Residual Jungles #1 - The Barnsley Whale

by Ian Trowell - National Fairground Archive

 

Our 'Residual Jungles' series is a more light-hearted look at the persistence of Menagerie culture in Sheffield and the local region. Our first feature concerns the 'Barnsley Whale'. Plans for forthcoming features include the 'Hole-in-the-Road' fishtanks and the Peak District kangaroo colony. We welcome any feedback on these features, or ideas for further possible 'Residual Jungles'.

 

This fantastic travelling exhibition is considered as the 'Barnsley Whale' due to the modern-day whale hunt pioneered by author Steve Deput. The whale, a gigantic finback whale caught in 1952 off the Trondheim waters of Norway, had been toured on and off for many decades, mounted on an equally gigantic trailer, and trundling into towns and cities all around the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. This exhibited animal was colossal, but also the stuff of nightmares. Lumpen and static, dead and seemingly on the verge of decay, tired and battered, a large and lonely eye staring at nothing and no one - the exhibit quickly moved into the remit of circus and fairground handlers. It bordered between grotesque and beautiful, seeing the animal stirred the memory whilst closing it down - it was the stuff of bad dreams and unanswered questions as to how it could actually exist as it was.

 

Steve Deput chose to remember the exhibit rather than lock away his encounter like some behind the sofa 'Doctor Who' moment of childhood. His attempt to find proof and solidarity in the existence of the exhibit is acted out through the emerging media of bulletin boards and football fervour. His book, 'The Barnsley Whale', is as much about the phenomena of the original whale as it is about trying to prove he was not going mad in recalling something that was too bizarre to exist. Central to Steve's first sighting of the whale is his visit to the National Fairground Archive, where photographic evidence of the idea to travel a giant preserved whale is first presented in the World's fair newspaper, alongside images of the 1954 tour in our photographic collections.

 

The external showfront seen in Rugby, 1954 - Jack Leeson Collection NFA.

 

The whale itself seen from the back of a perplexed crowd in 1954 - Jack Leeson Collection NFA.

 

Steve's research, both for the book and afterwards - when he traces the whale itself to be existing (still preserved) in a warehouse location on the Belgium / Netherlands border - gives an insight into an attraction that outlived the Menagerie tradition by a good few decades. The whale surfaces in the 1970s, and is recorded in Sheffield as turning up at the bottom of the Moor for a short duration. It had long since outgrown its initial purpose as an educational exhibit, with other whale exhibits stripped of blubber and reduced to bony exhibits in natural history museums throughout the world. Further back it was used as a promotional device to support the Norwegian whaling industry, though as Steve observes, it probably served to have the exact opposite effect. Steve's triumphant endeavours in tracking down the surviving oddity are recorded on the BBC Sheffield website.

 

On tracking the whale he also obtains fascinating literature detailing the process of preparing and undergoing the exhibition of the animal:

 

"In the scientific preparation of this undertaking, experts in the fields of zoology, and chemistry were consulted to prepare for chemical conservation of the immense whale-carcass for through research, it was usually known that this mass of muscle and fat would usually start to develop decay and decomposition within 12 hours of death. After about 6 months of intensive preparation and travelling all was ready. At the whaling station in northern Norway scientific whale experts waited. 8,000 litres of formalin solution were stocked ready for pumping through long tubes and tubules into the veins of the whale as soon as it was brought in. In the port of Bergen in Norway things were very busy too. A factory specialising in the manufacture of steel hawsers designed a steel-net of the type hitherto unknown and which incorporated a special wooden platform capable of completely lifting the whale out of its natural element onto a ship. The German steamer 'Klaus' was commissioned for this purpose."

