Latest news from Till Valley Archaeological Society

The TillVAS May lecture was given by Dr Tony Barrow, a marine historian, and entitled Whaling in the North East.

Tuesday, 17th May 2016, 12:00 pm

The whalers from the North East sailed mainly from ports between Whitby and Berwick, from 1752 to about 1837, and went North to the whaling grounds in the Greenland Sea, the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.

They called at Lerwick on Shetland and Stromness on Orkney to take on provisions and crew for what would be about a seven-month voyage from March to late October, and comprised about 20 per cent of the UK whaling fleet. This left five months for further trading, such as to the Baltic for timber, so that the fleet was not idle.

This was a shore-based industry as the ‘Right whale’ (Baleen whale), with its exceptionally thick blubber, could not be rendered down aboard and had to be divided into suitably sized chunks for transport back to shore. There was a big oil yard at Peterhead, on the North East coast of Scotland.

This was in contrast to American whalers who hunted the Sperm whale in the southern seas, and could process the carcass on board to return home with barrels of oil, but only after what could be a three-year voyage.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The ‘Right’ whales never developed a fear of man and were therefore easy prey for the crews of small boats with hand-held harpoons – the crew consisting of six men, including a harpooner and steersman.

The British harpooners had learned their trade from the Dutch and Danish, who had been whaling in the North Atlantic for some years.

There is a complete set of records relating to The Disko Bay, which sailed out of Newcastle. A harpooner was paid £2/10 for a voyage in 1786, plus 6/- per ton ‘oil money’ and half a guinea (11/6d) ‘fish money’ for every whale struck. On this voyage eight whales were struck, which provided 118 tonnes of oil. The following year only half this amount was collected.

A Muster Roll for the Sarah, built at North Shields in 1782, held in the National Archives, shows that sailors paid 6d. per voyage to Greenwich Hospitals, and were also members of the Merchant Seaman Trade Unions. Five thousand from the North East were employed in British whaling ports, and whalers also had protection from the marauding ‘press gangs’.

British ship owners were paid £2/tonne to build and equip whalers for the Arctic, several of which are known to have been built on the Tyne, including the Lord Gambia, The Cove at South Shields, The Lady Jane at North Shields and the Phoenix and Camden at Whitby, which were the last two wooden whalers to be built in the region.

Palmers Yard, at Jarrow, built three iron hulled whalers between 1857 and 1859, but they were quite unsuited to the Arctic and two sank on their maiden voyages.

Whale-oil was used extensively for street lamps in Newcastle and Wooler, in miners’ lamps, churches and lighthouses – a number of which were being built at this time.

George Harrison, a whaling captain from Hull, married a girl from Berwick in 1826. He was twice trapped in ice while captain of the Norfolk, suffering severe frostbite, and later became Harbourmaster at Blyth.

John Patterson, born in North Shields, went to sea aged nine and continued for another 50 years. After being trapped by ice, he saved his crew by dragging the small boats over land until they were rescued.

William Scoresby and his father were the most successful whaling captains out of Whitby. He attended Edinburgh University and became the first Arctic scientist, recording meteorological data, flora and the ecology of the whale.

By 1820/30 the whaling industry had begun to decline, partly due to over-fishing. Forty ships were wrecked in four years and there were severe losses amongst the crews due to scurvy – despite the fact the preventatives were available, there was no requirement they should be carried aboard. Coal gas had also become more available and was a cheaper alternative.

Excellent images were shown of a number of paintings of whalers, some by Carmichael, at Burnmouth, Berwick, Staithes near Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and Cullercoats, and concluded a most informative and fascinating lecture, which was greatly appreciated by the audience.

The last meeting of the season will be on June 1 at the usual venue, given by Adrian Cox and entitled Tantallon Castle Updated. Visit for additional events which may take place.