Thursday, 28 February 2019

Dead babies, the wrong grave, a costermongers funeral, parakeets and an oddly faithful cat; Hammersmith Cemetery, Margravine Road, W6


The remains of the late Mrs. Bland whose death we announced in our last issue, were deposited in the New Hammersmith Cemetery Ground, on Wednesday last. Great repent was shown in the neighbourhood of the deceased's late residence. This was the first burial in the new cemetery, which is not yet consecrated, so that a special licence had to be obtained for the burial. The coffin bore the following inscription Hannah, wife of Robert Bland, died October, 1869, aged 56 years.
West London Observer - Saturday 06 November 1869


On a quiet summer Sunday morning, 27th August 1899, gravedigger Alfred Beaven was doing his rounds of the Hammersmith cemetery perimeter. The first duty of Alfred’s working day was to carry out a circuit of the boundary to pick up the rubbish and refuse that uncouth local residents had thrown over the railings during the previous evening and night, especially on the Margravine Road side of the cemetery.  At about 9.30, in amongst the shrubs and bushes that bordered the Margravine Road wall, he found the remains of what he at first assumed to be a dead animal before realising, with a shock, that it was the decomposed body of a small child. He had done the same rounds the previous day and was certain that the body had not been there then. Someone must have thrown it over the wall into the bushes. The police were summoned and P.C. James Brown, constable 352T, was despatched to investigate. Due to the advanced state of decomposition he wrapped the tiny corpse in brown paper and put it into a cardboard box to carry it to the nearby Fulham Mortuary. Someone sent for the divisional police surgeon Dr. Edward Pattison, who interrupted his Sunday lunch to come and examine the body. He carefully lifted the brown paper package from the box and slowly unwrapped it. Inside he found little more than a skeleton with a few vestiges of decayed flesh adhering to the bones. He told Fulham Coroner’s Court two days later that judging by the size of the skeleton he thought he was dealing with a two month old baby and the advanced stage of decomposition led him to believe that death must have occurred four or five months previously. He could determine the cause of death nor even the sex of the child. According to the West London Observer (01.09.1899) the Coroner, Mr H. R. Oswald “reviewing the evidence, said that the child, probably illegitimate, had been kept after death, concealed until an opportunity offered itself of getting rid of its body by throwing it over the cemetery wall. It was, he added, impossible that the police could keep unremitting watch upon every street in the huge city, and such a thing might be done without great difficulty.” The jury returned an open verdict.
 
 

During hundreds of hours trawling through old newspaper reports on cemeteries I had never before come across a story of a dead baby being found in the cemetery grounds. It was even more surprising then when I came across a further two incidents of staff finding dead babies in the same cemetery. In 1906 a gardener at the cemetery, Charles Beaven, came across the dead body of a newly born female wrapped up in a brown paper parcel tied up with a boot lace. (Beaven? An unusual surname, but hang on a moment, wasn’t it a Beaven that discovered the first body, seven years earlier? Alfred Beaven. And wasn’t that body also wrapped up in brown paper? I feel a conspiracy theory coming on.) Charles told the coroner, Mr Luxmoore Drew, that the previous Saturday morning he had been cleaning up the rubbish and refuse thrown over the railings on the Margravine Road side of the cemetery. He said that cats and chickens were frequently thrown over the railings and that he had buried two dead cats that morning. He had found the brown paper parcel later on, behind a bush about 30 yards from the main entrance, and when he cut the boot lace holding it together, had discovered the corpse of a naked little girl. The police had been called and the body taken to the Fulham Mortuary where it had been examined, according to the West London Observer, by “Dr. B. W. Lewis, Divisional surgeon of police residing  at The Hermitage, Fulham Palace Road,” who “said when he saw the child it had been dead about 36 hours. He made an autopsy, and ascribed death to asphyxia. The jury returned an open verdict.” The third body was found in 1919; Police-Constable Lawrence, 1718, told the Coroner, Douglas Cowhorn, that he had been called by the cemetery superintendent to the West Lodge of the cemetery where he had been handed a green attaché case which had been purportedly found by a gravedigger (not a Beaven) earlier that day on at the base of a shrub, hidden by a slab of concrete. The case was badly weathered but PC Lawrence took it the Lillie Road police station before he opened it. Inside he found the skeleton of a fully grown child wrapped in a red petticoat. Dr Falkner, divisional police surgeon had examined the skeleton and told the coroner that he had concluded that the deceased “had been dead some long time and it was impossible to say the cause of death.” Once again the jury returned an open verdict.  


