Hull and the Whaling Industry

detail from whaling print

Hull Whalers

Hull's whaling industry has been through a number of recessions and revivals in its colourful history. The first whaling ships left Hull in 1598 after the discovery of Greenland by Sir Hugh Willoughby. After a decline in the seventeenth century there was a successful revival in the mid eighteenth century mainly due to Sir Samuel Standidge who organised a small but successful fleet of whalers in the 1750's and 60's.

It was not until the early nineteenth century however, that Hull's whaling industry really began to prosper. During the years 1815-1825 Hull had 2000 men employed in the trade and she could boast over 60 whaling vessels making it the largest fleet in Britain.

harpoon gun

Catching a Whale

Whales were harpooned by a whaler in a small boat. This would not kill the whale but would allow the whaler to keep contact with the whale. Most whales would then attempt to flee by diving and then swimming away pulling the whaleboat with them. They would often swim for hours before tiring. The whalers would then use long lances or spears to stab between the whale's ribs and eventually kill it before towing it back to the main ship where it would be processed for its blubber and baleen.

The favoured whale was the Greenland Right Whale so called because it was classed amongst whalers as the 'right' whale to hunt as it was slow, not too dangerous and floated when it was dead. Whalers in the South Seas and America hunted the Sperm whale which was much more dangerous, often fighting back and crushing whaleboats with their jaws or smashing into the boat.

Although whaling was extremely profitable it was also a wasteful business and most of the carcass was abandoned overboard. A by-product of the whaling industry was the production of scrimshaw which became a popular past time with ordinary sailors and ships captains alike.

Greenland whaling
Most whaling took place between Spitsbergen and Greenland but as the number of whales depleted whalers were forced to enter more hostile areas such as the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay where ships often became trapped in ice. Whaling was a dangerous occupation. Many whalers lost their lives and nearly 800 ships were lost at sea between 1818 and 1869.

Decline of the Whalers

Hull's whaling industry had begun to decline in the 1830's and by the mid 1850's there was only a handful of Hull whalers left. This decline was worsened by the successful introduction of steam powered whalers in Dundee and Peterhead. A few Hull ships were fitted with auxiliary steam but Hull's hopes for another revival were dashed with the Diana disaster in 1867 which led to the deaths of 13 men, including the ship's captain, after she was caught in ice in the Davis Strait. In 1869 the Diana was swept onto the Donna Nook where she broke up; a symbolic and poignant end the Hull's relationship with the whaling industry.