The North Water: The grim true history of Hull’s whaling history

A major new TV drama airing tonight will recall the days when Hull was one of the world’s busiest whaling ports.

Adapted from a critically-acclaimed novel by Hull-born author Ian McGuire, The North Water tells the story of a doomed voyage to the Arctic by whaling ship from Hull.

It is being screened on BBC Two in a five-part series after the crew and cast – including Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham – filmed many of the scenes in the Arctic.

Read more: The North Water BBC: Release date, trailer and star-studded cast of Hull drama

The cast also includes Hull-born actor Tom Courtenay.

Although part of the drama is set in mid-19th century Hull, onshore location filming took place in Hungary.

Even so, there are still many echoes of the boom-and-bust era of whaling in Hull to be found in the city.

Hull Live’s Angus Young takes a journey back in time to those days.

An illustration of Wincolmlee thought to date from the 18th century
An illustration of Wincolmlee thought to date from the 18th century

The early years

The first recorded whaling expedition from Hull was in 1794 when the newly-formed Hull Whale Fishery Company fitted out three ships – the Berry, Pool and Leviathan – to sail to Greenland.

The venture was regarded as a success when 236 tons of oil and 230 pounds of bone from 14 whales along with five seal skins were brought back to the port.

Until then, whale and bone oil had been imported from America and Holland as the Dutch had long been the leading European whalers in Greenland.

The River Hull snakes its way through the heart of the city where the old whaling yards once stood
The River Hull snakes its way through the heart of the city where the old whaling yards once stood

The initial success of the company did not last as subsequent trips failed to match the early returns. This was partly due to the unpredictable seasonal nature of whaling and the ending of hostilities in America which paved the way for a revival of whaling industry there.

Hull’s fortunes as a whaling port took an upward swing in the late 1760s thanks to a new tax on imported oil and bone from the colonies.

The former whaling ship Berry was put back into use by Hull shipowner Samuel Standidge along with two other vessels to resume whaling off Greenland.

Other shipowners followed his lead and by 1775 there were 12 whalers sailing out of Hull.

The king of the whalers

One of the founding fathers of the Hull whaling trade, Samuel Standidge was also arguably the most successful whaler of the era.

He was born at Bridlington Quay in 1725 and initially established himself in the American shipping trade.

During his time as a mate on a tobacco ship, he along with the rest of he crew were captured by pirates and held prisoner for six weeks before released on Rhode Island to fend for themselves.

Standidge used his time on the island to study the local tides and that knowledge later helped save his life when, after becoming master of his own vessel, he avoided being shipwrecked during a storm off the island by putting his former studies into practice.

Stephen Graham as the captain of the Hull whaling ship Volunteer in the new BBC TV drama The Dark Water
Stephen Graham as the captain of the Hull whaling ship Volunteer in the new BBC TV drama The Dark Water

Sixteen years later, he moved into shipbuilding in Hull and operating from No. 1 High Street where he also lived.

In 1794, at his own expense, he equipped his first ship destined for the Greenland whaling grounds, in a move said by fellow merchants to be an act “bordering on insanity”.

As a master mariner, he sailed to the Greenland fishery on several occasions.

He became Sherriff of Hull in 1775, Lord Mayor of Hull in 1795 and in the following year he was knighted by King George III.

He also served as the Warden of Trinity House on no less than five occasions. and was even granted honorary Russian nobility status by Catherine the Great for help he provided her in a war against Turkey.

He died in 1801 leaving £75,000 in his will – the equivalent of several million pounds in today’s money.

St. Mary's Church in Lowgate
St. Mary’s Church in Lowgate

He is buried in the north aisle of St. Marty’s Church in Lowgate in the city centre and there is a tablet inscribed to his memory on a wall in the church.

The crews

In the early 18th century, English seamen who knew anything about whaling were thin on the ground.

By the time Hull sent its first whalers to Greenland they were almost certainly a mix of local men and more experienced sailors from the continent who knew how to handle a harpoon or cut whale blubber.

The total crew of a typical whaler, including a master, mate, cook, surgeon and a couple of carpenters, was usually between 30 and 45.

Legislation passed in 1771 required all ships of 200 tons to carry at least four small boats capable of holding six men. It was these boats, rather than the main vessel, which did the actual hunting. If boats from more than one ship made a kill, the whale was usually shared.

Two big attractions in becoming so-called Greenlandmen were the relatively good wages and the fact that whaling crews became exempt from naval service.

Colin Farrell looks unrecognisable in new BBC drama
Colin Farrell looks unrecognisable in new BBC drama

The kill

Hunting and killing whales and seals was a brutal, violent and dangerous job.

