When London was a whaling port —Page 4

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”.

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’.