n the nineteenth century science seemed to conquer the world, and many Victorians looked for an alternative to the culture of coding, quantifying and explaining. This desire for the inexplicable was reflected in the rise of fantasy and escapism, notably in the form of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism and Aesthetic neo-classicism, fairy art, and the wild imaginings of dream-worlds such as Lewis Carroll’s writing of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1865–72). These arcane fantasies provided an alternative to the hard facts of reality and an approach adopted in the neo-medieval dreaminess of second stage Pre-Raphaelitism: as Edward Burne-Jones famously remarked to Oscar Wilde, the ‘more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint’ (Wilde 132). Victorians also looked to other, slight evidences of the immaterial. The presumed workings of the spirit world became an object of fascination, with séances, photographs and ghost stories providing entertainment and solace for the bereaved and the superstitious; mesmerism and magic likewise became a cult and were avidly pursued in endless demonstrations and elaborate theatrical shows. These forms point to the contradictions that lie at the heart of Victorian culture, highlighting the fact that this most pragmatic age was also the age of doubtfulness and dissatisfaction, of questioning and the denial of science. We might also say that it was the age of the imagination – when science was cancelling many of the more irrational beliefs, but left plenty of room for speculation about the nature of the natural world.
The ubiquitous monster: Left: a representation of Captain McQuhae’s legendary and highly disputed sighting in 1848; Right: a vigorous serpent thrashing around off the coast of Ireland, witnessed by passing gentlefolk (1871). [Click on all th images to enlarge them, and for more information about them.]
A key strand in this conundrum is the response to developments in zoology. Darwin’s theory of evolution, combined with the rise of naturalism and palaeontology, meant that species past and present were either catalogued or in the process of being catalogued; evolution made the connection between the living and the extinct, and the world’s vast menageries were understood by the end of the century in ways that far exceeded all previous researches. But evolution’s emphasis on change and modification carried the wider implication that mutations were possible and that many animals remained uncatalogued, particularly in the remote areas of the world. Encouraged to study nature – which became a respectable occupation for gentlefolk – the Victorian public was resistant to the notion that the zoological record was complete and probably only charted a part of God’s creation.
The need to contemplate anomalous or unknown animals led to the rise of an interest in creatures that were almost certainly mythological but could or might be real. This phenomenon is the domain of ‘cryptozoology’, a modern term invented by the Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans in his book, On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958); and it is undoubtedly the case that nineteenth century observers were fascinated, again making use of a recent term, by the notion of the ‘cryptid’. Then – as now – this pseudo-science, a type of faux zoology, was largely a sort of parlour-game; as Sherrie Lynne Lyons explains in her wide-reaching study of inquiry into the strange, it was always ‘at the margins’ of scientific respectability. Nevertheless, it occasionally invited comment by professional naturalists and palaeontologists.
Indeed, the belief in cryptids had considerable imaginative leverage, collapsing the distinction between science, folklore, psychology and mythology. Writing in The Book of Werewolves (1865) the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould made the bold claim that ‘under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality’ (online edition) and insists on the existence of lycanthropes. Mermaids, typically composed of bits of monkeys, carved wood and fish, were exhibited at fairs and freak shows, and were likewise considered to be an unknown species or inexplicable hybrid. However, the greatest cryptozoological beast of the nineteenth century was the sea serpent. Reported especially in American waters, the serpent, apparently emerging from mythology into the real world, was the subject of extended debate and had a considerable cultural impact.
