Exhibition at the Undercurrents Gallery now open

Thanks to everyone who came to our launch event at The Bird’s Nest on Friday 4 October. We are now open and on display in the Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford, until 30 October, so do pop by (there are also some events planned at the gallery as part of the exhibition).

Here are some photos from the installation:

Undersea Zines – Call for submissions

Undersea Zines at the Bird's Nest

As part of our residency at the Undercurrents Gallery throughout October, we’ll be hosting a zine and DIY fair open to all and free entry.


We have a limited number of tables available for artists or zine-makers who want to sell their work during the day. If you’d like a spot, please send some mermaid-related samples to poemsunderwater @t gmail.com.


We’re also inviting people to come along and bring their own work to swap or share. As long as it’s mermaid-related, we’d love to see it.

You can also find out more and join the event on our Facebook page.

Maritime Urban Legends: Residency at the Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford

Don’t miss our residency at the Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford from next Friday, 4 October 2013!

We’ll be collaborating with the Minesweeper Collective (who hosted our launch event on the 14th) to offer a programme of events around the theme of maritime urban legends.
Lots still to come, but the following have all been confirmed:

Friday 4 October

Exhibition opens.

Launch event hosted by the Minesweeper Collective, featuring live music and poetry.

Wednesday 16 October

Open mic session, including Luciana Francis, Oswaldo Santos, and Jan Lee

Wednesday 23 October

Open mic session including Andrew Souter and Tony Winn

Sunday 27 October

Mer-zine and craft fair in the Undercurrents Gallery – line up TBC (email poemsunderwater @t gmail.com if you’re interested in selling your own work)

Wednesday 30 October

Open mic session including Charlotte Higgins

Thursday 31 October

Last night of the exhibition! Live sea shanties from 7pm till 1am.

Each event will also include an opportunity to buy our anthology ‘Lines Underwater’.

If you’ve got your own mermaid stories to tell or mermaid-themed music to play, we’ve got slots available throughout the month – get in touch to tell us your idea.

To stay up to date, you can also join the event on Facebook.

Poems Underwater – Launch event in Deptford

Poems Underwater set sail last night on board a boat in Deptford (courtesy of the brilliant Minesweeper Collective).

We launched our new anthology, Lines Underwater, exhibited some of the artworks made as part of the project, and heard readings from some of the poets and writers involved. Musicians Tony Winn, Andrew Souter, Luciana Francis and Sara Eliot performed sets, and we had a splendid mermaid cake (you may remember the original one) courtesy of Alice Saville (RaddingtonB).

Here are some photos from the night…

Thank you so much to everyone who came along, performed and helped make it such a great night.

If you missed it, you can see the artworks from this exhibition, along with a few extra, at the Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford, from 4 October – 1 November 2013. We’ll also be publishing details of events running alongside this in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Launch event next week…

We’ve had lots of exciting deliveries this week, and many things to do as we prepare for our special launch event on Saturday (including some sheet painting, so we now have a flag).

We’re fully booked for Saturday, but if you’re missing out, don’t worry – you can come and see us for the whole month of October at the Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford. Here, we’ll be exhibiting selected works from the anthology and running a number of projects and events.


Residency at The Undercurrents Gallery, Deptford

We’re delighted to announce that we’ll be exhibited selected artworks from the project at Deptford’s Undercurrents Gallery from Friday 4 October 2013 until the end of the month.

As part of this project, we’ll also be holding a few open mic nights and some other mermaid-themed events, so stay tuned for more information coming soon…



Thank you to everyone who submitted to us – we are now CLOSED for submissions. We will be in touch with everyone who has submitted by 20 June!

It Is Finished - St Michael's Church, Longstanton

Making Jenny Hanivers

‘Jenny Haniver’ is the mysterious name given to grotesque composite fish-creatures made by sailors. They were conventionally made from skates or rays, presumably because these are among the most anthropomorphic sea-creatures easily obtainable from a boat – compare Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin’s haunting still life ‘The Ray’ (below), where the dismembered fish hovers in the background like a lacerated human soul in torment.

Chardin - The Ray

Chardin – The Ray (1728)

Jenny Hanivers overlap thematically with ‘strange fish’ – curiosities from the sea displayed at fairs and markets for money. Strange fish might be either outright composite fakes or bizarre fish believed by their exhibitors to be genuine – in The Tempest Trinculo mistakes Caliban for one such, in the process evoking a contemporary English consumer culture of exotic objects:

A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.

