“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Weyhill Mermaid

As you drive along the A342 in Hampshire you may happen to pass through the village of Weyhill (three miles west of Andover). Weyhill comes across as a fairly insignificant settlement and it is the sort of place that you can drive through without even noticing. Weyhill was not always insignificant however, once it was famous throughout the country for its fair (the Weyhill Fair) that regularly attracted enormous crowds.

The Weyhill Fair was most famously known for the sale of sheep, however the sale of horses, pigs, cattle, hops and cheese were also regular occurrences. It seems that there was also a “Pleasure Fair” which was home to stalls selling all manner of goods and entertainment. It was at the Pleasure Fair in 1832 that a man named Joseph Thomson sold his wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog (which seems like a good deal to me). This sale of a spouse is believed to have been the inspiration for one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, who sold his wife at the Weyhill Fair for five guineas, in the 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' (1886).

The first written reference to the Weyhill Fair seems to date from 1225, although it is believed that the site had been home to a fair as far back as the 11th century. Over the years the fair steadily grew in prominence and by the 19th century up to 100,000 sheep were routinely traded during the course of a single day. The fair began to gradually decline in the latter part of the 19th century and by the end of World War II the sheep sales had almost entirely ceased, with only the Pleasure Fair still operating. Today most of the original site of the fair has been turned over to other uses, but a craft centre called the “Weyhill Fair Ground” remains on the site.

Given the range of merchandise on offer at the fair it is no real surprise that Colonel Peter Hawker in 1811 remarked on seeing a Mermaid for sale. Hawker (1786 – 1853) was a soldier, author, a sporting shooter and a diarist and it is in his diary entry for the 14th October 1811 where he records his encounter at the Weyhill Fair:

Went to Weyhill Fair, where the principal curiosity was a creature (shown under the name of a mermaid) that was caught and brought alive from the Southampton river.

From the paucity of detail in the dairy entry it is hard to be sure what the Weyhill Mermaid might have been and whether it was actually alive while it was on display at the fair. Potential sources of mermaid accounts tend to be: hand-made hoaxes such as Fiji mermaids, misidentification of marine animals such as Dugongs and occasionally people with genetic abnormalities such as Sirenomelia. But whether one of these is the basis of the Weyhill Mermaid is unclear.

If any readers know any more about this particular story please let me know via the comments section below.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The Weyhill Fair Ground today.

The entrance to the Fair Ground.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

The old livestock sheds converted into craft shops.

Weyhill Church.

The local pub.

Sign outside the pub.

The pub sign depicting the old sheep fair.

Pictures, Hampshire (December 2013).

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