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1954, August 11: The Canvey Island Monsters

The Legend:

In 1953 and again in 1954, Canvey Island, England, found itself host to two unidentifiable animal carcasses.

       When the first body washed ashore in November 1953, the citizens that found it had no idea what they were looking at. It appeared to be a marine creature of some sort, but had feet and legs that it could walk on if it were alive. It was estimated the creature would have been two-and-a-half feet tall if it stood up; and it had thick, brownish-red skin, and a pulpy head with two protruding eyes. The citizens that found the body pulled it out of the shallow water, covered it with seaweed, and ran for the authorities. The authorities called the British government for help, and the government sent two competent zoologists. The zoologists examined the body, photographed it, and then gave up trying to identify it... instead they had the carcass cremated, and left without making a public statement.

        Around a year later, on August 11, 1954, the Reverend Joseph Overs was walking with his children on the beach just a couple of miles from where the first strange carcass had been found when he discovered a second strange carcass bobbing in a small tidal pool. He sent one of his kids for the police; and, once again, the island authorities sent for outside experts. This new carcass was more than four feet in length and weighed about twenty-five pounds... and was in much better shape for an examination than the previous body. This carcass also had two legs and feet, but this time the scientists examining it could see that each foot had five tiny and distinct toes, arranged in a 'U' shape with a concave center arch. It had two protruding eyes, a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth, and a smooth pink skin as tough as the hide of a healthy pig. Strangest of all though, it had both distinct nostrils and gills! The scientists submitted their report to the British government; but no statement identifying the strange creature was ever made.

        Since then, debate has raged over the identity of these two creatures. Some claim they were known, but unusual, specimens of sealife that were mis-represented by those who examined them; other claim they were entirely new and unknown forms of animal life. What were the Canvey Island "Monsters"?

Where to Begin?

        Let me start off by stating that a strange carcass did indeed wash up at Canvey Island in 1954, and we'll examine that shortly. But first...

        The legend as it is presented above is a summary from Frank Edwards' book, Stranger Than Science, published in 1959 (and many times since!); I sum up his account for the simple reason that most modern accounts of the Canvey Island monsters can be traced back to Edwards' version, which is important because... he gets it wrong. A couple of examples are the fact that only one 'monster' washed ashore and Edwards' description of it is incorrect.

        Frank Edwards was a well-known radio personality whose broadcasts were regularly spiced with strange stories and bizarre 'facts'... so when he started publishing collections of these unusual tales, all of which he claimed to be true, the books sold quite well. It needs to be noted that most of the accounts from Edwards' Stranger Than Science actually started as articles he read in FATE Magazine, to which he himself was a contributor; but the story of the Canvey Island monsters appears to be a notable exception. Given how fresh the story was when he published his book (just four years old), and that a survey of the FATE magazines between 1953 and 1959 only turned up a single one-paragraph mention of the Canvey Island incident, it seems that Edwards must either have had a source for the story I haven't found yet, or that he simply made up the new version of the story for his book... which is not something I would normally accuse him of, but the only conclusion unless further evidence can be found.

        Part of the reason I suspect Edwards created most of the story is the fact that he didn't treat of the Canvey Island incident alone. Instead, Edwards presented it as a small part of a larger chapter about an odd incident that occurred in Devonshire, England, on February 8, 1855. On that morning, a strange line of "U" shaped prints were found in the newly fallen snow... a line that stretched about 90 miles, and zig-zagged through every town along the way. The incident has come to be called the "Devil's Footprints," and the occurrence is still unexplained; but Edwards stated the Canvey Island monsters could be the answer, noting that the creatures -- as he described them -- had a similar "U" shape to their feet as found in the snow in Devonshire a hundred years earlier. This "possible" connection is pure speculation on Edwards' part, and only starts to look plausible because of the changes he introduced into the legend of the Canvey Island monsters.

So... What Happened?

        Canvey Island is in Essex county in England, located near the mouth of the River Thames. In this location, the island has sometimes been subjected to extreme flooding, and is a prime place for unusual sea life to wash up from time to time. Now this may sound strange, but there are two versions of the story of the Canvey Island monsters you need to learn... the story that left the island, and the story that stayed behind. The story that left the island really begins with a simple newspaper article.