The Hammersmith cemetery, now generally known as the Margravine Cemetery, opened in 1869 and in November the recently deceased Mrs Bland was the first to find a new home beneath the newly laid turf. Mrs Bland was lucky; if she had died at any time in the previous 15 years she would have found herself buried in a neighbouring parish as the prevaricating Hammersmith Vestry couldn’t make up its mind where to site the new cemetery the Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852 required it to open. The 1852 act prohibited the church and local authorities from continuing to use the old overcrowded burial grounds and churchyards of London and obliged them to open new cemeteries in more salubrious surroundings. The slow moving Hammersmith Burial Grounds Committee considered many sites for the vestry’s new cemetery, including Hampton, Tooting and Leatherhead but finally settled on ten acres of land in Fulham Fields, which it bought for £600 in September 1866. Two chapels and a mortuary were built on the landscaped grounds (at a total cost of £15,104) and in November 1869 Mrs Bland was the first of 83,197 recorded burials in the cemetery. It closed for new business in 1951 and, despite vigorous opposition from local people, was converted into a garden of rest by the council. Most of the headstones and other memorials were either removed or buried and much of the cemetery laid to grass. The memorials lining the main path and other significant examples were left in situ and there are some interesting and unusual late 19th and early 20th century tombs including the throne of local undertaker James Frederick Fletcher, the bolstered and pillowed bed of Sextus Gisbert Van Os, and the bronze angel of George Boast. 


The cemetery was dogged with allegations of incompetence and mismanagement throughout its working life. In the 1880’s there were several  accusations that bodies had been buried in the wrong grave. The Cornish telegraph reported, in October 1880 on a “singular scene” which had occurred at the funeral of George Spong. “When the mourners left their coach, and proceeded walk towards the grave,” it said, “they were told there had been some mistake as to the grave, but notwithstanding this they proceeded, and the coffin was then deposited the wrong grave, and the clergyman officiating had stop the midst of his reading, as the coffin would not down. The wooden supports of the earth were knocked away, and the coffin was then lowered with great difficulty.  Next day it was taken up again and placed in the proper grave.”  In 1882 an applicant at Hammersmith Magistrates Court complained to the sitting magistrate about the conduct of the Burial Board. The applicant told the magistrate that he owned a private grave at the cemetery and that without his consent the gravestone had been thrown aside “in a careless manner” and the grave had been opened and a person who just happened to have the same name was buried there by the cemetery authorities. According to the Evening Standard of 21 August 1882 the applicant had written to the cemetery authorities to complain, asking them to remove his erroneously interred namesake and to compensate him for damage to the headstone. The cemetery manager had written back to express his regret  for the error but had not offered compensation for the damaged memorial or, more seriously, taken any action to remove the errant corpse. The magistrate was sympathetic but didn’t feel he had legal powers to redress the situation. He suggested the applicant consult a solicitor.  


 
In 1898 Mr Marshall, “a well-known resident of the trading community” according to the South Wales Echo, lost his son Bertie in a drowning accident. When making the funeral arrangements he selected and paid for a grave next to the well known local figure of Alice Upton, “a well-known visitor of the sick and poor.” On the day of the funeral there was such a press of family, friends and other mourners present at the graveside that Mr Marshall did not note exactly where the grave was. Going back to the cemetery on the following evening to see the wreaths he was furious to discover that the grave was yards away from the plot he had purchased and that several other graves “intervened between that of Sister Alice and Bertie.” When Mr Marshall complained to Mr Cockburn the clerk to the Burial Board he was blandly told that there was nothing that could be done without the permission of the Home Secretary as only he had the power to order exhumations once a body had been buried. Once the Home Secretary’s authority was received, Mr Cockburn said, he would ensure that the re-interment was carried out at once. On the rare occasion when the cemetery authorities managed to bury someone in the right grave, the manner in which they were buried often left something to be desired. In 1892 a correspondent who signed himself simply as Indignant wrote to the Editor of the West London Observer “will you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper to give vent to my indignation as regards the method of burial at the Hammersmith Cemetery.” Indignant described how he had attended the funeral of an esteemed friend who had serviced in the East, in Canada and in the Crimea as a Grenadier Guard. When the coffin was lowered into the grave it quickly became clear that the excavation was too small. The gravediggers were called who knocked away the struts holding back the earth but even this did not create enough clearance for the coffin to be successfully lowered. Finally one of the gravediggers stood upon the coffin and jumped heavily on it several times to force it into the grave. “I have heard that this has been done several times before this,” Indignant wrote before hoping that “the proper authorities will thoroughly sift this matter and prevent the same occurring in future.” 40 years later the complaints were still coming in. In 1931, EA Williams of 115 Fielding Road W4 was writing to the West London Observer again asking if “the Hammersmith Cemetery staff [had] lost all respect for the dead?” The correspondent had attended a funeral “never have I been forced to witness such irreverent conducting of any sacred service” he said. “About four minutes sufficed for the clergyman to hurl through one or two prayers and we were then rushed to the grave, where beautiful flowers were absolutely torn off the coffin and thrown on to the ground. Before the bearers could lower the coffin into position, much less mourners gather at the graveside, the clergyman was half-way through his “running commentary” and, not having heard half a dozen words the mourners were left alone, wondering whether those whom God hath called any longer command the respect of those who still have life!”

