On 14 December 2011, the Daily Mail ran the story of the “Olympic Park beast”, after Mike Wells came forward to report that he’d seen a 16lb (7.3kg) Canada goose dragged beneath the surface of the River Lea by an unseen predator (FT285:8; see also 204:5 for a similar occurrence in 2005). He told the news-paper: “We were just passing the time of day looking at a Canada goose 30 yards away, but then it just suddenly disappeared. It went down vertically. There wasn’t any hesitation, it went straight down. It didn’t come back up. My friend and I looked at each other slack-jawed.”1
The search was on for the ‘killer beast’, the newspaper adding that “the number of swans on the river and waterways near the newly built £9bn Olympic Park is also dropping”, with many people fearing that a large pike, “pet alligator or snake” was on the loose.
The River Lea is an ancient waterway, first recorded in the 9th century. It originates at a spot known as Marsh Farm in Luton, Bedfordshire, and winds its way south to the Thames via the Chiltern Hills. Over the years, I’ve collected numerous accounts of peculiar inhabitants of the Thames and its tributaries, so it was no surprise to hear that the River Lea had a monster story. I’ve visited stretches of the Thames ever since I was a child, and heard tales of monster catfish, out-of-place alligators, snapping turtles and even intrusive sharks.
Many believe that the River Lea beast is a Wels catfish, a creature native to the waters of central, southern and eastern Europe which can reach a length of 9ft (2.7m) and weighs some 300lb (135kg). In some parts of the world, there are even rumours that such creatures have dragged humans underwater. In May 2012, researcher Richard Freeman of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) visited the Olympic Park area and also became convinced that a Wels catfish was the culprit (see panel: “In Search of the Olympic Monster”).2
This make sense when we recall the case of 15-year-old Oliver Parker-Grater who, in 2005, battled a 40lb (18kg), 5ft (1.5m)-long Wels for some 90 minutes in the River Darent, a Kentish tributary of the Thames. Oliver wasn’t quite sure what he’d caught – and was unaware of the implications of such a creature inhabiting a Kentish river – and so released the catfish back into the water, much to the frustration of one Mr Adrian Saunders, who’d been hunting the elusive monster for a while.3
“We think the fish was illegally imported,” stated Mr Saunders on the BBC website, “and stocked in a gravel pit in the Sundridge area, which is upstream of Eynsford. He was then washed out of the pit during the floods at the start of this year and escaped into the Darent. We do not believe anyone would put a fish of this size deliberately in a small river like this.”
To locals the catfish became known as ‘Darren’. But was it the same creature that killed the Canada Goose at the Olympic Park? Interestingly, in July 2008, 28-year-old labourer Brett Ridley caught a large Wels catfish on the Kingston stretch of the Thames. The beast, weighing around 60lb (27kg), took 45 minutes to land.4 It was no match for the 206lb (93kg) catfish caught in Spain in 2006, but was still a formidable predator. In the same month, a catfish caused a stir in a stretch of the Thames between Weybridge and Walton, when anglers began speaking of a 50lb (23kg) Wels catfish and rumours of similar specimens being dumped in the waters since the 1920s.
Simon Clarke, chairman of the Catfish Conservation Group, is unsurprised by tales of Wels in the River Lea. “There are Wels catfish present in around eight rivers in the UK, including the Thames,” he says, “so it is quite possible for a few to be in the Lea. However, it’s important to state that Wels catfish have never established a significant population in any UK river, where climate restricts breeding success and ability for fry to grow in river environments with so many potential predators”.
While a number of Wels catfish could exist in the Thames and adjoining rivers, another suspect for the River Lea monster might be the sturgeon (an identity sometimes suggested for the Loch Ness Monster). In 2005, a badly decomposed specimen – thought to be a diamond sturgeon – was found near the Blackfriars Railway Bridge.5 Geoff Maynard, writing for angling website Fishing, commented in 1999 that: “Legend has it that my own local river, the Thames, had them in abundance throughout its length at one time. The last documented record of a Thames sturgeon that I can find was of a 66lb [30kg] fish caught at Putney by Lewis Gibson in May 1867.”
It’s perhaps unlikely that a sturgeon is eating the geese in the River Lea, and another culprit put forward has been the otter. Otters have been observed in the Lea, and would certainly take an injured goose, although they prefer fish, frogs and smaller birds. As late as the 1930s, the Thames and its tributaries were home to the 4ft (1.2m)-long creatures, which are thought to be making a comeback now that the waters are far cleaner than in recent decades.6 It’s interesting that the lower Lea Valley, where otters once lived in abundance, was being prepared for the Olympics back as early as 2005, and a wildlife corridor was being created to harbour all manner of species. A lot of rubbish had to be cleared from this stretch of water – but this would not have deterred one of my favourite suspects: the snapping turtle.
