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The British Whaling Trade$

Gordon Jackson

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780973007398

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9780973007398.001.0001

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Chapter 8 The End of the Northern Fishery in the Late Nineteenth Century

Chapter 8 The End of the Northern Fishery in the Late Nineteenth Century

(p.129) Chapter 8 The End of the Northern Fishery in the Late Nineteenth Century
The British Whaling Trade

Gordon Jackson

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

With the run-down of both Northern and Southern fisheries, the second half of the nineteenth century experienced the same sort of marking-time as had occurred in the late seventeenth century. As a consequence the period is relatively unimportant compared with the great exertions before 1840 and the vast expansion after 1900, and it is only necessary here to outline the main lines of development. None of them led on to the modern industry, and important though British whaling may have been to individual persons and places, it had already departed from the mainstream of whaling and was sailing up a backwater as dangerous and ruinous as any in Baffin Bay. No amount of incentive, capital investment, technical advance or human bravery could save the Arctic trade, but it fought its painful death-struggle for three-quarters of a century, periodically encouraged by remissions that eased the pressure and sometimes brought a measure of prosperity....


With the run-down of both Northern and Southern fisheries, the second half of the nineteenth century experienced the same sort of marking-time as had occurred in the late seventeenth century. As a consequence the period is relatively unimportant compared with the great exertions before 1840 and the vast expansion after 1900, and it is only necessary here to outline the main lines of development. None of them led on to the modern industry, and important though British whaling may have been to individual persons and places, it had already departed from the mainstream of whaling and was sailing up a backwater as dangerous and ruinous as any in Baffin Bay. No amount of incentive, capital investment, technical advance or human bravery could save the Arctic trade, but it fought its painful death-struggle for three-quarters of a century, periodically encouraged by remissions that eased the pressure and sometimes brought a measure of prosperity.

Although whaling never actually ceased, except when frustrated by appalling conditions, there was no improvement on the position obtaining in the mid-1840s. Changes favouring the trade were slow to appear, and for a long time most developments worked against rather than for the whaling men. The final triumph of gas lighting in towns was self-evident; the eventual triumph of mineral oil in domestic lamps and industrial usage was inevitable. There were few industrial processes for which whale oil was uniquely suitable, and the forerunners of applied chemistry were already turning their attention to substitutes even for these. Against this sort of background entrepreneurs in the middle of the century withdrew their capital and their ships, following the lead of men such as the Gees of Hull, who made their mark and some of their money in whaling before going into general shipowning and steamship-owning in particular. In the years following the American Revolution shipowners had seen whaling as a valuable employment for ships. Now, with huge changes taking place in the shipping world, it seemed a sensible time to move in the opposite direction, and one after another of the Hull owners withdrew from the trade and came to terms with their port's position as the centre of the seed-crushing industry. Though there was a final flirtation with whaling in the 1850s, when more new whalers were fitted out than in either of the two preceding decades, (p.130) by 1861 there were only six vessels active in the port, and as these were lost or withdrew they were not replaced. There was plenty of adventure and heroism in the last years, but business is about profits, not heroism, and from this unromantic point of view the trade was bankrupt.

By contrast the Scottish ports remained in the trade, showing perhaps a greater degree of initiative in developing the seal fishery as a subsidiary of whaling and in employing steam whalers, their enterprise encouraged particularly by the growth of the jute industry.1

Seals had always been a possible make-weight on unsuccessful whaling expeditions, but it was left to the northern ports to make a flourishing trade out of sealing and to employ ships successfully in both branches of the Arctic trade. Peterhead in particular sent vessels adventuring along the Greenland coast, though by far the largest concentrations of seals were to be found off the coast of Labrador, which had long been a source of fur, but which was only recently of interest to the British whalermen as the Greenland seals were diminishing and as they made their wide-ranging explorations of the western side of Davis Straits in their search for new whale and seal stocks. Almost a million seal skins were taken by British vessels in the years 1848-1857 (table 17), but equally important was the seal oil represented by these skins, at roughly 100 seals to the tun.

