by Jessica Blair
Originating on bleak moorland heights in North Yorkshire, England, the River Esk flows into the North Sea at Whitby on England’s east coast. Compared with other rivers along this coast, the Tyne, the Tees, the Humber, the Thames , this Yorkshire river may seem insignificant but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the leading ports in the country. Suitable for the vessels that sailed the seas in those days it became a thriving port. But later, when ships became much bigger and were unable to use the port, its influence diminished and the type of work it followed became different.
It has ancient roots and the ruined abbey on the cliff top bears witness to the days when its monastic influence spread far beyond Whitby and played a leading role in religious affairs. It was here in 664 when St Hilda was abbess that a meeting of the principals of the English Church met to decide whether they should follow the Celtic practice or follow that established by Rome. At this important meeting, which became known as the Synod of Whitby, it was agreed that the rule of Rome should be followed; a pattern was established that has remained to this day, surviving in one of the divisions in the Church caused by the Reformation.
Until the coming of the railway in 1836, this small port, because of the wild and desolate hinterland, was virtually cut off. Its inhabitants had to turn to the sea for its livelihood and for communication with the outside world. Enterprising men turned it into a successful and profitable port, its zenith coming in the 18th and 19th centuries. The direct influence of the sea spawned other trades and commercial enterprises that added wealth to Whitby.
Whitby entered the whaling trade in 1753, abandoned it in 1762 and re-entered it in 1767, became one of Britain’s leading whaling ports and finally left the trade in 1837. During the time of its engagement in the whaling trade 58 ships left on a total of 577 voyages. The longest serving vessel was the Volunteer which sailed 54 times to the Arctic to hunt whales (1772 to 1835) On board the Henrietta sailing out of Whitby was William Scoresby, serving as an ordinary seaman. He was to gain rapid promotion and became one of the most successful whaling captains in the British trade. He and his son, William, who also commanded whalers out of Whitby, were largely responsible for the good catches that at one time gave their home port a leading position in the industry.
William Snr, with his son as chief mate, was in command of the Resolution of Whitby when he took the ship through the ice barrier to reach 510 miles from the North Pole – closer than any man had been, a record which stood until beaten by the British explorer, William Edward Parry in 1827. Scoresby was no run-of-the-mill whaler. He was responsible for innovations in the whaling trade and invented the round topgallant crow’s nest, the first being constructed in May 1807 thus giving greater protection to the lookout. He also contributed much to the early exploration of the Arctic.
His son, William Jnr., carried on in the same vein and produced a two volume work An Account of the Arctic Regions in 1820 which threw much light on that part of the world.
There were other successful whaling captains from the thirty-two ports around the British coast that engaged in whaling during the British boom time of 1783 – 1812. After the Spitsbergen era and before the boom time whaling was something of an haphazard trade without heralding an upsurge. That came about because of an increase in the demand for oil for domestic and industrial use without a marked increase in price. Such a situation might have led to a rush by investors to cash in on the trade but it was a trade that needed sound investment in ships and though that investment might come from entrepreneurs who had never been to sea it still required experienced sailors and further more many of the crew had to be used to Arctic conditions and in hunting the whale. With such requirements the whaling trade became a trade for ‘professionals.’ That brought about better and therefore more attractive returns and an expansion of the number of vessels sailing on a whaling voyage.
George Young in his A History of Whitby (1817) writes, ‘The success of the whale-fishery at its first commencement, and for many years after, bore no proportion to that of later years. In former times, a ship was reckoned well fished with 4 or 5 whales, and it was counted a great matter that Mr Banks (captain of the Jenny, &c.) brought home 65 fish in 10 years; but, about the year 1795, or soon after, a new era in the whale-fishery began, and through the growing experience of our captains and seamen, the success of former times has been far surpassed. In 10 successive voyages, beginning with 1803, the Resolution, Scoresby, obtained no less than 249 whales, yielding 2034 tons of oil; and the Henrietta, Kearsley, brought home in the last ten voyages. 213 whales, producing 1561 tons of oil. In 1811 the Henriette brought 36 whales, the greatest number taken by any Whitby ship in one year.
This was boom time for this small port and the effects of the whaling trade together with commercial trading with Europe, especially timber from the Baltic countries, spilled over on to many other trades, ship building, sail manufacturing, rope making, banking, etc. Whitby became well-known for the ships it built; they sailed the world and were used by Captain James Cook on his voyages of exploration. Investment rose; wealth flowed in. Ship owners and their captains looked to the cliff tops to build their new homes expanding the living area of the town away from the cliff-sides over-looking the river but not destroying it completely.
A certain glamour attached to these Greenland whalers, as these men, were known, for they combined the qualities of the hunter and an explorer, qualities needed by men who faced the rigours of the northern seas. There was also something of a gambler in them; if the hunt was good their pay on reaching home again would be good, but arrive in port empty there would be no addition to the small basic pay and they and their families could face a hard winter. Consequently, crews were attracted more easily to ships whose captains were known to be particularly skilful or ‘lucky’ on their whaling expeditions. Such was the aura around these men that when sailing day arrived almost all work in the town stopped and the piers, staithes, harbour, and cliffs would be crowded by Whitby folk to see their men sail. They could be away for up to six months but whenever the cry of ‘Whale ship!’ heralding the sighting of one of their own, Whitby folk stopped everything to crowd those same places again and watch anxiously until the returning vessel was indentified.
The life was hard and a man required toughness and courage to cope with the demanding work and survive the dangers which threatened from the sea, ice, weather and, not least, the prey itself which they attacked with hand-held harpoons from open boats of 25 to 28ft long. They were manned by six or seven men, one as helmsman the rest as oars. The five-oared boat was the one in general use. The harpooner was in command of the boat and he pulled the bow oar until they were in position to attack the whale. A strike could mean danger. The whale could run, and, though the Greenland whale was amongst the most docile of whales, it could still be a menace as the boat pulled in for the harpooner to make his kill. If he was successful the whale would be towed alongside the ship where it would be flensed - cut up - and stowed below decks, to be brought back to Whitby to be rendered into oil. The hunt for more whales was continued in a hope that the ship would be ‘full’ before the unrelenting Arctic winter set in. Failure to be away in time could mean being locked in the ice with little hope of survival. There are examples of whalers who did so but they are few and far between. The most famous one to do so from a British port was the Diana of Hull. Her story was told in the diary of Charles Edward Smith, who was surgeon on the Diana. His son edited it and it was published in 1922 under the title From the Deep of the Sea. It is a tragic yet heroic story but shows us what faced the whalers in the Arctic.