Such a beast might seem more at home in the humid swamps of the United States, but this formidable creature can live just about anywhere. The alligator snapping turtle is larger than the common snapper but, along with terrapins, these creatures were purchased as pets for children when the animated series and movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a huge success. These turtles would most certainly take a goose – their ferocious bite could easily snap a bone. In the 1990s, the eco-system of Greenwich Park Pond was severely damaged when a mysterious predator began eating the ducklings, frogs, newts and fish. A snapping turtle was eventually dredged from the pond and sent off to an animal sanctuary in Kent.7 An RSPCA Inspector, filmed for the ITV programme London’s Scariest Mysteries commented: “400 exotic pets each year are picked up as unwanted or dumped pets. Fifty per cent of these are snakes and other large reptiles.”
Great fysshes and rogue reptiles
There have always been strange creatures turning up in London waterways. RS Fitter, in his 1946 book London’s Natural History, writes: “In the year 1457 four ‘great fysshes’ were caught between London and Erith. They proved to be two whales, a swordfish and a walrus. If, as seems possible, the ‘swordfish’ was really a narwhal or sea unicorn, all the ‘great fysshes’ were in this case really mammals.”
Whales have regularly turned up in the Thames, often making headline news (e.g. FT207:22), but some of the obscurer stories of alien invaders make for a far more startling read.
In 1997, a woman skinny-dipping in a Surrey reservoir near Heathrow Airport was bitten by an unknown predator. Experts believed it might have been a basking shark.8 Although such a shark can inhabit freshwater, it seems more likely that a large pike or catfish was responsible. Mind you, sharks are not unknown in the area. In the 1780s, a shark – species not specified – was recorded in the Thames. Fishermen pulled in a very sickly specimen, which was taken ashore and cut open. To the astonishment of the men, a watch was found inside. The object, made of silver, bore the inscription “Henry Warson, London”, and the number “1369”. Further investigation revealed that a Mr Warson had in fact sold a watch to a Mr Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel as a present to his son going on his first voyage on board the ship Polly. According to London Online, “About three leagues off Falmouth, through a sudden heel of the vessel during a squall, young Thompson fell overboard and was no more seen. The news of his being drowned reached his family, who little thought that they would ever hear of him again. Mr Thompson, senior, bought the shark, not for the sake of having it buried in consecrated ground, but to preserve it as a memorial of so singular an event. It was the largest shark ever remembered to have been taken in the Thames, being from the tip of the snout to the extremity of the tail 9ft 3in [2.8m].”9
There have even been reports of alligators in the Thames. The Times of 13 October 1836 records the story of the “Thames Alligator”, stating that a Mr Arthur Willock, while steering his barge in the vicinity of Galley Quay, came across a strange, black object floating in the water. Mr Willock, his curiosity getting the better of him, decided to fish the motionless object out and, to his amazement, was met by an alligator, no doubt dead due to the horrific lacerations upon its body. With the creature hauled aboard, Mr Willock eventually saw the creature off to the Zoological Gardens of Surrey.10
Such an incident might seem confined to the foggy realms of London folklore, but in the autumn of 2005 another reptilian scare took place, this time at Tooting Bec Common, where it was alleged that an alligator was on the loose.11 The RSPCA were called out to investigate, but their search for the 3ft 6in (1m) beast proved fruitless. RSPCA Inspector Ian Gough stated that it was more likely to have been a Bosk monitor lizard. This was confirmed when a monitor lizard was found, no doubt perishing due to the cooler temperatures of the UK. The story reached the South London Press of 18 November, which also mentioned that, a week before, a Nile monitor had been found alive in Lambeth Park. A few years before, an iguana was seen running up Brixton High Street, and in 2003 Croydon Council dismissed reports of a crocodile at a pond in Shirley as a hoax.12
In 1996, the carcass of a crocodile was dragged from the murky waters of a Dollis Hill pond by a Labrador belonging to an off-duty RSPCA Inspector.13 They were taking an afternoon stroll when the dog began wading in the water, only to emerge with a rotten, 5ft (1.5m)-long carcass in its jaws. The decomposed corpse was sent off to London Zoo for analysis, but no further information was forthcoming. On a lighter note, in the summer of 1922 a William Brooks was charged for being in unlawful possession of a stuffed alligator.14 Brooks told the Bow Street police court that he had been trying to sell the alligator for a woman who was “hard up”.
