The history of Hull’s Whaling industry

Published: Wednesday 26th April 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Hull has a colourful and eventful whaling heritage. Today we’re delving into that history a little deeper with the help of Hull Museums.

It all started in 1598 with the discovery of Greenland by navigator Sir Hugh Willoughby. This was when the first whaling ships set sail from Hull.

The seventeenth century saw a sharp decline in the industry, but it was soon revived in the mid-1700s, thanks to Sir Samuel Standidge. He organised a small and highly successful fleet of Hull whalers during the 1750s and 1760s.

It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century, however, that the city’s whaling industry began to thrive. From 1815-1825, it is estimated that 2,000 men were employed in the trade, with over 60 whaling vessels. This made Hull’s whaling fleet the largest in Britain.

How did it work?

Whaling was a complex profession and one that perhaps doesn’t match up with modern day values.

Whales were harpooned by a whaler in a small boat. This wouldn’t kill the whale straight away, but it allowed the whaler to keep close to the whale.

This was a struggle. Many whales would attempt to flee by diving, swimming and using their power to pull away. It could often take hours before the whales finally tired.

After this, whalers would stab the whale between its ribs with long spears to kill it. The animal would then be towed back to the main ship, where it could be processed for its blubber and baleen (whalebone).

Following this, the whalers would throw the remaining carcass overboard. Whaling was a harsh and wasteful business.

A high-risk profession

The level of danger depended on the type of whale. For example, the Greenland right whale was favoured among whalers. This creature was slow to hunt and floated after it had been killed.

Then there was the sperm whale, which fought back and frequently crushed whaleboats with its jaws or by smashing into the vessel. However, these were hunted by whalers in the South Seas and America, not by those from Hull.

Whalers would typically sail between Spitsbergen and Greenland, but as the number of animals inevitably declined, they were forced to more hostile areas.

Ships would regularly be trapped in ice in the whaling hotspots of the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.

Whaling was extremely profitable, so whalers would go to great lengths to achieve a kill. Many whalers, unfortunately, lost their lives, with nearly 800 ships claimed by sea during the period 1818 to 1869.

The decline of the industry

By the mid-nineteenth century, there was only a handful of working Hull whalers. The industry had started to decline back in the 1830s, but the situation got worse with the introduction of steam-powered whalers in Dundee and Peterhead.

The Diana disaster in 1867 was the final nail in the coffin of the city’s whaling industry. The unfortunate incident resulted in 13 men dying, including the ship’s captain.

The ship washed up two years later on the Lincolnshire coast, where she was broken up. This marked the end of Hull’s prominent role in the whaling industry.

To find out more about the city’s fascinating nautical heritage, visit Hull Maritime Museum in Queen Victoria Square.

Entry is free and the museum opens 10am-5pm Monday-Wednesday, 10am-7pm Thursdays, 10am-5pm Friday-Saturday and 11am-4:30 pm Sundays.

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Published: Wednesday 26th April 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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