Sunday, February 05, 2006


Whale Oil Salesmen

Nicholas Von Maltzahn notes in this week's TLS that the recent whale in the Thames was not, as previously claimed, the first such occurence. Turns out it also happened in 1658:

...The diarist John Evelyn reports the whale’s stranding at low tide. It “was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head”, whereafter with “a horrid groan, it ran quite on shore and died” (Diary, June 3, 1658). His description is corroborated by a newsletter from John Barber to Viscount Scudamore (June 8, 1658):

“The people of this Towne have gratified their eyes for almost a weeke together with a Succession of novelties: Green-goose-faire is the preface to the trapanning of a young whale betwixt Blackwall and Greenwich: a strange and unwonted spectacle here; it is sayd to be faeminine, & about 58. foot long, & about 12. in thicknesse; She was first discovered neare Blacke-wall, pursued by hideous cries of watermen, strucke first by a fisher man’s anchor, throwne from a bold hand, & then attempted by severall engines, V[iz.], musket-shot, resented his wounds soe highly that he made an outcry the most terrible that fancy could create; in fine they kill’d him, & drag’d him at a loyter [lighter, a boat used for lading] to Greenwich where then thousands of people in a day are to see him: men & ladies are carried on porter’s backes to him as he lyes in the water . . . (British Library, Add MS, 11043, f. 107)

The sightseeing tapered off, one guesses, as Barber goes on to comment that rotting whale now "stinks intolerably." And for anything to outstink London itself in 1658 really is something of an achievement.

A sign of our respective eras: while the 1658 whale was probably rendered for valuable oil, in the present sellers on eBay fetched £2050 for the watering can used on the whale.

Oh, and of course.... the whale's soul is now for sale.

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