One of the most unusual creatures to turn up in the Thames was a leatherback turtle, which, during autumn 1988, washed ashore in east London and was discovered by Tony Clancy and Steve Connor.15 In 2009, BBC News reported on the blood-sucking lamprey now making its home in the Thames due to warmer temperatures and cleaner conditions.16 The eel-like creature was discovered by 13-year-old Oscar Bridge during a clean-up of the riverbank in the vicinity of Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium. Another extraordinary find in the waterway was of a rare and protected species of seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus in 2008.17
Piranhas and sea serpents
Over the last century, the Thames and its tributaries have gone through major changes. More exotic species being released, whether on purpose or by accident, into what were once inhospitable waters are now making themselves more than comfortable. Salmon, too, have made a strong comeback in the Thames. In 2007, it was declared that the water was clean enough for their glorious return – more than 200 years since their last residence. During the spring of 2009, jogger Birol Koca made an astonishing discovery on a lower tidal stretch of the river at Woolwich.18 He stumbled across a walking catfish – a fish native to South East Asia that has the ability to walk across land using its stiff pectoral spines. The Environmental Agency, with the help of the Natural History Museum, identified the creature and stated that such a fish would have had trouble surviving in British waters. The same could also be said for the piranha which fell from the beak of seagull in early 2004 and landed upon the deck of the Thames Bubbler as it reached Dagenham.19 Paul Hale, curator of the London Aquarium, confirmed the fish was indeed a red-bellied piranha and commented that “it would not survive in the low temperatures of the Thames”. The biggest mystery of all was where the seagull had got it. Interestingly, in 2010, piranha were said to have been caught in the Buckinghamshire stretch of the Thames; perhaps this had something to do with the release of the horror movie Piranha. After all the fuss, the fish was identified as being a silver dollar.20
The River Thames would appear to be a hotbed for exotic species, ranging from Chinese mitten crabs, zebra mussels, the greater weever fish and even the occasional serpent. I’m not suggesting that a roaming sea serpent is responsible for the disappearing geese in the River Lea, but consider the fuss caused in London when the Sarasota Herald-Tribune of 24 February 1956 reported on a strange creature seen swimming up the Thames.21 The previous day, the Ottawa Citizen22 had reported that, “the sea monster… was first spotted in the river off Central London Sunday. It was going up river. One man said it had an enormous dorsal fin and another claimed it had ‘big red eyes’. People who saw it told police it was about five feet in length”. Hardly the size of your average sea monster, perhaps, although the report then concluded that “Ripples around it gave the impression of a 35ft [11m]-long body.”
Sadly, the beast turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by Reading University students to promote their ‘rag day’. On 12 March 1956, Life magazine covered the story and featured photographs taken of the ‘monster’ at the time.23 This wasn’t the first or last time a monster was reported in the river. In volume 15 of Punch (1848), a Mr John Skull wrote a letter about the “Sea Serpent in the Thames”,24 and on 9 November 2003 the Scottish Sunday Mail reported “Nessie’s hols on Thames”, after a floating model was sent up the river to promote Highland visitor attractions.25
So, is there really a sea monster in England’s longest river? Probably not.
But whatever lurks in the waters of the Olympic Park – it’s something that shouldn’t be there!
1 “Killer Beast Stalks Olympic Park as experts fear alligator or python is on the loose”, D.Mail, 11 Dec 2011.
2 http://bit.ly/JLBm0v (forteanzoology.blogspot.co.uk).
3 “Teenager illegally threw catfish in river”, BBC News, 26 July 2011.
4 “Thames monster catfish”, This Is Local London, 31 July 2008.
5 http://bit.ly/Jfg31Z (anglingnews.net).
6 “Otters return to every county in England”, Independent, 18 Aug 2011.
7 Neil Arnold: Mystery Animals of the British Isles, CFZ Press, 2011.
8 http://bit.ly/LiO3LG (londonist.com).
9 http://bit.ly/JzOFli (londononline.co.uk).
10 “Thames Alligator”, Times, 13 Oct 1836.
11 South London Press, 18 Nov 2005.
12 http://bit.ly/Lcx01f (beastsoflondon.blogspot.co.uk).
13 Neil Arnold: op.cit.
14 “Selling A Stuffed Alligator”, Times, 13 June 1922.
15 http://bit.ly/JpVp3S (glaucus.org.uk).
16 http://bbc.in/EGqyl (news.bbc.co.uk).
17 http://tgr.ph/qKSznG (telegraph.co.uk).
18 http://bit.ly/KSiitj (newsshopper.co.uk).
19 http://bit.ly/Ltwf3i (guardian.co.uk). See also FT183:5
Neil Arnold's website is at: www.beastsoflondon.blogspot.com