Whitby’s whaling history helped develop the town into a thriving hub of industry. Our town was a capital of whaling trade thanks to the number of ships that were built and launched here. It was a perilous business, but those who braved the freezing northern waters could make a fortune.
Our whaling history is long and profitable, which sadly contributed to the reduction in the numbers of fascinating creatures in the ocean. It’s important that we remember the darker side of our history to ensure it doesn’t repeat itself and we continue to protect the biodiversity in the sea.
Whitby’s whaling history
Whaling in Whitby began in the mid-1700s. Two ships set sail in 1753 full of local fishermen. Their inexperience showed and they returned to town with only three whales. When they set sail with two additional ship in 1754, the locals were joined with seasoned Dutch harpooners and the industry began to grow.
At its peak, there were 55 whaling ships sailing from our harbour. One of the most successful whaling ships in the British fleet operated out of Whitby, capturing whales, seals and polar bears. However, it was an incredibly dangerous industry, with many ships never returning. Sea ice could trap or crush ships, killing all those on board.
Of all the whalers to sail from Whitby, one of the most notable was William Scoresby. He was prolific and is thought to have captured more whales than any other European whaler. He’s also credited for the invention of a ship’s barrel crow’s nest.
A crow’s nest is a structure high on the main mast of a ship. It’s a lookout point to see any approaching hazards, land, other ships, and of course, whales. Scoresby is noted for making the crow’s nest a much safer place to be with the addition of a protective railing on a specially designed platform.
Locals eagerly watched for sailors returning to Whitby. They needed the voyages to have been successful so they could get to work creating whaling products. A ship returning to harbour would display a whale jawbone to the mast of the ship if they had a good catch.
A whale would make a variety of different products. Rendered down blubber would become oil which was incredibly versitile. As well as burned in lamps, whale oil became soap, paint and candles.
Whale skin became leather and bones created the stays in corsets. Manufacturers would also use whale cartilage to make glue.
Have you seen the whalebone arch up on Whitby’s west cliff? It might surprise you to know, they’re not the original set! Three different sets of whale jawbones have stood on the cliffs to remind us of our whaling history.
The originals were a very impressive 19ft high and were originally erected in 1853. But, with the wild weather on the Yorkshire Coast, these were battered over time by wind and rain. Norway presented the town with a replacement in 1963, and the originals were stored in the now closed Whitby Archives and Heritage Centre.
The current whalebones you can see were donated by one of our sister towns, Barrow in Alaska, in 2003. They are from a bow head whale that was legally hunted by Inuits on Alaska’s northern coastline.
Whale watching in Whitby
After the introduction of anti-whaling laws around the world, whale populations in our seas have been increasing. Now, visitors take to the waters to watch whales in their natural habitat.