Arctic Whaling at Hull Maritime Museum

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All words by Sophia Nicolov. This post is part of the Charismatic Encounters research project. Header image of the painting ‘Diana and Chase in the Arctic’ by James H. Wheldon, c.1857.

The Yorkshire coast was once a major, thriving hub in the British Arctic commercial whaling industry. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whalers bound for the Arctic set off from Hull, a city on the Humber estuary in the north of England. This industry spanned more than two centuries and Hull Maritime Museum’s collection offers unique insight into the role it had in shaping the lives, history and culture of Hull, and its enduring legacies to the present day. 

Whaling had been taking place out of Hull since 1598. It was in the 1750s that the maritime city became a profitable whaling port and the Hull Whale Fishery Company was established. The men on board the ships were headed for waters around Greenland where they would hunt bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) amongst ice floes and endless summer days. Hull would become one of the most important sites associated with British Arctic whaling alongside Whitby, London, Newcastle, Dundee and Shetland.

Commonly referred to as the ‘Greenland right whale’, bowhead whales were targeted for being slow swimming, having thick blubber,  large amounts of baleen, and because they floated when dead. Once killed, bowhead whales would be flensed, the blubber cut up and stored in wooden casks before being shipped back to the boiling houses of Hull where it would be rendered down into oil. The oil was used for light and was used as a lubricant for machinery during the industrial revolution. The remains of these animals fed the industrialisation and development of Hull and beyond. The baleen (the fringed keratin plates in the mouth), which was known as ‘whalebone’, was also a commercial product that could be used in corsets, umbrellas, hat rims and much more. 

Whaling offered employment to many in Hull and, at the height of the industry, it is estimated that 2000 people were engaged in the trade. It was not just those who actually ventured to the Arctic on whaling ships, but also the businesses back in Yorkshire, including boiling sheds, whalebone cutters and manufacturers, and shipbuilding. The most successful whaling year for Hull was in 1820 when 62 ships caught 688 whales. At one point, it was the biggest whaling port in the country and represented 40% of Britain’s fleet.

But whaling was also a brutal activity, with violence exerted against whales as well as other Arctic species, particularly other cetaceans, polar bears, walruses and seals. Combined with whaling by other European countries, the bowhead whale was hunted to virtual extinction by the mid-nineteenth century and the species has not returned to waters on the eastern side of Greenland. No longer profitable, the whalers caused the downfall of their own industry and Hull whaling ceased in 1869. 

Hull’s whaling industry is preserved in the collections of Hull Maritime Museum, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the most important whaling and maritime collections in the UK. There is a vast array of items in the collection, including whaling artefacts such as harpoons, samples of baleen, products manufactured from whales, original documents, and the paintings of Arctic whaling scenes by artists in the Hull School. Hull’s whaling trade also brought Yorkshire men into contact with Inuit communities, leading to the exchange and trade of goods, skills and culture (which will be explored in further research). Many items were brought back to Hull from whaling voyages and are now housed in the collections at Hull Maritime Museum.

From our twenty-first-century perspective, this is a gruesome and uncomfortable history. However, it is also an important part of Hull’s maritime heritage and development. The collection offers an opportunity to understand the context of this industry and the permeation of whaling in everyday Hull society. It provides insight into the magnitude of whaling, the proliferation of products that came from whales, and its vitality to the city historically as well as its enduring heritage today. At the same time, it presents a chance to confront the legacies of contact with Native Inuit communities, European colonial expansion in the Arctic, and the suffering and loss of bowhead whales and the ecological consequences of this.

Further reading

Tony Barrow, The Whaling Trade of North-East England: 1750-1850 (2001)

Martha Cattell, ‘The Hull School of Whaling’, in Jason Edwards (ed.), Turner and the Whale (2017)

Arthur G. Credland, ‘Moby Dick, Hull and East Yorkshire’, The Great Circle, 11 (1989), 44-54. 