In March 1888 the West London Observer described a bit of local colour under the heading ‘A Costermonger's Funeral’.
The funeral took place on Monday afternoon at Hammersmith Cemetery Miles Thomas Magee, aged 25, a costermonger of Henrietta Place, who was found dead by Police-constable Cuff in the front garden of 8, Mall Road, the 4th inst., and whose decease proved at the inquest to due to rupture of the heart. A large crowd lined the Broadway for some time, waiting for the funeral procession to pass, and so great was the number of persons accompanying the cortege, which came along King Street that several constables were placed on duty to control the traffic. The coffin, which was of polished elm, with brass handles, was covered with a pall and some beautiful wreaths of white flowers, and was carried on the shoulders of four men, who were relieved at intervals along the route by numbers of willing helpers. Ten couples walked behind the coffin, and after them came six well-filled vehicles, one, a barrow drawn by a donkey. About a dozen constables were stationed at the cemetery, where some hundreds of persons had assembled before the arrival of the procession.  A disgraceful scene ensued after the mourners had entered the small cemetery chapel. In their anxiety to gain admittance a regular struggle took place amongst a number of men and lads, and when Mr. Bird, the superintendent, and a police-constable found it necessary to close the doors endeavoured to force them open. One personage, who was particularly prominent in attempting to open the door, remonstrated with by several females made use of bad language, then went away from the chapel door. The crowd behaved in an orderly manner at the graveside. The funeral service was read by the Rev. F. B. Grant, chaplain of the cemetery.

In 2016 the cemetery’s unique reception house was given grade II listed status. The octagonal building was originally constructed in 1869 to house coffins prior to burial. In a poor neighbourhood where residents threw dead cats, chickens and babies over the cemetery walls, the bereaved often did not have sufficient money to immediately bury their dead. This led to situations where the dead were sometimes unhygienically stored at home until the next pay day (or even longer if families were particularly strapped for cash). Edwin Chadwick in his 1843 report on public sanitation quoted a Whitechapel undertaker; “I have known them to be kept three weeks: we every week see them kept until the bodies are nearly putrid … and the poor people, women and children, are living and sleeping in the same room at the same time.” As many families in the area already lived in cramped and overcrowded conditions they barely had sufficient space for the living. The reception house allowed storage of the dead in coffins until the time of the funeral. The stone mortuary slabs on which the coffins rested are still there inside and the building is the last remaining example in London.


On the crisp sunny morning of my last visit to the cemetery a handful of ring necked parakeets were making a huge racket in the trees, intriguing the visitors and frightening the pigeons. For once I managed to get a picture. Not a great one, but better than my usual efforts. Let’s finish with Adele B. Campbell’s letter to the Inverness Courier, published 03 July 1891, about the cemetery’s cat:  

Sir, —I am a frequent visitor at Hammersmith Cemetery, and having noticed a black cat there constantly, I asked the manager for any information he could give. He tells me this cat has been an inhabitant of the cemetery for about four years. It followed the body of its mistress to this last resting place, and has remained ever since, resisting all attempts to remove it. The manager has very kindly had shelter provided for its protection from rain and cold, in a corner by the church door. Here it may be seen, when not walking amongst the graves—walking in a slow, grave manner, as if conscious that quicker motion would be unsuitable. Its answer to notice is a faint mew, suppressed almost to whisper. It is of singular appearance, being of brown shade of black over the body, with head of deep black. Upon the face is something of mournful wistfulness. Poor puss! Perhaps this look is caused by shadow of remembrance of bygone time when it had a good mistress and rightful place by a cheerful kitchen fire. One wonders does any sense of the sadness of the surroundings reach its understanding. With this strangely faithful cat rubbing against one's dress, one almost fancies it may have a dim instinct of sympathy with one's bereavement.—l am, sir, yours etc.., Adele B. Campbell.





