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A Monstrous Commotion

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January 2020

Can you really believe what you see in a photograph? You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment. You might think that after the fairy photograph furore of 1917, which took in quite a few eminently respectable people such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the public would be more wary of believing published photographs. But no, if people want to believe, they will believe. Such was the fate of an infamous photograph taken on a Thornbury camera, as we discovered from Professor Gareth Williams in his talk to the January gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society.

A childhood hero of Gareth was Sir Peter Scott of Slimbridge, who pioneered natural history on TV. Gareth’s interest became focused in 1975 by a photograph in ‘Nature’ magazine, which was the pre-eminent scientific journal of its type. The photograph purported to be of the flipper of a very large aquatic animal in Loch Ness. Gareth was hooked. And so was Sir Peter Scott.

Now, it’s a dangerous thing for a scientist to get tangled up with a large, mythical creature. Dr. Denys Tucker, eel expert and Curator of Fishes at the Natural History Museum, had got himself sacked in 1960 for pursuing the Loch Ness Monster and never found academic work again. Nevertheless, in the 1960s Sir Peter Scott and others set up the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau. They used cutting-edge underwater cameras, sonar, a home-built submarine (yes, it was yellow), and an autogyro from a Bond film. At one point the autogyro was diverted from monster hunting duties to search for Lord Lucan. It found neither. The Bureau sank without trace in 1977.

So, what of the ‘Thornbury’ photograph? In 1934 surgeon R. K. Wilson, war hero, David Niven lookalike and amateur photographer, borrowed a quarter-plate camera (the sort that used old-fashioned glass plates) from a friend who lived at ‘Rosemount’ in Thornbury, and went on holiday to Scotland. He stopped at Loch Ness to admire the view and spotted a commotion in the water. He quickly ‘snapped’ some pictures, one of which became the iconic 'Surgeon's Photo' of ‘Nessie’ that you have all seen in newspaper stories. But there is a back story ...

It is the era of the Great Depression. Unemployment is sky high. Tourism is dead. But at Loch Ness around Christmas time all the hotels are full, and there are firework displays in the streets. Suddenly, everyone wants to go to Loch Ness. It appears that a certain author and sometime publicity man may have been commissioned to boost tourism in the area, and might have been in touch with a certain local water-bailiff and sometime correspondent for the Inverness Courier newspaper, which happened to publish anonymous stories of mysterious ‘sightings’.

Enter Marmaduke Wetherell, big-game hunter and big-shot film producer. He goes to Loch Ness and photographs a trail of strange, large footprints in the clay. Plaster casts are sent to the Natural History Museum, which unhelpfully declares them all to be the same, i.e. the hind foot of a young hippopotamus. Discredited and angry, Wetherell and friends plot revenge, sticking a plastic-wood head and neck on to a toy submarine to concoct photographs of the monster and contriving to get them published. And who were friends of Marmaduke Wetherell? Well, it turns out that a certain surgeon R. K. Wilson was one, and another was Maurice Chambers, who liked to drive around Thornbury in a yellow Rolls-Royce, and lived at ‘Rosemount’.

Oh yes, that ‘flipper’ photograph. Well, it seems that was a concoction too. The original underwater photograph shows nothing resembling a flipper, and it must have been doctored before it was published in Nature magazine. Many people have dedicated their lives to searching for the Loch Ness monster and, despite the apparent reserve of the creature, some still do. We wish them every happiness. It is worth noting at this point that the ‘industry’ is worth £27m a year to the local economy. Do I believe? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Monstrous thanks to Professor Gareth Williams for his illuminating and entertaining talk. If you want to discover more on the topic then get a copy of Gareth’s book A Monstrous Commotion. But can you really believe anything you read?


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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