Jenny Hanivers also have obvious connections to mermaid fakes – many ‘sirens’ were made from sewing a monkey corpse to a fish corpse, or indeed assembled from the ground upwards like craft objects (as with the talismanic merman at London’s Horniman museum, which seems to have had a religious significance). This strain is the less Pre-Raphaelite image of the mermaid in history.

Where exactly Jenny Hanivers get their bizarre name is not clear – in The Fabled Coast (previously reviewed on this website), Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood give the term’s origin in ‘Jenny’ (as in female, like a ‘Jenny Wren’) and ‘D’Antwerp / D’Anvers’ (‘from Antwerp’, where they were supposedly manufactured). Wikipedia gives an uncited emendation as ‘jeune d’Anvers’, so they are not gendered, but rather precisely aged. But it’s still not entirely clear what their purpose was – clearly they had a commercial value, since they were made in a trading port and (presumably) sold to sailors as souvenirs; perhaps they also had uses as low-level fakes giving credence to sailors’ yarns. I think, with their evident strangeness, they also have something of the talismanic about them – in a harsh natural environment like the sea, you need all the help you can get.

Jenny Hanivers tie together many of the ideas running through this project – they are hybrids (albeit man-made) and they speak to an ancient tradition of myth and legend surrounding mermaids, mer-creatures and the sea. They also appear to have had a commercial value, which is a telling point in the light of our last trip to Deptford Creek (a key trading port), as well as in some of the discussions we’ve had about the commercialisation of the mermaid in the twentieth century. It’s interesting, too, that they appear to have been gendered as female. I thought I’d have a go at making some.

Visit to Deptford Creek

Deptford began from the Ravensbourne river – a ‘ford’ crossing the water – but its geographical importance at the eastern end of the Thames’ entry into London soon made it a key shipping and trading area. It was a jump-off point for Elizabethan exploration (Sir Francis Drake was knighted on board The Golden Hinde in Deptford Creek) and, of course, drinking – fire-and-brimstone Kit Marlowe met his notoriously embarrassing demise in the environs, apparently stabbed in the eye after a tavern brawl.

As the site of the East India Company’s yard for a time during the seventeenth century, Deptford was also a key point in the business of empire. It was one of the three key stop-offs on slave-merchant John Hawkins’ ground-breaking ‘triangular trade’ model, through which he made a profit at every port. And Royal Navy sailors in the 1860s claimed that Deptford Dockyard was playing host to another grisly flesh-trade – when young Fanny Adams was murdered in Alton, Hampshire, her eyes were removed and thrown into a nearby river. These, and other parts of her, were said to have drifted (impossibly) down to Deptford, where sailors claimed to have found buttons in their tins of chopped meat – suspiciously, the Royal Navy had just retired the salt beef rations and replaced it with an inferior alternative (quickly dubbed, mnemonically, ‘sweet Fanny Adams’). 

Deptford Creek, where Drake’s famous ship was moored until it disintegrated, is the tidal branch of the Ravensbourne, hemmed in by sheer wall on all sides. Freshwater, it is an early point of change for water that eastwards, until London, is salty. Today, the nearby Discovery Centre is full of finds from the waters and evidence of modern commercial life (credit cards, golf balls, old mobile phones) and antiquated, unwanted technology – VHS tapes, compilation CDs, primitive laptops. As an urban waterway, the Creek is indeed full of shopping trolleys, old mattresses and other ephemera of city life. But it seems creek-life thrives on such cliches – an attempt to clean it up in the early 2000s resulted in wildlife numbers dropping by nearly a half – as a tidal stretch, the Creek attracts small animals and invertebrates that spend their first year alive incubating quietly here, away from the dangers of larger animals. One reason is the cage-like structure of a trolley, which becomes a haven for animals seeking a hiding place who would otherwise have nothing but wall. 

Foreign species, too, abound here, having stowed away in boats from all over the world. Mitten Crabs from the Yangtze populate the Creek in (possibly problematic) abundance, though their most obvious traces are the empty shells they’ve climbed out of. As they grow bigger, they unzip and migrate, leaving what look like crab carcasses strewn along the river bed.