The Sea Serpent and Science
The sea serpent gained currency in the early and mid-Victorian period because there seemed to be plenty of evidence of its existence, with experienced sailors making report of the creature at sea and the public observing it from land. Sightings were recorded in the press, many speculative articles were written, and popular handbooks were published to explain the phenomenon. The most detailed of these is The Great Sea-Serpent, by A. C. Oudemans (1892). Presented as a quasi-scientific tome which aims to legitimize its subject by deploying academic conventions to give an impression of rational objectivity, this book catalogues 187 appearances from the mid eighteenth century to the end of the Victorian period; putting aside obvious explanations such as hoaxes, misidentifications or wave effects, Oudemans presents an elaborate case, insisting, in agreement with theorists such Henry Lee and John Gibson (1882), that ‘serpents exist in abundance’ (Gibson 21) and ‘abound’ in the ‘tropical oceans’ (xi).
Of course, these claims had to be based on convincing evidence, and it is noticeable that although the numbers of sightings was high all the main writers rely on a small number of plausible accounts. Sightings off the coast of Boston in 1817 are taken to be accurate, along with others in 1822. But the main body of evidence was the report made by Captain Peter McQuhae of HMS Daedulus. Sailing off the Cape of Good Hope in August 1848 on a return trip from the East Indies, the ship’s skipper and his crew claimed to have seen a prime specimen. McQuhae’s sighting was published in the Illustrated London News (28 October, 1848) where he describes the creature as it came into close proximity to the vessel. This, it appears, was:
an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea and [by comparing to with the length of the ship] at the very least sixty feet [in length]. The diameter of the serpent was about 15 or 16 inches behind the head, which was, without doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour dark brown, and yellowish white around the throat. It had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse, or rather like a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back. [ILN, October 28 1848: 265]
This account recurs throughout the serpent literature, and on first glance seems impressive. McQuhae’s cool tone is authoritative, and he bolsters his report’s validity by mentioning other witnesses by name, by using a series of measurements, and by insisting that the animal was close enough to recognize ‘its features with the naked eye’ (ILN 265). The sighting caused a sensation among the public, and its impact was heightened by impressive illustrations, drawn by an unknown artist, which shows the serpent as a vast creature, as much a gigantic eel as a snake.
Left and Right: Two more images of McQuhae’s eel-like sighting of 1848.
At the same time, there were sceptics who noted the inconsistencies in the Captain’s description, and these infelicities are just as obvious to modern readers. How could it be, for example, that McQuhae could estimate the size of the neck to be 15 or 16 inches in diameter, but not be able to see if the ‘mane’ were real or seaweed? And if he could not make out that detail, how could he be sure that it lacked fins? Or insist on the creature’s being four feet out of the water? McQuhae reveals his real uncertainties in the qualifying phrases, noting how it is at least sixty feet long and without doubt the face of a snake (my italics).
Viewed in these terms his apparent objectivity collapses into the subjective and its ambiguity was interrogated, most tellingly, by professional zoologists and geologists. The Captain’s account was roundly dismissed by Richard Owen, the foremost palaeontologist of the time. Writing in The Times, Owen suggested that McQuhae had seen a large seal or sea-elephant (Lyons 30) and went on to suggest that ‘proof of ghosts’ (Lyons 17) was more convincing than evidence of marine monsters. Others were less certain. Charles Lyell was initially swayed by the many American sightings, but following his inspection of a bogus skeleton displayed by a Mr Koch in Boston in 1845, decided it was all nonsense. In the absence of a specimen, bones, flesh or even a photograph it was difficult to come to any other conclusion, and in reality the serpent was likely to be nothing more than a misidentification, fishing debris pulled along by seals, whales, sea weed, or some other natural phenomenon – with many suggesting, for example, that the many-humped back, a signature form, was no more than a school of dolphins swimming in a line.
Nevertheless, the sea-serpent controversy unsettled the scientific community. As Lyons explains in a detailed account, it postulated the existence of animals that had somehow left no evidence in the fossil record while suggesting that a completely unknown species, unlike anything else that currently existed in plain view, could still be alive. The sea serpent was a challenge, an animal, as Lyons explains, that was incompatible with the ‘prevailing views of world history’ (23).
