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Whaling in Whitby, Learn more about Whitby’s Whaling History

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In the 18th century, the whaling industry dominated Whitby. Many locals were employed in the whaling industry and areas of the town even owe their existence to this trade. In this article, you can learn more about Whaling in Whitby. 

In the 18th century, the whaling industry was definitely a dominating presence in Whitby. This is a far and distant image to the one we know and love today. However you feel about Whitby’s whaling history, it is thanks to the prosperity derived from the whaling industry that the Pannett Park area owes its existence. The grand mansions of Bagdale and St Hilda’s Terrace were built on the fortunes of the blubber business.

It is reported that during the lifetime of the whaling industry in Whitby the ships brought home 25,000 seals, 55 polar bears and 2760 whales! Here you can learn more about Whaling in Whitby. 

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18th Century Artic Whaling
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What types of products were made from Whaling?

The bustling harbour was known for the odious stench associated with the rendering of blubber from whales in oil production. The blubber was brought back in barrels and refined by boiling for lighting, soap, preparation of leather and other purposes. Even the fenks, the refuse of blubber was used to make manure, Prussian blue and ammonia. Most of a whale could be used. The tail would be used to produce glue, the bones ground down to make manure. Bone from the whale’s mouth was used to create umbrellas or ornaments and the hair of the whalebone was used as stuffing.

Why was whaling such a dangerous industry?

Whaling was a dangerous industry in which many locals were employed, the boats used weighed 350-400 tonnes and would carry forty to fifty crew members. They would also carry 25’ long rowing boats to chase the whales. Many boats were capsized, crushed by ice or men froze to death. Despite the risks, crewing a Greenland whaling vessel offered money and adventure to many men in the town.

The last Whitby whaler, the Phoenix, was decommissioned in 1837 and this was the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. The last whaling ship to ever return home to Whitby is said to have returned completely empty.

The Scoresby’s

There are two William Scoresbys, Father and son. William Scoresby Senior was born in 1760 in Pickering to humble beginnings. He was an agricultural labourer before going to sea. In 1785 Scoresby Senior joined the crew of the Henrietta, a Greenland whaler, becoming its master six years later. Whitby at this time was the epicentre of the British whaling industry and Scoresby Senior enjoyed fantastic success both as captain and Arctic explorer.

Two of the most noteworthy achievements of William Scoresby senior are the invention of the crow’s nest and the record for sailing the furthest North any ship had ever sailed – reaching latitude 80’30’, just 500 miles from the North Pole.

William Scoresby
See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1807, William Scoresby Junior was just 17 years old and already he had shared in his father’s triumph at sea aboard the Henrietta. Scoresby Junior was studious and hardworking and in between working with his father took an interest in meteorology and the natural history of the polar regions. He was elected to the Wernerian Natural History Society for his contributions to scientific knowledge of the Arctic. At 22 years old he was married to a Whitby shipbroker’s daughter and in the same year took the helm of his father’s ship, the Resolution.

In 1813 he established that the Polar Ocean has a warmer temperature at depth compared to the surface; one of the many studies of the region that so captured his imagination into the early 1820s. A correspondence with scientist Sir Joseph Banks was stuck up which hinted at the intention to search for the North West Passage.

Esk Ship Damaged
A.Constable and Co (publishers); Greville, R K (artist); Lizars, D (engraver); Lizars, William Home (engraver); Reverend William Scoresby (artist), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the search, Scoresby Junior fell into grim peril in a collision with an iceberg. His brother-in-law aboard the whaler, John, helped save and repair his ship, the Esk. Taking much of the catch as a levy for this act of seamanship. While away at sea on this mission William’s wife, Elizabeth, died. This news along with other circumstances led him to retire from his captaincy and turn to the cloth. Scoresby obtained a degree in Divinity from Cambridge University in 1825 and became a ten-year-man the same year, graduating in 1834 to become vicar of Bradford diocese in Yorkshire.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and published numerous studies including An Account of the Arctic Regions and Northern Whale Fishery, Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery, including Researches and Discoveries on the Eastern Coast of Greenland. 

The Whalebone Arch…

Have you even been on a trip to Whitby if you haven’t had a photo beneath its famous whalebone arch? Whitby’s whaling history is marked now by the famous Whalebone Arch. Successful boats returned to Whitby with the jawbones of their best catch hoisted on the lower spars, and a garland at the mast.

Whitby Whalebone Arch

The bone archway was erected on Whitby’s West Cliff in 1853 and it frames the ruins of the Abbey perfectly. While the Whalebone Arch is impressive, it is not the original and is actually 3rd to have stood in this spot. The bones were replaced in 1963 and again in 2003. After surviving decades of storms and gales, during the 1990s the arch was beginning to crumble. It was replaced in 2003 by today’s whalebone arch. The bones standing today came from a Bowhead whale that was killed legally by native Alaskan Inuits. The original bones are preserved at the Whitby Archive Heritage Centre.

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1 thought on “Whaling in Whitby, Learn more about Whitby’s Whaling History”

  1. So interesting…my own genealogy touches on the Boanson family of Whitby . They finally offed to Connecticut USA in mid1800s as whaling boat builders but Catherine, a bit of a wayward daughter mid 1800’s, married beneath her for ” reasons” and I am in her line – Smith.


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