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Public Lecture About William Scoresby Jr.

Back in April I gave a public lecture about Williams Scoresby Jr, his time in Liverpool and the connection between his Arctic whaling, exploration and science. It is now available on my personal blog here: From Liverpool’s Greenland Street to Greenland’s Liverpool Coast: William Scoresby, Whaling, and Exploration.

Polar Bears and the Arctic Whalers

A fascinating post yesterday at Shakespeare’s England reveals the possibility that two polar bears were brought back to England from the Arctic as early as 1609, and that they may have appeared on stage in London. By the early nineteenth century, when around 120 whale ships sailed for the Arctic from Britain each year, polar bears, dead and alive, had become a valuable prize. Adult polar bears were far too large and dangerous to keep on board ship, but cubs were sometimes captured alive, and taken back to Britain for public display, and zoological research.

In his journal entry for 15 June, 1812, Scoresby writes “we Shot an old Bear and took two cubs that She had with her alive” and the following day notes that “The two bears we took yesterday seem pretty contented one of them often walks about [the deck] at large and is quite harmless. The other somewhat larger seems not quite so inoffensive.” The bears were secured with an iron ring around the neck which, after the bear had grown, could only be removed by cutting.

One of these cubs Scoresby gave to another captain, Mr Johnstone, later that month, while the other he took home himself as a gift for his mentor at Edinburgh University, Professor Jameson. In their 1976 biography of Scoresby, Tom and Cordelia Stamp quote from Jameson’s letter of thanks: “I found your valuable present, the polar bear, in perfect health. I return you many thanks for your attention and kindness. I have brought the animal to the college where he is now lodged in a commodious den. I wish to know from you what you consider is the best food for him–he has been fed on liver and horse flesh.” (From Tom and Cordelia Stamp William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist. Caedmon: Whitby, 1976. p. 47).

Any whaler who succeeded in killing or capturing a bear could expect great admiration, and perhaps therefore a greater share of the profit on subsequent voyages, and as a result they were prepared to take enormous risks. Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions and the Northern Whale Fishery (1820) includes a chapter on polar bears, in which he gives several anecdotes of encounters with them. Despite the risks sailors took in going after these dangerous animals, armed only with lances and knives, he notes that there were fewer accidents with bears than “the ferocity of these animals, and the temerity of the sailors, who embrace every opportunity of attacking them, might lead one to expect” (p. 523). Bears were more safely attacked when they were in the water, but even so, such attempts didn’t always go as planned:

I shall only remark, with regard to curious adventures, that, on one occasion, a bear which was attacked by a boat’s crew, in the Spitzbergen Sea, made such a formidable resistance that it was enabled to climb the side of the boat and take possession of it, while the intimidated crew fled for safety for the water, supporting themselves by the gunwale and rings of the boat, until, by assistance of another party from their ship, it was shot as it sat inoffensively in the stern. And, with regard to narrow escapes, I shall only add, that a sailor, who was pursued on a field of ice by a bear, when at a considerable distance from assistance, preserved his life, by throwing down an article of clothing, whenever the bear gained on him, on which it always suspended its pursuit, until it had examined it, and thus gave him time to obtain some advance. In this way, by means of a hat, a jacket, and a neck handkerchief, successively cast down, the progress of the bear was retarded, and the sailor escaped from the danger that threatened him, in the refuge afforded him by his vessel. (Account of the Arctic Regions, 1820. p. 525-6)

Scoresby retells this latter tale in greater detail in his 1823 book A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, presenting it as a humorous story to balance a more gruesome one in which a sailor “armed only with a handspike” went after a bear on the ice: “the bear, regardless of such weapons … immediately, it would seem, disarmed his antagonist, and, seizing him by the back with his powerful jaws, carried him off …” (p. 111)

Where Scoresby’s Whale Ship, the Baffin, was Built


As Fred M. Walker says in his essay on building whaleboats, appended to the third volume of Scoresby’s whaling journals, edited by Ian C. Jackson, “In 1819, the placing of an order for a wooden whaling ship with an up-and-coming Liverpool shipbuilder marked a small turning point in the history of whale ship construction.” Scoresby himself claimed that the Baffin was the first purpose-built whaling ship to be constructed in Liverpool, but it is more likely that it was simply the first in recent memory.

