This day in London history: on 9 January 1493, Christopher Columbus, spotted three manatees near the Dominican Republic and mistook them for mermaids. The disillusioned explorer reported that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. Manatees are considered to have been the source of the mermaid legends; they are now an endangered species.
Nothing to do with London, gentle reader? Oh, yes, indeed: there is a Mermaid Court in the Southwark area of London; dating back to at least the early 18th century, it was named from an inn. The name was a common one, and especially popular for taverns in areas frequented by sailors, who had long believed in the existence of the beautiful creatures who were half woman, half fish. Mermaid Court is not far from the south bank of the Thames, and a tavern there could have attracted its fair share of nautical drinkers.
Another, perhaps more famous, Mermaid Tavern was that on Cheapside, with patrons such as Ben Jonson and, legend has it, Shakespeare, though various sources doubt the accuracy of that assertion. Jonson wrote a satirical poem ‘On The Famous Voyage’ about two men journeying along the Fleet ditch, in which he writes:
“At Bread Street’s Mermaid having dined, and merry,
Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry.”
Mermaids have been around for a long time and, though the mermaids of yore and lore are likely to be the dugong or the manatee, less than beautiful aquatic mammals, it seemed there was no shortage of them up until the 19th century.
Back in the time of King John, a merman was supposed to have been caught and kept alive for six months on raw meal and fish until he made his escape and was never seen again. In the 17th century, a living mermaid was available for viewing in Bell Yard, and in the 18th century another one was spotted in the north of Scotland.
There were several mermaids around in the 19th century, including one (live), which was exhibited in Fleet Street in 1822, and one (stuffed), which was on display at Bartholomew Fair and sketched by George Cruikshank. (“A wood-cut of her may be seen in Morley’s Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair.”)
No self-respecting Victorian gentleman would be without a cabinet of curiosities; according to the London Science Museum (where the above photo of a Victorian merman, or chimera, comes from), “These were collections of obscure and wonderful artefacts. This chimera is made of fish skin, bone, and scales covered in thin paper. It also has animal fur, teeth, claws and tissue attached to heighten the appearance of a ‘real’ animal.”
But back to the Mermaid Tavern: another likely explanation for the name of the tavern itself is that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river (see Clink Street, Stew Lane, and Cardinal Cap Alley), ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.