Army shot at lost whale, thinking it was German submarine, in River Yare

BIG ATTRACTION: a 65ft whale on exhibition briefly at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach in the late 1940

BIG ATTRACTION: a 65ft whale on exhibition briefly at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach in the late 1940s. Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLE - Credit: Archant

There she blows! That traditional cry when whalers sighted their quarry is apt today as the giant marine mammals are featured here again.

ROYAL VISIT: Royal Navy personnel from HMS Watchful, the wartime shore base in Yarmouth, being inspe

ROYAL VISIT: Royal Navy personnel from HMS Watchful, the wartime shore base in Yarmouth, being inspected by the Duke of Kent in 1940. Sailors based there reportedly blew up the carcase of a whale towed out to sea after it died in the harbour. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

After whales were washed up on East Norfolk beaches recently, I recalled the famous Gorleston 30ft rorqual, trapped in the harbour and bludgeoned to death in 1891 before going on extended show to the paying public.

History repeated itself to a degree after the last war when another whale briefly became a money-spinning exhibit here. Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Bradwell, reports: “This was Jonah the Blue Whale which came to Yarmouth certainly before 1954 and perhaps as early as 1947.

“It came on a lorry designed to take an aircraft. It was not stuffed, but covered in some sort of preservative. It was displayed at or near the Pleasure Beach during a nationwide tour that extended into Europe. There must be people still in town who can remember it coming. I may even have been taken to see it!”

The novel attraction was photographed by the late Clifford Temple, the local freelance who included his shot of it in his 1993 book of 20th century scenes in Yarmouth and Gorleston. His caption said it was 65ft long, weighed 69 tons, and was exhibited at the Pleasure Beach for two days in the 1940s, presumably postwar.

Celebrated naturalist Ted Ellis wrote in his 1977 local newspaper column: “Twice, many years ago, I had the pleasure of watching the antics of Lesser Rorquals off Gorleston Pier and, when one of these whales came ashore at Caister in 1927, I went with Yarmouth naturalists Arthur Patterson and Philip Rumbelow to view the carcase.

“It was 29ft long with a tail spread of 5ft 8in, and the flippers just under 3ft long.”

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It was Patterson who witnessed the 1891 Gorleston whale saga and accompanied it when it went on show here and on tour. That whale continued to be on display here for several summers, hailed as our chief attraction, but by then Patterson had become a school attendance officer.

Then, although deteriorating into pieces, it came into the ownership of Gorleston publican George Turnrow who ejected the grazing cows from Gosling’s Meadow (now Bells Road) to exhibit it, mainly to visitors.

There appears to be no record of what finally happened to its dilapidated carcase, too damaged to remain on show...but 60 years ago a previous Peggotty wrote in his nightly Eastern Evening News column: “There is a well-founded suspicion for believing that it finished up in the river from whence it came.”

He added that early in the 1939-45 war a 50ft whale was sighted rounding our river bend and heading upstream. Because its big fin resembled a midget submarine, and the intruder failed to respond to signals, the military was ordered to shoot at it.

It died, either from gunfire or striking the quay-head, reported Peggotty, and “was towed out to sea and blown up by a naval party from HMS Watchful” (the Royal Navy shore establishment here).

Then I was directed to on-line encyclopaedia Wikipedia’s entry about James Bartley who, according to a late 19th century story, was swallowed whole by a sperm whale.

“He was found days later in the stomach of that sperm whale which was dead from constipation. The story originated in an anonymous the August 22 1891 issue of the Yarmouth Mercury newspaper of Great Yarmouth in England.”

I was astonished, surprised that the tale had never come to my notice during my long lifetime in the borough and journalism, nor to others well-versed in our past.

“Rescue of a modern Jonah” read that 1891 headline above our 1200 word detailed and well-written graphic report. At first I thought it was a hoax inspired by the Gorleston whale publicity, but it allegedly happened four months before that whale was killed here and six months before the Bartley survival tale was reported in the Mercury.

Bartley was a crewman in one of two small boats launched by the whaler Star of the East off the Falklands to try to harpoon a very large whale. When harpooned, it threshed about wildly in its death agonies before swimming away, dragging one boat with it.

The small craft capsized and its occupants thrown into the sea. All were rescued, apart from one who drowned and Bartley who had disappeared despite a search. The dead whale was lashed alongside the Star of the East while the crew toiled for hours, cutting into it to recover its fat. Its stomach was hoisted on to the deck the next day.

“The workmen were startled to discover something doubled up inside it that gave spasmodic signs of life,” continued the Mercury account. When “the vast pouch” was sliced open, “inside was found the missing sailor, doubled up and unconscious.

“He was laid out on the deck and treated to a bath of sea water which soon revived him but his mind was not clear and he was placed in the captain’s quarters where he remained for two weeks, a raving lunatic.” By then he was fit enough to resume his duties.

Bartley’s skin “underwent a striking change” caused by the gastric juices in the whale’s stomach: “his face and hands were bleached to a deathly whiteness, and his skin was wrinkled, giving the man the appearance of having been parboiled.”

Wikipedia claims Bartley died 43 years later, his Gloucester tombstone calling him “a modern-day Jonah.” But the on-line site lists numerous glaring inconsistencies,

contradictions and rebuttals in the story (for example, that the ship was not a whaler, and no crewman had ever been lost during that captain’s incumbency) but adds that it had been mentioned in several works by well-known authors, and in a television series.

So, who wrote and sent the report to the Mercury months after it allegedly happened, and why? Why did we print it when there was no local involvement whatsoever? Did the Mercury regard it as interesting to readers in a town of seafarers? Was it a hoax? Fact or fiction?

Alas, 125 years on, we are unlikely to discover answers to those and other perplexing questions.