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