Jack Dykes, Yorkshire’s Whaling Days (1980)

Jason Edwards (ed.), Turner and the Whale (2017)

Gordon Jackson, The British Whaling Trade (1978)

Jennifer Rowley, The Hull Whale Fishery (1982)

T. Sheppard, ‘The Hull Whaling Trade’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 5 (1919), 162-178

Martha Cattell, ‘Visual and Material representation of the 19th century whaling industry’, PhD University of York


Here are six items from the collection at Hull Maritime Museum that chart the history and legacy of Hull’s whaling trade in the Arctic. Click through the links included to further explore other whaling items in the collection.

All images courtesy of Hull Maritime Museum. Hundreds of items about whaling in the Museum’s collection have been digitised and can be accessed here.

James H. Wheldon, Diana and Chase in the Arctic, oil on canvas, original in Hull Maritime Museum, c.1857

James H. Wheldon (1832-1893) was born in Hull and is most well-known for his paintings of ships. He is part of the Hull School, a group of artists specialising in marine paintings, including whaling. The famous whaling ship Diana is pictured anchored amidst a hunting scene in the Arctic. Framed by icebergs, a group of whalers pursue a bowhead whale from a small whaleboat as another group shoot seals on an ice floe. Hundreds and often thousands of seals were shot during whaling voyages for their fur. Other animals targeted by whalers are also depicted: polar bears, walruses and narwals.  The Diana is one of the most well-known of Hull’s whaling ships and began sailing in 1840. The ship had a steam engine installed in 1858, becoming the first steam-powered whaler from Hull.

In 1866, on a voyage to Baffin Bay, Diana was trapped in the ice for over six months and many of the crew died, including Captain John Granville. As the last whaling ship from Hull, the ship was wrecked in 1869 on the Lincolnshire coast on return from a whaling expedition, bringing Hull’s whaling trade to an end. Other artists in the Hull School who depicted whaling scenes which are held by Hull Museums include John Ward, Robert Willoughby and Thomas Binks.

Handbill for the Whalebone Manufactory owned by John Bateman and Robert Bowman on South Street in Hull (1808)

This is a handbill from the Hull-based company Bateman and Bowman’s Whalebone Factory which offered a wide range of goods made from whalebone (baleen plates), including sieves, nets, brushes, and carriage and sofa backings. Flexible, strong, lightweight and pliable under heat, the use of whalebone (baleen) was even more wide-ranging than what is advertised here, including corsets, hoop frames for skirts, walking sticks, umbrellas, fans, upholstery, knife handles, games, children’s toys and much more. Hull Maritime Museum holds a number of items crafted from whalebone as well as many pieces and bundles of baleen. Other whalebone manufacturers in nineteenth-century Hull include Crackles and Horncastle on Wilcolmlee, and Watkinson Johnson on Lowgate. Whales use the baleen plates lining the mouth as a feeding filter to sieve through huge amounts of seawater for their food source krill and other zooplankton.

Scrimshaw Decorated Whalebone Plaque (date unknown), Hull Maritime Museum

A whale jawbone scrimshaw plaque depicting a whaling scene. Scrimshaw was a craft made by whalers who would decorate bones from whales and also walrus tusks with scenes from whaling or from home. Scrimshaw was often made with sperm whale teeth when whaling in other oceans, however, whaling from Hull only focused on the Arctic and bowhead whales. Whaling involved a lot of waiting, and scrimshaw was a time-consuming practice that would preoccupy whalers at sea for many months. In this example, a ‘Greenland right whale’ (bowhead) with its distinctly shaped head is rising out of the sea as it is harpooned by a whaleboat. It is spouting and this has been tinged with red pigment, suggesting blood from a mortal injury to its heart.

