Yeovil’s Giant Hay Thief
Taken from Somerset Folk Tales by Sharon Jacksties
In the eighteenth century, on the outskirts of Yeovil, farmers discovered that their hay was being stolen from the haystacks in their fields. It looked as though an animal, rather than a person, was responsible, because of the way it had been pulled out in great tufts. However, so much was missing - and from so high up on the stacks - that nobody could think of any animal that could possibly be the culprit, unless it were a bear - and wild bears had not been seen in England for about 200 years.
The farmers clubbed together to offer a reward for the thief capture, and some soldiers who were garrisoned at Yeovil decided to solve the mystery and claim the prize. As the thefts always occurred at night, they waited until dark to take up their positions near those haystacks that had been most recently despoiled. It was a moonlit night and they were confident of success.
The fields bordered the River Yeo, and one of the soldiers soon saw a huge, dark shape emerge over the bank and crawl across the water meadow towards a haystack, Frantically signalling to those in its path to stand aside, a couple of the soldiers shot it.
Great was their amazement to discover that it was an enormous eel. Doubtless it had grown so large that there was insufficient food in the river to sustain it, and, in its desperation, hay was better than nothing. It had been using its immense length to rear up toward the top of the stacks, where it could pull out mouthfuls more easily.
So great was the beast that it took eight draught horses to drag it back to the barracks, where a tree was felled for a spit, and the monster was roasted over two fires. Within an hour, every vessel in the neighbourhood was filled with the eel’s fat and a search had to be made for more receptacles. When the soldiers returned with these, the grease was running through the cracks in the door and over the threshold.
People said that it must have been one of the giant eels that could be found on the Berrow Sandbank. It had probably swum upstream from the Parrett estuary, and meeting the confluence of the Parrett and the Yeo at Langport, had continued to swim towards Yeovil.
There was so much eel to eat in the coming months that everyone grew tired of it, and even the dogs eventually refused it. The eel dripping sustained everyone throughout the winter, providing fuel for the lamps (bright, if rather smelly), and proving to be a marvellous medicine, an ointment that cured chilblains and the rheumatics.