Feature: The era of daring Whitby whalers

The whalebone arch in Whitby
The whalebone arch in Whitby
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Capture of 25,000 seals and 2,761 whales to create a fortune

Whaling...a dangerous pursuit in freezing conditions but with the prospect of making a fortune.

William Scoresby Jnr

William Scoresby Jnr


With Whitby forming a central launching port for the men tasked with venturing out into the North Atlantic in search of the mammoth creatures.


It was these men who not only fueled the industry of the day, but also expanded the knowledge of the sea considerably on their adventures.


At one time Whitby was considered a British capital of the whaling trade due to the number of ships built here and launched from the town.


Those who bravely ventured north into colder waters became known as the ‘Greenland Whalers’ as the waters around Greenland formed their hunting ground.

The spears used to harpoon whales.

The spears used to harpoon whales.


In their book Secret Whitby, Ian Thompson and Roger Frost explain why the journey was so perilous: “Getting to Greenland and the Arctic was no mean feat when this industry operated.


The ships were made of timber, yet had to travel thousands of miles through stormy seas to get to and from their hunting grounds.”


The trade was born out of the need for oil and began in the 1750s with minimal success. It was later revived in the 1760s, continuing until 1837.


The whales were harpooned from open boats crew by teams of around eight men. The whales were then chased through the water until they exhausted and died.

A whale tooth

A whale tooth


Most parts of the whales had a use. The skin was used for leather, cartilage for glue while the blubber had a number of uses as oil, soap, margarine, paint, candles and lubricants.


Two of the most famous whalers were the Scoresbys.


William Scoresby senior is is credited with the invention of the crow’s nest and holds the record tonnage brought back from the arctic, meanwhile his son, who shared the same name, was a prominent explorer whose most notable discoveries at sea include the discovery of warmer temperatures at depth in the Arctic ocean, advanced understanding of the effects of iron and force upon compass reliability and contribution to the knowledge of terrestrial magnetism.


In his book, A History of Whitby, published in 1817, George Young gave examples of two of the most successful whaling ships. The Resolution was owned by the Scoresbys and between 1803-13 brought home 249 whales, which produced 2,034 tonnes of oil.


Another famous vessel, the Henrietta, was owned by the Kearleys and in a similar 10- year period returned with 213 whales, which produced 1,561 tonnes of oil.


Between 1753 and 1833 there were 55 whaling ships based in Whitby which brought back 25,000 seals and 2,761 whales.


A number of boiler houses near the harbour turned the whale blubber into oil, the demand for which was fueled by the industrial revolution.


Visitors to Whitby will have likely gazed up in amazement at the size of the whale jaw, better known as the whalebone arch found on the West Cliff.


The jaw bones of a whale were significant for those watching the horizon, awaiting the return of the whale boats.


Following a successful expedition, the fleet would display the jaws of the animal to the mast as a sign to those on land that the trip had been profitable.


The original bones on the West Cliff were acquired in 1963 by Whitby Rural District Council as a gift from a Norwegian shipping company to mark the town’s whaling past.


They were erected to honour the the men of Whitby who braved inhospitable seas in the arctic.

The bones were replaced in 2002 after they had decayed, after a donation from town of Anchorage in Alaska and the current jaws stand at 19ft high and are from the jaw of a bowhead whale.


The demise of the whaling industry was brought about as other sources of oil were discovered, namely petrol oil.


Nevertheless, the Greenland Whalers had an enormous impact on the town. Ian Thompson and Roger Frost explain: “They had contributed to the development of other industries, particularly shipbuilding, ancillary trades and banking. Similarly, the look of the town changed: the successful whalers (both owners and captains) built houses for themselves away from the old town, thereby creating new Whitby, which so beautifully complements the old.”


It was this desire for wealth that drove many whalers to brave the fierce and dangerous treks out to sea.


At times ships would return without any whales, whereas on other occaisions, the ships did not return at all.


The ice could lock in ships leaving the men to starve once supplies ran out, frostbite also posed a huge threat to the often young crews.