The Creekside Discovery Centre run monthly low-tide walks through the Creek – well worth a visit.

The Fabled Coast, by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood, Random House Books 2012, £20.00

There are a lot of church bells submerged around Britain, particularly in the south. Bells are said to have drowned off Boscastle, Cornwall; St Ouen’s Bay, Jersey; Bosham, West Sussex, Dunwich, Suffolk and off Blackpool, Lancashire in the North, though in St Govan’s Head, Pembrokeshire, they are not drowned, but encased inside a stone.

A 'Sea Bishop' from Gulielmus Rondeletius' Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

A ‘Sea Bishop’ from Gulielmus Rondeletius’ Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

Most of these are tales of marauding Vikings / neighbouring villagers / generic heathens, whose attempts to steal the bells end in divine retribution as bells and boats sink together. But in Dunwich it was coastal erosion that took the bells; once a bustling port, with eight churches (all sounding of a Sunday), this ill-fated town sunk over the centuries until in the nineteenth it had just 250 inhabitants, 12 of whom were eligible to vote.

Despite this, it continued to return two MPs until the Reform Act of 1832. Some claim these auspicious 12 voters had to visit the site of their old town hall in order to cast their ballot – in boats. Archeological explorations of this drowned city continue to this day; photographer Neil A White’s ‘Lost Villages’ project documents modern-day Dunwich towns, such as Skipsea, North Riding in Yorkshire.

In Bosham there was an attempt to bring the drowned bells back up again, effected through a symbolic troop of white oxen. At the last minute, the bell dropped back into the sea, supposedly because one of the oxen had a single black hair in its tail. Another version of the story has it that, the women having been told to shut up (being bad luck), one could not restrain herself; by shouting ‘Oop she comes!’ as the bells emerged, she condemned the bell to the deep forever.

All of these bells are said to ring on – in Bocastle they can be heard by drowning sailors; in St Ouen’s Bay they warn of an approaching storm and in Bosham they ring in chorus with their former companions in the parish church. The Pembrokeshire bells sound from within their stone, which ’emits a metallic sound when struck’. It’s a strange idea – drowned and buried bells sounding from sea and rock right round the country.

The unknown sea

‘There is no occupational group with more tales than sailors’ says Sophia Kingshill in the introduction to this delicious collection of sea-yarns ‘from around the shores of Britain and Ireland’. Of course, we have more shore than most, as shown in Shakespeare’s oft-quoted description of Britain as ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’ – a sea which ‘serves it in the office of a wall’.

The sea can indeed be protective, and even life-giving – in Kirk Michael, on the Isle of Man, the saying ‘No herring, no wedding’ was once a common proverb, since if the herring stock fails, young Manx have no money to marry. ‘This was literally true’, add Kingshill and Westwood, ‘as proved by comparisons between the marriage registers and the fishing records’.

As a result of this, as much as in contrast to it, the sea is equally frightening and unknown – even today we know less about the deepest parts of it than we do about outer space.

In consequence, and quite reasonably, many of the legends and traditions detailed in this book focus around sea-deaths, storms and how to avoid them: in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, you should never set sail on a Friday or Sunday (although Sunday is lucky in Prestonpans, East Lothian); a priest on board is bad luck, being too convenient for a funeral; a black dog seen before boarding is a portent of doom, especially in Peel, Isle of Man, where he might be the Mauthe Doog; a woman on board is bad luck.

There are also intriguing ways of guaranteeing good luck at sea – in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, there is an eighteenth-century report of a ‘small circular cavity’ in the pier into which a sailor’s wife or lover could piss, ‘with a view to appeasing the waves and obtaining a favourable breeze’.

Though many of these might seem like relics from an older time, Kingshill highlights hubristic sinkings – the Titanic, of course (said to have been seen at the site of its sinking on occasional April 14ths ever since) but also the 2012 Costa Concordia – to remind us that we are not such complete masters as we might like to believe. 

Mermaid folklore and legend

Mermaids are, naturally, peppered throughout the collection, which is ordered by British region. Most accounts divide into fairly clear categories: there are the ‘strange fish’ – hideous creatures that were popular fairground attractions from the sixteenth century onwards, some of which can be explained with reference to genuinely strange creatures like rays and skates, and others that remain a mystery.

