Weird Suffolk: The Orford sea-dragon

Orford Sea Dragon

Orford Sea Dragon - Credit: Archant

The waters around Orford Ness, the largest shingle bank in Europe, are famed for the secrets they hide.

Oyster fishing with Bill Pinney in Orford.

Oyster fishing with Bill Pinney in Orford. - Credit: Archant

Most famous of all is the sea monster landed by fishermen in 1749 who discovered the beast in their nets as they trawled the coastline – the creature was a terrifying marine monster that looked like a winged crocodile and which promptly attacked one man and disabled another before it was despatched to its own death.

The sea dragon, as it was called, measured just over a metre in length – longer when it was alive and in the sea – and had two legs with cloven feet.

It quickly became well-known on the Suffolk celebrity circuit as one of the surviving fishermen travelled up and down the county displaying the hideous beast and telling the story of how it was found – where the beast ended up is not known, but its legend lives on.

In Webster’s 1828 dictionary it was described thus: “A marine monster caught in England in 1749, resembling in some degree an alligator, but having two large fins which served for swimming or flying, It had two legs terminating in hoofs, like those of an ass. Its body was covered with impenetrable scales, and it had five rows of teeth.”

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While in the 1823 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature page 68 of Volume XIX, it was listed as “a monster of a very singular nature”.

The piece continued: “Its head and tail resemble those of an alligator; it has two large fins, which serve it both to swim and to fly; and though they were so dried that I could not extend them, yet they appear, by the folds, to be shaped like those which painters have given to dragons and other winged monsters that serve as supporters to coats’ of arms. 

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“Its body is covered with impenetrable scales; its legs have two joints, and its feet are hoofed like those of an ass: it has five rows of very white and sharp teeth in each jaw, and is in length about four feet, though it was longer when alive, it having shrunk as it became dry.

“It was caught in a net with mackerel and being dragged on shore, was knocked down with a stretcher or boat-hook. The net being opened, it suddenly sprung up, and flew above 50 yards: the man who first seized it had several of his fingers bitten off; and the wound mortifying, he died.

“It afterwards fastened on the man’s arm who shows it, and lacerated it so much, that the muscles are shrunk, and the hand and fingers distorted; the wound is not yet healed, and is thought to be incurable. It is said by some to have been described by naturalists under the name of the Sea-dragon. We must add to the account now given of the monster called a sea-dragon, that we think it extremely probable that the animal was nothing more than a distorted or overgrown individual of some of the well known species of fish.”

The strange seas around Orford Ness were also where it was reported that in 1167, a group of fishermen hauled in something unusual in their nets: a wild-looking man who was naked, covered in hair and with a long, shaggy beard who they believed to be a merman. He is memorialised in Orford’s market square and used as the logo for The Butley Orford Oysterage.

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