Mer-men and Manchurians

Neil Arnold – Sussex Folklore 

In my last article I spoke about how in 1926 a wombat was shot dead in Sussex, and so I’d like to concentrate on a few more peculiar cases involving the natural – or in this case, the unnatural world.

Believe it or not but in the year 1187 it was claimed that a ‘mer-man’ was frequenting waters around Sussex. I’ve spoken before about Sussex mermaid legends but in this case it was said that a creature “resembling a man but unable to speak” was caught “on the Sussex coast” and “kept as prisoner by the governor of the district for six months.”

Nobody seems to know what happened to the creature, some stories claim it died in Sussex whilst others believe it escaped from its confine and escaped into the foaming waters.

Of course, there are no other details available to tell us if this was indeed a real mer-creature, which of course seems unlikely or maybe it had been a freak of nature just like the poor creature mentioned in the Sussex Agricultural Express of March 3 1916.

The animal was described as an “extraordinary Falmer freak” and resembling a “pig with an elephant’s head.” The article in question; although brief; provided a very dark photograph of the said creature; adding that ‘the freak only lived for three days’ but in spite of the sensational headline was, rather sadly, a deformed pig with a misshapen head that seemed to suggest some sort of trunk and large ears.

Over the years, strange archaeological digs have unearthed some peculiar remnants around Sussex, one of the most fascinating being the enormous bird-like print discovered in 1862 at Hastings. The Belfast Morning News at the time reported that the “foot of a gigantic bird” had been found in a slab of stone at Sussex. According to the report it “has three toes, each of which is about nine inches long in the tread, with a claw at the end, of perhaps two inches in length”. The print had been left by a monster bird which would have been twelve-feet in height.

Of course, such an impression comes from a time we can only read about when other giants walked the earth but in 1923 Sussex was visited by its own modern monster bird. According to the Hastings Observer a mysterious large bird had been shot near Fairlight by a chap named T. Wilkinson. The bird had first been witnessed by Mr Wilkinson two months previous to June 1923 when he was farming at Shear Barn Farm. At first he thought he was observing a very large heron but upon closer observation realised it was not marked as so; and it seemed to often disturb the smaller birds in the vicinity. The mysterious bird would then flee the area, only to return a few days later and even frightened the cattle grazing in the nearby fields.

“It had enormous wings” reported Mr. Wilkinson, “…and stood as high as a man and I was afraid it might attack some of my young calves.”

Mr. Wilkinson always had trouble getting close to the beast but finally, in early June 1923 he managed to hide behind a cow; and get within shooting distance of the bird. He commented, “The moment it saw me it took to the wing but my shot broke its legs and a wing and it fell. I went up to it but it suddenly shot its neck out and pecked me on the lip.”

Sadly, the bird was put to death and stuffed – it had a white body, black tail feathers and a dark grey head and was identified as a Manchurian crane; more commonly known as a Red-crowned crane and Japanese crane; a bird which features in Japanese and Chinese mythology as a symbol of longevity and immortality. A shame of course that such a specimen was killed especially when one considers that in today’s climate there are just under three-thousand of these birds left in the wild.

What is clear however is that such a bird must have become lost on its migratory route; seemingly comfortable with being at Fairlight. The newspaper article commented that ‘If the bird has not escaped from captivity it is believed to be the first specimen of its kind to be seen flying about wild in this country.’ However, some confusion arose when it was discovered that a Damoiselle crane had escaped from captivity at London’s Kew Gardens and it was most likely that the bird shot by Mr. Wilkinson was in fact this individual. “If this should be the case…” the story ended, “Mr. Wilkinson states he is perfectly willing to hand the stuffed bird over to gardens authorities.”

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