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From spring 2022, we will be giving primary schools the chance to bring Hull’s maritime past to life through the magic of theatre with our brand new resource, The Last Leviathans: the story of Hull's whaling industry.

Written and performed by Theatre on the Edge, The Last Leviathans is a dramatization of a voyage to the Arctic made in 1866 by the Diana, a whaling ship from Hull. We have been working with Theatre on the Edge to create a special pre-recorded performance of the play for schools to enjoy.

In this blog, we are going to hear from Barrie Wheatley, the writer of The Last Leviathans and Joint Artistic Director for Theatre on the Edge, as he tells us what inspired him to write about the Diana and all the work that has gone into making the performance ready for schools to enjoy

The cast of The Last Leviathans © Hull Museums.

I first became interested in the story of the Hull whaleship, the Diana, in 2013. I was looking around the Hull Maritime Museum and saw a glass case with a page from the diary of the ship’s surgeon, Dr Charles Edward Smith.

He was on the Diana’s voyage to Baffin Bay in 1866 - 1867 and kept a diary of the day-to-day events and experiences of the crew members. I did a bit of research and found the book, ‘From the Deep of the Sea’, which had been published by Dr Smith’s son and was an edited version of the original diary.

It was a tragic story. After being gripped by the ice in Baffin Bay, the ship was taken south with the ice floe.

The crew ran out of fuel and rations and suffered terribly. They eventually became free from the ice on March 17th 1867, thirteen months since they had set out from Hull.

The badly damaged ship staggered slowly back to Hull and arrived in Humber Dock in April. Thirteen men had been lost to scurvy and malnutrition, including the captain, John Gravill.

The event had a great effect on the people of Hull at the time. The story had all the makings of a great stage play. There was action, pathos, drama and this had all been brought to life by Smith’s writing.

The crew of the Diana desperately try to push sea ice away from the ship © Hull Museums.

I called the play The Last Leviathans mainly because the Diana’s voyage took place in the final years of the whaling industry in Hull.

In the original version of the play, I made Charles Edward Smith the Narrator. I dramatised the story through the characters of John Gravill, the captain; George Clarke, first mate; Bill Reynolds, harpooner and Joe Mitchell, cook, all real life members of the crew of the Diana.

We toured the play around the region: Grimsby Fisheries Museum, Hull Ferens Live Arts Space, Bridlington Spa, Hornsea Floral Hall and Hull’s Trinity House Academy, among other venues.

In 2020 our company, Theatre on the Edge, was asked to produce a version of the play suitable for touring to primary schools in Hull.

We adapted our original play so that it would be enjoyable to primary school children. In the schools version, instead of Charles Edward Smith narrating, the story is told through the eyes of a young half-deck lad, Christopher, a character that children can relate to. The other characters, Gravill, Clarke, Reynolds and Mitchell are still there and we introduce the character of a young woman who represents the women at home, who kept things going while the men were away for long months at sea. There’s plenty of physical theatre, action and some comedy, as well as sea shanties to keep youngsters involved.

The crew of the Diana welcome new half-deck boy Christopher on board © Hull Museums.

We had just got into rehearsals for the live performances when Covid-19 struck, which forced us to re-visit our plans. After much deliberation it was decided to produce a film of the performance for schools to enjoy.

I hope children will feel entertained by the film and learn something about the hardships of being a whaler and how important the industry was for the development of Hull.

Barrie Wheatley.