The period around the middle of the century was that of Peterhead's dominance in the Arctic trade. After reaching a peak in the early 1820s her effort and achievement had diminished, in company with that of other ports, from an average of sixteen ships and 104 tuns of oil in 1820-1824 to twelve ships and eighty-one tuns in 1830-1834. Interest and optimism nevertheless remained: "there are still ten vessels employed in that trade," it was said in 1845, "and it is not improbable that it may again become more successful, as the late failures have been occasioned more by bad seasons and an altered state of the ice at the fishing grounds, than by a decrease in the number of whales."2 Any hope of a revived whaling trade was undoubtedly misplaced, but the sealing trade was increasingly attractive to Peterhead, which took three-quarters of all (p.131) the sealskins brought home in the years 1848-1857, compared with Hull's fourteen percent.

Table 17 Relative Performance of Whaling Ports, 1848-1857 (Average Annual Catches)



Tuns of Oil

Cwts of Bone



































Source: Dundee Year Book (1894), 210.

In 1853 she sent out twenty-seven vessels, of which two-thirds were sealers, compared with Hull's thirteen, and in 1859 she equipped over thirty vessels. For a quarter of a century Peterhead was the most deeply committed port in the country, relieved from the embarrassment of undue competition and blessed with a fund of experience that remained in the north long after it had been allowed to die in the south. The Grays - Peterhead's leading family in the trade - and their local friends and rivals recognised an opportunity for enterprise and initiative which those in the traditional whaling centres were either unable or unwilling to exploit. Further down the coast, for instance, the old whaling town of Dundee showed almost no interest in sealing, though on the strength of the growing demand from the jute industry she was already the country's leading whaling port.

Table 18 Average Number of Whalers Fitted Out, 1861-1879


Peterhea d

























Source: B. Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers (Glasgow, 1936), 460.

(p.132) The Peterhead era came to an end in the 1870s as Dundee began to consolidate her whaling and sealing interests by investing in a newer type of larger vessel which her northern rival had difficulty admitting to her harbours. As a result Dundee forged ahead of Peterhead, while all the other ports withdrew from the trade.

Although faced with heavy competition in the sealing grounds from other countries, chiefly from Norway, Dundee sealers enjoyed a considerable long-term success. The Aurora caught an average of 13,647 seals over eighteen years, the Esquimaux 12,152 over seventeen years, and the Terra Nova 17,613 over ten years.3 The value of such regular cargoes, with prices between 3s 6d and five shillings per skin, is obvious, and to the value of skins must be added the seal oil, worth only a little less than whale oil. In 1881, for instance, six Dundee vessels returned from the Newfoundland sealing with 139,985 skins worth on average five shillings, and 1797 tuns of oil worth £29, making a total of £87,109 or £14,518 per vessel. By comparison, all but one of these vessels also engaged in whaling, and earned an average of £3253 from that side of the trade, a clear indication of its relative importance, at least in 1881. After 1877 the volume of seal oil almost always exceeded the volume of whale oil brought home to Dundee.4 It was beyond doubt that during the more prosperous years sealing was "carrying" the whaling trade.

Within Peterhead and Dundee the processing of sealskins became an important industry. At first they were handed over to merchants for disposal, but eventually Stephens of Dundee, one of the chief firms remaining in the trade, established their own factory. Here the skins were graded, the finest young skins to be cured and dyed as furs and made up into expensive muffs, boas and capes on the premises, and the rest to be tanned as leather, graded from old sealskins suitable for japanned coach-leather to the young skins suitable for female accoutrements. The prize of the lot was the beautiful white fur of the pup less than ten or twelve days old, and seals, for all their prodigious abundance, began to disappear from the Greenland coast, and became more difficult to find in Labrador. Although there was no great diminution in value, the number of ships engaged in sealing declined abruptly in the 1890s and, except in 1900 and 1906, the numbers caught were very small.