That challenge deepened, and became more absurd, when explanations were offered which did not accept the imagined animal’s status as a previously unknown species, but as one that was ancient and had not become extinct. In one move, the mysterious sea serpent was reclassified by believers as a marine dinosaur, a survivor existing in the deep oceans that had simply disregarded the elimination of every other saurian predecessor (Gibson 75). Some thought it an Ichthyosaurus, a fish-like reptile (Lyons 17); others, notably Oudemans (102), identified it as a Plesiosaur (a long-necked dinosaur with paddles, quite unlike a fish); and a third possibility was suggested by Philip Gosse (318) who speculated it could be of the genus Enaliosuchus such as a Cricosaurus (a type of archaic crocodile).
The two prime candidates as an explanation for the sea-serpent, drawn by George Scharf. Left: Plesiosaurus; Right: Ichthyosaurus.
The fact that each of these very different creatures could somehow fit the bill is revealing of the paucity of hard information. Clearly, seeing a dinosaur in a wave or mass of sea-weed was a prime example of pareiodolia – of identifying shapes in amorphous phenomena, simulacra dictated by cultural expectations. Nevertheless, the idea of a surviving dinosaur was a stimulating position which questioned the validity of evolutionary theory and refigured the profile of the modern world, allowing extinct creatures to exist at the same time as homo sapiens. Though absurd, it was an exciting prospect, imagining a Victorian Jurassic Park in which palaeontologists might one day study a dinosaur in the flesh as they do in Steven Spielberg’s film (1993). Gosse admits to the appeal of just such a moment, noting in the final pages of The Romance of Natural History (1863), his ‘own confident persuasion, that there exists some oceanic animal of immense proportions, which has not yet been received into the category of scientific zoology’ (388). Never proved, never caught, and all too obviously not real, the fantasy sea serpent was important, in other words, not as a tangible animal but as a chimera, an embodied idea or statement of imaginative possibilities that reanimated the Victorians’ shrinking world of fact and materialism and infused it with a renewed sense of wonder and mystery.
The Sea Serpent in Literature and Art
The public fascination with sea monsters is cleverly evoked by Sarah Perry in her neo-Victorian novel, The Essex Serpent (2016). In the opening pages a young man has a close encounter with an object in the waves, at first only ‘the tug of the moon on the tides’ which then coheres into a ‘slow movement of something vast, hunched … implacable, monstrous, born in water’ (4). Spellbound, the characters contemplate the vast mysteries of the deep and species that might have been missed; Perry anachronistically mentions (190–191) the Loch Ness Monster (which only came to fame in the 1930s), but her comments embody the behemoth’s appeal.
The imaginative world suggested by the possibility of monsters was reflected in, and encouraged by, representations in Victorian art and literature. In ‘The Kraken’ (1830, Poems and Plays, 5) Tennyson unsettlingly suggests the vast scale of the unknown animal while postulating a view of nature both dreamily alien and menacing as the creature awaits the apocalypse:
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Of course, Tennyson is writing of a gigantic octopus rather than a marine reptile, a creature that reappears in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was published in English in 1875. Verne also projected a vivid notion of the two animals most associated with the serpent – the Plesiosaur and the Ichthyosaurus – in his bizarre adventure, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (English, 1871). The narrator’s report of an encounter is quintessentially of its monster-busting time:
At last have mortal eyes gazed upon two reptiles of the great primitive ocean! I see the flaming red eyes of the Ichthyosaurus, each as big, or bigger than a man's head. Nature in its infinite wisdom had gifted this wondrous marine animal with an optical apparatus of extreme power, capable of resisting the pressure of the heavy layers of water which rolled over him in the depths of the ocean where he usually fed. It has by some authors truly been called the whale of the saurian race, for it is as big and quick in its motions as our king of the seas. This one measures not less than a hundred feet in length, and I can form some idea of his girth when I see him lift his prodigious tail out of the waters. His jaw