Monday, 18 February 2019

The Lord Mayor of London and the Crook from Lisbon; Sir William Waterlow (1871-1931) All Saints, Harrow Weald


Breach of contract – The greatest damages ever awarded for a breach of contract were £610,392, awarded on 16 July 1930 to the Bank of Portugal against the printers Waterlow & Sons Ltd. of London, arising from their unauthorised printing of 580,000 five-hundred escudo notes in 1925. The award was upheld in the House of Lords on 28 April 1932. One of the perpetrators, Arthur Virgilio Alves Reis, served 16 years (1930-46) in goal.                    

The Guinness Book of Records (1972)

The rampant ivy which is gradually choking the churchyard of All Saints in Harrow Weald has obscured the name on the plain cross memorial that marks the burial place of Sir William Waterlow, the 1st Baronet of Harrow Weald, and onetime Lord Mayor of London. His funeral service took place at St Paul’s Cathedral, the King and Queen sent a message of condolence to his widow and in the House of Commons Christopher Addison, the Minister of Agriculture, expressed “heartfelt sympathies for the friends of Sir William Waterlow who died this morning and who had been acting in a voluntary capacity with such conspicuous success as chairman of the Central Allotments Committee for the assistance of unemployed workers.”  The establishment may have rallied around but Sir William died a broken man. His voluntary work on the allotments committee was a bathetic finale to an illustrious career which had ended in the ignominy of being ousted from his job as Managing Director of Waterlow & Sons by his own family. His fall from grace was the result of his gullibility in falling victim to an outrageous fraud perpetrated by a Portuguese con man, Artur Virgilio Alves Reis.
Sir William and Lady Waterlow, at his inauguration as Lord Mayor of London
Alves Reis was born in Lisbon in 1896, the son of an unsuccessful undertaker whose financial problems prevented his bright and ambitious son from completing his engineering studies or finding a suitable career in Portugal. At the age of 20, newly married and penniless, Alves Reis decided to abandon Portugal for the colonies where he was sure he would find the opportunities for advancement denied him at home. In 1916 he emigrated to Angola taking with him an impressive but fraudulent degree certificate from the University of Oxford Polytechnic of Engineering.  His impressive diploma, duly authenticated by a public notary in Sintra, qualified him in twenty one subjects including Engineering Science, Geology, Geometry, Physics, Metallurgy, Pure Mathematics, Palaeography and Electrical Engineering. These falsified qualifications helped him land a job on the nascent Angolan rail network but his failure to complete his studies meant that the engineering advice he gave to his employers was deeply flawed and generally contrary to the counsel offered by genuinely qualified mechanics. A bridge built under his instruction was considered so shoddily built and so rickety that it would be likely to collapse the moment a railway locomotive drove over it. In a risky moment of bravura he defied his critics, putting himself and his infant son on the first train over the bridge, which despite the dire predictions, stayed upright. The young engineer acquired a controlling share in Ambaca, the Royal Trans-African Railway Company of Angola, by the simple expedient of paying for it with a cheque for $40,000 drawn on a US bank. His account had less than $10 in it but in the 10 days it took for his cheque to reach his bank in New York by passenger steamer he was already in control of the company and its $100,000 cash reserves which he quickly used to cover the dud cheque when the frantic bank sent him a telegram. When Reis returned to Portugal he found himself under arrest and charged with embezzling Ambaca’s money. He spent 54 days in gaol as a result of the fraud but it was he was under lock and key that he came up with the even more grandiose scheme for becoming wealthy that set him on a collision course with Sir William Waterlow.   
Alves Reis in Angola, scheming to take over the world