The greatest boost to both sides of the trade (apart from changes in fashion) came with the application of steam power to whaling. In 1857 Brown and Atkinson and Bailey and Leetham, two of Hull's leading shipowners, had (p.133) experimented with auxiliary engines while a third, Thomas Ward, sent out steam tenders to assist his sailing vessels. The advantages of steam were immediately apparent so far as manoeuvrability was concerned and demoralised sailing crews told of their disappointment as they watched the rival steamers pass them by or force their way through hitherto impenetrable pack ice. "With powerful steamship the work is play now to what it was then, " Captain William Barron wrote as he looked back on his days in sailing whalers.5 Vessels were no longer so entirely at the mercy of unpredictable gales, and men, at least in theory, were no longer required to take to the ice to warp their ship along. The steamer's greater capital and operational cost was, from the point of view of the owners, more than compensated for by the versatility and speed with which it operated, especially in the northern ice beyond the reach of sailing vessels, and in the fjords where currents and winds would have wrecked them. "I have gone through Melville Bay with steam," wrote Captain Barron, "in twenty four hours without losing a moment's rest, whereas I have been six weeks going through with a sailing ship, and no better prospect in view. So things are more easily done than formerly."6 Steam provided speed in the passage between home port and the fishery, as well as within the fishery, with the result that vessels were able to make two voyages a year, one to the traditional whaling grounds and one, at the start of the year, to the sealing grounds.

The combination of steam, whales and seals appeared to offer yet another period of prosperity, and a number of companies were formed to exploit the new situation, often with the aid of the limited liability laws which, in Hull if not in Scotland, enabled smaller investors to return to a trade which for a generation or more had been in the hands of major shipowners. For those seeking new employments for steamers the prospect was exciting. In 1860 Brown and Atkinson had reformed their interests and offered shares to the public as Hull Whale and Seal Fishery Company Limited, formed, said their prospectus, "for the purpose of extending the whale and seal fisheries…which have dwindled away in importance for want of some such opportunity as is now presented by the operation of the limited liability act."7 By that time Hull had at least six iron screw steamers including, for a brief spell, Bailey and Leetham's (p.134) Corkscrew, the first screw steamer in Britain.8 Dundee experimented with steam in 1858 and had three steamers - Tay, Dundee and Narwhal in 1859, the year in which Peterhead's first steamer, the Empress of India was commissioned. Both the Scottish ports had their Seal and Whale Fishing Companies founded in the late 1850s, and Aberdeen followed suit in the 1860s, but the enthusiasm for monolithic companies soon died away, and whaling passed back into the hands of individual shipowners or groups of shipowners.9

The final burst of enthusiasm for whaling in Hull had been associated with yet another of the periodic improvements in the price of whale oil, which had risen from less than £30 to more than £50 a tun between the 1840s and 1860s, but while the incentive might for a short time be there, the technical ability was somewhat diminished. In short, Hull's experiment with steam whaling was probably the most unfortunate part of her long involvement with the Arctic. Steam alone could not guarantee success, and those who had expected it to conquer adverse conditions and expand the fishery were disappointed. Whether through bad luck or bad seamanship, her steamers did not return with catches of either whales or seals that were sufficient to encourage prolonged effort, particularly when the price of oil declined once more. Above all, perhaps, Hull made the wrong choice of steamers. Her great iron vessels were, because of fuel problems, almost all underpowered, as the men of the Diana discovered in 1866-1867 when she was trapped for the winter in ice through which Dundee vessels (one of which had refused to help her) were able to make their escape.10 Indeed, unless some system could be found for getting fuel to the Arctic there was a very real limit to the usefulness of steamers in far distant waters. Moreover, compared with the old wooden sailers, the new iron ships were cold and damp and extremely uncomfortable for their crews, who lived in a nightmare of frozen condensation. And they were, in Arctic conditions, relatively unseaworthy. It was not unknown for wooden whalers to return with their hull and superstructure completely misshapen after nips in the ice, but iron vessels had no such resilience under pressure. Most of the Hull steamers experienced varied degrees of damage which discounted any chance of useful profits and encouraged steamship owners to find more satisfactory and (p.135) secure outlets for their investments. They could point, for instance, to the case of the 600-ton River Tay of Dundee, built by John Key of Kirkcaldy. Supposedly with double the strength of a normal iron vessel, reinforced both internally and externally, and divided into forty-two water-tight compartments, she nevertheless sank in a mill-pond sea after being struck by ice. "Like other ships of her class," it was reported in the Dundee Year Book, "the iron whaler came to an untimely end…This was the last experiment of its kind."11

Despite Hull's unhappy experience with steam whaling, her withdrawal from the trade coincided with its general adoption by Scottish owners. Only thirteen percent of the whaling and sealing fleet were steamers in 1861, but seventy-one percent in 1871 and ninety-five percent in 1881, when there was still twenty vessels engaged in the trade. Dundee owners had learned their lesson quickly: steamers must be wooden, and equipped with adequate sails for use whenever possible, especially - by agreement between captains, who distrusted the noise - in the fishing grounds. With no more competition from Hull, the local firm of Alexander Stephens turned out a whole succession of first-rate steam whalers between their Narwhal of 1859 and Terra Nova of 1884. They also started whaling on their own account, and operated the two largest steamers out of the port, the 828-ton Arctic from 1875 to 1885 and the 740-ton Terra Nova from 1884 to 1894, when they withdrew from the trade.

