Strange Things Fround Inside Fish

Tales of the strange things found inside fish have been news since time began - quite why, it is hard to explain - but there is definitely something about this class of story that appeals to the imagination. Now, by ‘strange things’ I don’t mean ducklings inside pike, or people inside sharks, neither of which are particularly remarkable in the scheme of things. Nope, I mean really, really odd stuff that you would never imagine ending up inside fish. You would not, for example, expect to find a century old manuscript inside a cod, would you? Yet that is exactly what the beadle of Cambridge University discovered on midsummer eve 1626 in the local market; quite what a cod was doing on sale there, that far out of season, is anybody’s guess, let alone one with a sextodecimo volume containing three manuscripts wrapped in sailcloth in its stomach, but Dr. Mede took the fish to the vice-chancellor and the book ended its chequered career by being published in 1627. I doubt that many other manuscripts have made it to the press after being caught in a cod off King’s Lynn, and I wouldn’t recommend the trick to desperate writers, but the story must have been a tremendous boost to sales, though it did little good for the author, thought to have been John Frith, because he had been locked up in the Tower before being burned as a heretic at Smithfield in 1533. I would imagine there must have been a fierce debate about how three religious tracts ended up inside a fish and how long they had been there, but given that a teenage cod is a pensioner as cod go, the book can’t have been there over long. Just one of life’s little conundrums.

If cod have strange appetites, what about the report of a grouper, caught off the Queensland coast in 1865? This appeared in The Times and described the fish as being 7 feet long, six feet in circumference and having a head weighing no less than 80 pounds, the best bit being the stomach contents which were reported to contain:

...two broken bottles, a quart pot, a preserved milk tin, seven medium sized crabs, a piece of earthenware triangular in shape and 3 inches in length encrusted with oyster shells, a sheep’s head, some mutton and beef bones, and some loose oyster shells. The spine of a skate was embedded in the grouper’s liver.

Catholic tastes, these groupers. Now take this account, from the pen of Jas. Jones, June 15th 1880:

A newspaper paragraph stating, on the authority of the ‘Fisherman’s Magazine’ that in the museum of the United Service Institution are ‘exhibited the jaws of a shark, wide open and enclosing a tin box,’ to which a singular history is attached, caused me this morning, to journey to Whitehall, for the purpose of satisfying a rather incredulous habit of mind. Admitted to the museum by the courtesy of the Secretary, I spent some time in examining the battle-fields, ships and weapons of warfare there deposited; but the shark’s jaws were not visible. An inquiry of an attendant, however, resulted in the production of a bunch of keys and my introduction to a room usually closed, where, in a corner, hung the gaping jaws of a huge shark, with a small box or cupboard with a glass door underneath, through which could be seen a bundle of faded papers. A card suspended near bore the inscription: ‘This shark was killed by Lieut. Tritton R.N. when commanding the Tender of H.M.S. Abergaveny, off San Domingo, in August 1799. In its maw was discovered a bundle of papers, which papers being recorded in the Vice-Admiralty Court, in Jamaica, led to the condemnation of the brig ‘Nancy,’ and cargo. This vessel had been a few days previously detained by Lieut. Whylie, R.N. of the ‘Sparrow cutter,’ and sent to Jamaica for trial.”
The Nancy was a slaver, and the bundle of papers had been thrown overboard during the chase. She would have escaped condemnation and perhaps obtained damages for illegal detention, had the papers thus not been fortunately recovered. The tin box must, however, be left out of future editions of this story.

John Colquhoun recounts an only marginally less interesting find in his classic book The Moor and the Loch, which went to several editions after its first publication in 1840:

A friend of mine was trolling in Loch Long, and hooked a seithe. An enormous cod seized the seithe, and paid the penalty by being brought into the boat himself. His girth seemed unnaturally large, and, upon opening him, a brown paper packet of sandwiches, enough for luncheon for a pretty large party, was taken out. They could not have been less injured, mustard and all, had the cod’s stomach been a sandwich-box.

No-one knows whether they ate the sandwiches or not. The fish can consider itself lucky it didn’t meet Colquhoun himself - bloodthirsty old rascal, he would probably have shot it. Cod are the dustbins of the sea and will eat almost anything, accounting for how, in his 1895 Sea Fishing, John Bickerdyke remembered how a captain called Hill accidentally dropped a bunch of keys over the side in the North Sea and thought them lost for good, only to recover them several weeks later in the belly of a cod he trawled up many miles distant - but I guess in those days cod were so abundant that the idea of a dropped set of keys not ending up inside one must have seemed fairly ludicrous. Then there is Dr. Day’s story of a seven inch candle found inside a cod which may have been in search of enlightenment; and others said to have swallowed guillemots, partridges, turnips and even whole hares. The mind boggles at how or where a cod would come across a hare, but then again, I have also heard a tale about a salmon taken in lake Michigan that turned out to have a wine cork inside it, which puts the hare into some kind of perspective, although it must have been a memorable party.

