Blubber, Bone and Baleen: Lynn's Whaling Industry

Lynn Museum

An online exhibition exploring the history of the whaling industry in King's Lynn using collections from Lynn Museum.

The Whale
Whales belong to the infraorder Cetacea, which also includes, dolphins and porpoises. Whales are divided into two parvorders: baleen and toothed. Some species are found all over the world, while others are unique to a particular area. Many live in cold water climates. A layer of fat called blubber can be found beneath the skin, serving as insulation and an energy reservoir. This was one of the main products for which whales were hunted.
The Port of King's Lynn
The river was essential to King's Lynn's economic growth. The import and export of goods made the town and it's merchants wealthy. During the mid 18th century the bounty on whale oil was doubled. By increasing the bounty to 40 shillings per ton whaling became much more financially attractive. It was around this time that King's Lynn became involved in the whaling industry, although it was a relatively small operation in comparison to other coastal towns such as Hull.
Lynn's Whaling Ships
Whaling ships were often converted merchant ships. Measuring around 100 feet long and 26 feet wide they were capable of carrying a cargo of 250-400 tons. A ship less than 250 tons would not be able to break through the ice and one 400 plus would be too big to maneuver around the ice. Ships built in King's Lynn were made from oak. Their hulls were enforced with two layers of planks and the bow was fitted with additional wood and iron work for ice-breaking. Additional beams were added inside for protection against crushing in the ice which was the main cause of wrecking.Nine ships are believed to have sailed from King's Lynn to Greenland and the Davis Strait between 1774 and 1821. They were the 'Jango', 'Enterprise', 'Experiment', 'Balaena', 'Eclipse', 'Fountain', 'Bedford', 'Archangel' and 'Form'.

The 'Balaena' was probably the most famous whaler to sail out of King’s Lynn. The ship was built in 1774 and could hold 299 tons. The 'Balaena' operated as a whaling ship from 1776 to 1795. It was Captained by Ben Baxter and in 1787 had a crew of 36. During one season the ship brought back over 100 tons of blubber, the equivalent of 10 whales and 6 seals and received a bounty of £598. In between whaling seasons the 'Balaena' traded wine and timber in the Baltic. The ship was wrecked off Balta Sound on the 9th March 1796.

The poem that decorates this commemorative mug reads:

A ship from Lynn did sail,
A ship of Noble fame,
Capt. Baxter was Commander,
Balaena is her name.

The 'Bedford' was built and registered in King’s Lynn in 1750. It had a holding capacity of 255 tons.

The 'Fountain' operated as a whaler between 1785 and 1814. It was built in Whitby and registered in King’s Lynn. The vessel was owned by George Hogg, a local merchant. After the 'Balaena' sank Baxter went on to command the 'Fountain.'

For a number of years the 'Archangel' was captained by Robert Cook. During their voyage in 1788 Cook was attacked by a polar bear. The ship's surgeon shot the animal at a range of 40 yards, saving Cook's life.

These instruments were used by a surgeon on a whaling ship. The most common conditions whalers suffered from were scurvy (lack of vitamin c), constipation and frost bite.

The Voyage
Whaling was initially centered around Spitsbergen and Greenland. However, as whales were depleted by over-fishing the whalers had to venture to more hostile areas such as Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait.

The east coast offered easy access to the Arctic regions. Whaling ships left Lynn for Greenland in March and returned in July. The Davis Strait and Baffin Bay was a rich feeding ground for whales but for the sailors it increased their journey time by around another month. Baffin Bay was particularly dangerous as the area remained icy even in the summer and ships ran the risk of becoming trapped in ice and or crushed.

Losing site of land led to problems. Mariners used equipment such as compasses and telescopes to plot their course. During the 18th century John Hadley created the octant (or quadrant) which used the sun and horizon to determine location while at sea. This idea was further developed with the sextant.

Maritime Crafts
On the journey to and from the whaling grounds there were often long periods of inactivity. Whaling captains encouraged their crew to spend their spare time producing crafts such as scrimshaw. Shrimshaw is defined as "anything made by sailors for themselves in their leisure hours."

The whalers had to work with the limited materials available to them. This sperm whale tooth has been engraved with the design of a hoopoe bird.

