When London was a whaling port

In past times petroleum was yet to be available as a fuel, and plastic had yet 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 their mouths, used for filtering plankton, is whalebone 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 thirteen 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.

Following the ‘South Sea Bubble’ fiasco in 1720, the South Sea Company was persuaded they could profit from the whaling trade in the Arctic. They commissioned twelve new ships to be built, probably at Blackwall and Rotherhithe, and a further twelve for the following season. Whaling was a tough business and required particular skills. Nearly a third of the ships’ crews were from Föhr, one of the North Frisian Islands, which were then part of Denmark. The Föhr Islanders brought with them expertise in whaling, with the remaining crew consisting of British sailors who dealt with general navigation. During their time onshore in London the Frisians may have stayed near the Danish church at Wellclose Square near Shadwell.

The South Sea Company’s vessels were based at the ten-acre Howland Wet Dock at Rotherhithe. It had originally opened in 1700 for the safe laying up and repairing of ships, particularly those of the East India Company. It was created on land inherited by Elizabeth Howland, who married Wriothesly Russell, later to become the second Duke of Bedford. During the 1740s the dock gradually became known as the Greenland Dock, the name it still retains today. The South Sea Company constructed coppers for the boiling of blubber to produce oil in a building on the south side of the dock. The building also had tanks for the storage of oil and cellars for baleen.

The lease on Greenland Dock was held by Sir John Eyles, at one time a sub-governor of the South Sea Company. Upon his death in 1745 it returned to the Duke of Bedford and was managed by his agents. The Duke himself had part-ownership of two whaling ships. However, he sold his interest in the vessels and the dock was badly in need of repairs so in 1763 he sold the freehold to the ship-builders John and William Wells, of the family who had originally constructed the dock.

One hundred and seventy-two ship journeys were made to the Arctic seas from 1725 and 160 whales brought back but that was not enough to make the venture profitable for the South Sea Company. Following the 1732 season they suspended the venture and the ships were auctioned off. The company continued to use Greenland Dock for the laying up of vessels involved in the slave trade.

Whaling could provide a good profit if all went well but was a risky business. Ships had to be specially built or strengthened for the work; vessels often had to be laid up and were unproductive between seasons; it was a dangerous business and many ships were lost at sea, often crushed by ice; profits depended on hunting success and market prices; and there was rarely a cargo on the outbound journey from which to profit.

The demand for whale products continued to increase but the materials had to be imported. During the 1740s five-thousand oil-burning streetlamps had been installed in London. To stimulate the rebuilding of a British whaling fleet the government introduced ‘bounties’ from 1733 whereby ship owners were paid 20 shillings per ton of whale caught in the Arctic and returned to Britain. For the next sixteen years between three and six independently-owned London-based ships continued to hunt each season. At least some of the vessels were purchased from the South Sea Company. They continued to use the former South Sea facilities at Greenland Dock for processing, with a charge levied by the dock’s owner. The Greenland Dock continued to be London’s main centre of whaling for almost another century.

The rotting flesh of Right whales caused a nauseous smell and the Greenland Dock’s location away from the city provided a good space for the messy business of processing. Ships’ harpooners were responsible for boiling the blubber to produce oil. When each batch was completed and casked it was inspected by the City Gauger who measured the amount of oil produced. Baleen was cleaned, bundled, and then lightered upriver to be transported to the warehouses of whalebone merchants.

The government’s bounty was initially insufficient to give significant stimulus to the trade so in 1749 it was doubled in value. At the same time there was a growing demand for oil and subsequent higher prices, and a decline in Dutch whaling. The combination of these factors ensured an increase in the number of whaling expeditions from London and other ports. In 1754 there were 36 independently-owned London whaling ships operating in the Arctic.

Sperm whales live in the warmer southern oceans and from them a much finer, sweet-smelling oil is produced. It created a lubricant that was necessary for the new types of machinery developed in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries and continued in use until the mid-20th century. It is still in use in some lighthouses. The fat from the head of sperm whales, known as spermaceti, was excellent for making the highest-quality candles, superior to beeswax. The measurement of light was, until the end of the 20th century, based on burning a spermaceti candle of a certain size and period of time. The secret of producing the candles arrived in London from abroad and they were being manufactured in the city from the late 1750s.

