Liverpool and whaling

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painting of a black sailing ship with small details of whales being harpooned and seals being clubbed.

Success to the James of Liverpool

When I was a boy in the 1960s there were the enormous jaw bones of a whale forming garden gates at a pub in Frodsham overlooking the Mersey marshes. Doubtless the creature had been beached in the river, quite a common occurrence in the distant past.

Whaling ships once operated out of Liverpool but it was never a major industry in the port - at its height around 1788 there were 21 vessels registered as whalers. Today scant remains to remind us of this little-known period which ran parallel with the early growth of Liverpool. One place is Greenland Street, off Jamaica Street in the city centre. The waters off Greenland were among the places the Liverpool whalers hunted lucrative sperm whales and other species valuable for their oil-rich blubber and baleen - whalebone used for making ladies’ corsets (stays). It is likely that Greenland Street got its name because it housed the warehouses, counting houses and offices linked to the whaling industry.

The whalers would spend weeks and months hunting their prey. When they had killed a whale they would strip the carcass and store away the valuable products. Practically all of the whale could be used in one form or another: whale oil was used for lubricants, soap, candles, margarine and curing leather. Ambergris, a wax-like substance from the intestines of sperm whales, was used for perfumes. There were many stay-makers in Liverpool and whalebone was also used in the brush trade.

Seafarers would fill their leisure hours decorating whale teeth with intricate scrimshaw designs featuring ships and seascapes. 

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is the only known painting of a Liverpool whaling ship, Success to the James of Liverpool. The James was originally a French ship that was seized by privateers in 1781. She made her first whaling voyage in 1800, going to Greenland every year until 1821. The anonymous artist shows a number of small boats in the water. In the bows of each stands a marksman armed with a harpoon to kill whales. Several whales are depicted, some spouting water from their blow-holes. To the right, a group of men are killing a seal on an ice floe. The tails of several seals can be seen in the icy sea.

Whaling was dangerous, particularly when icebergs were around, and in 1789 it was recorded that four Liverpool whalers were lost. In 1827 only one whaler, The Baffin, was operating full-time out of Liverpool and by 1830 there was no more trade out of the port.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.