Another whale in the foreground is being attacked and the harpoon is stuck in the whale’s body as a small boat rows alongside. A whaling ship can be seen in the distance against a backdrop of icebergs. In each of the corners is a mermaid holding a mirror. Another form of scrimshaw common with Hull whalers were busks or ‘stay busks’, which were rigid pieces of bone (e.g. from the jaw bone) that were placed in the front of women’s bodices. They were reminders of the men who had crafted them for women left in Britain and they would be decorated with symbols of love and home. According to Hull Museums, items associated with Hull are extremely rare and sometimes fake.

Truelove logbook for the voyage to Davis Straits, March-October 1859

This is the logbook kept during the voyage of the Hull whaler Truelove for the 1859 season under the command of Captain William Wells. The Truelove sailed from Hull for many decades and was the second last whaler from the city, with the last whaling voyage in 1868. The Truelove made more than 80 voyages and catches amounted to 500 whales. Logbooks would contain daily entries and black whale fluke stamps marked successful whale catches (as shown in this example). One of the most famous captains of Truelove was William Barron, who began as an apprentice in 1849 and eventually became Captain in 1861.

His accounts of Arctic whaling voyages can be read in Old Whaling Days (1895) and his sketches of scenes can be seen in Hull Maritime Museum’s collection. The Truelove is also known for bringing a young Inuit couple called Memiadluk and Ukaliq (meaning hare) back to Hull from Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island after Captain John Parker saw the reliance on Western goods that had developed as a consequence of European contact and colonialism (including with whalers). He wanted to raise awareness about it and the couple were involved in talks in Hull and other Northern cities. However, the treatment of this young couple was still rooted in colonialism; according to records, the couple were ‘exhibited’ as ‘native specimens’ in traditional Inuit clothing with a canoe and other artefacts. Plaster casts were made of their heads along with the captain, and these remain in the Museum’s collection. There was a devastating end to this trip when Uckaluk died from measles following an outbreak on the return journey.

Bowhead whale vertebra used as a butcher’s chopping block (date unknown)

A single vertebra from a bowhead whale captured in Greenland that was used as a butcher’s chopping block. It was likely brought back to Hull by a returning whaler. There is evidence of vertebrae being used by butchers in Hull and other parts of western Europe from written sources, such as adverts, and archaeological finds. Much older examples of this practice have also been found in archaeological discoveries, including Viking, Roman and Iron Age Scottish societies. The size and flat side of the vertebra made it a useful shape for such use. It demonstrates how uses were found for different parts of these animals and their role in the day-to-day life of ordinary people in Hull. There is also an example of a pulley leave (for ropes, cables, chains, etc.) made out of a whale vertebra in the collection, again demonstrating the everyday uses made from these animals’ bones.

Royal Adelphi Theatre, Hull, ‘The Shipwreck of The Shannon’ / ‘A Bridegroom From The Sea; or, a Wreck Ashore’ (1832)

A theatre bill for the Royal Adelphi Theatre in Hull for a performance of ‘The Shipwreck of the Shannon’ on Saturday 10 November 1832. It was a dramatisation of a true story of the wrecking of the whaling ship Shannon off of Greenland in April 1832, including an interview with the owner and his captain. The bill states that it was performed ‘By Desire of the Mates, Spiksoneers, Crews, &c. of several Vessels engaged this season in the Straits Fishery’. Specktioneers or speksioneers were the chief harpooners and were in charge of the flensing process and the cutting up of the blubber (or speck). Act 1st is set in a ‘Public House in the Vicinity of Hull’ and Act 2nd consists of ‘Fishing Station. — Whale passes. — Boat with Harpooner about to Strike’ and the wrecking of the ship Shannon. Act 3rd involves the return of the surviving crew to Hull. The second performance of the evening is ‘Bridegroom from the Sea; or, The Wreck Ashore’. The bill was printed by Peck and Smith, Hull. Captain George Davey wrote an account of the experience in A Narrative of the Loss of The Shannon of Hull on the 26th of April, 1832. Shannon wrecked after running into an iceberg and only 19 of the 49 crew survived, with some drowning and others starving or dying from infection. The Royal Adelphi Theatre hosted other performances about Greenland whaling.

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