To meet the overall demand Britain relied greatly on supplies of sperm oil and spermaceti from the American colonies of New England. Unlike British ships, American vessels primarily hunted in the Southern Atlantic, initially from the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico, to the coast of Guinea in West Africa. They gradually extended their hunting territory southwards, off of Brazil, South Africa and the Falkland Islands.

An important London company in the story of south sea whaling is Enderby & Sons, famous enough that they are mentioned in the 1851 novel Moby Dick, written by the American writer Herman Melville. Part of the story features the London whaling ship Samuel Enderby. In some years the Enderbys had more than twenty ships at sea, probably all owned by the company, an investment equivalent to millions of pounds in modern values.

The association with whaling in the Enderby dynasty began with Samuel Enderby (1719-1797). He came from a reasonably wealthy family but began his career as a cooper, a maker of barrels. That led to trading in whale oil. From the 1760s his business was located at Paul’s Wharf near London Bridge. In 1769 the area was destroyed by fire when Enderby’s premises caught alight, including two enormous tanks and two lighters on the river laden with oil. After rebuilding, Paul’s Wharf continued as the Enderby headquarters. By the time of the fire Enderby was already part-owner of a Greenland whaling-ship. He also established links with American oil merchants and was importing spermaceti oil from Nantucket to London, which led to operating his own whaling ships from Rhode Island in New England.

In 1775 the government extended the bounty to whales caught in the south seas. The loss of the British market after American independence the following year caused great hardship to the whalers of New England and some of them, particularly from Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, came to London. Enderby moved his fleet of ten ships, wholly or partly owned, from New England to London and perhaps the whalers of Nantucket came with them. From then, encouraged by Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty, Enderby formed a Southern whaling fleet, hunting in what was then known as the ‘South Sea whale fishery’ or simply the ‘southern fishery’.

Voyages to the southern seas from London took between twelve to fifteen months. Blubber from the sperm whales caught there was rendered while out at sea. Without the need to boil blubber at Greenland Dock Southern whaling ships offloaded at any dock, wharf or anchorage on the Thames that best suited them.

Until around 1790 the Greenland Dock held a monopoly on processing on the Thames for Arctic whaling. That changed during the following few years when new facilities were opened at Blackwall. They were created at the yard of James Mather, who had interests in whaling ships operating in both the Arctic and South Seas, slave-trading, and transportation of convicts to Australia, as well as other maritime activities. Boiling facilities at Blackwall were operating from at least 1792 and were enlarged in 1795. In 1804 the lease on Mather’s yard was purchased for it to be redeveloped as part of the new East India Docks, although boiling seems to have continued until at least 1808.

Whaling was, of course, a skilled and specialised business. It was normal for a seaman to start in a junior position on board, to a harpooner, and then to a ship’s master or even owner. Their skills were sought by the Royal Navy during times of war. In the early 18th century there were complaints from the South Sea Company of their seamen being press-ganged and there were occasional battles between press-gangs and crewmen at Greenland Dock. During the periods of war in the late 18th and early 19th century whaling masters and harpooners were theoretically protected from impressment by the Admiralty, although that did not always stop them from being taken.

Most whaling-ship masters were London seamen, many living on the north side of the river around Shadwell, Ratcliff, and Stepney, some working in the whaling trade over several decades. It seems that the Greenland Fishery tavern at New Gravel Lane, Shadwell was a focal point for the trade. Others lived at Rotherhithe or Deptford.

The government increased the bounty to £2 a ton in 1781. London whaling expeditions to the Arctic reached a peak of 105 vessels during the 1787 season, returning with over 250 whales and over 8000 seals from around Greenland and the Davis Straits. In 1798 one ship returned with 36 whales.

The Enderby whaling business was continued by Samuel’s son and grandsons. As whale stocks were depleted in the Southern Atlantic, they extended their territory to the Pacific and Indian Ocean, with voyages that took between two to four years. To do so it was necessary for them to challenge the monopoly of the mighty East India Company to trade in the region. To maximise profits of such long voyages, in 1791 Enderby’s ships carried convicts to Australia on the outward journey. There was a temporary setback in 1812 when twelve whalers of the Pacific fleet were captured off Cape Horn by the American navy but from 1819 the Enderbys were whaling around Japan. In 1831 part of Antarctica was mapped by one of their ships and is still known as Enderby Land.

