Monday, 27 April 2015

The Mermaid of Burton and the Smuggler of Swyre

In England, there are many places like the seemingly tranquil village of Abbey St Francis, which is the centre of so much paranormal adventure in my novel, Freya's Choice. Some of the most peaceful of them can hide the darkest and scariest secrets, the origins of which are lost in the deep recesses of time. Others have witnessed extraordinary discoveries. Today, I'm visiting one of each...
On the south coast of England, in the county of Dorset, lie the coastal villages of Burton Bradstock and Swyre. Historically, this whole area made its living from fishing but one day in June 1757, something washed up on shore that none of them fishermen would have welcomed in their nets.

A strange dead creature, the like of which none had seen before, was thrown up by the sea onto Cogden Beach, between Burton and the neighbouring village of Swyre. It measured around thirteen feet in length and its upper body had some semblance to a human, but its lower body was most definitely that of a fish. The Rev. John Hutchins, in his The History and Antiquities of Dorset wrote about it in 1774:

“…the head was partly like that of a man, and partly like that of a hog. Its fins resembled hands : it had forty-eight large teeth in each jaw, not unlike those in the jaw-bone of a man".

They called it a ‘mermaid’, but what was it?

Where did it come from? How did it evolve? We have no firm answers to any of those questions and, sadly, there is no visual record of it or any preserved remains. It has been suggested it could have been a dugong which is usually found in seas around Australia, China, Japan and the south Pacific, although there was at one time a Mediterranean population. If it was a dugong, it had wandered seriously off course.

In Swyre, 170 years later, the villagers had something very different to trouble them. In July 1923, the inhabitants claimed Swyre had become a haunted village. They were, they said, being terrorised by the ghost of a “seafaring man in a uniform with luminous buttons”.

But, unlike the mysterious mermaid, this time the identity of their tormentor was believed to be known. Some years earlier, a labourer working on the foreshore had accidentally dug up the bones of a six foot man. Instead of reburying them, he laid them in a dry ditch, where they became hidden by weeds and grass. The skeleton was believed to have been that of a smuggler who had been killed in a fight with Excise officers more than 100 years previously.

The villagers began a frantic search for the unburied skeleton because, clearly, the man was angry at being unearthed and thrown unceremoniously into a ditch. The ghost would appear on the beach, usually on misty nights, and terrify all that saw him.

Did the villagers ever find the skeleton? Sadly, I can find no trace of them having done so. Does he still roam the beach? There have been no recent reports that I can find, but if you know something I don’t…


  1. I don't --alas. nyway, it would spoil these wonderful mysteries.

  2. You know, I think you're right, Shey. It's like the Loch Ness monster legend. I don't ever want the scientists to be able to prove it doesn't exist, or that it really is a genetically modified goldfish or something. I like the mystery of sporadic, inconclusive sightings.

  3. I love stories of beings washed up by the sea. The sea is a law unto itself, a force to be reckoned with - who knows what's out there in the depths?

  4. Absolutely love this!! Thanks Antonia. Way back in 1877 - no wait, it must have been 1977 - ahem - I visited a little place called Polperro in Cornwall. I've been hooked on stories about smugglers and things ever since. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    1. My pleasure, Noelle.Lovely to see you here. I love Cornwall too. Itls easy to see why Daphne du Maurier was so inspired to write her dark stories there.

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