During the 1930s Britain’s north coast was regularly visited by a mysterious sea monster. At least, this is what many witnesses attested at the time, including a former lord mayor and two well-known Labour politicians. The press loved this recurring silly season story and the creature was dubbed The Humber Monster and the Withernsea Visitor by various newspapers, though the folk of the Yorkshire coast also called him Slippery Sam, perhaps because of the large variations in eyewitness descriptions of the beast.[i]
In early January 1934 reports emerged of something strange off the coast of Filey, North Yorkshire – a sea monster. One witness described what he saw from Filey Brigg: ‘a huge body with numerous humps and a small head’. A search was made of the bay, though nothing was found.
However, further north in Gristhorpe Bay, the monster was seen again 200 yards from the shore. It must have caused a lot of excitement as a line of humps appeared in the water, but it proved to be a false alarm – the row of humps suddenly separated and turned out to be some porpoises swimming in a line.[ii]
Head Like a Horse
The reports by fishermen of a strange creature off the coast of Yorkshire near Redcar and the Humber mouth continued into February, 1934, according to press reports. The Leeds Mercury, for example, claimed that the Yorkshire Monster resembled that of Loch Ness for fearsomeness. It had ‘a head like a horse, with big eyes and a broad snout’.[iii]
Two witnesses were fishermen Jack Thompson and his brother Jim, who were out in a little rowing boat about a mile east of Redcar. Checking their nets as day broke, they were stunned to see a huge creature in the sea. This is how Jim described the monster:
‘It had a head like a horse or hippopotamus, big eyes and a broad snout. We watched it for about a quarter of an hour. It approached the boat but when it got near it plunged under the water and we saw it no more’.[iv] In all their fifty years of fishing they had never seen anything like this creature.
Further down the coast, a fisherman in a boat near Cleethorpes was examining the fishing lines when he shocked his shipmates by shouting in fear and falling back into them. He could only point in speechless horror to what he had seen in the water. His mates rushed to the side to see the water swirling and a huge black shape that vanished into the depths.[v]
The monster seems to have taken a break in 1935, but would back with a splash the following year…
The Mayor Meets the Monster
In early August 1936 the monster was seen by three prominent political bigwigs. Herbert Witard, former lord mayor of Norwich, was with Charles Ammon (Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell North) and his wife and children and Archibald Gosling, a former Labour MP at Eccles on the Norfolk coast. This is how Witard described what he saw in the sea on that day:
‘The creature looks like a huge snake. It was at least a mile out to sea and swimming parallel with the coast. Its speed was terrific. From 90 to 100 miles per hour would not be an exaggerated estimate. It disappeared very quickly on the skyline in the direction of Happisburgh.’[vi]
Charles Ammon, MP, added that the creature was ‘about 40 feet long and different parts of the body rose in and out of the water with the movement of an eel’.[vii]
Witard dismissed the idea that they were mistaken and had misinterpreted a line of porpoises: ‘The suggestion that we mistook a shoal of porpoise for a serpent is ridiculous. I am an old sailor and I know something about the habits of porpoise.’[viii]
These prominent witnesses made front page news in the UK, and in the weeks following their reports, more sightings occurred up and down the east coast of England…
Sightings of a monster off the Yorkshire coast continued in the first few weeks of August, 1936. Mr J. Barkley, owner of the Cliff Café at Sewerby was an official coast watcher for the Board of Trade. He told the Leeds Mercury that he had watched the creature through a telescope from the top of Sewerby cliffs for twenty minutes: ‘After lying on top of the water it would rush and dive as though feeding on something below.’ He described it as being between fourteen and twenty feet long and looking like a huge black fish.
Mr J.G. Twigy, a member of East Riding of Yorkshire county council also saw something off the coast of Withernsea. At first he thought it was a speedboat, but then realised it was moving three times too fast for that. He improbably claimed, as did Witard, Ammon and Gosling, that the creature was moving at around 100 miles per hour.[ix]
As sightings continued, thousands of visitors flocked to the coastal towns of Yorkshire in the hope of catching a glimpse of the monster, and many did. Six witnesses at Roker saw what appeared to be a huge black fish which cavorted and jumped out of the water for fifteen minutes. Sightings also occurred in Scarborough and further north in Sunderland.[x]
The factor that can bring disparate and conflicting eye witness accounts together is a recognisable name. Strange shadows, movements or shapes occurring on Loch Ness can coalesce under the banner of ‘Nessie’. However, the newspapers of the day were remiss in not deciding on a definitive name for this creature. It was sometimes given localised names such as the Humber Monster or the Withernsea Visitor, but the monster seemed to roam up and down the east coast, so these names did not really stick.