Some were shameless hybrids: one ‘siren’, exhibited at Bartholemew Fair, London, turned out to be nothing but a dried monkey’s head and body attached to a fish’s tail. Fakes like these were known as ‘Jenny Hanivers’, for reasons largely unknown, though Kingshill and Westwood suggest it may derive from ‘Jenny d’Anvers’ – ‘d’Anvers’ as in ‘from Antwerp’ (a port where they may have been manufactured); ‘Jenny’ as in ‘female’ (like ‘Jenny Wren’). A Japanese example of a similar thing is on show at South London’s Horniman Museum.

A strange fish - a 'foul thing' seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

A strange fish – a ‘foul thing’ seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

Similar to this category are the fishermen’s discoveries that now appear to have more rational explanations: the one in Yell, Shetland that had smooth and silvery-grey skin, ‘hairless and without scales’, which now sounds like a manatee or dugong, or the ‘Sea Man’ in Skinningrove, North Yorkshire that ate nothing but raw fish and ‘expressed himself only in shrieks’.

Then there are the quasi-objective descriptions of ‘genuine’ sightings. One account, from a schoolmaster in Sandside Bay, Highland, described ‘a figure resembling an unclothed human female’, sitting on a rock and combing its long hair ‘of which it appeared proud’. The schoolmaster wrote into The Times with his account, which was convincing enough to persuade none other than his contemporary, Sir Walter Scott, that ‘the existence of mermaids is no longer a matter of question’. These are sighted all over the British Isles, but particularly pop up in the Highlands and Scottish islands – where, surely coincidentally, there are also large numbers of vocal seals.

A particularly bizarre twist on this strand of mermaid ‘sightings’ is the one from 1820s Bude, Cornwall, which tells of a student named Robert Hawker who swam out to sea and sat on a rock draped in seaweed (for hair) and oilskin (for a tail), otherwise naked. Holding a hand mirror, he proceeded to sing as loud as he could to draw local attention; he kept up the act for ‘several nights’, to the wonderment of his neighbours (who were, apparently, completely fooled), until eventually he grew hoarse and swam away. He went on to become vicar of Morwenstow, also in Cornwall, where his biographer records him going to church ‘generally followed by ten or more cats, which used to sport about in the chancel during the service’.

Mermaids also appear as vengeful or otherwise powerful spirits – the difficulty of passing Orford Ness, East Anglia, is apparently the result of a vengeful mermaid’s curse; in Knockdolian, South Ayrshire, a mermaid is said to have killed a baby after the baby’s mother destroyed the mermaid’s favourite seat (she was fed up of the siren song keeping the child up all night). Elsewhere, mermaids bless ships in return for good treatment, and even intermarry with humans: the mermaid Lady of Gollerrus (Gallarus, County Kerry in Southern Eire) marries one Dick Fitzgerald and has three children with him. Though she is eventually tempted back to the sea, in the nineteenth century she was ‘always spoken of as a model wife’.

A mermaid saint

But perhaps the most extraordinary mermaid tale in the collection is that of Liban (or Li Ban), an Irish girl whose home in Larne Water, County Antrium, was flooded in the sixth century, killing everyone except the girl and her dog. After a year underwater, Liban became lonely and prayed to be transformed into a salmon, so she could swim in a school.

Her wish was half-granted: she became a mermaid and her dog became an otter. She lived underwater for 300 years before being caught by St Beoc. She was given the choice between living another 300 years or being baptised and going to heaven – a choice also offered, though less happily, to the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Liban chooses the latter option, and the site of her burial saw many miracles performed over the successive centuries, leading to her canonisation as Saint Murgen (meaning ‘sea birth’).

The Fabled Coast is bursting with stories like this, lavishly illustrated and its tales told with all the relish of an old sea-dog. Working methodically through the British Isles, Kingshill and Westwood provide a whistlestop tour of the coastline as well as the legends themselves, pointing out that:

‘…all things supernatural favour the territory linking one state with another […] The shore is another liminal area, joining earth to water, known to unknown’.

Britain being a country with ‘more edge than middle’, it is an ideal setting for all sorts of sea-tales, and The Fabled Coast is a delightful concoction.

The Fabled Coast is available to buy online at Amazon.