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”.

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.

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