The teeth were soaked in brine and polished with sharkskin before the designs were etched using needles or knives. Soot or ink was then used to make the etched design visible.

Seam rubbers were sail making tools used to press in folds before sewing. This seam rubber has been made from the bone of a whale.

The Nantucket Sleigh Ride
Catching whales was difficult and dangerous work. Once the cry of 'there she blows' came small boats called shallops were launched. Each whaling ship carried six or seven of these smaller whaleboats. The crew would then row close to the whale to harpoon it. This would not kill it but would allow them to keep contact. Most whales would then attempt to flee by diving, pulling the whaleboat with them. American whalers called this the Nantucket sleigh ride. Whales would often swim for hours before tiring. Once the whale had surfaced, the sailors would then use long lances or spears to stab between the whale's ribs aiming for the whale's vital organs. A spout of blood from the blow hole would usually indicate the impending death of the animal. 

'The Essex' was an American whale ship from Nantucket. In 1820 a sperm whale attacked and sank the vessel leaving the crew stranded in a small boat. During the 95 days the men were at sea, they ate the bodies of five crewmen who had died. When that was insufficient, they drew lots to determine who they would sacrifice. Eight survivors were rescued. This story inspired Herman Melville to write his famous novel 'Moby Dick'.

Once the whale had died holes would be made in the tail so that the animal could be towed back to the main ship. Flensing knives like this were used to remove the large strips of blubber from the carcass.

The blubber was rendered in large cauldrons to remove the oil, a process called 'trying out'. When cool it was ladled off and stored in barrels.

The Blubber House
On their return to King's Lynn the whaling ships sailed down to the River Nar to the blubber house. At the Blubber House large whale jaw bones and any remaining blubber were rendered. King's Lynn historian Henry Hillen reported that when a whaling ship returned "the bells of St Margaret's [church] rang their merriest peal...as the ships crept wearily towards their restful berths, beside the blubber house."
The Products of Whaling
The primary product of the whaling industry was the oil rendered from the fatty blubber of the whale. The finest oil came from the spermaceti located inside the head of the sperm whale. Whale oil was widely used for many different purposes including lighting and lubricating machinery. The lamps of St Margaret's Church (now King's Lynn Minster) were fueled by whale oil until 1829.

Whale jaw bones were sometimes used in building structures.

Baleen whales are filter feeders. Instead of teeth they have long strips of baleen which hang from the roof of their mouths. When feeding they take huge mouthfuls of water. Small fish and invertebrates get trapped in the baleen while the water is forced back out.

Baleen is more commonly known as whale bone. It is made of keratin, the same substance found in human nails. Baleen was the plastic of its day. It was used to manufacture many different items including; carriage springs, fishing poles, brushes and umbrella ribs.

Baleen could be separated into smaller strips whilst retaining it's strength and flexibility. This made it a useful material in the construction of dresses. Baleen was used to support and stiffen the upper part of the bodice, helping the wearer achieve the desired silhouette of the time.

The Return
For the crew of a whaling ship life on land could be equally as tough. Whalers were targeted by Naval press gangs who wanted experienced seamen to join their ranks. In 1813 it is recorded that a press gang attempted to take some of the  'Fountain's' crew. The Greenland Fishery pub was a popular spot for the returning whalers. After months at sea many would spend their wages here.

It is thought that the last whaling ship sailed from King's Lynn in 1821. By the mid 19th century there was no longer such a high demand for whale oil. Paraffin and coal gas were already lighting streets and houses and in 1859 oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. This, along with the declining numbers of whales due to over-fishing signaled the end of the whaling industry.

Once it became apparent that the numbers of whales being killed were putting populations under threat, a ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission.

Despite this ban whaling still continues in some parts of the world today.

Credits: Story

Arts Council England

Norfolk County Council

Norfolk Museums Service - Lynn Museum
Oliver Bone , Curator.
Melissa Hawker , Learning Officer
Dayna Woolbright , Assistant Curator.
Imogen Clarke , Curatorial Teaching Museum Trainee.


With thanks to
Samantha Johns, Collections Development Manager.
Hollie Warman, Postgraduate student at the University of East Anglia.
Shaz Hussain, Collections Teaching Museum Trainee.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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