, Nick Janaway, of the Warrawee Duck Farm in the New Forest, picked up a young duckling to determine its sex. She was stunned to discover that it had not two, but four legs. These extra appendages seemed to pose Stumpy (as the duck was later named) no problems. It could swim, walk and feed just fine. There was a minor setback when it caught one of its additional legs in some barbed wire and had to have it amputated. This left it three legs, which was still one more than those possessed by its more common-or-garden siblings.
I have tried to track down the remains of Mr. Hall’s Double Duck, hoping perhaps that it may have been given to the Sunderland Museum. A curator connected with the establishment kindly promised to see if he could locate the specimen, but to date I’ve heard nothing. Who knows, one day it may turn up.