When London was a whaling port

While ships left London to hunt whales in the oceans, the mammals occasionally arrived in the Thames. One of the earliest records is of a whale stranded on the Bishop of London’s land at Stepney in 1309. Another event was noted by the diarist John Evelyn in 1658, the creature having been harpooned below Greenwich. “This monstrous fish” illustrated above was harpooned at the Nore in the Thames Estuary in 1690 and landed near the East India Company’s Blackwall Dock. A large sperm whale was caught below Tilbury in 1762 and landed at Greenland Dock. It was exhibited there and for a while became a great curiosity for Londoners, although it was noted that the terrible stench of its decaying body was “offensive at an hundred yards distance”.

In past times petroleum was yet to be available as a fuel, and plastic still to be invented. Oil derived from whale blubber, and materials created from whale bone, were used instead. Sailing ships were sent out into the Atlantic to bring back the mammals for processing. For about a hundred years, from the early 18th century, London was a leading whaling port. Perhaps ten thousand whales and very large numbers of seals were killed and brought back to London during that time.

Blubber from Arctic Right whales, seals, and walruses can be rendered to produce oil that was used to make soap, paint and varnish, as a general lubricant, and for domestic and street lighting. The feeding apparatus from the mouths of whales, used for filtering plankton, is known as baleen. It is a flexible material that can be split, bonded and moulded and was therefore used in those products where plastics or steel would be used today. Larger bones became gateposts and arches, and left-over residues were used as fertiliser. Right whales were so named because they were the right species to hunt but were also known as Greenland or Bowhead whales.

In the 16th century ladies of fashion wore farthingales, a hooped underskirt that provided a wide shape to the lower body. The structure of farthingales was provided by whalebone. Hooped petticoats remained in fashion until the middle of the 18th century. Whalebone was used in stays, the predecessor of corsets, which were worn by women of all classes for around a hundred years from the late 17th century. Hooped bonnets were another item of ladies-wear that used the material. Other items that required whalebone included spectacle frames, whips, umbrella ribs, fishing rods, fencing, seat backs and bottoms, carriage springs, and combs. This all created a very large demand for baleen.

There are surviving records of those involved in the whalebone trade in London. They include whalebone merchants and whalebone cutters. Many were directly connected to haberdashers, other manufacturers that made use of baleen, or oil merchants. Initially these tradesmen were clustered around Cheapside in the City of London. Later examples were located further afield, from Hammersmith to Hackney but particularly around Covent Garden.

In the 16th century whaling ships sailed from several British ports. The first London ships to attempt whaling were those of the Muscovy (or Russia) Company, which was founded in 1555 for trading with Russia. Their yard on the Thames was at Blackwall. From 1575 their whaling activities were focussed around Bear Island in the Barents Sea between Spitsbergen and Norway where they had success catching walruses. In 1611 they sent two ships in search of whales but both sank and the crews had to be rescued by another British whaling vessel in the area. By the following season the company had received a royal charter giving them a monopoly for whaling by British ships in the Spitsbergen area. They protected their right by sending a small fleet of whaling ships, together with a gunship to deter interlopers from other ports such as Hull. King James authourised the company to annexe the island of Spitsbergen but that led to decades of territorial conflict with ships of the Dutch Northern Company. At the same time there was hostility between ships of the Muscovy Company and those from other British ports. The company declared bankruptcy in 1617.

Ships involved in whaling in the Arctic north off Norway normally sailed from London at the end of March or beginning of April to arrive in May when whales swam near the surface. Those sailing to the Davis Straits to the east of Greenland left earlier. During the early period, the mammals’ bodies were cut into large pieces on the decks of the ships at sea and then processed at temporary facilities on the shore. If far from the shore, processing was undertaken on the ship itself, which was a very messy and unpleasant business. One ton of blubber produced about 150 gallons of oil. Casks of oil and bundles of whalebone were brought back to the Muscovy Company’s yard at Blackwall. Seals, walruses, narwhals and bears were also brought back in addition to whales.

The Muscovy Company was re-founded in 1618 and sent 13 armed whaling ships to Spitsbergen. They were forced to leave by Dutch whalers, however, and returned without a catch. To add to the company’s woes, merchants from Hull were granted a whaling monopoly off Jan Meyen Island to the south-west of Spitsbergen, considerably closer to Britain. With mounting losses, the company was liquidated and its rights sold to the associated Greenland Company. An agreement was made with the Dutch for each to operate in different areas around Spitsbergen but the Greenland Company continued to encounter hostilities from ships of other British ports. There were continuous financial losses. To stimulate the trade the British government gave tax incentives and trade preferences but to little effect. The Dutch and Germans were much better organised and skilled, with between 400 and 500 ships visiting Spitsbergen each year in the decade after 1660. British activity ceased for the remainder of the century.