The final factor encouraging Dundee whaling (and, so far as the oil was concerned, her sealing) and confirming her superiority in the trade, was the growth there of the jute industry, which soon became almost a Dundee monopoly. The rapidly expanding use in the 1850s and 1860s of Indian jute for sacking and associated things such as carpet backing and linoleum opened up an exciting market, since no other oil was so suitable for the batching of jute, the process whereby freshly opened bales were soaked in emulsion to soften the fibres before spinning. Despite attempts to replace it by mineral oil, most notably by James - "Paraffin" - Young of Glasgow in 1858, whale oil was not finally superseded for general purposes until the 1920s and 1930s, and even then it continued in use for the finest counts of yarn until quite recently. Some indication of potential demand can be seen in the growth of direct imports of jute at Dundee, which rose from around 30,000 tons in the mid-1850s to almost 100,000 tons in the early 1870s and over 200,000 tons in the late 1880s and 1890s.12 At least until the 1950s most yarns spun from this vast amount of jute had an added oil content of at least five percent.

(p.136) Given a local market, good ships, able crews and a fair degree of luck, Dundee whaling enjoyed a couple of decades as good as any in the recent history of the trade. The peak of her activity so far as the number of ships was concerned came in the late 1870s, and so far as catches were concerned in the early 1880s (table 19).

Thereafter, Dundee's interest in sealing declined gradually, as did the availability of seals and the value of their skins, but her whaling activities continued, despite a substantial fall in oil prices in the early 1880s, from over £30 to less than £20 per tun. As late as 1881 the proceeds of sealing amounted to £96,119 compared with £34,782 from whaling, an average per vessel of £6408 and £3162 respectively. By 1885, with tumbling oil and skins prices, the trades stood at £37,769 and £22,898, with averages of £3434 and £1431. Ten years later sealing brought in about £15,000 compared with £42,130 from whaling. The one or two ships still going to Newfoundland now stocked up with skins and ignored the oil, while whaling received its last great boost from the world of fashion. The decline in the supplies of whalebone had not deterred those who moulded and padded rich females in the final extravagance of waspwaist and bustle after c. 1870, when the corset became "a veritable cuirass;"13 and under such pressure the price of bone advanced steadily from around £500 a ton in the 1870s to £1500 in 1885 and £2300 in 1895. After a temporary decline in the 1890s it very nearly reached £3000 in 1902, and at least since 1896 whalebone had been by far the most substantial source of income.14 In 1905, when the peak of corset construction was reached with the exaggerated "S" curve, the whalebone brought into Dundee was worth almost eight times as much as the oil. Yet within two years the brassière began to replace the bodice, and what was left of the corset was increasingly elastic; the whalebone trade went out of fashion with the contrived "figures" which had held sway in polite society, with only the briefest respites, ever since the Basque whalermen had discovered the economic advantages derived from vanity.

Dundee's activity in the Arctic reached its peak in 1881 before she began to follow Peterhead and Hull into a slow but inexorable decline. Dundee Seal and Whale Fishery Company had bought no new vessels since the 680-ton Resolute in 1875 and did not replace vessels withdrawn or lost; in 1894 they were in liquidation, their last vessel sold to David Bruce and Company, who also bought the last vessel of Stephens, the ship builders and whaler operators who had also allowed their fleet to decline since 1884. The Tay Whale Fishery (p.137) Company ceased operations in 1884, and the Dundee Polar Company sold out in 1892. These firms had been the backbone of the industry which, together with Robert Kinnes and Co., they had more or less created. Though individuals continued, led by Kinnes and Captain Adams, one of the most successful of Dundee whalermen, none of their vessels was more modern than the Terra Nova, built in 1884, and the only vessels brought into the trade - by Adams and Kinnes - were old and cheap and, by recent standards, small. A handful of vessels continued to operate in the early twentieth century, but their cargoes were poor and their returns slight. The nine ships engaged in 1907 made an aggregate loss of £50,000, and thereafter the trade faded away. The last two vessels sailed on the eve of the First World War, and returned clean. British whaling in the Arctic was finished.