 

"It was now September 11 (1952). By noon the first aircraft had returned after a fruitless search. In late afternoon the excitement rose to fever pitch when our second aircraft reported a school of whales conveniently near the whaling station. Two hunting boats were standing by.. The hunt was on. shortly after 4 o' clock the boats were near the whale school. A strong mature whale was looked for and a male of over 20 metres length was eventually chosen for capture. our JONAH. One of the hunting boats was finally close enough. Previously the heavy harpoon made of wrought iron and with an explosive grenade screwed to its point had been placed in the harpoon gun, The strong nylon rope was carefully rolled... 16.09 - The Whale swims near the surface. From time to time his massive blue back appears out of the high waves. Carefully our gunner takes aim, waiting for a shot at close range... 16.11 - Now. the whale is hit and dispatched in a quick humane manner."

 

"At full speed the boat steams back to the whaling station. At the whaling factory now begins the race against the process of decomposition. Working hour after hour, regardless of time, about 7,000 litres of blood in the whale are exchanged for the formalin solution. Experienced whaling men work in the inside of the animal's body. Entrails have to be cut out, including the liver which weighs about 12,000lbs (equivalent to the weight of 6 standard cars) and the tongue weighing 4,800lb, or nearly as heavy as 3 standard cars. All this happened on 11th and 12th September and was the beginning of a long tiresome and costly preparation. In April the following year, six months later the whale was finally placed on the specially constructed trailer, at that time the longest mobile tractor trailer in the world."

 

On tour still in the 1970s - photograph Steve Deput.

 

Candidates for therapy in later years...

 

Whales old...

There are many stories about giant whales being washed up or captured and used by local entrepreneurs for exhibition purposes. The original handbill reproduced below shows a giant whale being exhibited in Charing Cross in the late 1820s. Not only exhibited, but hollowed out and fitted with a small orchestra and seats for spectators. I'm not sure if clothes pegs were supplied for what must have been an astonishing stench. But it must have been an experience that has barely been matched in modern times.

 

Another famous whale is the Boscombe Whale - washed up dead in 1897. The Coastguard, acting as an agent for Her Majesty's Receiver of Wrecks, auctioned it off to a local man for 27 who wanted to display its bones. The whale skeleton was eventually displayed on the pier, on a specially constructed support, as an attraction for visitors and tourists. The exhibit amazed visitors for several years, particularly young children who would slide down the bones. The local press reports events as follows: "Boys took running jumps up its slippery sides, and tobogganed down them on the seats of their trousers gleefully. Earnest schoolteachers took parties of youngsters and gave lessons in natural history. Farmers poked the thick hide of the beast with sticks, and inland folk raised exclamations of astonishment at its length, its strength and its thickness".

 

A local rhyme is recalled as follows:

 

Have you been to Boscombe?
Have you seen the whale?
Have you stood upon its back
And smelt its stinking tail?

 

Pavillion of the Whale at Charing Cross - NFA collections.

 

... and whales new.

The whale washed up and stranded in the Thames in 2006 reflected a new sense of concern. There was no talk about selling it to an enterprising exhibitor to go on tour as a pickled monstrosity. Attempts to keep it alive were followed through a continuous news feed, in effect the form of spectacle reportage that had supplanted the Victorian show.

Between the last remnants of the tour of the 'Barnsley Whale' in the 1970s and the compassion shown to the unfortunate Thames visitor in 2006 the visual arena of experience had been handed over to the media, growing at a rate to put even Jonah to shame. Underwater spectacle had been unleashed with the 'Jaws' franchise, as everything moved towards a branded and packaged experience modelled initially on rubber and plastic before the ubiquitous arrival of 'CGI'. The last travelling sea monster to tour the fairgrounds was a gigantic rubber shark, persisting until the 1980s on the back of the 'Jaws' phenomena. Seemingly it is now safe to go back in to the water

 

 

A large plastic shark in the NEC Fair, 1980 - Ron White Collection NFA.

 

Four years later in the serene setting of Burntisland - Dick Price Collection NFA.

 

To download the full leaflet in pdf format given out with the Jonah Tour please click here

 


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