Liverpool’s whaling industry was not large in 1819, but it had been significant in the late 1700s. The Baffin sailed with just two others in her first season–the James and the Lady Forbes–and by 1823, sailed alone, but as recently as 1788, according to Henry Smithers’ survey of Liverpool commerce in 1825, the Liverpool whaling fleet included 21 vessels. Looking closely at the map above, which is dated 1823-1824, it is just possible to see, below (to the west of) Queen’s Dock, two graving docks used for ship finishing and repairs, and below that “Baffin Street,” which may or may not have been named after the ship. Just above Queen’s Dock, Greenland Street runs roughly parallel to Parliament Street, perhaps reflecting that whaling heritage. Queen’s Dock itself still exists, but the whole area around the King’s Dock and to the south, is now covered by the Liverpool Echo Arena, car parks, and a marina.

Walker assumes that the shipyard of Mottershead and Hayes was near to Queen’s Dock, but it is more likely to have been further north, near Salthouse Dock. Although there were many ship yards in the area around Baffin Street, and an oil house was situated at number 5, Baffin Street, the Liverpool Commercial Directory for 1818-1819 indicates that the yard of Mottershead and Hayes was to the west of the Salthouse dock, on Trentham Street, near to Graving Dock Nr. 1. That area, later excavated to make way for Jesse Hartley’s Albert Dock (1846), was full of ship yards in 1819, and this was also where Scoresby’s investors, Hurry and Gibson, were based.

In Scoresby’s account of the launch of the Baffin, he records that on February 15th, 1820, the Queen’s Dock, presumably the centre of Liverpool’s whaling trade, was full, but he found a place for the ship in the Salthouse Dock, and it was there that she was fitted out.




Whaleboats for the Charles W. Morgan


The restoration of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport  is one of the most significant projects of its kind. The 170 year-old ship, which completed 37 voyages in a career beginning in 1841 and ending in 1921, is the last surviving wooden whaleship. But alongside the restoration, which is expected to be completed with the ship’s relaunch in 2013, the museum is also building two wooden whaleboats from scratch. These were the small rowing boats sent out after the whale in the final stages of the chase. Whaleships such as the C.W. Morgan carried four or five boats; Scoresby’s Arctic whaler, the Baffin, usually carried six, and in the early nineteenth century, these were the narrow, pitching platform from which harpooners hurled their weapons.

There is a blog about the whaleboat project complete with images, such as the one above, and video of the work. The Whaleboat 101 post tells us this:

Long and lean, fast and graceful, the brutality of the whaleboat as an eloquently evolved weapon is belied by the elegance of their lines. Light, efficient and lethal. These are the boats that were employed by whaling ships to close the end game. They are an example of the evolution of form in service to function that has resulted in sheer artistry born of utility.

More at Whaleboats for the C.W. Morgan.

Oil Lamps in Liverpool, 1817


In 1817, when Scoresby and his father moved temporarily to Liverpool to refit the Fame and convert it into a whaler, Liverpool was converting its street lighting on the main throroughfares from oil lamps to gas. In this account, taken from Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonagenarian (1863), oil lamps gave the city a dark and gloomy aspect, such that those who could afford it employed “link men” to walk ahead of them carrying torches made with burning ropes. As the account shows, lamp oil, which was extracted from whale blubber, was in short supply in Liverpool:

Previous to 1817 the town was wretchedly lighted by oil lamps which used to go out upon all trifling occasions and for insufficient reasons.  They only pretended to show light at the best of times.  The lamps were not lit in summer nor on moonlight nights.  They were generally extinguished by four or five o’clock in the morning.

The gentry were at one time attended by link-men or boys in their night excursions. These links were stiff, tarred ropes about the thickness of a man’s arm.  They gave a flaring light with any quantity of bituminous-odoured smoke.  In front of one or two of the old houses of Liverpool I have seen a remnant of the link days, in an extinguisher attached to the lamp iron.  I think there is (or was) one in Mount Pleasant, near the house with the variegated pebble pavement in front (laid down, by the way, by a blind man). The link-extinguisher was a sort of narrow iron funnel of about six inches in diameter at the widest end.  It was usually attached to a lamp-iron, and was used by thrusting the link up it, when the light was to be put out.

The image above is taken from Recollections of Old Liverpool and shows the city as it was in 1813.


In Whitby Harbour: August 10th, 1811

On Saturday, August 10th, the Resolution had been in the harbour for almost three days and in that time it had been repeatedly struck against the bottom by a rolling sea:

About noon a heavy NE gale of wind commenced which soon caused a very high sea to roll into the Harbour every Person now much regretted that we had not gone above Bridge. Every tide for 2 or 3 Days the Ship struck an hour or two with such violence as to shake the masts exceedingly. No evident damage was sustained.