It must be emphasised that the run down and final demise of British whaling was caused not so much by a failure of the market as by a failure on the supply side. Despite substitution in the early years of the nineteenth century whale oil continued to find users, and not just in the jute industry. In the last quarter of the century imported whale oil was running between 15,000 and 20,000 tuns per annum, and Hull, for instance, was still importing between 2000 and 3000 tuns in the 1890s, over ten times as much as Dundee was bringing home in her own ships. The crucial fact is that whale oil now came from areas and was secured by means that were beyond the competence of English and Scottish whaling entrepreneurs. The final stage of the trade should not be viewed as a minor success because a handful of vessels from Dundee made a modest income in the absence of competition, and the occasional captain could make his five hundred a year. It should be seen rather as a failure on the part of entrepreneurs to cut themselves off from a dying trade before bankruptcy overtook it, and an unwillingness or inability on their part to exhibit that enterprise and initiative that would have directed them towards modern whaling. Even the much-publicised Dundee Antarctic expedition of 1892-1893 was equipped only with the small Henry "Express" gun which was mounted in the boats, and made almost no attempt to catch "modern" whales. The whole object of the expedition, according to W.G. Burn-Murdoch, one of its biologists, was to find the whalebone whale, "for making umbrellas and destroying women's waists - particularly for the latter purpose."15 The main hope for Dundee's future, so far as Captain Robertson of the Active was concerned, lay in his continuing faith "that a whale similar to the Greenland whale exists somewhere (p.138) in the Antarctic."16 In thus turning their hopes to the Antarctic so early they were in advance of their rivals, but their motive was out of data. Dundee men were not afraid to make investment decisions. The tragedy for British whaling is that they made the wrong ones, and having made them were overcome by the sort of icy paralysis that killed men in Arctic waters. They could not save themselves because they could not grasp the lifebelt; it was left to more open-minded capitalists from outside the industry to exploit the abundant whale fishery on Scotland's own doorstep. The British phase of whaling, which had begun around 1780, lasted for little more than a century; long before the First World War whaling had entered its Norwegian phase. (p.139)

Table 19 Dundee Sealing and Whaling, 1875-1904 (5-yearIy averages)




Average Per Ship





oil tuns


oil tuns


oil tuns

bone cwt.

oil tuns

bone cwt.






























































Source: Dundee Year Books, passim.



(1) The relationship between jute and whale oil may best be followed in the annual Dundee trade figures published in Dundee Year Book (Dundee, 1881-). Official notice of the whaling trade was slight after 1840, the best general source being B. Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers (Glasgow, 1936), passim. For Dundee, see S.G.E. Lythe, "The Dundee Whale Fishery," Scottish Journal of Political Economy, XI (1965), 158-169; and Dundee Year Book (1881), 82; (1890), 109; and (1894), 208.

(2) New Statistical Account of Scotland (15 vols., Edinburgh, 1845), XII, Aberdeen, 365.

(3) Dundee Year Book (1894), 216.

(4) Ibid. (1881), 29 and 39; and (1889), 31.

(5) W. Barron, An Apprentice's Reminiscences of Whaling in Davis's Straits. Narrative of the Voyages of the Hull Barque Truelove, from 1848 to 1854 (Hull, 1890), 33.

(6) Ibid. 62.

(7) Wilberforce House Museum, Prospectus.

(8) Hull Custom House, Hull Shipping Registers, passim.

(9) Dundee Year Books, passim.

(10) C.E. Smith, From the Deep of the Sea (London, 1922), is the edited diary of the Diana's surgeon, and is the best account of the terrible conditions faced by unfortunate crews in Baffin Bay, though it must be emphasised that the Diana's situation was unusual.

(11) Dundee Year Book (1894), 211.

(12) Ibid., passim

(13) N. Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines (London, 1954), 79.

(14) Dundee Year Books, passim.

(15) W.G. Burn-Murdoch, "Life at the Antarctic," Dundee Year Book (1893), 150 ff.

(16) Ibid., 146.