The Pall Mall Gazette once ran a piece about a ling which, to the amazement of the Liverpudlian fishmonger who bought it, was found to have cobblestones inside it, only to have the story trumped by Henry Ffennell, who wrote:

On the table before me is a round zinc flask, on which is inscribed the following legend: “Royal Irish Fisheries Company. This flask, containing two glasses of an ardent spirit, was found in the stomach of a ling, taken off Brandon Head, Co. Kerry, February 1849. Presented by J. E. Stopford, LL.D., director, and W. Andrews, manager, to Mr. M. J. Ffennell, in testimony of their esteem and their sense of the services rendered by him as Commissioner of Fisheries.” The flask, which was presented to my father, holds four wineglasses. With two glasses, the flask weighed just 1 lb.

The cobblestone story does make you wonder if the trawlermen had figured out the best way to get a really good price for their fish, but the zinc flask is harder to explain away, because what self-respecting Irishman would waste good liquor on a ling?

My apologies for wandering away from British waters (I know I shouldn’t do be doing this, but I can’t resist it, and anyway, who is going to stop me?), but the mother of all tales of strange items found inside fish was set down by Herodotus, in Histories. In Book III, Herodotus tells one of those long and convoluted stories of which he was such a master, this time about Polycrates, who ruled the island of Samos, having settled matters with his brothers by killing one and banishing the other. Polycrates, a great believer in making friends and influencing people by having a much larger navy than they did, whiled away his time by taking more or less whatever he wanted, while sending gifts to the Egyptian king Amasis in order to keep the man sweet.

Amasis took this all in his stride until Polycrates not only defeated the Lesbian fleet, but chained up the ladies and made them dig a moat around his citadel, an event which, for reasons which remain obscure, never featured in any publication by Paul Raymond. Hearing this, Amasis decided enough was enough, so he dropped Polycrates a line – posed in the flowery style of classical times, the drift of it being, ‘Listen mate, you seem to be far too bloody successful for your own good, so take it from me that if you don’t experience some kind of bad luck, you will piss the gods off and then you had better watch out. I would strongly suggest that you chuck out something you really, really like and not only chuck it out, but really chuck it out, so you can never find it again. That way, the gods might spare you.’

This wasn’t the kind of missive you could ignore, back in 500 BC, so Polycrates decided that the thing he would like to lose least was a signet ring that Theodore, son of Telacles of Samia had made for him. This ring had an emerald set in gold and Polycrates nipped down to the docks, jumped into a penteconter and told the boys to row him a long, long way away from land, where much to their amazement he hoyed the ring into the sea before telling them to row him all the way back.

This event must have kept the lads talking in the pub for a bit, but not as much as what happened next. Five days later, a poor fisherman caught a fish so large and beautiful that he took it to the palace and presented it to the king, though he could ill afford such a gesture. Despite being a tyrant, Polycrates must have had his good points, because he invited the fisherman to dinner, whereupon – you guessed – the ring turned up inside the fish, which is another good reason for always examining the stomach contents of everything you catch.

Anyway, Polycrates wrote to Amasis, who decided that the Samian king was fated, put his fingers in his ears and awaited the thunderbolt. After that, even by Herodotus’ account, things became confused and maybe Polycrates was heavily defeated by a force of Samian exiles and maybe he wasn’t, but the moral of the tale is probably that there are times when you are damned whatever you do, unless it is that you should beware Samians bearing fishes.

Moving rapidly on, the arms of the city of Glasgow tell a good story, stuck as they are on the front of half the civic buildings for all to see: argent, on a mount a tree with a bird on a branch to the dexter, and a bell pendent on the sinister side, the stem of the tree surmounted by a salmon in fess having in its mouth a gold ring. Yeah… and that is a more than usually readable heraldic description - personally, I prefer pictures. The arms are descended from the archbishopric of Glasgow, founded in 1491, but weren’t conferred on the city until 1866, when the Lord Lyon King of Arms approved the arrangement frequently described as ‘the tree that never grew, the bird that never flew, the fish that never swam and the bell that never rang’. The ring and the salmon have passed so surely into legend that no-one really knows for sure why they are there, although every part of the coat of arms is supposed to have a connection with Glasgow’s own saint. Stripped to the bare essentials, the story has it that a lady of good reputation lost her wedding ring as she crossed the Clyde, but her husband, in a fit of jealousy, decided that she must have given the ring to a lover. Back in the sixth century, a jealous husband was potentially lethal, so the lady ran to Kentigern, the first missionary to Glasgow, later to be known as St. Mungo; a man who had known his own share of trouble, his mother having been seduced by Owain mab Urien, cast from the heights of Traprain Law and survived, only to be abandoned in a coracle in which she drifted across the Forth before giving birth to Kentigern in Culross.

Kentigern was so impressed by the lady’s good character that he determined to preserve her reputation. Having prayed, he went down to the river and commanded an angler at the fishing station to give him the first fish he caught, which the man did, although it is not recorded whether he used a fly or bait. In the mouth of the fish was the lady’s ring, which, reunited with its owner, freed her from her husband’s suspicions. Everybody probably lived happily ever after, except that King Morken drove Mungo out of Glasgow shortly afterwards over the small matter of a miraculous flood and a bad attack of gout and the poor man ended up living in the medieval equivalent of a bedsit in Wales. I have no further news on the lady, except that jealousy makes for a poor bed-fellow and one can only hope that she was more careful when she crossed rivers after that sort of experience.

This article is modified from a piece that was published in Waterlog Magazine and is reproduced by permission of the Medlar Press.