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The Story of the Woolwich Whale – 1899

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Ten years ago, a 18ft northern bottlenose whale swam up the River Thames. The event caused a media frenzy and such was the interest, thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to watch rescuers trying in vain to save the mammal.

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Earlier this week, I was sent a book called Newham Dockland which features a series of vintage photographs mainly about the Royal Docks and Silvertown. One of the photographs at the end of the book  features hundreds of people surrounding a dead whale at Woolwich.  Curious to find out more, I started to look at some old newspaper reports which clearly indicated that the 1899 whale  also created a lot of interest but its treatment was vastly different from the 2006 mammal.

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Another picture of the whale from Greenwich Heritage Centre

The first report from the London Post gives a few of the facts, especially how much it was worth.

A Whale In the Thames.

A bottle-nosed whale, forty feet long, weighing eight tons, and valued at £100, was stranded at 12:20 o’clock yesterday afternoon off the Cannon Cartridge buildings, Woolwich Arsenal. It came up the river with the tide, and when it found itself stranded on the reed bed “blew” furiously. In struggling to escape the whale Injured itself on the stones, colouring the river with its blood. About 2 o’clock the crew of the steam tug Empress fastened a rope to it, dragged it off the beach, and took it in tow, with the intention of consulting with the Thames Conservancy as to what was to be done with the monster. —London Post.

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A second report indicated the whale was 66ft and after a ‘exciting chase’ met its gruesome fate to the enjoyment of the crowd.

A whale in the Thames! He measures 66 ft. long and is of the bottle-nosed variety. After an exciting chase extending over four hours, the monster was hemmed in by two tugs, and driven on to a bank near Woolwich Arsenal. Here he spouted in great style, to the instruction and entertainment of the crowd, and after his death the fishermen set to work on him with knives and cut off steaks for home consumption. There is still plenty of him left for the excursionists who go down to gaze on his magnificent proportions.

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The Essex Field Club was a natural history group that provided reports on plants and animals, they provided a more scientific but no less gruesome account.

STRANDING OF A COMMON RORQUAL WHALE IN THE THAMES AT NORTH WOOLWICH, ESSEX.

ABOUT nine o’clock on the morning of Monday, the 27th November last (1899), a great Whale appeared in the Thames in the stretch of the river called Galleons Reach, which runs from the Albert Docks to Barking Creek. Several tugs went out to capture the animal. It is stated by the reporters that for four hours the tugs chased the visitor from Trip Cock Point to Silvertown Petroleum Works, and “the whale responded by whisking her tail vigorously and drenching the hunters with dirty Thames water.” At last it was run ashore near the ferry opposite the Pavilion Hotel, North Woolwich, and there done to death, but not without a tremendous struggle.

One newspaper stated that the whale “gave a magnificent spouting exhibition just before the end. Onlookers estimated the spout of water at 40 or 50 feet high” The whale was a female, measuring 66 feet 7 inches long, with a girth of 33 feet, and was estimated to weigh about 30 tons. On the Wednesday, the mammal, which had been rapidly decomposing, burst, and disclosed two calves. Some men slit the body open and delivered the young ones, one living about 20 minutes and the other only a very short time. During the night one was stolen, but one remained on exhibition with its mother. It measured 17ft  with a girth of 7 feet.

The animal was announced in the papers as a “Bottle-nosed Whale” but this was clearly an error, and in a letter Mr. R. Lydekker, F.R.S., has kindly given us the correct name of the species. Mr. Lydekker writes, “I myself went down to look at the whale, As most of our readers know, this spout of “water” is in reality a column of air from the lungs highly charged with vapour and possibly carrying up with it some of the water surrounding the “blow-hole” of the whale should it spout from below the surface.

In other posts on the subject, I have mentioned previous whale visits to London that often ended up with people attacking the ‘monster’ and killing it. Thankfully, we now know much more about these remarkable creatures and treat them with the respect they deserve.

Many thanks to Tony Down for sending the book.