Nostalgia: Fearless Whitby whalers

Whitby's famous whale jawbone arch on the West Cliff.
Whitby's famous whale jawbone arch on the West Cliff.

In 1720 the Cholmley family moved out of Abbey House to Howsham Hall, which the third Hugh Cholmley had acquired when he married the heiress of Sir John Wentworth. Nevertheless, Nathaniel (1721-91), the next male heir and last in the direct male line, continued links with Whitby. Henrietta Street was named after his second wife; Whitby’s so-called Town Hall, between Church Street and Market Place, was his gift in 1788 to the town; and as lord of the manor and harbour, he continued to levy port dues from its users, 8d from every English and 1s 4d from every foreign vessel sheltering there.

However, in 1778, a violent storm had unroofed the north front of the new part of Abbey House, which had been added by Sir Hugh (Tangier) Cholmley, and damaged its interior. Nathaniel decided to avoid the costs of repairing the mansion and left it uninhabitable. Instead, he spent his money modernising and extending his Jacobean hall at Howsham, adding stables and a Gothic water-mill on the river Derwent. After lying empty and derelict for more than 200 years, Sir Hugh’s Banqueting Hall has been restored at great expense by English Heritage and was opened as a visitor centre in 2002.

Two hundred years after Hinderwell’s time, no visitor could fail to notice that Whitby had once been a great whaling town. Close to the statue of and monument to Captain James Cook on Whitby’s West Cliff-top, is the unmistakable arch of whale jawbones. (The original 150-year-old bowhead jawbones were replaced in 1964 by new ones from Antarctica.)

Dutch whalers from Rotterdam had been harvesting eastern Arctic bowheads since the 1660s. They left home in the late spring to reach Greenland as the pack ice was beginning to break up. The whales there, estimated once to have been a million in number, were 20 metres long and called bowheads because their lower jaws were shaped like archers’ bows. The whales were valued mainly for their blubber oil, used for candles and lubricants, but also for their bones, which were made into everything from corset stays and fishing rods to watch springs and umbrella ribs.

The British government came to regard the whaling trade as a nursery for merchant seamen and shipping, so from the 1730s offered bounties of up to £2 a ton of blubber. The first whaling ship from Whitby to take advantage of the bounty left home in the spring of 1753 and the last set sail in 1837.

By the 1780s, Whitby’s whalers were bringing back an average of only about three of four “fish” every annual voyage, but from 1792, when William Scoresby returned with the remains of 18 bowheads in his ship, the Henrietta, he changed the scale of and profits to be made from the industry. It was Scoresby’s genius as a navigator that explains his phenomenal success. The wooden whalers were sturdily built, but carried little ballast and were vulnerable to strong winds and icebergs. The harpooners were highly skilled and fearless, yet they had to be very close to their prey to score killing hits. Scoresby invented the crow’s nest so that his lookouts could spot whales at a distance in bad weather. He also taught his crew how to free the ship from ice by rocking it from side to side!

Scoresby’s record catches encouraged other Whitby captains to follow him and Whitby shipbuilders to fashion their boats to meet the exceptional challenges of the Arctic seas. Whaling ships had to be extraordinarily strong to withstand the pressure of ice: extra layers of planking and baulks of interior timber, referred to as “doubling” or “fortifying”, were applied to the bows. For their prolonged voyages, whalers also had to carry extra stores and bigger crews. A testimony to the durability of Whitby-built boats and the skill of their captains and crews was that during 84 years only 13 of them are known to have been lost.

Once sighted, the whale was pursued by seven or eight men in a rowing boat and, if caught, struck by barbed harpoons on the end of long ropes. More often than not the whale escaped by diving deeply, swimming under icefloes, or overturning the boat and throwing the men into the water. Air and sea temperatures could be so extreme that men froze to death. Iron became brittle; even brandy froze. Frostbite was very common. If the return passage was delayed for any reason, the crew might die of cold, scurvy or starvation when they ran out of stores. At least, every authorised whaling ship was required by government regulation to take a licensed physician.

The rowing boats towed the dead or dying whales back to the mother ship where they were quickly “flensed”, that is butchered with sharp, long-handled knives. The blubber was stored in casks, the jaws removed, and the remainder thrown overboard. Whales decomposed rapidly and the stench was unbearable. Once the blubber was brought back to Whitby, it was carried to one of the several oil-houses outside the town at Larpool or Boghall, well away from residential locations!

By 1837, when the last two Whitby ships set out for whaling in the Davis Straits, the government bounty had ended, whales were far fewer and harder to find, and whale oil was being replaced by mineral substitutes. Whitby’s whaling history was over.

Whalers had gone out from London, Hull and Scottish ports as well as Whitby, but never from Scarborough. However, as well as the coal trade, there was one other kind of maritime commerce where Scarborough and Whitby were for a while rivals: the carriage of convicts to Australia.

The “First Fleet”, as Australians still call it, to Botany Bay in 1787-88 consisted of eleven vessels, two Royal Naval armed escorts and nine merchantmen. Of the nine, six carried convicts and their soldier guards and three were loaded with a variety of supplies, such as tools and seeds, for the new settlement. Two of the storeships had been built in Whitby in 1780, the Fishburn and the Golden Grove. Of the six convict transports, the Alexander came from Hull, but the Scarborough and the Friendship were Scarborough’s products, and the other three belonged to London. Both the Scarborough, at 418 tons, the second largest in the convoy, and the Friendship, also three-masted and two-decked but much smaller at 300 tons, were launched from the Tindall yard in 1781-2. So happily, for this particular and historic voyage of 15,000 miles to the other side of the planet, Whitby and Scarborough sailed together in the same fleet.