Whale’s untimely turn into Gorleston river led to tragic death

HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME...celebrated Great Yarmouth naturalist Arthur Patterson with the 30ft rorqu

HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME...celebrated Great Yarmouth naturalist Arthur Patterson with the 30ft rorqual caught in Gorleston harbour in 1891. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

Our concerns about the woes of the world, threats and fears, the state of the economy, immigrants swarming from troubled the Middle East, the in-out Europe campaign, junior doctors striking, Norwich City’s dire performances...all were overshadowed in recent headlines by the unexpected arrival on Norfolk beaches of stranded whales providing us with a welcome break from weightier issues.

MINDER: Arthur Patterson, custodian of the whale on exhibition.. Picture: SUBMITTED

MINDER: Arthur Patterson, custodian of the whale on exhibition.. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Sightseers flocked to see and photograph them, the media was excited, experts sought to explain how the creatures lost their way and swam into the North Sea by mistake, and pondered as to how a minke was among the sperm whales.

And the authorities were lumbered with the unprecedented task of removing the carcases and disposing of them, probably adding to future council taxes.

Exactly a century and a quarter ago, before the arrival of radio and television to disseminate news, the Yarmouth Mercury devoted much space to... a whale, which had the misfortune to unwittingly to swim into our harbour.

And we had the edge on our 19th century rivals because a man deeply involved in the watery drama was one of the Mercury’s admired weekly contributors!

DISPLACED: the Gorleston Ranger Company's lifeboat Elizabeth Simpson, in service from 1889 to 1939,

DISPLACED: the Gorleston Ranger Company's lifeboat Elizabeth Simpson, in service from 1889 to 1939, had to vacate her riverside shed so it could accommodate the corpse of the whale. She is pictured here as a pleasure boat in 1981. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

The whale became a legend, part of Gorleston folklore.

This unexpected visitor in June 1891 was a 30ft seven-ton lesser rorqual, a pike-headed native of the Arctic oceans far from its usual habitat and unaccustomed to finding itself confined in a river that was not only narrow but also shallow. The creature was unable to manoeuvre to escape from the muddy Yare.

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Nowadays we have grown more eco-conscious and supportive of wild-life conservation but, in the 19th century, scruples were sparse, especially if there was a few bob to be made one way or another from the intruder’s misfortune.

Being summer, crowds of people were in the vicinity as the excited activity became apparent, dashing to vantage points on riversides and piers to catch a glimpse of whatever was happening.

By good fortune, celebrated Yarmouth naturalist and Mercury columnist Arthur Patterson was strolling on the South Denes when he spotted lifeboatmen in a small boat rowing frantically down-river towards the piers. At first he thought they were on a life-saving mission, then realised they were chasing what he described as “so great a sea monster” - the unfortunate whale.

The number of boats increased as others joined in the chase. The frightened quarry became trapped in the cross-piles of a riverside landing stage and injured itself as it struggled vainly to free itself.

Then the creature died.

Undaunted, the boatmen used a windlass to winch the dead-weight corpse into the shed of the volunteer lifeboat Elizabeth Simpson where, I believe, it was professionally dissected, surprisingly observed by a group of men and women onlookers from Lowestoft and Norwich as well as from Yarmouth and Gorleston.

The dissection took a long time.

The rorqual’s flesh and entrails were taken away to use as dog meat and manure.

The cleaned-up whale, presumably stuffed to keep its shape, was put on show in response to clamorous demands from the public eager to view it at close quarters and willing to pay the admission fee imposed by its captors. Soon the carcase became the borough’s star holiday attraction, and crowds queued outside the boathouse.

But as summer progressed and the weather became hotter, the inevitable happened: decay set in, and the corpse began to stink. The stench was so potent that it spread from the boathouse to the entire neighbourhood. The captors tried vainly to combat the foul odour by burning tar.

With the lucrative income in jeopardy, a longer-term solution was required – and a decision was taken to stuff the whale.

Yarmouth taxidermist Walter Lowne was paid the sizeable sum of £30 to undertake his biggest and most unusual assignment – on condition that the boatmen skinned it for him and scraped away the blubber. The boatmen resorted to burning more tar while they tackled the malodorous fat.

Arthur Patterson advised the amateur skinners and, when the last of the summer sightseeing holidaymakers had departed back to their homes, accompanied the stuffed whale to London and other cities and towns for the delectation of the curious paying public, teaching himself to be a circus-type barker.

Then it was back home to Yarmouth where its popularity as a holiday attraction endured for years. However, the rigours of time and travel had resulted in wear and tear on the stuffed monster, and running repairs were frequently necessitated and were not always well camouflaged.

Patterson, an acknowledged man of many talents, demonstrated his artistic ability by producing an oil painting of the famous whale in the lifeboat shed, with the Elizabeth Simpson and most of her crew in the background.

But close scrutiny of the faces depicted would have revealed Patterson’s sense of humour and ingenuity because, years later, he admitted that because the coxswain was absent for the sitting, he resorted to giving him the features of none other than General Bramwell Booth, the nationally-known head of the Salvation Army!

The general’s face was partly hidden by a tactfully painted sou’wester.

That whale hereabouts was not unique because another celebrated local naturalist and columnist, the late Ted Ellis, wrote about watching lesser rorquals swimming off Gorleston Pier and, in 1927, going to Caister where a 29ft specimen had been washed up on to the sands.

As for the Gorleston whale, the whole episode was detailed in a contemporary six-verse 30-line poem.

Arthur Patterson (1857-1935) could accurately be described as “a man of many parts.” Apart from being a naturalist and lover of Breydon Water, he was a self-confessed “scribbler” and contributed regular Yarmouth Mercury columns, some under the pen-name of John Knowlittle and others headed “Melinda Twaddle’s Notions.”

His working life was equally varied, encompassing zoo-keeper, salesman, whale attendant, postman, warehouseman, and truant officer (school attendance officer).