With the help of 3 possibly unwitting accomplices, Dutch business man Karel Marang, German trader Adolph Hennies, and José Bandeira the brother of António Bandeira, the Portuguese Ambassador to the Netherlands, Alves Reis persuaded Sir William Waterlow to print 100 million escudos worth of 500 escudo notes, ostensibly for the Bank of Portugal but in reality for himself. Waterlow & Sons were official printers to the Banco de Portugal and held the original plates to the 500 escudo 'Vasco de Gama' note. Reis convinced Marang, Hennies and Bandeira that he was working for the Banco de Portugal on a covert operation to finance the colonial government of Angola by injecting millions of escudos into the economy – national banks call it ‘quantitative easing’ these days. The operation was, of course, very hush-hush and as an employee of the bank Alves Reis couldn’t be seen to be involved which is why he, and the bank, required the assistance of trusted associates. To back up his story he produced a faked contract from the bank authorising the printing of the banknotes. The signatures of the Governor and Director of the Banco de Portugal on the contract were copied from one of the millions of exemplars floating around on every escudo note of whatever denomination. The impressive coat of arms on the letterhead belonged to a Lisbon Sports club and appended to the contract were translations and testimonials, all duly notarised and authenticated by various public notaries and the embassies of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It was Karel Marang who presented  this elaborate portfolio of documents to Sir William Waterlow at the offices of Waterlow & Sons in the City and explained the sensitive nature of the business and how the notes would only be for use in Angola not in Portugal; once they reached Luanda, he explained, the word ‘Angola’ would be stamped on each note. Sir William was not entirely stupid; he was surprised at being approached by an unknown Dutchman acting on behalf of an old and well known client and so he took the precaution of writing to the Governor of the Bank of Portugal to make sure that everything he had been told was legitimate. Unfortunately he told Marang that he intended to do this and Marang told Alves Reis. By an extraordinary coincidence Sir William’s letter to the Governor of the Bank of Portugal went astray either in the post or in the offices of the bank and was never seen or responded to. Alves Reis in the meantime wrote his own letter in the Governors name, signature once again copied from a bank note, and assured Sir William that all was well, that Karl Marang was completely to be trusted and confirming that the bank authorised Waterlows to print what amounted to over a million pounds worth of escudo notes. Satisfied that this was a piece of legitimate piece of business Sir William filed away the fraudulent response and got on with arranging the printing of the bank notes.         
The Quinhentos (500) 'Vasco de Gama' escudo note printed by Waterlows for Alves Reis 
Alves Reis
200,000 bank notes is a lot of paper; the new notes were loaded into large trunks and shipped to Portugal as diplomatic baggage (via the left luggage department of Liverpool Street Station and The Hague). Laundering such a vast amount of money was a challenge but if there was ever a man who could rise to even the most testing of circumstances it was Alves Reis. His solution to the laundering problem was to open his own bank, Banco de Angola e Metrópole, and issue his fraudulent currency as business loans. He invested in his own account in property, jewellery, gold backed foreign currency and businesses throughout Portugal. The sheer volume of illicit currency in circulation and the business and consumer activity it generated caused an unexpected boom in the Portuguese economy. With 500 escudo notes becoming as common as toilet paper it was inevitable that rumours of counterfeiting would be the result. The Bank of Portugal took to having its experts examine new notes in general circulation but of course the experts always declared the notes genuine as it was impossible to differentiate Alves Reis’s crop of Waterlow notes from the Bank of Portugal’s own. The newspaper O Século became convinced that there was a German plot to flood the country with counterfeit notes to destabilise the economy as a prelude to seizing Portugal’s African colonies. The atmosphere grew more fevered but still no one could lay their hands on a single example of a clearly counterfeited note. Then in October 1925 a bank cashier in Oporto found himself holding two 500 escudo notes with the same serial number; one of them had to be counterfeit. It took until December for the Bank of Portugal to raid the vaults of the Banco de Angola e Metrópole but when it did it discovered more notes with identical serial numbers and the game was finally up for Alves Reis.
 When the news initially broke that Portugal had been the victim of a gigantic counterfeiting scam the scale of the fraud and the quality of the forged notes convinced everyone that only a government could be behind it. Some continued to blame the Germans, some thought it must be the Portuguese themselves and the Daily Telegraph was convinced it was the Russians. As Marang’s involvement came to light quite early on and was reported widely Sir William realised that the notes he had printed were not authorised by the bank of Portugal as he had believed. After a meeting with the Portuguese ambassador to the United Kingdom Sir William flew to Portugal to confess his part in the proceeding and offer £50,000 as compensation for the Bank of Portugal’s losses. Edgar Waterlow was Sir William’s cousin and a fellow director of the company. He was also an implacable adversary and when the full scale of Sir William’s culpability in the scandal came to light he wasted no time rallying the other directors to oust their chairman and get himself instated in the vacant position. Alves Reis was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the fraud in 1930 after a protracted trial. The Bank of Portugal took Waterlows to court in England looking for damages of more than a million pounds from the company. The legal action went eventually to the court of appeal and Waterlows were ordered to pay £610,000 to the Portuguese bank; the company never really recovered and after limping on until the early sixties it was sold to De La Rue who currently hold the contract for printing UK banknotes. Although Sir William was left without a job he had already been lined up for the role of Lord Mayor of London and he duly took office in 1929. He died in 1931, barely a year out of office, not exactly disgraced but certainly a humiliated man. Alves Reis served 16 years in prison and was released in 1945. Of the other accomplices only Marang had served a prison sentence, 11 months in Holland. Alves Reis lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity and poverty. When he died in 1955 he was so poor that he was buried in a paupers grave wrapped in a bed sheet so that his son could inherit his only suit, which he needed to attend the funeral of course.     
 

