Whales on the Road
By Ruth Siddall, on 6 July 2017
This weekend, 8th and 9th July, the Grant Museum is running an event of massive proportions – the Whale Weekender – when the public is invited to come and rebuild and clean their whale skeleton. Long before it came to the Grant Musuem, the whale in question begun life-after-death, in 1860, when it was sold to be toured around the country as a whole carcass. That particular venture did not go very well for anyone involved.
This post is about dead whales touring the country on the back of lorries. There are not many things these days that provide pretty much no hits when Googled, but this subject seems to be one of them. You may well be asking why I would be Googling ‘Whales’ ‘Lorry’ ‘Supermarket Car Park’. Here is the answer…
I was talking to my colleague Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum, about their upcoming #WhaleWeekender extravaganza, and he mentioned the incredible history of their specimen and its intended national tour. I told Jack that I remembered seeing a whale in the back of a truck when I was a kid in Salford in the early 1970s. Jack looked at me like I had said 1870s. On reflection there is certainly a circus side-show, freak-show element to this experience. Until speaking to Jack, I have not thought about this for years.
I went home and got onto Google, expecting to find photos, local newspaper articles etc., but nothing came up. However I did discover two illuminating pieces about the phenomenon that was whale tours, one in the Guardian and another from the BBC (it’s worth clicking through to see the images of the whale-loaded lorries). Both remark that these events went largely unreported, although it seems that they were not uncommon between the 1950s and early 1970s. The touring whales were obtained from Norwegian whalers and were given imaginative names such as ‘Jonah’, ‘Hercules’ and ‘Goliath’, although one was called ‘Eric’.
The BBC article makes statements such as ‘In an era of limited television, staring at a dead whale was seen as a good pastime’ and ‘Parents took their toddlers to see the carcasses’. Yup. That was me.
I did find some memories via social media, from people of my generation living in my home town of Walkden in Greater Manchester. Many comments were along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember the whale in Walkden? Or am I imagining it?’ The comments showed that some did remember, many didn’t, but no one had any photos. There seems to be very little evidence that this actually happened. However someone did mention they had seen a mammoth and had a picture to prove it … but that is another story.
For those of us born in the second half of the twentieth century, one is often conscious that one’s memories are influenced by images (so now I am beginning to remember that I may have seen the mammoth too …) but I can safely say that this is not the case with the Walkden whale. This is what I remember: I was very young at the time, probably between 5 and 7 years old, which would put this event at between 1972-1974. My dad had heard about this whale and said ‘shall we go and have a look at it?’ So off we went to Scan car park where the whale truck was pulled up. Scan was a hypermarket, the first one in our area and it was located just off Manchester Road in Walkden (it is now a branch of Tesco). I remember it was rainy and misty. It could have been Winter, it could have just been Salford. There were not many people there. I suppose my Dad paid someone.
And there it was in the back of a lorry with the sides let down. A whale, huge and black, maybe 10 or more metres long. It was a big truck. It didn’t look real, it looked like it was made of a hard, black plastic. I asked my Dad if it was real (whilst keeping tight hold of his hand) and he replied ‘Oh yes, of course it is’. I don’t have any memory of smell (but I think that’s just me, I don’t have any memories of smell at all). In retrospect I suspect it was coated with tar or something. I have no idea what species of whale it was. All I really remember was its eye. I just remember staring at its eye. I imagined whales to have big eyes but this was small and beady, surrounded by folds of flesh. I seem to remember the lorry was blue. We looked at it for around ten minutes and then left. I haven’t really thought of it since. My Dad was a very keen photographer and in retrospect I am astonished he did not bring his camera and take a photo. I don’t have any memories of a photo, but perhaps I should scour my Dad’s slides and negatives. You never know.
Sadly my Dad died ten years ago. I phoned my Mum, wondering if I could extract any further information, and this is how the conversation went
Me: Do you remember Dad and me going to see the whale?
Mum: In Wales?
Me: No, in Scan.
Mum: In Wales??
Me: No, in Walkden, a whale – not Wales
This went on for a while, alliteratively, but sadly Mum had neither recollection of my Dad and me going to see it, nor any memory of a photo recording the event (NB My Mum now lives in Wales). I am beginning to wonder if I imagined this too – were it not for the fact that it is the only non-skeletal whale that I had ever seen until the 1990s and I can see its dead eye in my mind now.
[NB: The whale I saw in the 1990s was a dead, beached whale on the island of Mull. I don’t remember how that smelled either, but it must have been shocking].
I would love to hear from anyone who does remember the Walkden whale, but I am also interested to hear from anyone else who remembers other whale tours, despite them being something that can be gladly consigned to history.
The Whale Weekender will take place on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th July between 12pm and 4pm. Admission is free and is drop in: there is no need to book.
Barnicoat, B., 2015, The mystery of Jonah, the giant whale who toured the UK in the 1950s., The Guardian, Wednesday 8th July.
Bell, B., 2016, When dead whales went on tour., BBC News Online, 1st May.
Dr Ruth Siddall is a UCL Geologist, Geoarchaeologist, Urban Geologist and UCL Student Mediator.
This article was originally posted on Ruth’s blog: Orpiment.