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The Extraordinary Tale of the 18th Century Shark in the Thames – Mimi Matthews

Sharks by Winslow Homer, 1885.

For centuries, there have been tales of giant aquatic creatures lurking in the depths of the River Thames. Some of these tales were based on actual fact. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, it was not uncommon to find porpoises in the river. And once, according to author George Henry Birch in his 1903 book London on Thames Bygone Days, fishermen on the Thames even encountered a small whale. Perhaps the most famous of these talesas well as the most extraordinaryis the true story of the killer shark caught in the Thames in 1787.

On January 1, 1787, some fishermen spied a shark in the river and, with much difficulty, captured the creature and drew it into their boat. The shark was alive, but, as Birch states, apparently sickly. The cause of his illness was soon discovered. Upon taking him ashore and cutting him open, the fishermen found within his body a silver watch, chain, and cornelian seal. A 1787 edition of theNorthampton Mercury reports that they also found:

some Pieces of Gold Lace, which were conjectured to have belonged to some young Gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious Fish.

Illustrated Police News, February 2, 1889.

On further examination, it was found that the watch was engraved with the makers name and number: Henry Watson, London, No. 1369. Mr. Watson lived in Shoreditch and, when applied to for information regarding that particular watch, the Northampton Mercury reports that Mr. Watson revealed that he had:

sold the Watch two Years ago to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a Present for his Son on going out on his first Voyage (as what is called a Guinea-Pig) on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay.

A guinea pig was sailors slang for an inept or inexperienced sailorwhich proved an all too apt description of young Thompson. Not far into his journey, about three leagues off of Falmouth, a rainsquall descended and, as the 1787 issue of the New Annual Register relates:

Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.

After receiving the news of Thompsons death at sea, his friends and family in London expected to hear no more on the subject. One might imagine that the gruesome discovery, two years later, of Thompsons watch and clothing inside the belly of a shark would have been an unwelcome update on their lost loved one. Instead, it appears to have provided some measure of closure for Thompsons father, who promptly purchased the dead shark to display as a memorial to his son. As theNorthampton Mercury states:

Mr. Ephraim Thompson has purchased the Shark, which he calls his Sons Executorand the Watch, &c. which he considers as his last Legacy.

Thompsons father also had the small satisfaction of knowing that it was likely his sons watch and clothing that had made the shark so sickly. According to the New Annual Register:

the body and other parts, had either been digested, or otherwise voided; but the watch and gold lace not being able to pass through it, the fish had thereby become sickly, and would in all probability very soon have died.

Porbeagle Shark, A history of the fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch, 1862-1865.

The 1787 incident of the killer shark in the Thames was notable for many reasons. Not only did the shark return the belongings of its victim to Londonan extraordinary event in and of itselfbut it was also the largest shark on record to have ever been discovered in the Thames. Birch reports it as being:

from the tip of the snout to the extremity of the tail 9 feet 3 inches; from the shoulder to the extremity of the body, 6 feet 1 inch; round the body in the thickest part, 6 feet 9 inches; the width of the jaws when extended, 17 inches; it had five rows of teeth, and from that circumstance was supposed to have been five years old.

To this day, the 1787 shark remains the largest ever caught in the Thames, but it has not been the only shark. In 1891, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported the story of a six-foot shark found in the Thames, writing that:

The animal followed a Dutch ship almost the whole way from Rotterdam.

The master of the Dutch vessel had his baby on board and was convinced that this was the reason for the sharks pursuit. Upon arriving in London, he offered a 1 reward to anyone who could capture the shark. It took several days and many attempts, but in the endas an 1891 edition of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper reportsan ex-champion weight-lifter by the name of Charles MKenna managed to capture the shark with a huge cod hook baited with beef.

Varieties of Shark, Denizens of the Deep, 1904.

In 1898, another shark was caught in the Thames, this time in a fishermans net. The Morning Post reports the sharks measurements at just under five feet in length. Not as large as the Great White in Jaws, certainly, but large enough to put a scare into Victorians of the era.

What kind of sharks were these? It is never mentioned in any of the accounts, however, the 1903 Report on the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Industries on the Thames Estuary, as prepared by Dr. James Murie, describes several larger varieties of shark which might have made their way into the Thames, including the Hammerhead Shark, the Long-Tailed Thresher Shark, and the Porbeagle Shark.

It is hard to imagine just what occurred after Ephraim Thompsons son fell overboard on his first voyage out to sea. Was the shark found two years later in the Thames really the one who had killed him? Or was he merely a scavenger who had happened upon Thompsons remains? In this instance, history provides no answers, but one does not need to know every gruesome detail to appreciate that the story of the 1787 shark in the Thames is one of the most extraordinary in English animal history.

Fish Stories by Charles Frederick Holder, 1909.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. I don’t have any shark rescue links for you this week. However, if you would like to learn more about the denizens of the deep, there is no better place than the Monterey Bay Aquarium here in California. Give the shark cam on their site a try!

Monterey Bay Aquarium

**Author’s Note: This article was original published at the English Historical Fiction Author’s Blog under the title: “The Sailor and the Shark: An 18th Century Tale of the Thames.

Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Birch, George Henry. London on Thames in Bygone Days. London: Seeley & Co., 1903.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. November 1, 1891.

Murie, James. Report on the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Industries on the Thames Estuary, Part 1. London: Waterlow Bros., 1903.

New Annual Register. London: G. G. J and J. Robinson, 1787.

Northampton Mercury. December 15, 1787.

Shark Captured in the Thames. Dundee Evening Telegraph. November 2, 1891.

Shark in the Thames. Morning Post. September 12, 1898.

Thames Full of Sharks. Nottingham Evening Post. August 21, 1934.

Watch Found in a Shark. The Wonders of the Universe. Exeter: J. & B. Williams, 1836.

2015-2016 Mimi Matthews

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