Residual Jungles #1 - The
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
showfront seen in Rugby, 1954 - Jack Leeson Collection NFA.
The whale itself
seen from the back of a perplexed crowd in 1954 - Jack Leeson
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
"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.
therapy in later years...
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
A local rhyme is
recalled as follows:
Have you been to
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
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
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.
later in the serene setting of Burntisland - Dick Price
the full leaflet in pdf format given out with the Jonah Tour
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