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The Greenwich Whale and other Thames Whale Tales

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The Greenwich ‘whale’

Last week saw a lot of excitement on the Greenwich foreshore opposite the Isle of Dogs with an appearance of a whale, however it turned out that it was only a fibre glass model and was part of the Greenwich and Island festival.

It  did however highlight one of the strangest aspects of London life is that very occasionally whales do make their way up the Thames often getting beached in Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs causing considerable interest to the local population but usually ending in the poor creatures demise.

One of the earliest eye-witness accounts is by the diarist John Evelyn in 1658.

3rd June, 1658. A large whale was taken between my land abutting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, horse, coach, and on foot, from London, and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats, but lying now in shallow water encompassed with boats, after a long conflict, it was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head, out of which spouted blood and water by two tunnels; and after a horrid groan, it ran quite on shore, and died. Its length was fifty-eight feet, height sixteen; black skinned, like coach leather; very small eyes, great tail, only two small fins, a peaked snout and a mouth so wide, that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but sucked the slime only as through a grate of that bone which we call whalebone; the throat yet so narrow, as would not have admitted the least of fishes. The extremes of the cetaceous bones hang downward from the upper jaw, and are hairy toward the ends and bottom within side: all of it prodigious; but in nothing more wonderful than that an animal of so great a bulk should be nourished only by slime through those grates.

In 1690 an etching was made of a beached whale at Blackwall Dock.

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Unlike our more enlightened times, the first inclination was to kill these visitors as quickly as possible being viewed as ‘monstrous fish’.

A more scientific approach was recorded by Francis Buckland in the 19th Century in his Curiosities of Natural History. However this approach  nearly had tragic consequences for a certain Mr Clift, the assistant to Mr Hunter of the Hunterian Museum.

Some years before I was born, a large whale was caught at the Nore, and towed up to London Bridge,the Lord Mayor having claimed it When it had been at London Bridge some little time, the Government sent a notice to say the whale belonged to them.

Upon which the Lord Mayor sent answer, ” Well, if the ‘whale belongs to you, I order you to remove it immediately from London Bridge.” The whale was therefore towed down stream again to the Isle of Dogs, below Greenwich. The late Mr. Clift, the energetic and talented assistant of his great master, John Hunter, went down to see it He found it on the shore, with its huge mouth propped open with poles. In his eagerness to examine the internal parts of the mouth, Mr. Clift stepped inside the mouth, between the lower jaws, where the tongue is situated. This tongue is a huge spongy mass, and being at that time exceedingly soft* from exposure to air, gave way like a bog, at the same time he slipped forwards towards the whale’s gullet* nearly as far as he could go. Poor Mr. Clift was in a really dangerous predicament ; he sank lower and lower into the substance of the tongue and gullet, till he nearly disappeared altogether. He was short in stature, and in a few seconds would, doubtless, have lost his life in the horrible oily mass, had not assistance been quickly afforded him. It was with great difficulty that a boat hook was put in requisition, and the good little man hauled out of the whale’s tongue.

In 1895  a  whale 21 ft. in length made its way up the Thames to London, and, becoming injured by a steamer, was stranded on the Recreation Ground on the Isle of Dogs.

In living memory the most famous case was the whale in 2006 that got stranded near Battersea and the Houses of Parliament.

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