|Detail from 'Watson and the Shark" by John Singleton Copley showing Lord Mayor Brook Watson losing his leg in Havanna|
There is something fishy about this shark tale. Perhaps because it is such a close match to the classic ‘the fish and the ring’ type of folk tale first written down by Herodotus in his account of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos who was persuaded to give up his most valuable and luxurious possessions otherwise his life would end in tragedy. One of the items he cast into the sea was his favourite emerald ring. Months later a fisherman brought him a fish as a tribute and when it was cut open to be gutted the cast off ring was discovered inside. There are dozens of variants, Jewish, Indian, German, Irish, English amongst others, on the basic motif of the lost or discarded valuable thrown into the sea and emerging at the most opportune moment in the belly of the fish that swallowed it. In the newspaper accounts of the lost son of Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel the fish not only swallows and eventually gives up the valuable, in this case a watch, but also swallows Ephraim’s son. The accounts below appeared in many newspapers, always with identical wording, so clearly from one original source. Searches of birth, marriage and death records reveal no trace of a Ephraim Thompson in Whitechapel. Nor can I trace any record of a watchmaker called Henry Watson, in Shoreditch or anywhere else in London, or a ship called the Polly and under the command of a Captain Vane. The story may well be an 18th century urban myth but the author of the 1787 version of Dodsley’s ‘Annual Register’ thought it was too good to pass up and his version has caught the fancy of many compilers of miscellanys right up to the present day. And so the story of the Poplar Shark remains in circulation, even if no one can vouch for its reliability.
On Saturday 1 last as some Fishermen were fishing in the Thames, near Poplar, they perceived something more than commonly ponderous in their net, which with much Difficulty they drew into their Boat, when to their great surprise, they found it to be a Shark, yet alive, but evidently in a dying State. It was taken to Shore; the Admeasurement is as follows: From the Tip of the snout to the End of the Tail, 9 Feet 3 Inches—from the Shoulder to the end of the Body, 6 Feet 1 Inch—round the Body in the thickest Part 6 Feet 9 Inches— the Width of Jaw when extended, 17 Inches. It has five Rows of Teeth, consequently five Years old, having an additional Row every Year until it has arrived to its proper Growth. It has been opened, and what renders this Fish a greater Curiosity, in its Belly were found a Silver Watch, a Metal Chain and Cornelian Seal, together with several small Pieces of Gold Lace, supposed to have belonged to a young; Gentle man, who was unfortunate enough to have fallen overboard and become a Meal to this voracious Fish ; but that the Body and other Parts, had been either been digested, or voided; but the Watch and Gold Lace not being able to pass through it, the Fish thereby became sickly, and would in all Probability very soon have died. This is the largest Fish of the Species ever seen by any Person in, the River Thames. The Watch has the Name of Henry Watson, London, No. 1369, and the Works are very much repaired. It is intended to preserve this extraordinary Fish, as a great natural Curiosity and place it in one the public repositories in this Metropolis.Northampton Mercury Sat 08 Dec 1787
Our readers will recollect a paragraph in a former paper, giving an account of a shark taken in the river Thames, near Poplar, by some fishermen, in the body of which was found a watch, with a chain and seal, and also some pieces of gold lace, which was conjectured to have belonged to a young gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious fish ; the maker’s name and number of the watch, being Henry Watson, London, No. 1369, hath been the means of obtaining the following additional account of that remarkable circumstance :—Mr. Henry Watson, the watchmaker, lives in Shoreditch, who sold the watch two years ago, to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a present to his son going out on his first voyage (as what is called a Guinea Pig,) on board the Ship Polly, Capt. Vane, master, bound to Coast and Bay; about three leagues off Falmouth, a sudden heel of the vessel, during the time of a squall. Mailer Thompson fell overboard, and was seen no more. The news of his being lost soon after came to the knowledge of his friends, and no more was expected to be heard of him—but from the above circumstances, it is proved, somewhat similar to the fate of Jonas in the belly of a whale (young Thompson’s coffin was a living shark) he was not so fortunate as to escape. Mr. Ephraim Thompson has purchased the shark, which he calls his son's executor —and the watch, &c. which he considers as his last legacy.Northampton Mercury 14 December 1787