        On August 12, 1954, Associated Press services made a one paragraph article available to newspapers that was titled "Finds Sea Monster." A number of newspapers in the United States (and elsewhere) carried it on that day:

"Finds Sea Monster

CANVEY ISLAND England (AP) -- A grotesque sea creature four feet long and with two five-toed feet was found on the beach here Tuesday by Rev. Joseph D. Overs. He described the thing, which was dead, as 'a sort of fish with staring eyes and a large mouth underneath. It has two perfect feet, each with five pink toes.'"

This seems to have passed without any further notice at the time. A few months later, in Decmeber 1954, the article was mentioned in FATE Magazine in the regular section "I See by the Papers," edited by Curtis Fuller. As the name implies, this monthly section of the magazine was a summary of strange news accounts collected from various news sources, typically being newspaper clippings sent to the magazine by readers. In a brief part of this section labeled "Time of the Monsters," the one paragraph article was summarized, sandwiched between new infomation on the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman. And again, this seems to have not been noticed much more at the time... but there is a very good chance that this is when Frank Edwards first encountered the story for, as I've already mentioned, he was both a reader and occasional contributor to this magazine.

        While I have no definite way of knowing how much research Edwards did or did not do regarding the story of the Canvey Island monsters, I can say that he must have either contacted someone at Canvey Island, or somehow received more information from the island, because of one simple fact... Edwards stated there was a second monster. The news story released by Associated Press in the United States only mentioned one; but newspapers at Canvey Island itself implied a second peculiar carcass had been found a year earlier. Ignoring all other details (right or wrong) that Edwards would later publish, the fact that he also claims a second body was found a year earlier means that he must have somehow heard a little more of the actual story from the island itself... but this also creates a major difficulty, which I'll explain later.

        Thus, having done whatever research he may have done, Frank Edwards proceeded to present his story of the Canvey Island monsters to the world; and while the earliest he published his book Stranger Than Science was 1959, he was also presenting a radio broadcast by the same name during the years between 1954 and 1959, so Edwards may have also presented the story through that medium at a point earlier than the book. In any case, the story he presented in Stranger Than Science completely re-wrote the facts of the Canvey Island monsters and created the Legend that we see today, and which I presented at the start of this study. Edwards' account was picked up and repeated by books and magazines of strange stories for the next forty years or so, and it was just starting to be forgotten when a new development brought it back into vogue for purveyors of the strange.

Canvey Island Monster from Wikipedia
The 2006 Wikipedia Illustration of the Canvey Island Monster. [Picture sources here]

        In 2006, an existing Wikipedia article on the Canvey Island monsters that mainly repeated Frank Edwards' version of the legend was enhanced by a contributor named Kryptid posting an illustration he produced of the Canvey Island monster, based on Edwards' description (and some imagination, of course). In the world of the internet, a good picture is worth far more than a thousand words... this illustration, putting a visual face on Edwards' story of the Canvey Island monsters, brought the legend new attention as other artists and webpages started to reproduce the image and, incidentally, also the old Edwards' Canvey Island monsters story to justify their display of the image. As of 2013 (the writing of this study), a search of the web will now bring up Canvey Island monster toys, dolls, cartoons, and games, all based on the image produced for Wikipedia in 2006.

        Which is all very interesting... because it's wrong. Which brings us to the story of the Canvey Island monster, as it was told on Canvey Island itself.

What REALLY Happened?

        Which brings us to the question of what the story of the 'monster' was on Canvey Island itself... though this too has difficulties which I'll explain later. According to what I've found so far, the real story of the Canvey Island "monsters" starts with Joseph D. Overs' discovery in August 1954. The article that the Associated Press released that month to the world was actually a shortened version of an article that presumably ran in a local newspaper on Canvey Island itself. Here's the original article, from August 13, 1954, as presented on a Canvey Island history website:

"FISH WITH FEET FOUND ON BEACH

A fish with feet was found on the beach at Canvey on Tuesday by the Rev. Joseph D. Overs.

