Hartlepool and the legend of the 6,000-year-old toad

St Hilda's Church - spiritual home of "eminent geologist" Reverend Robert Taylor in 1865 - can be seen in the background of the scene of old Hartlepool.
St Hilda's Church - spiritual home of "eminent geologist" Reverend Robert Taylor in 1865 - can be seen in the background of the scene of old Hartlepool.

Hartlepool may have found enduring fame thanks to a monkey-hanging legend - but the town can also boast an ancient “barking toad” among its beastly tales.

“The critter – which some claimed was over 6,000 years old – made headlines after being found alive inside a solid piece of stone,” said historian Bill Hawkins.

Some scientists pooh-poohed the idea that the Hartlepool toad was anything special, or indeed that it ever existed. But the legend of the 6,000-year-old toad lives on.

Local historian Bill Hawkins.

“Sadly, such was the interest in the toad that some over-enthusiastic sightseers apparently crushed it to death by accident just a few weeks later.”

It was on April 7, 1865, that workmen excavating Dyke House Quarry – as part of a project for Hartlepool Waterworks – came across the ancient amphibian.

“It was embedded in a block of magnesian limestone, very much alive, at a depth of 25ft from any spring-water vein,” reported a local newspaper.

“The block of stone had been cut by a wedge, and was being reduced by the workmen, when a pick split open the cavity in which the toad had been incarcerated.

“The cavity was no larger than its body, and presented the appearance of being an exact cast of it. Despite this, the toad was alive – and appeared to be well.”

Indeed, once liberated, the toad was “full of vivacity”. But, when the creature tried to breathe in some fresh air, it made a barking noise instead.

“Apparently this miracle creature also barked whenever somebody touched it – and its eyes shone with ‘unusual brilliance’ as well,” said Bill.

“It was the same colour as limestone when first found, but turned olive green. For some reason, its mouth was sealed shut – so it barked through its nostrils.”

Reverend Robert Taylor, an “eminent local geologist” living at St Hilda’s Parsonage, was called to the scene to give his opinion on the situation.

After examining the toad – which had hind claws much longer than common British toads – the vicar concluded “it must be at least 6,000 years old”.

News of the discovery made headlines nationwide and, when the toad was put on show in an aquarium at Hartlepool Museum, it attracted thousands of visitors.

The antiquated amphibian did not have long, however, to enjoy its fame. Indeed, on June 30 it perished – due to “accidental injuries inflicted by visitors”.

“The geological world will be sorry to hear that the remarkable toad found embedded in rock has expired,” reported one paper.

Just a few weeks later, miners found a live toad embedded in coal in the Hutton seam at Sherburn West Pit – but it never became as famous as the Hartlepool one.

“Some scientists pooh-poohed the idea that the Hartlepool toad was anything special, or indeed that it ever existed. But the legend of the 6,000-year-old toad lives on,” added Bill.