is of awful size and strength, and according to the best-informed naturalists, it does not contain less than a hundred and eighty-two teeth. The other was the mighty Plesiosaurus, a serpent with a cylindrical trunk, with a short stumpy tail, with fins like a bank of oars in a Roman galley. Its whole body covered by a carapace or shell, and its neck, as flexible as that of a swan, rose more than thirty feet above the waves, a tower of animated flesh! These animals attacked one another with inconceivable fury. Such a combat was never seen before by mortal eyes, and to us who did see it, it appeared more like the phantasmagoric creation of a dream than anything else. They raised mountains of water, which dashed in spray over the raft, already tossed to and fro by the waves. Twenty times we seemed on the point of being upset and hurled headlong into the waves. Hideous hisses appeared to shake the gloomy granite roof of that mighty cavern—hisses which carried terror to our hearts. The awful combatants held each other in a tight embrace. I could not make out one from the other. Still the combat could not last forever; and woe unto us, whichsoever became the victor.[online version]
In this ‘Terrific Saurian Combat’ Verne projects the ambivalence of the marine sightings: on the one hand, he materializes the sightings by offering detailed descriptions while noting how the combat seems ‘more like the phantasmagoric creation of a dream’ than reality. On balance, however, the physicality of the writing prevails: it might be science fiction fantasy, but it might also be a wonderful event, and one that could happen. In a world where sea-serpents might exist, he implies, that is how the scene would look. Such possibilities were revisited by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World (1912), in which adventurers discover a remote place where the dinosaurs still exist.
Yet other reflections can be traced in visual art. Not only an assertion of imaginative possibilities as postulated by Verne, images of the serpent became a cultural sign of a variety of meanings. The sea-beast retained its mythological associations as a moral emblem, a creature of ill-omen, and there are several visual representations which stress its monstrosity. Gustave Doré offers a conventional interpretation in his treatment of The Destruction of Leviathan (Bible, 1866). The Biblical serpent symbolizes Israel’s enemies (Isaiah 27:1), and Doré depicts it as a version of the devil, thrashing around in turbulent water in echo of contemporary reports of the ‘real’ monster. He applies the same approach in his image of the Creation of the Birds and Fishes in Paradise Lost, repeating his version of the serpent as a be-winged behemoth, a creature as old as creation itself. Both illustrations stress the monster’s malignity, and in one of his headpieces for The Myths of the Rhine (1875) he makes direct reference to the serpent as the doom of sailors, showing it as a vast snake overturning a boat. Such creatures haunt Dore’s art, and he returns to them on several occasions.
Two more versions of the monster. Left: Doré’s The Destruction of Leviathan; Right: John Martin’s Goya-like take on the amoral, brutal, unthinking world of the dinosaurs.
These imagined creatures play on anxieties surrounding the unknown: though framed by literature, both Biblical and moralizing, they visualize Victorian uncertainties surrounding the bestial and amoral. In an age when Darwinism challenged the benevolence of God’s creation and palaeontology suggested that life was merely a struggle met by extinction, the notion that monsters might exist was a reminder of the fact that world was not necessarily bright and beautiful but a matter of animal brutality and mindlessness. This fearfulness finds vivid expression in the pictorial frontispiece, by John Martin, to Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea Dragon (1840). Martin’s design depicts a primeval past in which monstrous Plesiosaurs, their eyes burning like ghostly lamps, prey on each other; an Ichthyosaurus lies dead, being picked at by a Pterodactyl. Martin approaches the subject in his usual melodramatic and excessive way, producing an image of nightmarish intensity. It is supposedly an account of some unimaginably distant time, but bearing in mind the idea that the sea serpent was supposed to be a Plesiosaur it acts as a reminder that such hideous menageries could still exist, and that the world, a version of Tennyson’s nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as voiced in In Memoriam (1850), was still ruled by a predatory unknowingness.