He described the fish as being over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath, on its stomach, it had two feet, with five toes. It was dead and had apparently been damaged by being washed against the rocks.

A peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year and identified as a pocket fish or 'fiddler fish.'

SEAL TOO

For the first time within living memory a seal was seen in Benfleet Creek, near the bridge, on Tuesday."

As you can see, the so-called 'monster' from a year earlier was just a known fish; and it's this report of an odd fish a year earlier that likely became Frank Edwards' second monster in his infamous 1959 retelling. Also, note that the report of a seal up a creek was considered to be of equal importance to the find of the "fish with feet," and the lack of the words "monster" and "grotesque" which appears in the Associated Press article. So whatever the good Reverend found, it wasn't particularly horrifying to the residents of the island.

        Oh, and regarding the 'good Reverend'... Joseph D. Overs was a well known character on Canvey Island, though it was less known that he acted as Reverend for a small congregation than it was known he was the most prolific photographer in town. Overs was apparently associated with a photographer's business on the island, and typically was the person taking pictures at events such as weddings and dances. He was dubbed "the Canvey photographer" because most of the photos in the local newspapers, as well as most of the photographs from the local photography business, were produced by Overs and his busy camera. So why has no picture of the "fish with feet" found by the photographer turned up? It seems like it would be a prime opportunity to have such a photo included with the story of the photographer's find, but there's no indication that such a picture was taken at the time... though a photo claiming to be of the Canvey Island 'monster' has surfaced in recent years.

        Ignoring that point for now, we come to the operative question: what was the "fish with feet" if it wasn't a monster?

Answers From the Deep

        The popular answer right now is that the Canvey Island carcass was a large angler-fish that had washed ashore.

        Angler-fish are rarely seen out of water, and therefore odd to begin with. They have a pulpy, thick skin with no scales. and large, bulging eyes. If frayed, their fins can appear to have separate 'toes' because of the thicker parts that support the web on them... so, theoretically, their fins could be mistaken for short legs with toed feet on the end. Remember that Overs described the carcass as having been damaged by being washed against rocks; so either the side fins could have been frayed, or the bottom fins -- which are very small, but do look like they have toes -- could be what he thought were feet.

        This solution was first noticibly proposed in February 1999 by Nick Warren, in a short article in that month's Fortean Times magazine. Essentially, Warren made some phone calls to newspapers in Southend-On-Sea -- a town near Canvey Island -- and got a local man there who stated that the Canvey Island fish had been identified as an angler-fish... though he also volunteered that it was initially thought to be a coelacanth, a pre-historic fish of which only two living examples were known of at the time (and which was another then currently going news item).

        In addition Warren also received a letter from Alwyne Wheeler, an ichthyologist formerly with the Department of Zoology at the Natural History Museum, expressing his opinion that the fish at Canvey Island was an angler-fish called Lophius piscatorius. Wheeler also noted that a 68lb anglerfish had been caught in 1967 on the shore of Canvey Island, which proved the species lived near the area. Based on these two interviews by Warren, it is now commonly assumed that the Canvey Island 'monster' was just an angler-fish... but that's not all the evidence.

        Since 2007 (near as I can determine), the following picture has been circulating on the internet with the claim to be an identifying shot of the Canvey Island monster:

Canvey Monster?

...which definitely shows an angler-fish as per the current theory explaining the monster; and it has been claimed on some websites that this photo was taken by Joseph Overs himself, which would be the final proof of the matter.

        And yet...

But... Is It True?

        So here's my problem in a nutshell: while an angler-fish is a very possible solution to the question of the identity of the Canvey Island carcass, all the evidence used to reach this conclusion is questionable! Allow me to explain this problem piece by piece...

