|The Spermecaeti whale brought to Greenland Dock.|
London Magazine 1862
The main shipping bases were established in the UK in Yorkshire, Hull and Yarmouth, and these were in competition with whaling operations from the Netherlands. Greenland Dock, some distance upriver towards London, was an exception to the usual location of whaling bases at coastal ports. All parts of the whale were used including blubber, meat, cartilage and bone.
|The Greenland Whale Fishery |
By Robert Dodd 1783
Each ship was equipped with up to seven rowing boats, which were launched for the purpose of getting close to a whale and harpooning it. Boats were lowered into the sea with considerable care to reduce any noise. Once the whale was harpooned, at the end of a rope, the boat would hold it and pursue it until it was exhausted and could be captured. This was a potentially perilous venture as the thrashing of the whale could upset a boat, and if the whale dived the ship was in danger of being dragged under. Once the whale was exhausted, its vital organs were targeted with further harpoons and when it was finally dead, a flag was raised to indicate that the ship should come to collect the remains. The carcass was cut up into manageable pieces called "blanket pieces" for raising onto the ship.
|Greenland Fishery: English Whalers in the Ice|
Charles Brooking 1750
National Maritime Museum
|Whale bone from Greenland Dock, |
on display at the former
Pumphouse Educational Museum
(photograph taken with permission)
Ship crews usually numbered around 50 men. Apart from the whale hunting itself, which could be very dangerous, and the processing of the whale carcass, there was a lot of downtime on board the ships. There are a number of sea shanties written about whaling, sung by sailors to while away the time, and like songs sung on other merchant vessels, they often capture aspects of what life was like on board. One of the songs, The Whale Catchers, was written by a sailor on board a vessel which is thought have been based at Greenland Dock (you can hear the opening section of it here, track 9 on the iTunes preview site). Ironically, given their subject matter, this and other whaling songs are beautiful if you like sea shanties (I grew up on them). The Last Leviathan is particularly sad. There's an article about whale-themed songs on The Guardian website and a paper by Simon Rosati from the The Ryukoku Journal of Humanities and Sciences Vol.36 No.2 (2015) (which opens as a PDF) at http://bit.ly/1Y6d4km.
|Dangers of the Whale Fishery 1820.|
Source: Wikimedia Commons
After the collapse of the whaling industry, the dock was sold in 1806 to a Greenwich timber merchant named William Richie, and from this time on timber became one of the most important imports into Greenland Dock.
The names of two local pubs retain, between them, an echo of the whaling trade - the Moby Dick in Russell Place and the Ship and Whale on Gulliver Street. The Moby Dick is a very modern building, part of the Russia Dock East development of the early 1990s and the building that houses the Ship and Whale was built in 1851 - both long after the Rotherhithe whaling industry had ended.