Whale Tales

This week sees librarian Helen Skilbeck investigate some whale tales from the 1950s.

At a recent virtual coffee morning I talked to an engaging group from Rothwell about some of the treasures of the Local and Family History Library. Afterwards one of the gentleman asked if I had any information about the whale that came to Leeds in the 1950s. A little perplexed, I asked him a few questions – was this a live whale, a dead whale or a skeleton? And where did you see it?  He explained that it was a dead whale on the back of a lorry and he saw it in a car park in the city centre. Still feeling a little perplexed I promised to investigate further and I soon found out that everything he told me was true.

A search of our local newspaper collection soon found an advert for Jonah, the giant whale, visiting Leeds in July 1954. He was indeed on the back of a lorry – purported to be the longest lorry in the world – and he could be visited at the Bus Station car park.

Yorkshire Post, 5 July 1954

The advertisement shows the exhibition was to be in Leeds for only 3 days – 5-7 July 1954 – and the Norwegian whale was 69 tons – the weight of 1000 people. He measured 66 feet long and could be viewed in its ‘natural state’. I’m not sure seeing a dead whale on the back of a lorry can be classed as its natural state but maybe I’m wrong.

Jonah was touring the country, staying only a few days in each location and an earlier Yorkshire Post report explains how this was made possible.

Jonah was killed three months ago off the Norwegian coast by a harpoon gun. He was then pumped full of air and injected with 2,200 gallons of formalin. Two holes were bored in his lower jaw, and after he had been towed ashore his liver and heart were removed, and in place of the liver a refrigerator was installed to help to keep him fresh. The liver weighed more than 4,000lb. and the heart was the size of a cow’ (Yorkshire Post 30 June 1954).

Prior to his visit to Leeds, Jonah had also been exhibited in Sheffield, Manchester, Morecambe, Scarborough and Hull as well as touring France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Holland.

Jonah’s tour did not always go to plan. A visit to Sheffield in May 1954 saw the refrigeration equipment installed in his stomach break down. An engineer attempted to enter the whale via its mouth but found its gullet was not wide enough. Instead he found a trapdoor that had been installed under the stomach and spent two hours inside the whale fixing the equipment. In June 1954, Jonah was travelling from Scarborough to Hull when the tractor pulling the trailer broke down. The whale was stranded for 12 hours near Bridlington until another tractor was sent from York.

You would think that one whale story in 1954 would be enough for Yorkshire but no, I also found a series of newspaper stories about a different whale, one known to us all as Moby Dick.  Associated British Pictures Ltd. were in the process of making a film of the Herman Melville novel and needed a ship to be transformed into the Pequod. Scarborough Corporation was approached and agreed to sell them the Hispaniola, which was usually moored in Scarborough harbour (not the Hispaniola still in Scarborough).

Yorkshire Post, 30 June 1954

So far so good, but unfortunately the production ran into difficulty when the 12 ton artificial whale – Moby Dick himself – went missing off the south west coast of England. After three days of searching for the 75ft whale, the search was called off and the film relied on partial whale reconstructions to finish shooting.

The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post can be viewed on microfilm in the Local and Family History Library – no appointment required. Contact us for further information on 0113 378 6982 or localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk.

One Comment Add yours

  1. MoiraG says:

    Sad, interesting about times past, and strange.

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