Whales and whaling in London

Portrait of John Evelyn by Robert Walker 1648

Portrait of John Evelyn by Robert Walker 1648

June 3rd –  On this day in 1658 John Evelyn (see also recent postings on The Execution of Charles I and on Perestroika – and Peter the Great) wrote in his diary:

“A large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it … .  … [A]fter  a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood … by two tunnels, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.  Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin’d like coach-leather, very small eyes, great taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck’d the slime onely as thro’ a grate of … whale-bone, the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes … ”.

Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

Throughout history, whales have not infrequently ended up accidentally stranded in London as Evelyn describes, the most recent case being in 2006.

Northern Bottle-Nosed Whale beside Palace of Westminster in 2006

Northern Bottle-Nosed Whale beside Palace of Westminster in 2006

From the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards, whales were also deliberately hunted out at sea, and brought back to ports such as London, Yarmouth, Hull and York to be sold, their oil for lighting and for lubrication (and their bones for the manufacture of corsets).  The London whaling industry was dominated initially by the Muscovy Company, and subsequently  by its semi-independent subsidiary, the Greenland Company.

Greenland Dock (formerly Howland Dock) in Deptford, used by London whalers, in 1717

Greenland Dock (formerly Howland Dock) in Deptford, used by London whalers, in 1717

By the turn of the  seventeenth and  eighteenth centuries, its fortunes had begun to decline as it found itself for the most part out-competed by a Dutch whaling industry better equipped with specially strengthened ships capable not only of “bay whaling” but also of  “ice whaling” far out at sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields.  Nonetheless, whaling expeditions continued to be conducted out of London until the early nineteenth century.  The last was  in 1835.

Ship and Whale public house, near Greenland Dock (photo by Bob Jones)

Ship and Whale public house, near Greenland Dock (photo by Bob Jones)

One thought on “Whales and whaling in London

  1. Pingback: The Great Fire of London – 2nd September | The Lost City of London

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