By turns a creature of the imagination, an emblem of the unknown and a monstrous token of nature as primitive and devoid of spiritual significance, the serpent shimmered with connotation. It was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the embodiment of foolishness, ready-made for mockery: if the creature were not real, then the witnesses must be deluded, stupid, or plain gullible. Captain McQuhae of Daedalus fame was a particular object of ridicule. In ‘The Great Sea Serpent’ (Punch), Richard Doyle travesties McQuhae’s claims of having had a close encounter, mocking the captain’s report by showing his crew in ridiculous proximity; in one design the sailors are chased by a curling gorgon; in another they are seated on the monster’s back; and in a third the creature rises up to the crow’s nest. Such comedy forms a natural diptych with the illustrations in The Illustrated London News and completely invalidates McQuhae’s assertions, reducing them to the level of children’s imaginative play. McQuhae is also ridiculed by G. A. Sala in a design for one of his cartoon panoramas of the Great Exhibition. Sala depicts the officer in his full naval regalia as he directs a dragon-like serpent, its pointed tongue lolling ridiculously and its rolling back leading off into infinity; this is supposedly the Captain’s ‘product’ for display. The effect is again childlike in the manner of Punch, but points, rather more sharply, to the likeliest explanation for the sighting by depicting the coils as a corkscrew, an image that suggeststhe Captain’s report may have been a drunken hallucination owing more to a bottle of wine than to any real encounter with a strange denizen of the sea.
This approach is burlesque, but the serpent was also used to articulate a sharply-focused satire. In his Punch design of ‘The Great Sea Serpent’, Doyle conflates the revolutions of 1848 with the Daedalus sighting, exploiting the beast’s association with chaos and disorder to comment on the impact of violent social conflict with the mindless creature (endowed with the face of revolution) threatening the rulers of Europe as they cringe in a tiny boat. The monster’s assumed mindlessness as an unknowing force of nature was further exploited by an anonymous artist working for The Puppet Show (1849), one of Punch’s short-lived rivals. ‘The Great Land Serpent’ refigures the creatures as a convoluted train, its great jaws gobbling up the bags of money of foolish investors, rather than sailors.
Richard Doyle’s absurdist, satirical versions of the sea-serpent.
G. A. Sala’s representation of Captain McQuhae with a monster shaped like a corkscrew, complete with an ornamental head.
An image by an unknown artist, using the monster to comment on the railway speculation of the 1840s.
Such images furnish another strand in the monster’s cultural construction, converting it into a curious mix of horror and absurdity, something that represents a threatening unknown but was ultimately a product of an over-active or childish imagination. The serpent’s comedy turn, as a source of humour, had the added effect of domesticating its appeal, making it into a sort of knowing joke akin to modern representations of the Loch Ness Monster which show it as an urbane Scot fooling the English. The serpent was subject, in other words, to the parodic effects of the mock-heroic, reducing a monster to the small, topical, and/or downright silly. Indeed, it is interesting to note that even in non-humorous accounts the Plesiosaur/serpent is often depicted with levity. Representations of dinosaurs were typically anthropomorphized (as in Hawkins’s apparently smiling figures in Sydenham), and illustrations of the ‘original’ of the sea-serpent often ridiculously incongruous rather than menacing. Perhaps the best of these are images in Henry Neville Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters (1893) and Elisha Noyce’s Outlines of Creation (1858): the first shows the Plesiosaur as a ridiculous concoction with huge flippers and an overlong neck, and in the second, again, the neck is far too long to be taken seriously. For some reason this appendage is always exaggerated and a misrepresentation of the relatively short necks of the fossils; in fact, the real Plesiosaur could not raise its head high out of the water, and every Victorian representation of the living creature is inaccurate. All such fantasies are far from Doré’s menacing Biblical creature, McQuhae’s vast snake, Martin’s grotesque dream-creature, and Verne’s heroic gladiator of the sea. The Victorian sea-serpent thus collapsed into multiple identities, by turns suggestive of unknown nature and the workings of the imagination.
