Mermaid Poster-400

When the Doomsday sessions were held in Whitby I was a regular visitor for several years. We always stayed on an extra day or two to enjoy the town and its surroundings. I usually took time, too, to explore the local antique and junk shops for suitable additions to my collection of oddities and strange artefacts.

It was on one such trip that I came across, in the furthest, dustiest reaches of such an emporium, ‘The Whitby Mermaid’. I was immediately intrigued. Of course I’d heard of P T Barnum’s infamous ‘Feejee Mermaid’, reportedly cobbled together from the upper half of a monkey and the lower half of a fish. Its Whitby relative, however, seemed a little better constructed (assuming it was ‘constructed’ and not an example of some hitherto unknown aquatic species!).

I engaged the shopkeeper in conversation, hoping to discover more about this fascinating creature. He told me that he’d purchased it as part of a ‘job lot’ several years ago, and that it had apparently been featured in a small exhibition of ‘fantastic creatures from the sea’ which had closed some time in the 1890s. The ‘mermaid’ and other items had been part of a fairground touring exhibit for a while then eventually ended up back in its home town and had been stored in a warehouse ever since. The stuffed fish, cases of sea-shells and a narwhal’s tusk (apparently labelled ‘Horn of a Sea Unicorn’) had been sold quite quickly (a pity, I’d have liked a narwhal’s tusk) but ‘The Whitby Mermaid’ had been passed over.

He seemed quite eager to get rid of it. In fact before I showed any further interest he offered me a substantial discount — a rare event, I’ve found, in such emporia. He then went on to say that he had a couple of related items he’d throw in with it. Behind the ‘mermaid’ was a tatty brown envelope. He took it out and from inside withdrew a few sheets of even tattier paper. One was a poster advertising ‘The Fantastic Creatures from the Sea Museum’ and another two pages seemed to bear a song or rhyme entitled ‘The Whitby Mermaid’. Unfortunately the latter was torn and bits were missing or illegible. I’ve reproduced below what I was able to discern.

I said I was interested in purchasing the ‘mermaid’ and the accompanying materials, but was keen to hear of any further information he may have. I’ve used an outline of the story he told me to fill in the gaps in the song:

‘Twas one night in Whitby, sir,
The story still is told
A boat set out from Whitby Bay
With crew and captain bold.

The night was dark, the sea ran high
With waves that topped the mast.
“Stand to, my lads,” the captain cried.
“And prepare the nets to cast.”

“This is no night for fishing, sir,”
The bosun soon replied,
“We must return to Whitby Bay
To wait the morning tide.”

“The morning tide will be too late,”
The captain did retort,
“For what we fish, at midnight swims
And rides the waves to sport.”

Apparently this old song refers to a local legend concerning Jack Tyler who, with son, Billy, and crew, sailed from Whitby harbour in his boat ‘Prosper’. Returning late with little to show for his sailing, he ordered the nets to be cast one last time. On hauling them in, the story goes, caught in the meshes was a strange creature, part man and part fish ‘of aweful visage and hellish reek’. This creature leapt thrashing and spitting from the net and latched itself onto the neck of the captain’s son, tearing at the flesh. Before anyone could react, it had drained the lad half of blood and wholly of life.

There is another tale, clearly drawing on the local vampire myths, that states that the boy did not die but over the following nights became transformed into a ‘Whitby Mermaid’ himself before disappearing into the sea… and that the miniature monster later found washed ashore in the neighbouring village of Sandsend following a winter storm was in fact the captain’s own transmogrified son!

Whichever may be nearer the truth, it is said that for many nights thereafter Tyler would sail out seeking revenge on the monster that caused the death — or transformation — of his son. The song ends:

The boat was never seen again,
The wreckage never found,
The crew was listed missing,
Though all presumed them drowned.

The Abbey bells are silent now,
Though when the wind comes from the East
Some say you’ll see the stricken ship
And the mermaids at their feast.

Town Cryer

The photograph above shows the Whitby Town Crier displaying a poster advertising the ‘Fantastic Creatures from the Sea’ poster with its image of the Mermaid.

‘The Whitby Mermaid’ is now on display in our Broad Street studio in Sheffield. You’re welcome to call and take a look when things get back to normal. And you’d be even more welcome if you were able to provide a little more information on this strange creature. I’ve been in touch with The Whitby Gazette but, although the newspaper has been around since 1854, they were unable to throw any further light on the matter. In fact I got the impression that they were somewhat sceptical about the whole subject!