Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Roots and Routes: Whaling - From Hull to the Arctic

Whaling has a long and important place in the history of Hull. Beginning around the 16th century, the trade involved hazardous journeys up to the Arctic regions where the whales were to be found. These journeys had to be undertaken in the summer when there was less ice around. In the early years ships only went as far as Greenland, but slowly as the Arctic regions were explored whaling crews ventured further and further north where they encountered more and more hazards. The majority of ships were not built for the whaling trade but were converted from other uses. The ships had to be specially adapted for the icy conditions and this was done by ‘planking’. Extra layers of wood had to be attached to the inside of the hold to strengthen them.

Map showing areas traversed by whaling crews sailing out of Hull [L WHA.639]

From the 18th century, the whaling trade had become a significant part of the country’s economy. In 1733 the British Government was offering a bounty of £1 per ton per ship to English merchants involved in whaling. By 1754 this had risen to £2 and, in that same year, four Hull whaling ships sailed to the Arctic. With the increase in profits to be made, so came an increase in the numbers of ships involved in the trade and by 1799 there were 34 whaling ships sailing out of Hull. Arguably though, the heyday of the trade came in the early decades of the 19th century, and by 1820 more than 60 of our city’s ships were involved in whaling. Hull became the largest whaling port in the country and the trade was an important part of the town’s economy. From catching the whales, to creating and using the by-products of the trade, Hull’s merchants and tradesmen became rich from the proceeds. Whalebone had a huge variety of uses and there were manufacturers at Hull who made ribs for umbrellas, hoops for crinolines, corsets and buttons amongst other things; the oil was also a valuable commodity.

Extract from the Neptune's log book, 1821 [L DMWH]

The Local Studies collection holds a number of journals kept by the crews of Hull based whaling ships, and these are available to read on microfilm. Reading the entries in the journals, you are made aware of problems faced by the men involved in the trade: From ships not being able to leave port because there was no wind; to them being blown off course because of too much wind. The biggest difficulties were encountered as the ships explored the territories further beyond the Arctic Circle, with the immense cold, snow and ice.  Melville Bay appears to have been notorious for bad weather and gales. The only means of navigation was by the sun and the stars and many of the journals include the comment ‘sun obscured’ instead of a latitude reading. If the ship drifted into the pack ice (known as being beset), it could only be a matter of time before the ship was squeezed so much it would break. 

Extract from the Neptune's log book, 1821 [L DMWH]

As conditions became more dangerous there were huge losses, including 9 ships lost in 1821. With these and similar disasters, added to the fact that whale oil was becoming less of a necessity, the trade began to decline. However the trade did carry on, and even witnessed a revival in the 1850s and 1860s. However, the revival was short lived and the last whaling ship, the Diana, sailed out of Hull in 1866. She was to spend the winter in the Arctic, unable to get home and when she finally arrived in Hull on 26 April 1867, she had lost her captain and 13 members of the crew.

If you want to find out more about Hull’s whaling heritage, why not come and look at the whaling log books? Just ask us in the library to point you in the right direction!


Elaine Moll, Librarian and Archivist

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