An illustration by an unknown artist showing a bewildered looking Plesiosaur, one of Hutchinson’s extinct monsters, all of them looking more like toys for the bath than terrifying animals.
Another version, with an impossibly elongated
and thrashing neck, in the background
to the title-page of Elisha Noyce’s
handbook on creation.
Taken as a whole, the serpent underwent process of taming, of translating the mysteries of the deep oceans into a series of cultural forms and assimilated into everyday life. Imagined purely as a serpent it became a popular motif in applied art, and the curvilinear shape of the curling tail was adopted in everything from fire dogs to furniture devices, ceramic tiles, pottery jugs, metalwork and jewellery. Art Nouveau designers were especially taken with the decorative potential of the serpentine form. The creature was systematically reduced and aestheticized, grim nature turned into culture, and converted, finally, into the refined preciousness of rings, bracelets and necklaces.
The Sea-Serpent Today: a Cultural Inheritance
Sea-serpents are no longer popular and no longer seen. The fact that the great waters of the world are crowded with vessels that no longer report such encounters reaffirms the beasts’ mythological status. Indeed, the sea-serpent discourse is yet another example of some of the absurd beliefs of the age – such as phrenology and physiognomy – which now seem startlingly naïve or just superstitious, the residue of a more primitive, pre-scientific mentality. But the Victorians’ obsession with gigantic marine reptiles did leave its imprint on modern culture. The serpent’s descendant is the lake monster, a phenomenon first established by the Loch Ness Monster in the 1930s and echoed in reports of monsters living in Lake Champlain (Vermont, USA) and many other large bodies of water in America, Canada, and throughout the world.
Viewed in a strictly British context, the monster of Loch Ness is a direct link with Victorian serpents and repeats many of its features, hardened into a series of tropes. ‘Nessie’ is often described as a Plesiosaur and the so-called ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ of 1934 appears to show a prime specimen with its head held high. However, the implausibility of the sea-serpents’ status as marine dinosaurs is equally if not more pronounced in the case of Loch Ness; apart from being extinct for millions of years, Plesiosaurs could not exist in freshwater and would not have enough to eat in a mainly infertile lake. To have survived at all would mean that many thousands of generations would have needed to have bred in the loch, but no bones or remains have ever been found. Needless to say, the celebrated shot was exposed as a hoaxer’s prank (Martin and Boyd, 1999), while similar photographs, along with film evidence such as Tim Dinsdale’s puzzling footage of 1960, are too ambiguous to be proof (Dinsdale 99–104; Binns 107–25).
The ‘Surgeon’s’ [Robert Wilson’s] hoaxed photograph of the Plesiosaur apparently living in Loch Ness
Of course, the many thousands of sightings of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ suggest an unusual phenomenon is at work, a process, perhaps, of misidentification of known animals or even evidence of an obscure species. Most sightings are sincere, and some are delivered by those with expert knowledge of the loch; recent research has raised the possibility of overgrown eels providing many of the sightings, and there are other possibilities. What we can say is that freshwater dinosaurs are illusions, no more likely to exist than sea-serpents, and the psychology of seeing such phenomena is no different from the mental processes of those who saw gigantic creatures in the oceans. The Victorians wanted to engage with the magical consciousness of a mythological world where science may have limited currency, and the same can be said of many of those modern ‘believers’ who want to see evidence of an alternative reality beyond the limits of the factual.
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The Day’s Doings (21 October 1871): 208.
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Secondary Sources, Cited and Consulted
Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Shepton Mallet: Open Books, 1983.
Dinsdale, Tim. Loch Ness Monster. London: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1961.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. London: Hart-davies, 1958.
Lyons, Sherrie LynneSpecies, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009.
Martin, David, and Boyd, Alastair. The Surgeon’s Photograph. East Barnet: Self Published, 1999.
Perry, Sarah. The Essex Serpent. London: Profile Books, 2016.
Created 26 June 2021