The presence of whales in Britain

Photo by TallGuy

The famous whalebone arch on Whitby’s West Cliff is a symbol of the whaling industry that thrived there and in other English ports like Hull and Yarmouth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The 15 ft bones are from a Bowhead whale, killed under license by Alaskan Inuits, and unveiled by Miss Alaska in 2003.  An even larger arch stood on the same spot, made from the 20 ft jaw bones of a Fin whale, presented to the town by Norway in 1963.

During England’s years as a whaling nation, captains returning from Greenland would bring home these huge bones as souvenirs. Ship crews would tie a pair of whale jaw bones to the mast to let anxious families on land know there’d been no casualties.  Some of the bones were used in construction as house ends. Some were set in fields for cattle to rub against.

Whales swim near Britain’s shores and are occasionally stranded, which always causes a great commotion.  The disturbing sight used to be considered a bad omen.  Famously, the whale stranded in the Thames near Dagenham in 1658 foretold the death of Oliver Cromwell, who died on September 3, the following day.

This particular whale lived long in popular memory.  In nearby Chadwell Heath, a tremendous pair of bones forming an arch used to stand near a tollgate and pub named The Whalebone, as recorded by Miller Christy in The trade signs of Essex published in 1888.  Local tradition claimed the bones came from the Dagenham whale, but Christy quotes a Professor W. H. Flower who was convinced the arch proceeded from a Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), regularly hunted in Greenland and not straying into British waters.  It has the largest jaws of any animal.

Christy also quotes a resident of the Chadwell Heath area, some time after the toll gate disappeared:

Half the arch (i.e. one bone) stood upright, still deeply rooted in the earth, but alone, forgotten and deserted, by the side of the high road in a fallow field.  No one in the neighbourhood seemed to know anything about it or its history.

So the bone, taken from an Arctic creature that can live up to 200 years, ended up discarded in an English landscape, a mysterious totem pole.  It must have looked something like this Bowhead whale bone standing in a remote corner of Siberia.

Photo from a site on the Chukchi an ethnic group of Siberia

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