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Le Werwolf, by Félicien Rops.

A cannibal werewolf ‘lived on Read’s Island in the River Humber’

Look out Old Stinker: an obscure legend suggests Hull’s infamous werewolf may have a rival.

The story goes that, many moons ago, a vagabond set up home on lonely Read’s Island, in the Humber Estuary, and scraped a living as a ferryman.

At that time, scores of people from the district went missing in mysterious circumstances.

The vagabond came under suspicion and, acting on information from his passengers, the authorities raided his pitiful shack and discovered piles of skeletons and bones.

He was arrested and accused of cannibalism, but at his trial he transformed into a howling werewolf.

A woodcut of a werewolf by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553).
A woodcut of a werewolf by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553).

Folklorist Daniel Codd recounts the tantalising tale, which was said to have happened “about 400 years ago”, in his excellent book Mysterious Lincolnshire. It was passed on to him by a friend who had heard it at the University of Hull.

Today, Read’s Island is a waterlogged stretch of reclaimed land, separated from South Ferriby by the Humber’s south channel. It is best-known for its wildlife, including fallow deer and many species of birds.

History of Read’s Island

Even without tales of cannibals and wolfmen, Read’s Island has a fascinating history of its own.

It has been used by farmers since at least the late 18th century, when grass was seen growing on a large sandbank variously known as Ferriby Sands, Old Warp or “Pudding Pie Sand”. Shipwrecks and, later, manmade walls helped reclaim more land and by the late 19th century it measured almost 500 acres. Since then, the island has declined to less than half that size.

Read’s Island takes its name from a former owner, “Dicky” Read, of Burton Stather. In the 1840s, he initially enclosed an area of 96 acres and then created dykes, catch-water drains and ponds. He built a log hut for the resident herdsman.

Read's Island is about 50 metres off-shore in the Humber Estuary. (Picture from Google Maps)
Read’s Island is about 50 metres off-shore in the Humber Estuary. (Picture from Google Maps)

In 1841, newspapers reported on the progress of the island, which had been visited by several steamers and members of the gentry. “The surface is covered with a fine crop of grass, and about a hundred head of cattle are already feeding where nothing but fishes fed before. There is, as yet, but one house, the occupier of which is the person appointed to look after the rest of the inhabitants.”

Tragically, Read’s son died in 1844 while travelling to the island with two companions, when their boat capsized in strong winds.

The island was vulnerable to flooding: in 1845, about 60 sheep drowned when the land was inundated by an exceptionally high tide.

A bizarre accident happened in 1920 when the island’s keeper, a Mr Hartley, had to have a finger amputated when a gun backfired in his hand. By then the island was said to include 1,000 acres, two houses and three inhabitants. A fresh water well had been dug and the tenants used a megaphone to communicate with villages in South Ferriby.

Read's Island by Jonathan Thacker / Geograph - CC-2.0
Read’s Island, looking towards the Humber Bridge, by Jonathan Thacker / Geograph – CC-2.0

During the First World War, German prisoners were used to strengthen the flood defences but they gave way again in 1921 when the island was “practically underwater”, according to a report in the Hull Daily Mail.

In the Second World War, a German V1 rocket crashed into a bank on the island during an attack intended for Manchester.

The island is now an RSPB reserve.

An older legend?

Old Stinker, the werewolf that blazed across newspaper headlines when “spotted” in Hull a few years ago, was traditionally supposed to roam the Yorkshire Wolds.

Another famous monster, the Werewolf of Dogdyke, was said to haunt the Lincolnshire Fens to the south.

While it seems unlikely that Read’s Island, or the sandbank that eventually formed it, could have supported human habitation 400 years ago, the story may be a surviving legend of a wolfman that once stalked the wild marshes along the Humber bank.

Le Werwolf by Felicien Rops (1833-1898)
Le Werwolf by Felicien Rops (1833-1898)

According to Daniel Codd’s tale, the werewolf of Read’s Island was eventually dragged off into the countryside and hanged.

He speculates that the legend may have been invented by villagers to scare their children into being good.

That may well be true … but perhaps just don’t walk the Humber bank when there’s a full moon.

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