Among the thousands of monster hunters scouring the Yorkshire coast, though, the creature had been given a much more appropriate name – Slippery Sam.[xi] This name reflects the fact that the witness descriptions of him are very varied – like a huge fish, like a serpent, like a horse, like a hippopotamus….
And the fact that descriptions were so varied leads to the obvious question: were people witnessing the same thing?
Cleethorpes Catches the Monster!
A number of explanations were offered in the press for the monster sightings. Some suggested porpoises swimming in a line would give the impression of humps near the surface.[xii] Although former Lord Mayor Witard dismissed this explanation, looking at his sketch, it could plausibly be seen as the backs of a line of porpoises. Others suggested it might be a shark.[xiii] Another explanation offered was that witnesses had actually seen a flock of birds flying close to the surface of the sea, looking at a distance like a long undulating creature. Seals were another explanation, though these would be rather too slow to explain most sightings of our speedy monster.[xiv] However, the claims that the creature could swim at a hundred miles per hour must surely be an exaggeration!
The differing descriptions and different locations suggest that witnesses had seen or misinterpreted a number of different creatures for the monster, but perhaps the most likely explanation for a majority of the sightings was a whale.
In mid-August 1936 a party of campers saw what they thought was an upturned canoe on the beach near Cleethorpes. On closer investigation, it turned out to be a stranded whale. The Hull Daily Mail crowed that ‘Loch Ness and other resorts may claim to see monsters, but Cleethorpes catches them!’[xv]
Other papers pointed out that a whale with part of its body and tale above the surface of the water takes on the appearance of a classic sea monster, with the tail being the monster’s head and the body of the whale being the monster’s hump.[xvi]
Slippery Sam’s star witnesses and the thousands strong monster hunt off the Yorkshire coast marked the peak of the creature’s fame. Although the beached whale may have been the origin of some of the sightings, it can’t have been the only cause as sightings continued in the summer of 1937 when bus driver Joseph Shepherd stopped his bus on the promenade near Withernsea to watch a jet black twelve foot long creature move through the waves like a speedboat.[xvii]
Sea monster sightings in the 1930s were very similar to UFO sightings later in the century – they occurred in ‘flaps’ (or perhaps more appropriately ‘waves’). Early media reports result in more people being hyper-vigilant about their environment, scouring the sea or the skies and noticing and misinterpreting mundane objects that they would not normally see or pay attention to, and perhaps that’s what happened with Slippery Sam. And of course, the numbers of visitors looking out to sea in search of a monster would be much higher in the tourist season when these flaps occurred.
It’s pretty clear that the newspapers didn’t take the sea serpent stories seriously, though. The Leeds Mercury referred to the monster as an ‘annual August sensation’. It went on to say that ‘the sea serpent is one of the great stock jokes of the British race, like mothers-in-law and Wigan Pier.’[xviii]
The Louth Standard, after reporting a 1936 sighting of a monster near Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire that was forty feet long and racing like an ‘express train’, commented that ‘we should love a real life monster here. The children would love to ride on it. So much more thrilling than a donkey ride.’[xix]
The world probably seemed a dark place in the mid-1930s at the height of monster mania, and these silly season stories no doubt provided some relief. The Ballymena Observer commented:
‘We are fed daily horrors, satiated with the deeds of desperate men. But here, rising from the sea like Venus, with the action of a worm and the pace of a speedboat, is our old friend, escaped once more from Eden and showing himself more of a dove than a serpent, to remind us that the holidays have begun.’[xx]
Perhaps it was the darkness of those years leading to the outbreak of World War Two that prompted the Yorkshire Post to suggest that ‘if the sea serpent is wise he may well prefer to maintain his anonymity until the human race has advanced a little further towards civilisation’.[xxi]
In any case, the nature of human perception means that if we look hard enough, we will see monsters, whether they are there are not.
[i] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936
[ii] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 January 1934
[iii] Leeds Mercury, 5 February 1934
[vi] News Chronicle, 8 August 1936
[viii] Portsmouth Evening News, 8 August 1936
[ix] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936
[x] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936
[xii] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936
[xiii] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936
[xiv] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936
[xv] Hull Daily Mail 19 August 1936
[xvi] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936
[xvii] Leeds Mercury, 10 July 1937
[xviii] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936
[xix] Louth Standard, 15 August 1936
[xx] Ballymena Observer, 14 August 1936
[xxi] Yorkshire Post, 17 August 1936