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.”


  1. Beautiful mamals they should never have been treated like that, people were so ignorant back then. I really cannot understand them chaseing one with tugs only to leave it to rot after it died

    1. Certainly was a very different attitude then Bill.