In 1809 a sea monster was exhibited at Warwick Racecourse. The sea monster had been caught off the coast of Cornwall. It was described as being 31 feet long, 9 foot 2 inches high with a girth of 19 feet, to most this would have been a mighty beast, a fish the like they would never have seen before. The sea was a place of mystery and mariners often spoke strange creatures in the sea. The journey from Cornwall probably added to its strangeness as formaldehyde would have been used to arrest its decay.
The Squalus Maximus of Linneaus
The name it was given provides the best clue to what this creature probably was. Today the term squalus is used in taxonomic nomenclature to describe dogfish and sharks. The largest shark found in British waters is the Basking Shark, and during the summer months it can often be found gently swimming along the south west coast. This docile creature can grow up to 30 feet long, and weigh up to three tonnes.
Given that Warwick is so far from the sea, very few of its residents would ever have been there, and would never had chance to encounter sharks. However, they would have heard folktales and stories about the strange creatures from the sea. A prudent man could take such a natural marvel on a tour around the country, and be able to cash in on peoples’ natural curiosity of monsters and the natural world.
A golden period
The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a golden period for science and in particular biology, despite the progression in knowledge, washed up carcasses were often misidentified as monsters due to their decayed nature. Although Britain was a seafaring nation with a strong navy, much about the sea was unknown.