Friday, 8 February 2019

Whales in the Thames - the grim fate of London's cetacean visitors


The photograph above shows what was, alas, my only close encounter with a cetacean on the Thames. The inflatable sperm whale (it looks quite real doesn't it?) was beached on the side of the Royal Victoria Dock as part of Newham Council's Waterfront Festival back in September 2010. Some sort of storytelling activity was going on inside it. Unwisely I allowed my two daughters (aged 9 and 10 at the time) in alone accompanied by an exuberant lady dressed up as a walrus while I lurked outside to smoke a crafty fag. Soon there were muffled childish screams and shouts emerging from the belly of the whale. At first I was puzzled but then realised that the whale seemed to have a puncture and was deflating rapidly, trapping a couple of dozen youngsters and a hysterical walrus woman inside. Eventually bystanders pulled out sobbing children into the arms of grateful parents. Mine emerged completely unfazed - they thought it was all part of the show. I wasn’t much older than them when I had found myself up close and personal with a whale for the only time in my life; mine had at least been real rather than inflated polythene, though at the time of our meeting in the late 1960’s it had been probably been dead for the best part of 25 years. Jonah was a 70 foot long 70 ton finback whale originally harpooned off Trondheim in Norway in 1952 for research purposes. After Oslo University had finished with him the Norwegians stowed his gutted carcase on a large lorry and toured him around the continent to promote the whaling industry. At some point the carcase was acquired by an English showman who toured him continuously around the UK from the late 50’s until the early 70’s. I saw him in either Rotherham or Worksop in the late 60’s or early 70’s. He was parked on some spare ground somewhere in the centre of town, surrounded by canvas awnings, and illuminated by arc lights (we went to see on a dark winters evening). His huge mouth was propped open with a sturdy length of timber to show off its frill of baleen, his insides were dark and cavernous, easily big enough to set up home in if you found yourself accidentally swallowed like his namesake or Pinocchio. The sheer scale, easily as long and as tall as a single decker bus, was impressive, his distinctive ‘dead for a quarter century’ aroma unforgettable.  The fact that even in the late 20th century, someone was able to make a good living touring a dead leviathan around northern industrial towns, is a testament to the enduring fascination of these extraordinary animals.


Whale sightings in the upper Thames are unusual but much commoner say, than Halley’s Comet, which you are lucky to see more than once in your lifetime. In September last year a juvenile white beluga whale, soon christened Benny, was spotted sporting in the river off East Tilbury. Further sightings were made in Gravesend and as far up as Dartford and he became enough an object of fascination to spark a small tourist boom in Gravesend where shops started selling whale related merchandise and a local brewery produced a Benny beer. Sightings ceased abruptly on 14 December and despite the opinion of some experts that he could still be living in the estuary it seems likely that he has taken to open waters and disappeared back to his usual habitat in the arctic seas to the north of Norway. Benny is unusual, perhaps unique, in that he lived to tell his tale of a sojourn in the Thames; most cetacean visitors to London’s river do not survive. In 2009 a dead juvenile humpback was washed ashore at Dartford and in 2006, the Thames most famous whale, a juvenile female northern bottlenose, startled train passengers who spotted her sporting in the river as they crossed Battersea rail bridge on their way into Victoria. A media frenzy followed as news organisations from around the world recorded the last 48 hours of her life and the various futile attempts to save her by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue Team. The rescue team deliberately beached her near Albert Bridge on the 21st January, covered her eyes to stop her panicking and then moved her with a crane to a barge in which they intended to take her out to sea and release her. She never made it; at 7:08pm the medical team confirmed that she had died after suffering convulsions and breathing difficulties. The Sun newspaper later started an appeal to raise £10,000 to recover her skeleton and donate it to the British museum. A red watering can used to keep the whale wet by rescuers was auctioned on ebay and went for £2050. This encouraged someone else to put the whale’s soul up for auction on the site; “I was accompanying the poor whale in his last journey, and he handed his soul to me. He asked me to sell it, so I could invest the money raised in other bottlenosed whales," said the seller, who happened to be in Minneapolis. The priceless item eventually went for $1.  

