Thursday, July 3, 2008

Whaling at Howland / Greenland Dock 1763-1806

The Spermecaeti whale brought to Greenland Dock.
London Magazine 1862
Nowadays the subject of whaling is controversial, with whaling quotas put in place and environmental groups campaigning to get it banned for good. In the past whaling was a very important industry, and the processing of whale carcasses was big business. The London whaling industry began in the late 1500s when Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to the Muscovy Company, which had originally been set up to trade with Russia, to hunt baleen whales off the coast of Norway, at Spitsbergen.  By the 1620s London had 12 whaling ships but by the mid 17th Century, after fierce competition, the Dutch fleets were dominant in whaling.

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
Arder Galleries
Whaling ships in the 18th Century were constructed with particularly strong hulls, weighing on average 350 tons, to resist the ice, which could close in and put enormous pressure on the wooden frameworks.  Ships usually set sail in April in order to arrive at the whaling territories in early May for the summer months and a season that could last up to 5 months.  Around Spitsbergen whale species favoured were those indigenous to shallow waters, which were slow swimmers.  Later, when these whale fields were fished out, whaling moved to the South Seas.

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
The main product, blubber, was rendered down to form an oil that was used to manufacture soap, oil for lamps, lubrication for machinery and as a cleaning agent for wool destined to be used for the production of coarse fabrics.  Some ships processed blubber on the ships themselves, rendering it down in iron vats and storing it in casks on board before moving on to hunt the next whale, a time consuming process.  However, innovations at Greenland Dock meant that ships based there could could return with the carcasses, and process them back at their home docks where vast boilers had been installed to render the blubber.  This reduced processing time during the hunt, enabling the crew to stow the "blanket pieces" of whale carcass and move on to find their next prey.  Up to 50 whales, or their remains, could be returned to Britain per ship.

As mentioned above, initially, the whaling ships operated in the Atlantic in the coastal waters of the Arctic around Spitsbergen (which was known in Britain as  Greenland). Later, whaling moved from the Norwegian coast to the South Sea, where the Dutch had begun to concentrate their activities.  The South Sea Company, tempted by import duty exemptions, financed 172 whaling expeditions from Howland Dock between 1725 and 1732, but these were largely unprofitable.  Whaling suffered during the 18th Century wars with France and America, when many ships were commandeered by the navy as cargo vessels.  However, the import of whale products recovered afterwards in the mid 1700s when it received government financial incentives to return more whales to the country, and high oil and whalebone prices also encouraged resumption of whale hunting.

Whale bone from Greenland Dock,
on display at the former
Pumphouse Educational Museum
(photograph taken with permission)
In 1763 the dock was purchased by John and William Wells, the family that had partially financed the establishment of the Howland Great Wet Dock (covered on a previous post). During the late eighteenth century blubber was boiled to make oil on the quays. The blubber was chopped up into manageable sizes on the whaling ships and transported into London for processing. It apparently smelled somewhat repulsive, partly because it was somewhat unpleasant anyway, but mainly because by the time it reached London it had begun to rot. Apparently the smell of the rendering of blubber at Greenland Dock spread widely, and ruined contemporary plans to develop an upmarket residential area in the vicinity.   Whaling ships were also refitted and repaired at the dock after lengthy seasons in the ice.

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

Dangers of the Whale Fishery 1820.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
UK-based whaling began to decline in the early nineteenth century. The years of concentrated whaling in Greenland had led to the near extinction of whales in those waters, meaning that the industry was at an end in that area.  Nathaniel Gould, writing in 1844, says that until the 1820s "about 1000 tuns were boiled" in Greenland Docks annually but that by the 1840s "none of the Boiling buildings remain;  some having been pulled down, and others converted into Grain Warehouses etc." Hunting of seal continued to be carried out from more convenient ports, like Hull.  The photograph at the top of the page appeared in the London Magazine in 1862, towards the end of the British whaling tradition, and is currently in the collections of the National Maritime Museum. It shows a Spermecaeti whale brought to Greenland Dock (courtesy of the Portcities website). Other species hunted were walrus, narwhal and seal.

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. 

To see the previous history of Howland Great Dock (which became Greenland Dock) see an earlier post:

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