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11th November 2020

Maritime Media Volunteer Janet Adamson helped document the whale skeleton removal. In this blog she reflects on the human cost of the whale trade.

Between the middle of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century whaling was a significant industry to Hull. Hull was also fairly dominant within the national industry having around 40% of the British fleet by the early 1800s.

In 1820, 62 whaling ships brought their catch of almost 700 whales home from their trips into the arctic seas and these were worth around £250,000.

However, as the city experienced in in the next century, the demise of this industry was fast and had a huge impact. In 1821, 9 ships were crushed in the ice, followed by 6 more the following year.

Whales became difficult to catch and the industry in Hull gradually ground to a halt to be re-located in Scotland. Along with protection measures and the gradual replacement of whale products in manufacturing, there was to be no resurgence of the industry as it had been known.

Standing in the Maritime Museum observing at close quarters the removal of the juvenile North Atlantic Right Whale, so called as it was allegedly the ‘right’ whale to catch, really made me appreciate the size of these creatures.

Side view of the Right Whale backbone
View of the vertebrae from above

Previously seen suspended in the air, viewing this not yet fully grown specimen at ground level was a completely different experience and it looked so much bigger.

It took four men to lift the head of this whale onto a trolley for transportation by the conservators and in seeing this, a realisation of the danger involved in ensnaring these creatures began to evolve in my understanding.

The uninterrupted views of the items in the museum in its current state and the time to ponder gave me the opportunity to wonder at how brave the whalers must have been.

Lifting the whale's skull onto the trolley

The whaling ships – for most of the time the industry was at its height depended on the wind to blow them to the arctic waters - sailed from Hull in February with their crew of about 50 men and they hoped to return in October, in time for Hull Fair.

The museum also holds the replica front end of a whaling boat – Harpooner 3. Each whaling ship had at least four of these boats, stacked up on board until the destination was reached and equipped with what look like instruments of torture and six sailors in each boat were despatched to hunt the whales with harpoons, secure them until the whales were exhausted, up to 30 minutes, kill them with a lance and bring them alongside. This was hugely dangerous They were then dismembered or ‘fleshed’, skin and muscle removed, and the blubber stored for processing into oil on their return to dry land. Whalebone and baleen were used for many household items from knife handles to bed springs and other by-products created for use in e.g. the processing of animal skins.

What struck me was the sheer imbalance of size of the skeleton of the whale and the small boat – Bridlington harbour has larger pleasure boats than these!

The Harpooner 3 whaling boat

In these small rowing boats, surrounded by ice which crushed much larger boats than these, and freezing water, with arctic waves crashing around them, these men battled with creatures hugely bigger than the vessel in which they sailed, so that streets could be lit, cogs lubricated and corsets fashioned.

The men stripped the blubber from the whales by hand, filthy, smelly work covering them in blood and oil and then they had to travel a treacherous journey home with the dismembered whales for company. Although initially, there was little money to be made, although this changed with government subsidies and changes to tax arrangements for imports making it more lucrative. However, many of the sailors lost their lives to scurvy, starvation and exposure, and in some cases the ships were wrecked on rocks or crushed by ice, lost with all hands

A huge price to be paid for little return.

Whaling tools inside the boat