Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The Skinningrove Merman

Many many years ago in the North Yorkshire village of Skinningrove, or Skenegrave as it was once known, a most unusual and newsworthy event took place. A sea man, or merman, was captured by the fishermen of the village and kept for many weeks before escaping back into the sea!

I first read of the sea man of Skinningrove in Graves' The History of Cleveland (1808) and Ord's The History and Antiquities of Cleveland (1845), and they both give the source of the tale as the Cotton manuscripts, a collection once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), and now held in the British Library. With the kind help of Jeff Kattenhorn at the British Library we discovered the mention of the sea man is found in the Cotton MS Julius F VI 1529-1640 collection, in a letter from one H. Tr[…], possibly to Sir Thomas Chaloner. Concerning antiquities in the north of England, particularly around Gisborough. ff. 453r-462r.   

It was fantastic to finally see photos of the letter mentioning the sea man, and with the help of Jarvis Transcriptions I include below a transcript of the part of the letter that mentions the sea man:

"For when all wyndes are whise and the sea restes unmoved as a standinge poole, sometymes there is such a horrible groninge heard from that creeke at the leaste six miles in to the mayne Lande that the fishermen dare not put forth, though thirste of gayne drive them on houdlinge an opynion that the Ocean as a greedy beaste rageinge for hunger desyres to be sattisfyed with mens carkases. At  Skenegrave the olde proverbe is verifyed that abundance makes them poore; for albeyt that they take such abundance of fishe, that often they are forced to throwe greate part of ther purchase over boarde, or make their greater sorte of fishe for lighter carriadge shorter by the heade, neverthelesse for the moste part what they have they drinke and howsoever they reckon with god yt is a familar maner to them to make even with the world at night that pennilesse and carelesse they may goe lightly to labour on the morrowe morninge. It was my fortune to see the cominge in of a five man Coble which in one night had taken above 21 score of greate fishe a yearde or an ell in length, happie were that contry if a generall fishinge were enterteyned by buildinge Busses and store of fishboates. Ould men that would be loath to have their credytes crackt by a tale of a stale date reporte confydentlye that 60 yeares since or perhaps 80 or more a sea man was taken by the fishers of that towne whome duringe many weekes they kepte in an oulde house givinge him rawe fishe to eate for all other foode he refused in steede of voyce he skreeked and shewed  a curteous acceptance of such as flocked farre and neere to visyte him. Fayre maydes were welcomest  guestes to his harbour, whome he woulde behould with a very earneste countenaynce, as if his phlegmaticke breaste had bin touched with a sparke of love. One daye when the good demeanure of this newe gueste had made his hoastes secure of his aboade with them he privily stoale out of doores, and ere he coulde be overtaken recovered the sea wherunto he plonged himself, yet as one that woulde not unmanerly depart without takinge of his leave, from the mydle upwardes he raysed his shoulders often above the waves and makinge signes of acknowledging his good entertainment to such as beheld him on the shoare as they interpreted yt, after a pretty while he dived downe and apeared noe more." 

Below is the actual letter, held in the British Library, and included below with their permission:   

© British Library Board (Cotton MS Julius F VI ff. 456r-457r)  

The oldest published mention I have managed to find so far of the Skinningrove sea man is in William Camden's Britannia. First published in Latin in 1586, it was later published in English in 1610.  

"Upon the shore, Sken grave a little village is much benefited by taking great store of fish: where also, by report, was caught a Sea-man about 70. yeeres since, that for certaine daies together fed of raw fishes: but espying his opportunity escaped away unto his proper element againe."

Below you can see the text as it appears in the 1637 edition: 

Google books contains a copy of the 1600 Latin edition that includes Kilton Castle but does not seem to mention the sea man. A translation of the 1607 edition by Philemon Holland can also be found online here and does mention the sea man, where he is described in Latin as a "hominem marinum". This 1607 edition tells the sea man was caught about 70 years ago, which would place the capture date at around 1537. However the undated Cotton MS letter tells he was caught 60, 80 or more years ago, suggesting the tales of the sea man's capture may have been passed down orally with the exact date unknown, and could be much older. 

Another author to mention a "hominem marinum" was Pliny, a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher who lived during the 1st century. He wrote in his Natural History of a sea man with a human body in the Gulf of Cadiz who would climb on board ships at night and the side of the vessel where he sat was weighed down and if he stayed there longer then it could go below the water. This does rather remind me of Wally the Walrus, who spent this summer months causing trouble on the Isle of Wight and sinking boats! Indeed, some old tales of sea men and mermen may have been a case of mistaken identity and were actually walruses or other exotic sea creatures rarely seen in English waters.   

The Merman of Skinningrove has certainly not been forgotten! There is a beautiful merman wall ceramic in the town as part of the Skinningrove art trail and the village's beautiful beaches are well worth a visit.

Curiously, there are also rumours of mermaids at nearby Staithes too, but the oldest version of that tale I've managed to find is Peter Walker's Folk Tales from the North York Moors (1990), it's a fantastic tale but perhaps an original story by Peter himself? I'd love to be wrong though so please do leave a comment below if you know of an older mention of the Mermaid of Staithes!

Sources and Further Information

Britannia, or, A chorographical description of Great Britain and Ireland, together with the adjacent islands, Camden

The History of Cleveland, Graves (1808) 

The History and Antiquities of Cleveland, Ord (1845) 

Skinningrove Art Trail

A big thank you again to Jeff Kattenhorn at the British Library and Claire Jarvis of Jarvis Transcriptions for their help with this research, without them this blog post would not have been possible.