Saturday 23 March 2013

London Whaling Conference - Today

Just back from today's whaling history conference at the Docklands Museum - thought I might as well do a brief report while its all in my mind - and it would be good if some of the other Greenwich historians there were to add comments - Rich, Andrew, Steve, Peter .... must have been others .... ???

As one of the speakers said whaling was an important London industry and a vital part of the economy in the age of what we call the 'industrial revolution' and yet it is barely mentioned in histories of the period and there is no bank of memories are there are in some of the smaller whaling ports of the Americas.  Some of the pictures and incidents recorded were quite harrowing - and we must remember how cruel this trade was, and only recently this has been recongnised.   It was not that much to do with Greenwich - although the last two speakers spoke about Greenwich. Recently, some developers and, sadly, some historians have claimed north Greenwich as an area of the whaling industry - those last two speakers to some extent explained how this misconception has come about.

The day started with the usual welcomes and then some background in a paper by Dr. Janet West of the Polar Research Institute - sadly labouring under a bad cold.  Janet outlined how in the 16th century ships left London for Arctic whaling. Later, when American independence limited London's supply of sperm whale oil the Southern fleet grew from around 1775. Some merchants managed to work both in London and in America - and many of them undertook heroic adventures in the Southern oceans and there were many discoveries of lands and their fauna and flora.

Alex Werner - known to many of us as the Head of History Collections at the Museum of London spoke of the research and publications of A.G.E. Jones. Mr. Jones had over a lifetime collected assiduously an enormous archive of material on whaling ships and their crews - and published books and many articles. Mr. Jones had been known to many of the audience - and Chris Elmers recounted how he had complained to the Director of the Museum when one of the staff had suggested that some of his material might be digitised!

Alan Pipe, who works for the Museum of London Archaeology Department gave us a brisk talk about what bits of whale bone are in the Museum's collection. The answer is - not much - although some of it is Saxon.  On the  whole they have too little to come to any real conclusions.

Next came Chris Elmers himself - for those who don't know Chris - he was Curator of the Museum of Docklands for many many years - and through all those years when the Museum itself was an act of faith.  He knows all about London shipping, London industries and he started off as a student at Woolwich Poly (hurrah!!!).  Chris talked about some grim aspects of the trade, but also about the Rotherhithe dock we now call the Greenland Dock (it originated as the first dock of any size in the world).  This was all really really interesting - about how the poor whales were killed, about the dreadful accidents and the terrible dangers of the work out in the oceans (sometimes the whales turned, attacked the boats and killed the sailors....................). Chris spoke  about the smells, and the general foulness - and how developers were trying to built posh houses round the dock, even in the 18th century despite the nastiness of it all.

Beatrice Behlen who is a fashion historian spoke about the use and manufacture of whalebone
- or beleen as it is apparently properly called. This was interesting but I felt that somewhere there was a point missing.

Stuart Frank, an American from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, spoke at length about scrimshaw - those little drawings scraped on the poor whales' teeth. They are very valuable and this was a collectors talk - he told us about the research on the pictures and the 'artists' but not about what these drawings teach us about the trade, or the lives of the sailors, or whatever.

So to the - sort of - Greenwich talks. Charles Payton talked about the Enderby family. We all know about Enderby Wharf but the family were wealthy merchants elsewhere. The earliest traced seems to be as tanners in Staines and then at Lomond's Pond in Southwark. They began with whaling vessels in the City - and with American connections - and it was a third or fourth generation which finally built their rope and canvas works on the Greenwich riverside (the Alcatel) site.   The next generation lost all in their Auckland Islands venture.    I hope Charles can be persuaded to come and talk to GIHS and tell us more - the family lived locally as well as having the wharf and it would be good to hear what he has to say.

The last speaker was also very much to do with Greenwich - which is about the Bay Wharf whale. We had hardly heard locally about this important find which turned up on a development site found by Pre-Construct Archaeology.  The speaker, Richard Sabin, works for the Natural History Museum and spoke a bit about their important archive on whales and whale remains.  They now have the Bay Wharf skeleton  which is being carbon dated and DNA analysed.  It appears likely that this was a poor elderly creature lost in the Thames in 1658. It was cruelly killed and left to rot on the riverside.

That's it really - except that a bibliography was circulated and please let me know if you would like to see it.  Also circulated was the published set of papers from last years Shipbuilding Symposium - which will be reviewed here soon (and it contains my paper on Maudslay Son and Field).

Please add your comments ..



Peter Luck said...

First, yes, get Charles Payton along to talk to GIHS.
Second, the talk we all missed 'cos the speaker couldn't be there - on the Enderbys and the Dobree Whaling Venture will be published in the proceedings.
The point missing from Beatrice Behlen's talk was perhaps greater detail on the conditions and status of the whalebone manufacturers, for instance how domestic an industry was it?

Martin Evans said...

Thanks for a very good summary of the symposium. I think most of those attending found the breadth of coverage quite stimulating.
Minor points: Janet West was struggling with a severe bronchitis that was not responding to antibiotics, and by the next day had severe broncho-pneumonia. She is now recovering slowly.
It was surprising that Stuart Frank illustrated his talk with so many pictures of scrimshaw in British collections, especially from the Polar Museum at S.P.R.I. It would have been interesting to see examples of British vessels on scrimshaw in American collections.