Phillip Hoare: The whales of London
Today’s extraordinary stunt – the stranding of a lifesize sperm whale on the banks of the Thames in Greenwich – is a salutary reminder of a surreal notion, that many such leviathans have visited the capital’s murky waters, and died there.
It is also a monument to the little-know fact that London itself was once a thriving whaling port, its embankments heaving with stinking whale blubber.
[and at the end of the article]
This lucrative business – the equivalent of today’s oil industry - was one reason why the first substantial scientific paper on the biology of whales was written in London, and presented by John Hunter, the great surgeon, to the Royal Society in 1787.
Having sent a young man to the Arctic to gather whale samples – without much success – Hunter realised that the whales were coming to him – swimming up the river – and providing him with an extraordinary resource. Indeed, his collection of whale specimens is still on show today, at the Royal College of Surgeon’s museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a wonderfully gruesome array of innards and bones.
Hunter rendered down his whale carcases at his country residence, Earl’s Court House (then a rural village), where he also maintained a menagerie of lions and giraffes. (The house later became a lunatic asylum for women, before being demolished last century).
And now, the Natural History Museum has confirmed that the whale skeleton found in the mud at Deptford recently was a right whale harpooned to death on the river banks in May 1658, an event recorded by the diarist, John Evelyn. The unfortunate creature’s arrival was seen as an augury of the death of Oliver Cromwell, then regarded as a tyrant. Richard Sabin, curator of vertebrates at the museum, is currently undertaking an analysis of this legendary whale. It is just another of the remarkable but fated marine interlopers to have found their way into the cappuccino-coloured waters of the capital, with little chance of returning to the open seas.