During the 18th century, one of the most profitable industries operating from the small Norfolk port of King’s Lynn was whaling. Although the port never dealt with whalers on the scale of the East Coast ports around the Humber or Dundee, it still brought considerable employment and wealth to the town. It also bred an especially tough and hardy group of sailors, since catching whales meant sailing far to the north, around the shores of Greenland and into some of the wildest and coldest parts of the north Atlantic and the Arctic Sea.
The Versatile Whale
One reason for the profitability of the trade lay in the many uses that a whale carcass could be put to. Besides boiling down the blubber in huge copper vats to produce oil and grease – the first for lighting and the second for lubricating machinery – whalebone could be substituted for ivory in products such as cutlery, brush and whip handles and even parts of chairs. Butchers even used it for chopping-blocks. The baleen from the jaws of certain species made the ‘whalebone’ that stiffened the corsets of many an 18th and 19th century lady. The great jaw-bones were sometimes used to stiffen the hulls of ships; while any bones not suitable for finer uses would be ground down to make bone-meal fertiliser.
Such was the scale of investment in the whaling industry in the town, that the captains of whaling ships were offered bonus payments of up to 40 shillings a ton on their catches – around £200 or more in modern terms and a considerable inducement in bringing home animals weighing 30 tons or more.
As a further inducement to the whaling industry as a whole, an Act of Parliament in 1771 exempted whalers from paying duty on the catches, and gave their crews immunity from the demands of the press-gang during the whaling season (generally between March and August).
The whaling industry in Lynn never involved more than three or four vessels a year, bringing back perhaps 20 whales, plus a quantity of seals. The ships would be three-masted vessels of around 300 tons, each with a crew of about 40 sailors, and with their hulls specially strengthened to deal with Arctic sea-ice. They sailed out in March, fished in the icy waters off Greenland and through the Davis Strait, and returned in August or September. At the first sight of their return, the bells would be wrung from St Margaret’s Church and people would rush out to the river banks to see what the catch had been.
Of the captains and crews of the ships we know very little. Few records have survive. However, among those that have is mention of a Captain Cook of the Archangel who was saved from a polar bear by a sharp-shooting ship’s surgeon; Captain John Bains of the Experiment, from whom a single page of the ships log for April 1804 survives; and a Captain John Sanderson of the Enterprise, which brought back no fewer than 11 whales when it returned to Lynn in August 1818.
At the time, it was estimated that this enormous catch would produce up to 160 barrels of oil, selling for around £6000 (£650,000–£700,000 today), plus another £18,000 (say £2 million) from the remaining whale products. It’s easy to see how profitable the industry could be, despite the terrible risks and dangers involved.
Few Signs of the Industry Remain
Today’s visitors to the handsome town of Kings Lynn will have to search very hard to find any physical traces of this industry.
Until the widespread architectural vandalism of the 1960s, the Old Blubber House of 1775 survived at Blubberhouse Creek on the River Nar, which was where the carcasses were towed for the blubber to be stripped off and boiled down, doubtless producing a dreadful stench over the area! A 17th-century house, built for a former mayor of the town, became a whaler’s tavern serving the men from The Greenland Company of whaling ships, which was based nearby from about 1774 to 1821, giving it the name of The Greenland Fishery. It still survives in Bridge Street.
For the rest, any physical signs, like the industry itself, have completely faded away. I’ll leave the last words to White’s Directory of around 1840:
Lynn had formerly 3 or 4 ships employed in the whale fisheries off Greenland and the Davis Strait, but since the demand for oil has been greatly decreased by the introduction of gas, this hazardous, but often lucrative, trade has been here discontinued, though Hull, Whitby and some other places on the eastern coast are still engaged in it to a considerable extent.
- The Davis Strait is a northern arm of the Labrador Sea lying between western Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island., south of Baffin Bay. The strait was named after the English explorer John Davis (1550–1605) who explored the area while seeking a Northwest Passage. By the 1650s it was used extensively for whale hunting. ↩