Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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The Mermaid Hoax

The absurd notion, that there are “Mermen and Mermaids, half man or woman and the remainder fish,” has long been exploded; but, little more than 40 years ago since (in 1822) thousands of dupes were attracted to the Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, to see a pretended Mermaid, when 300 or 400 persons paid daily one shilling each for the indulgence of their credulity! The imposture was, however, too gross to last long; and it was ascertained to be the dried skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, attached very neatly to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind, with the head cut off; the compounds figure being stuffed and highly varnished, the better to deceive the eye. This grotesque object was taken by a Dutch vessel from on board a native Malacca boat; and from the reverence shown to it by the sailors, it is supposed to have represented the incarnation of one of the idol-gods of the Molucca Islands.

The mermaid

This impudent hoax upon the good people of London was the work of a Japanese fisherman, who seems to have displayed ingenuity for the mere purpose of making money by his countrymen’s passion for everything odd and strange. He contrived to unite the upper half of the monkey to the lower half of the fish so successfully as to defy ordinary inspection. He then gave out that he had caught the creature alive in his net, but that it had died shortly after being taken out of the water; and he derived considerably pecuniary profit from his cunning in more ways than one. The exhibition of the sea-monster to Japanese curiosity paid well; but yet more productive was the assertion that the half-human fish, having spoken during the few minutes it existed out of its native element, had predicted a certain number of years of wonderful fertility, and a fatal epidemic, the only remedy for which would be the possession of the marine prophet’s likeness. The sale of these pictured mermaids was immense. Either the composite animal, or another, the offspring of the success of the first, was sold to the Dutch factory, and transmitted to Batavia, where it fell into the hands of speculation American, who brought it to Europe, and here, in the years 1822-23, exhibited his purchase as a real mermaid in every capital, to the admiration of the ignorant, the perplexity of some affectedly learned, and the filling of his own purse.

…Still, the creature must have been so unsightly as to reduce Dryden’s definition of a mermaid—a fine woman ending in a fish’s tail—to a witty fancy.

The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly

The Egyptian Hall was commissioned by William Bullock to house his collection of curiosities and completed in 1812—the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style. Before opening the hall (also called the London Museum or Bullock’s Museum), Bullock displayed his collection in Sheffield and Liverpool. He made money from selling tickets for various spectaculars. Bullock made £35,000 from exhibiting Napoleonic era artifacts, including Napoleon’s carriage from Waterloo. In 1819, the Hall became a major venue for exhibiting art, particularly very large pieces. Admission was usually one shilling.

Egyptian_Hall,_Piccadilly_1815_edited

478px-Egyptian_Hall_redesigned_by_JB_Papworth

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

6 thoughts on “Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax

  1. I have to admit that I would’ve been one of the people lining up to see it but I do believe I would’ve been disappointed lol.

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  2. I can’t believe people fell for the mermaid hoax. If I lived during this time, I probaly would have wanted to see William Bullock’s collection of curiosities.

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