When London was a whaling port —Page 3

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”.

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 Melville’s 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 12 to 15 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, advance 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 8,000 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 East India Company to trade on 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 12 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.