In Scoresby’s manifest of the cargo he records a successful season. The Resolution had taken 570 butts of blubber at half a ton each, and they were quickly rendered into oil. By September, duty had been paid on 214 tons, and 72 gallons of oil had, so far, been produced from the cargo. Scoresby says:

The prosperous issue exceeded my highest hopes. We obtained a cargo, consisting of thirty whales, which produced about 220 tuns of oil, the largest quantity that had ever been taken into the port in one vessel. The voyage was without much adventure. (Life of William Scoresby, p. 78).

In the days that followed the Resolution would be de-rigged and laid up for the winter, because for reasons of regulation, and the payment of the government bounty for whale oil, whale ships were not allowed to sail out of season. Sails were sent to the sail loft, to be stored in dry condition.

Overruled: August 8th, 1811

The following day, the Resolution entered the harbour, but was prevented from going beyond the bridge that divides the main harbour basin from the better protected upper harbour:

In the afternoon tide got the Ship opposite Mr Martines where we moored. I wished to proceed through the Bridge [in the entrance to Whitby harbour] but was overruled by the managing owners.

Pilot on Board: August 7th, 1811

By Wednesday the Resolution was near to Whitby and riding on the flood tide. Scoresby brought the pilot on board to see them through the Sandsend roads. The ship was prepared for entering the harbour, taking down the boats and their davits, so that by 4AM, they were ready:

when all Ships had got within the Piers made sail for the Harbour. We were somewhat too late for the tide and soon aground near the scotch head on the SE side.

Scoresby would not have been happy in the part of the harbour below the bridge, and as became clear, he had good reason, but they were at least inside the harbour, and home.

Ornamenting the Ship: August 5th-6th, 1811

By now, there was much anticipation of home on board the Resolution, not least because a high spring tide was expected at Whitby on Wednesday morning, and with such a large cargo the ship would need plenty of water to be able to cross the bar. Scoresby’s thoughts were of making the most of the wind, and his comments show the extent to which captains of sailing ships had to anticipate changes in the weather. He is keen to record where his decisions differed from those of other captains, especially when he got it right:

All the Ships in sight lay starboard tacked we lay larboard tacked W, WbN, or WNW conceiving that there was a probability of the wind westering after a hot Day so it proved for at 8AM we tacked and lay SSW made all sail to the S1/2W. At 9 saw the Fern [FArne Islands] lights which we passed about 11PM.

Scoresby devised activities for the crew to keep them occupied, including making a figurehead. Ships in sight included theVolunteer, Lively, and Leviathan, which was heading for Hull. In the early hours of Tuesday, they were frustrated by the failure of the wind off Coquet Island, on the Northumberland coast:

At noon charming fine weather. Thermometer 73 [deg] Coquet Island 20 miles distant …

Yet, as the morning went on the wind strengthened from the South and South West, and they made slow progress tacking as far as Hartlepool on the Tees by evening. The Aimwell and the Lively were to the North, Scoresby says, and the Volunteer to the South. As the light faded Hunt Cliff came into view “10 or 15 miles distant” which meant they were almost home.

Fine Weather: July 31st-August 4th, 1811

By the end of July, the Resolution was as far south as mainland Scotland, and making good progress down the east coast. The starboard side of the ship was painted, and there were coastal vessels nearby, as well as the whaler, Volunteer. On August 1st Scoresby guessed that the coast he saw through the gathering gloom was Kinnairds Head, Fraserburgh, and on the 2nd they “fetched in with land close by Peterhead saw the Enterprise and two Fishing Brigs in the Roads”. There were many fishing boats nearby now, and it was warm. Scoresby recorded 72 degrees Fahrenheit on the 31st.

On August 3rd, strong southeasterly winds meant that the Resolution spent the morning tacking and getting almost nowhere, but by noon on Sunday the Cheviot hills, in the borders, were in sight. There was also news of the whale fishery in the Davis Straits:

The Leviathan [Hull] came up from astern got a list of the Streights Ships from him he has 10. On the whole the fishery in that quarter has been very bad many Ships having but one or two fish each. Two or three clean. One lost and another under Ice three Days and got into harbour where a piece of Ice 10 Tons in weight was taken out of the hold.