It is a sad fact that the almost inevitable fate of any whale making its way into the Thames is death. Serious injury from shipping and beaching are the two most likely causes of death now but until relatively recently human beings were the most serious danger a whale faced. For most of our history Londoners instinctive reaction to seeing one of these marvellous deep sea mammals in the river was to kill it. Holinshed’s Chronicles records in 1240 "eleven whales were cast on shore and that one of these mightie fishes coming into the Thames alive was pursued by the fishers and could scarcely pass thro the arches of London Bridge; at length with darts and other such like weapons they slew him before the King's Manor at Mortlake whither they had followed him." And that, in a nutshell, was the story of almost every whale that chose to swim upriver from the estuary.  Another example comes from the diaries of John Evelyn in 1658;

3rd June, 1658. A large whale was taken between my land abutting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, horse, coach, and on foot, from London, and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats, but lying now in shallow water encompassed with boats, after a long conflict, it was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head, out of which spouted blood and water by two tunnels; and after a horrid groan, it ran quite on shore, and died. Its length was fifty-eight feet, height sixteen; black skinned, like coach leather; very small eyes, great tail, only two small fins, a peaked snout and a mouth so wide, that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but sucked the slime only as through a grate of that bone which we call whalebone; the throat yet so narrow, as would not have admitted the least of fishes. The extremes of the cetaceous bones hang downward from the upper jaw, and are hairy toward the ends and bottom within side: all of it prodigious; but in nothing more wonderful than that an animal of so great a bulk should be nourished only by slime through those grates.


In October 1842 the Illustrated London News reported the fate of a another rorqual whale at Deptford;

On Sunday afternoon, between four and five o'clock, several watermen on duty at Bellwater-gate, near the Deptford pier, observed a huge dark substance projecting above the surface of the river. The animal was moving down the river between the pier and the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital-ship. Five of them put off in their boat, and one of them, armed with a large bearded spear, commenced the attack upon the monster, which soon showed symptoms of weakness, and threw up large quantities of water from the aperture on its back. The other boats surrounded the animal and pushed it along with their boat-hooks close under the pier, where they finally despatched him, and with strong cords and pullies raised him, with much difficulty, upon the pier. In a short time afterwards such immense numbers of persons congregated to gratify their curiosity, that Mr John Taylor, the high constable of Deptford, was compelled to call for the aid of the 11 division of the police to keep order. The fortunate captors, having measured him, state that his total length is 14 feet 6 inches, and that he weighs about two tons. His mouth is 3 feet 10 inches long, and his tail measures the same length from point to point. (The following sketch of the monster was taken by our artist on the spot.) At daybreak on Monday morning, a large number of carriages being procured, this enormous fish was, after great labour and time, removed, and secured by chains to it, and conveyed, by means o f several horses, to the premises adjoining Mr. Williams’s, the Ball and Butcher, Old King street, and placed upon a stand erected for the purpose. The animal is what is known by persons accustomed to the whale fishery as a fin hack or fin fish. ... He is supposed to have gone blind in the river while in pursuit of herrings.


The English surgeon, zoologist, popular author and natural historian Frank Buckland reports on several London whales in his Curiosities of Natural History. One was a 48 foot long young female Rorqual beached at Winterton near Great Yarmouth during a gale and subsequently brought to Whitechapel and exhibited on the Mile End Road:

In the month of March, 1857, there appeared in the Times an advertisement for a vacant bit of ground whereon a whale might be exhibited. I watched anxiously for the result, and with success; for shortly I read another notice to the effect that the whale had arrived, and was now in the Mile-End Road, Whitechapel, near the King Henry the Eighth public-house. That same day found me on the top of a Bow and Stratford onmnibus, the conductor promising to set me down "at the whale." The admission fee of sixpence being paid, I entered a tent, and for the first time in my life enjoyed a full and uninterrupted view of the monster. I had expected to have seen a skeleton; but, instead, the proprietor has preserved, stretched on a framework, the skin entire. The head remains attached with the bones, whalebone and all complete; so that it was a stuffed whale I went to see, and not a skeleton-none the less interesting for that. It rarely happens that Londoners have a chance of seeing a specimen of the largest animal in creation. Pictures certainly convey an idea in a whale; but to have a notion of its huge bulk, the thing itself must be seen extended on the ground, examined by the eyes, and felt by the fingers... The liver of this animal completely filled a one-horse cart, and was as much as the horse could draw. The heart about filled a good-sized washing-tub, and a section of the principal artery (the aorta) would about fit round an ordinary sized bucket. The weight of the blubber was not ascertained. It seems extraordinary that the captors were not aware of the value of the oil; for they cut the great masses of the blubber off, and spread it as manure over the fields.

Buckland was very taken with the whale and determined to get hold of the head as a specimen;

I was exceedingly anxious to obtain the head of the Whitechapel whale, particularly as the whalebone, or baleen was in good condition. Knowing that the proprietor set great store on his acquisition, I approached the subject carefully, and was not surprised when he asked £25 for his whale. It happened to be very warm weather just then, and when I was inside the whale's mouth I had observed that none of the bones of the head were in any way cleaned, or otherwise preserved, but still remained full of oil, &c. which, as a matter of course, I knew would soon become so offensive through the weather, that the proprietor would be only too glad to get rid of it at any price. It was only, therefore, necessary to bide one's time. My conjectures proved correct: in a week or so a letter came to Professor Quekett from the whale proprietor, offering to take less money; and as time advanced, and as the whale became more and more offensive, so did the price of the whale get less and less, the result being, that Professor Quekett, at the College one morning, received the whale's head, packed up in a large box, and sent back a cheque for £5 only, instead of the £25 originally demanded.

