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Legend of the elephant of Fair Green prompts study

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It helps to have the memory of an elephant when you are trying to remember an event that happened more than 70 years ago.

But, as the event was the burial of an elephant – not something that happens every day in Diss – it is perhaps not surprising that it is lodged in the memory of Colin Lond.

In particular, he remembers huge quantities of a “white powder” being tipped over the carcass in Fair Green and wondering why.

Pictured from left: Elena Damian (UEA), Lorna Baker (Diss Town Youth Councillor), Derek Potter (resident), Colin Lond (ex-resident) and Tim Edwards (Eastern Region Media). Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography
Pictured from left: Elena Damian (UEA), Lorna Baker (Diss Town Youth Councillor), Derek Potter (resident), Colin Lond (ex-resident) and Tim Edwards (Eastern Region Media). Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography

Of course, he now knows it was quick lime, used to speed up the decaying process.

The “legend” of the circus elephant which died - recently surfaced on local social media sites - with speculation that the remains might be under a raised area of the green.

The exact whereabouts may be pinpointed by a Time Team-type survey which took place on the green last week, but Mr Lond is sure the animal was buried where children now play on the swings. Mr Lond, 81, now lives at Wortham but spent his boyhood in the Stanley Road area.

Elena Damian with her radar. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography. (14251530)
Elena Damian with her radar. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography. (14251530)

He thinks that the death of the elephant must have occurred at about this time of year when he would have been on his school holidays, either in 1946 or 1947.

“I lived on the green in my holidays, playing cricket or football,” he said. “I can remember that they took the tusks off, and a mechanical digger dug a great big hole – it was very deep.

“Then a crane lifted the body into the hole and I wondered what this white stuff was. There was masses of it, about half a lorry load.”

Mr Lond remembered that the crane brought in to lift the elephant was coloured red. “I think it stood out because this sort of thing only happens once in a lifetime,” he said.

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, but it was not the only time an elephant from a travelling circus died in Diss.

Mr Lond could remember tales when he was a boy of an elephant being cremated on Fair Green and Diss Museum manager Basil Abbott came up with a reference from the 1860s when an elephant from Wombells Menagerie collapsed and fell in Denmark Street.

It was taken back to Fair Green where it was dosed with “cordials and restoratives” but died the following day.

A newspaper report at the time somewhat callously ended with a valuation of the animal, of between £800 to £900.

The search for the elephant:

A bit like Time Team but without the digs.

University of East Anglia student Elena Damian spent the week carrying out a geophysical survey of the green in search of the elephant for her dissertation. Her eventual results will be shared with the Fair Green History Group.

She used non-invasive GPR –ground penetrating radar – equipment, which is sometimes applied to crime-solving in the search for the remains of what is assumed to be an average-sized adult Burmese elephant.

As the elephant was probably two metres wide and four metres tall, its remains should stand out easily from its surroundings, she said.

The radio waves were able to read as far as seven metres down into the ground but, because there is no physical disturbance of the soil, there is no risk of disrupting potential evidence.

“The radio waves can read the different layers in the ground and, based on that, we can analyse and interpret what might have been there,” she said.

Her surveys quickly showed up two areas of interest in the centre of the green, she said.

If any evidence of the elephant – or elephants – is found, the geoforensics surveys could indicate how well the bones are preserved.

The green has a notorious history and was the scene of cock fighting and bear baiting in the past, centuries ago.

According to green co-owner Andrew Rackham, postcards exist of the green in more recent times showing where tin sheds once stood, while a local historian had records of a blacksmith’s hut, although he did not know its locations.

*This article appears in the Diss Express July 26 edition

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