The early British whaling ships, those of the Muscovy Company and South Sea Company, were newly built for the work. Thereafter few whalers were built locally in Britain. Most had been built for other work and later adapted for whaling. Some were prizes of war, captured during conflicts. Others were former naval vessels, particularly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when many were decommissioned. Of great importance for whaling ships was to be strongly-built, with a large cargo capacity. A great strain was put on the vessel when a whale was secured and raised alongside, so it was usual for the ships to be strengthened before taking on the work. Double or triple planking was added to prevent being crushed by ice.

After the early attempts by the Muscovy and South Sea companies the whaling business was undertaken by independent operators. Some were individuals, families or businesses that owned several whaling ships, although many vessels were owned by a consortium, with each holding perhaps an eighth or sixteenth share in the vessel. The names Enderby, Mellish and Wilkinson were prominent for at least several decades in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some owners and part-owners had involvement in shipping activities other than whaling, such as ship-building, merchant ships, or chandlery. The Enderbys at St. Paul’s Wharf, William Mellish at Millwall, and Bennett of Rotherhithe were all involved in the oil trade. By the early 19th century some of them appear to have operated a cartel to keep wholesale prices high, reputed to be led by Sir Charles Price and his son Sir Ralph, based at Blackfriars Bridge.

From the 1730s trials took place at Greenland Dock with new types of harpoon guns fired by gunpowder. Some decades later prizes were offered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce for such guns and cash prizes awarded to harpooners who successfully shot whales using guns manufactured by Abraham Staghold of Stratford. The gun-maker Charles Moore of East Smithfield was awarded a prize for his improved weapon.

The Greenland Dock was enlarged in 1792 and during that decade there was much discussion about solutions to the congestion on the Thames, resulting in new dock complexes on the north side of the river. In 1807 Greenland Dock was sold to a consortium that included men of the London oil trade and they created new facilities other than whaling. The enlarged dock was renamed as the Commercial Dock, although the old name of Greenland Dock continued to be widely used. During that decade the Norway Dock, West Dock and East Country Dock were constructed adjacent to the Greenland Dock, primarily for timber, grain, hemp, pitch and tar.

From around 1802 the ship- and land-owner William Mellish was carrying out boiling and oil storage at his wharf at Millwall. In the following decade coppers for boiling blubber were also installed at the East Country Dock. Whaling gradually diminished in importance as the Greenland Dock’s activities in timber and grain gained in prominence.

A peak of the British whaling trade was in 1820 when there were 137 vessels but the bounty for catching whales ended in 1824. By then the Port of London was already crowded with merchant ships and had little need for the expensive, risky and messy business of whaling. Far greater return on investment could be gained from other forms of shipping. London’s involvement mostly ended in 1836 but it continued in several other English and Scottish ports that needed the business. The coppers at Millwall were auctioned off in 1838 after Mellish’s death. Those at Greenland Dock were gradually scrapped as trade diminished.

Whale oil was being replaced as a fuel by kerosene and coal gas and women’s stays were replaced by corsets that instead used steel ribs. Right whales had been hunted in the Western Arctic almost to extinction and as stocks in near waters were depleted longer voyages were less profitable for British whalers. Ships taking emigrants to Australia could return with baleen harvested by local ships in their waters. The British whaling trade declined and began to be monopolised by Americans who could more easily hunt in the Pacific. In 1846 there were only 23 British whalers operating compared with around 700 American vessels.

In the 1840s Charles Enderby planned to revive British southern whaling by using the Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand, as a base for the whaling ships and using other ships to transport the oil back to London. The islands had been claimed for Britain by an Enderby ship in 1809 and Queen Victoria granted the Enderbys a lease on them. In 1849 the Southern Whale Fishery Company was floated at the London Tavern at Bishopsgate. Charles settled on the islands that year with 200 colonists. No whales were found, however, and the climate proved to be harsh. Charles returned to Britain and the company was wound up in 1854. It was the end of the Enderby business and Charles died in poverty in 1876.

Sources include: Chris Ellmers, Janet West, Charles Payton, Beatrice Behlen, Alex Werner, Kevin Rielly & Guy Thompson, ‘London and the Whaling Trade’, Docklands History Group, edited by Chris Ellmers and Charles Payton; Bernard Nurse, ‘London Prints & Drawings Before 1800’, London Topographical Society; Dennis A. Hewitt ‘Greenland Dock and the London Whaling Industry’.