        The popularization of this solution began in 1999 with Nick Warren's article in Fortean Times. In the article Warren presented the testimony of a man in a town near Canvey Island and the opinion of a professional ichthyologst, both of whom stated that the Canvey island 'monster' was just an angler-fish... but neiher man was a witness to either the event or the carcass. The first man, who Warren never named, was simply repeating what he'd heard -- including the possibility of a different type of sea creature, a coelacanth -- and the fish specialist, Alwyne Wheeler, was voicing his professional opinion based on a catch made over ten years after the original incident, in 1967, which only proved that angler-fish could be found near the island. It also seemed strange to me that Warren had contacted local newspapers in a town near Canvey Island, instead of contacting local papers on Canvey Island; but perhaps he'd met the same resistence I've encountered with getting answers from there. More on that in a moment.

Article

        So the idea of an angler-fish as the identity of the unknown carcass was generally agreed upon with very little to prove it... until the next piece of evidence appeared in 2007, when the 1954 newspaper article "Fish With Feet" and the related photo from a newspaper of an angler-fish were posted together on the internet. Both surfaced on the CanveyIsland.org website sometime in 2007 or 2008 as part of an article about the photographer Joseph Overs [link here]. The article itself is only incidentally related to the tale of the Canvey Island 'monster,' as it's mostly a memory of the character of Joseph Overs himself; but included with the article is a picture of the 1954 "Fish With Feet" newspaper clipping and the angler-fish picture, both attributed to Canvey historian Geoff Barsby. Barsby has written a number of books on the history of the island, and has been interviewed on television on the topic as well... so he's the man who would have access to the answers. In the website article, the angler-fish picture is captioned as "The only known Photo of the legendary Canvey Island Monster."

        But the article and the angler-fish are presented as separate images; and while the article includes a claim to be from 1954 as part of it, the angler-fish photo has no date associated: so a connection between the photo and the article is only implied. In addition, there is no statement of what newspaper either the article or the photo came from, so it's impossible to verify them... which is the little problem that's been driving me nuts! The article and the photo only count as evidence if they can be shown to be from the right place at the right time, because it's very possible to fake articles and clippings after the fact of an event. So I want to know what newspaper and date both the article and the angler-fish photo were actually published.

        I've sent inquiries to a number of places and people associated with Canvey island, and haven't been able to get confirmation that the "Fish With Feet" article comes from a local newspaper which, in 1954, would be either the Canvey News or the Canvey Chronicle. What I have discovered is that the Canvey Island library has one of the two newspapers in their archives, the Canvey News... but, strangely, is specifically missing the year 1954 from their collection! My inquiries included three sepaprate attempts to contact Geoff Barsby, the Canvey Island historian, as well. I was initially referred to Barsby by a librarian on Canvey Island itself, but he never responded to the emails I've sent. I've also tried to email him through the posted email at Barsby's Canvey History website, but I've been unable to get a response from him. Barsby would be the best person to contact, as he's apparently responsible for the original images of both the 1954 article and the angler-fish photo on the Canvey Island website... but no luck there.

        In searching the internet, however, I've been lucky enough to come across this larger shot of the angler-fish picture:

Canvey Photo 2

...which at least shows it is indeed from a local Canvey Island newspaper, based on the ads; but it still doesn't give the date the photo was published. This is important to find out because this could be a picture of the angler-fish caught in 1967 on Canvey Beach, and therefore have nothing to do with the 1954 carcass!

        One more interesting thought: in the "Fish With Feet" article, Joseph Overs' description of the fish with feet fails to mention it having a tail... which, looking at the angler-fish above, seems like it would be an obvious trait. Of course, if the photo was published with the original article, a tail would not need to be mentioned as it was being shown instead.

        So, while an angler-fish might be the possible solution, before I can give it a stamp of approval as an investigator I still need to find at least two of the following forms of evidence:

  • An eye-witness to the event that agrees with this answer
  • The identify of the newspaper and date for the publication of the fishy photo
  • The identify of the newspaper for the "Fish With Feet" article, with proof of publication on August 13, 1954

So this particular story has been stalled simply because of poor investigation... and anyone with access to the Canvey Island newspapers would be greatly appreciated if they could help verify -- or disprove -- the existence of the article and photo in the 1954 or 1967 newspapers.

        Or you can just agree it was an angler-fish and move on with your lives.