Imagine chasing a whale in a small wooden rowing boat in icy waters, firing harpoons at your prey and then maintaining a line to it for at least an hour before hoping the exhausted wounded creature surfaces long enough to provide a target for it be killed at close-quarters with hand-held lances.

Dead whales were towed back to the parent ship, dismembered on board and the blubber and oil stowed away in casks to be processed in factories in Hull.

Bones and seal skins were also stored away for the return trip.

Seals were much easier to catch than whales and crews who faired badly in hunting for whales would often make up their cargo with seal skins. When Standidge’s Berry sailed back into Hull in 1766 it was carrying 400 seal skins. Two years later another of his ships brought back 700.

Skippers from Hull whalers; Captain Thomas Cauldrey of the Violet 1853-54 (left) and Captain William Cauldrey of the Mary Francis 1828-35 (right).
Skippers from Hull whalers; Captain Thomas Cauldrey of the Violet 1853-54 (left) and Captain William Cauldrey of the Mary Francis 1828-35 (right).

Back in Hull

Hull’s contribution to the industrial revolution was the development of a series of whale oil processing factories along the River Hull.

Half a dozen businesses based in what were known as the Greenland yards specialised in refining blubber and processing oil, cutting whalebone and turning it into household items and using whale by-products to treat animal skins in the production of leather.

Growing industries cried out for lubricants and Hull’s supplies of processed whale oil met that demand. It was also used to light street lamps in rapidly expanding towns and cities. Places as far away as Birmingham relied on Hull’s oil merchants for their public lighting.

Equally, the rise of middle-class families meant bones for corsets, hairbrush and knife handles, fishing rods and even bedsprings were an essential commodity before the invention of plastic.

Standidge also played a major part in developing Hull’s tanning industry, owning his own tannery yard which processed the seal skins his ships brought back from the Arctic before selling them for five shillings each. Prior this, the skins had been regarded as virtually worthless.

However, the processing plants, complete with pots of boiling whale blubber, were not for the faint-hearted.

Processing whalebones by hand n Wincolmlee
Processing whalebones by hand in Wincolmlee

Odours from them in Wincolmlee were often so bad that theatres in what is now Hull’s Fruit Market had to cancel performances because the stench from the factories were considered too distracting for audiences to bear.

The smell was probably a factor in Samuel Standidge moving his family home from Hull to a 200-acre estate at Thorngumbald where he built a mansion.

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Today, apart from the Whalebone Inn, there is no remaining physical evidence of the old whaling industry which once clustered around the River Hull.

A pub, in one form or another, is thought to have stood at or near the same site as the Whalebone in Wincolmlee since the early 1800s and was almost certainly a popular watering hole for workers in the whale processing yards which surrounded it.

Across the road, the former High Flags Mill was built in 1856 when whaling ships were still based in Hull.

High Flags mill before the start of refurbishment work
High Flags mill before the start of refurbishment work

Now partly converted into apartments, the mill closed in 1991. At the time it was Hull’s last expelling mill where seed was broken down into fine meal, cooked and then put through an expelling process to force the oil out.

It took its name from High Flags Wharf, which was named after the large paving stones laid along the riverbank where the whaling ships unloaded their barrels of whale oil.

The construction of the mill signalled a switch away from extracting oil from whales to using seeds instead.

Today modern-day oil processing still thrives along the river as a legacy of the long-gone whaling era.

A Hull whaler painted in an Arctic scene by John Wood circa 1830
A Hull whaler painted in an Arctic scene by John Wood circa 1830

The end

The final chapter in Hull’s whaling industry was written in 1869 when the Diana, the sole remaining whaling vessel sailing from the port, was wrecked off Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast during a return trip.

Thirteen men died in the tragedy, including the ship’s captain.

Shortly afterwards, the industry moved to Scotland where new fleets of steam-powered ships were operating.

A 112-year-old whale skeleton is part of Hull Maritime Museum's collection
A 112-year-old whale skeleton is part of Hull Maritime Museum’s collection

The Maritime Museum

One of the country’s biggest collection of whaling industry items is held by Hull’s Maritime Museum.

The collection includes whale skeletons, weaponry, scrimshaw art carried out by crews in their spare time on voyages who engraved whale teeth, tusks and bones as well an extensive number of paintings and scale-models.

The museum in Queen Victoria Square is currently closed while undergoing a major £15m refurbishment as part of the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project.

When it re-opens, the new-look whaling exhibition gallery is expected to be one of its star attractions.

The North Water

The North Water premieres on BBC Two at 9.30pm, Friday. September 10. Each episode will be an hour long.

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