My favourite Buckland whale story though concerns an accident which befell William Clift, assistant to John Hunter the great surgeon who was fascinated by whales and despatched his aide to examine and report back on a dead rorqual on the Isle of Dogs;

Some years before I was born, a large whale was caught at the Nore, and towed up to London Bridge, the Lord Mayor having claimed it When it had been at London Bridge some little time, the Government sent a notice to say the whale belonged to them. 

Upon which the Lord Mayor sent answer, “Well, if the ‘whale belongs to you, I order you to remove it immediately from London Bridge.” The whale was therefore towed downstream again to the Isle of Dogs, below Greenwich. The late Mr. Clift, the energetic and talented assistant of his great master, John Hunter, went down to see it He found it on the shore, with its huge mouth propped open with poles. In his eagerness to examine the internal parts of the mouth, Mr. Clift stepped inside the mouth, between the lower jaws, where the tongue is situated. This tongue is a huge spongy mass, and being at that time exceedingly soft from exposure to air, gave way like a bog, at the same time he slipped forwards towards the whale’s gullet nearly as far as he could go. Poor Mr. Clift was in a really dangerous predicament; he sank lower and lower into the substance of the tongue and gullet, till he nearly disappeared altogether. He was short in stature, and in a few seconds would, doubtless, have lost his life in the horrible oily mass, had not assistance been quickly afforded him. It was with great difficulty that a boat hook was put in requisition, and the good little man hauled out of the whale’s tongue.


And finally, not far from where we started on the Royal Victoria Dock, a 66 foot 30 ton bottlenose whale appeared in the river just off the Woolwich Arsenal in November 1899. The Bromyard News of 30 November reported that “it is not often that the Thames is the scene of a whale hunt, and if local whale-lore is reliable, the latest catch was the biggest on record.” It went on to describe the death of this splendid animal in horrific detail;

The stretch of the river called Gallions Reach, which runs from Albert Docks to Barking Creek, was the scene of the great whale's final proofing and death. It was soon after nine o'clock es Monday morning that there rose the inspiriting cry of " A whale, a whale !" from the coaling jetty belonging to Messrs. Corey, hard by the entrance to Albert Dock basin. tor four hours the tugs of the lower reaches chased the visitor from Trip Cock Point to Silvertown Petroleum Works, and the whale responding by whisking his tail vigorously. and drenching the whale-hunters with dirty Thames water. It was, according to report, an exciting struggle, at the end of which—about one o'clock—the whale, being headed off by a tug, ran on to the hank on the Arsenal shore, and then died of disappointment. He gave a magnificent spouting exhibition just before the end. Onlookers estimated the spout of water as forty or fifty feet high. Scores of people put off in boats and tugs to look at him. In the afternoon someone hitched a chain round his tail, to hold him when the tide ran, and it was decided to tow him up on the tide to the Barge House, Woolwich, where he may be dry-docked and exhibited to-day. It was suggested that for a few days the monster should be exhibited at a small fee for the benefit of a local hospital or the Soldiers' Families' Fund. While this was being discussed a score of rivermen got jack-knives to work, and took home whale-tail steak for tea.

The whale was indeed put on display and a few days later a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph & Courier;

Sir—we have great pleasure in handing you herewith our cheque for £8, and may state the amount is the entire proceeds of the small charge made by us for admission to our Barge House Wharf, North Woolwich, to view the whale lately stranded there. Unfortunately, the same evening the carcass was removed, otherwise we had hoped to make a remittance much more substantial. We informed all comers that the sum collected would be handed to the War Fund, and we should feel indebted to you if you would kindly acknowledge the receipt to bear out the truth of our announcement. With every good wish to your deserving and successful Fund.— we are Sir, your obedient servants. J. H. SANKEY and SON. Canning Town, E-. Dec. 1.

A report on the North Woolwich whale by the Essex Field Club mentions some harrowing details generally missing from other accounts. “On the Wednesday,” it says “the mammal, which had been rapidly decomposing, burst, and disclosed two calves. Some men slit the body open and delivered the young ones, one living about 20 minutes and the other only a very short time. During the night one was stolen, but one remained on exhibition with its mother. It measured 17ft  with a girth of 7 feet.”