Exhibit of the Week: Polar bear skull - Scarborough Collections

Polar bear skull in the Scarborough Collections.
Polar bear skull in the Scarborough Collections.

The skull of the polar bear or ‘Greenland bear’ as they were often called in Victorian times may seem like an odd thing to have in the collections of Scarborough Museum but at one time they were surprisingly common in the United Kingdom.

During the 18th and 19th centuries whaling was big business. Demand for whale oil as a high quality machine lubricant and baleen, or whalebone as it was known, which had a variety of uses from corset stays to backscratchers, was high and led many British ships to the high Arctic.

As well as whales, polar bears were often encountered and the furs could be sold for a tidy profit. Bears captured alive made better money than the furs as there were always zoos and menageries wanting fierce animals to entertain paying guests. As you can imagine though, capturing a live polar bear is not without risk.

The adult bears can reach three metres (9’ 10”) in length and weigh up to 700kg (110 stone) and are immensely strong making catching them somewhat problematic. Strangely enough, the least dangerous way to catch a polar bear is when it is swimming. Ropes were thrown around the bear and it would be hauled into a barrel and iron bars fitted across the opening.

Occasionally the bears would break free. This is what happened one fateful day in 1878 in Dundee; the escaped bear made its way from the docks and was finally recaptured in a tailor’s shop where it had mauled a dummy and was growling at itself in a full length mirror.

By far the easiest way to obtain a live bear was to capture bear cubs. These could be restrained more easily and were sometimes even tameable. Indeed, Whitby’s very own Captain William Scoresby tamed a polar bear cub on a return trip from the Greenland whaling grounds around 1800. After some time in Whitby, it escaped into Cockmill Woods and Captain Scoresby’s son described what happened next:

“The incident soon became known at Whitby. A wild and dangerous animal now rendered supremely ferocious by reason of the almost perpetual teasing to which he had been subjected from his numerous visitors at large, within a mile or so of the town, and in a wood intersected by a much-frequented footpath, proved the occasion of great and general excitement.

Men and lads, assisted by dogs, and armed with guns and a variety of other destructive weapons, were speedily in progress, and with overwhelming superiority, towards the retreat of the bear, with a view to its destruction. Happily for poor Bruin, my father got timely intimation of the circumstance that had occasioned so much alarm. He proceeded forthwith to the oil-yard, where he provided himself with a short piece of rope, and then climbed the cliff into the wood in search of the stray animal.

Guidance was sufficiently afforded by the stream of persons flowing towards the place of his retreat, and, on nearer approach, by the noise and clamours of the assemblage. It was a curious scene. A motley crowd of men and boys and dogs formed, at a respectable distance, a curvilinear front, with the surprised object of attack quietly standing in the focus.

My Father, with only the rope in his hand, made his appearance. He passed through the ranks of the would-be warriors in the contemplated fight; when, to their utter amazement, and to the no small alarm of many, he proceeded without hesitation forward. Speaking to the bear, in his usual manner, as he approached, and walking straight up to him, face to face, he patted the shaggy neck, as he placed a prepared noose of the rope around it, and then quietly led away the furious brute, which, under his commanding guidance, became as tractable as a lap-dog!”

Needless to say, don’t try this at home!

Sadly polar bear populations are decreasing in number now due to loss of habitat through global warming and are classed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on their Red List of Threatened Species.

The polar bear skull is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.