Leafing through Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette for 8 December 1878 the other day, I came across the following brief report concerning the hunt for a supposed gorilla in the Welsh marches.
CAPTURING A GORILLA IN SHROPSHIRE
For a fortnight past the district around Madely Wood, Salop, has been in a state of intense excitement, by the alleged depredations committed by a gorilla, which is said to have escaped from a wild beast menagerie travelling to Bridgnorth. The animal was stated to have first made his appearance in the neighbourhood of that town, where in the darkness of the night it was severally seen by a clergyman and a policeman, both of whom fled. It is also said to have appeared at several places in the immediate neighbourhood. A few evenings since the occupier of a house in Madely Wood went to bed at a reasonable hour, with the greater portion of his family, leaving his “gude wife” up, who took the opportunity to visit a neighbour, leaving the door open and a candle burning. Returning in a short time, she was horrified at seeing a bent form, with a goodly array of gray hair around its face, crouching over the expiring embers of the fire, apparently warming itself, the light having gone out. Too frightened to shriek, she ran to her neighbours, who quickly armed themselves with pokers, iron bars, guns, and pitchforks and other instruments of a similar character, and marched in a body to capture the gorilla. The form was seen sitting at the fire, but evidently aroused by the approaching body, rose to its full height and revealed the figure of an eccentric character well known in the neighbourhood as “Old Johnny,” who seeing the door open had quietly walked in to light his pipe, accidentally “puffed” the candle out, and was very near being captured, if not exterminated, in mistake for an escaped gorilla. The animal has not been heard of since.
Old Johnny and his humorous encounter make for an interesting story, and it's easy to see why the journalist who wrote the piece focussed on him. As published, though, the article ignores the central question of what became of Shropshire's mysterious 'gorilla'. The wild-beast-escaped-from-a-travelling menagerie is a common motif in out of place animal stories, as Mick Goss demonstrated years ago in a Fortean Times article on the mysterious crocodile of Cefn Caves - itself just over the border in north Wales. But it would be an ambitious showman who kept an animal as dangerous as a gorilla in a travelling show. Was there ever such a beast? Something else corporeal behind the story? Or is this a bit of folkore best classified with that other celebrated Shropshire 'creature', the Man-Monkey of the Union Canal?