The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 2015 is (understandably) getting a lot of coverage in the British press at the moment. For most British adults at the time, living in a state of war was all they knew, so the end of hostilities must have come as a great relief. It is difficult to imagine now not hearing such momentous news within minutes or hours of events taking place. But a whaling journal entry from August 1st 1815 brings home the reality of a world where the latest news events might have happened last week, or a month ago.
On that day, the whale ship Esk, commanded by William Scoresby Jr., was returning from the Arctic. After almost five months at sea, most of which had been spent north of the Arctic Circle, Scoresby and his crew encountered a fishing boat from Orkney. So it was, somewhere off the Firth of Forth, and over six weeks since the defeat of the French at Waterloo, that these whalers finally heard the news. This is what Scoresby wrote in his journal:
Tuesday 1st August, 1815*
… At noon spoke to a smack from Orkney bound to London with a cargo of fish, which gave us the gratifying intelligence that peace was once more returned to Europe, through the gallantry of our British troops with most splendid honours & that the pest of the world, the violator of treaties and oaths was again taken captive or has delivered himself up. This intelligence was so grateful to the feelings of all our crew was received with three cheers & returned by [the] smack with loyal heartiness. These pleasurable feelings were … enhanced by the distinguished [share?] which the idol of our country, the brave & judicious Wellington bore in the unequal contest.
*Scoresby’s journals have been transcribed and edited by C. Ian Jackson and published in three volumes by the Hakluyt Society. This extract comes from The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Volume II, 1814-1816. London: Ashgate, 2008.
Last week I had some exciting news. I have been selected to exhibit my photography in the Northern Exposure exhibition at the Portico Library and Gallery in Manchester. Northern Exposure is an annual exhibition of the work of seven or eight artists from the North of England. This year the exhibition is taking place from 3-30 July, during the Manchester International Festival, so it is a great opportunity for me as a photographer, and one I know I am lucky to have been offered.
For as long as I can remember I have been interested in where the boundaries lie between rural and urban, natural and human-made. Even in my relatively short lifetime British culture has become significantly more urban-centred (and London-centric), but of course the process goes back much further than that. I have begun choosing the eight or so pictures for hanging in the exhibition and all of them will explore the ways in which human activity and nature interact, the human influence on apparently natural landscapes, and how we have come to see the natural, or perhaps unnatural, world.
More of my work is over at my photography website Mottershead and Hayes.
Over on my photography blog, some pictures of Lime Street, Liverpool, in reflection.
Just a quick note to say I’m going to be giving a talk entitled Oil Lamps, Corsets, and Neptune’s Razor: The Popular Culture of Arctic Whaling at Liverpool Hope University on March 2nd, 1pm-2pm, room FML 123.
The forgotten history of Arctic whaling had something of a boost from the British Library in the form of a blog post by Philip Hatfield on the contribution of William Scoresby Jr. to the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Hatfield is a curator of the Lines in the Ice exhibition at the British Library and his post reproduces some of Scoresby’s beautiful detailed drawings from An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) to support his view that the whaler and scientist is overlooked in the history of the Northwest Passage. Scoresby’s two volume book was arguably the most important text on the Arctic and Arctic whaling for a century after it was published. It is referenced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851), Charles Darwin had a copy in his library, and the second volume remains the most comprehensive description of the processes involved in Arctic whaling before about 1860. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Scoresby was frequently referenced in newspapers as an expert on the Arctic, and was a champion of Lady Franklin in her attempts to find her missing husband. Her efforts in 1849 included paying Hull whalers significant amounts of money to join the search. Scoresby went with her to Hull to help her persuade them.
I agree with Hatfield that the significance of whalers in Arctic exploration has been overlooked by historians, but their part in the story was necessarily limited by commercial concerns. While some whalers did contribute to exploration, the number who contributed to scientific knowledge from outside of Admiralty-sponsored expeditions is very small indeed. Scoresby of course is the great exception, but as a talented and university educated scientist he was unusual among whalers in any case. Even so, Scoresby struggled throughout his whaling career to square scientific interests with financial obligations to the ship owners and his crew.
Scoresby’s achievements are many. In 1817 his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, informing him of a sudden, significant, and unexplained retreat in the sea ice, helped convince Sir John Barrow that an attempt on the Northwest Passage might then be possible. Although he was to play no part in the failed expedition led by Capt. John Ross in 1818–he sailed instead from Liverpool as commander of the whaleship Fame–Scoresby later became a friend of Ross and in March 1820 visited him at Stranraer when the Baffin took shelter in Loch Ryan on her maiden voyage north. In 1822, Scoresby made the first detailed map of a section of East Greenland, naming it the Liverpool Coast, and noting that it was 70 miles West of where the Admiralty maps suggested.
Like many people at the time Barrow subscribed to the belief that sea near to the North Pole was warm and free of ice. The popularity of this view can be gauged by its appearance in Frankenstein (1818), in which the narrator Walton declares “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” (p.5) Scoresby himself remained sceptical about explorations by ship in the high Arctic. The Caledonian Mercury reported in October 1818 Scoresby’s suggestion that an attempt on the Pole might be made with sledges: “… he proposes to pass the winter in the island of Spitzbergen, and starting in the spring with sledges drawn by dogs, to pursue a direct journey of 600 or 700 miles to the Pole. He might then expect to find a continuous sheet of ice, stretching through his whole track.”
Scoresby’s achievements, however, stand out among whalers, whose priority was to bring home a full ship in the shortest time possible. Whaleship crews became restless, and even threatened mutiny, if they felt time was being wasted. Even the enticement of a reward for any whaler who found a passage through the ice could not persuade captains to take the risk of becoming beset. A ship full of blubber and a winter beside the hearth at home, while by no means guaranteed, was a more attractive prospect. Indeed, Barrow complains in an 1817 Quarterly Review article “On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific”, that whaleship captains, who received a substantial government bounty on their catches, had to swear to the custom house to pursue whales and “other large creatures” and undertake no other activity. Whalers were legally obliged to catch whales, rather than explore. Even Scoresby’s own explorations, notably the 1822 voyage to Greenland, were undertaken alongside commercial whaling (he caught nine large whales that year) and his freedom to go ashore was granted by his Liverpool underwriters. Led by Scoresby’s friend William Rathbone, they gave him more generous insurance terms than other whalers, with the express purpose of aiding his research, but the owners–and the law–still expected him to bring home a full ship if he could. Frustrated, Scoresby gave up whaling the following year.
Whalers have certainly been overlooked in the history of Arctic exploration, but the neglect of twenty-first century historians is less significant than the failure of the governments of the time to take advantage of their expertise and experience. As Barrow himself argues, the presence of large British whaling fleets in the Arctic offered an opportunity for exploration which the Admiralty did not adequately encourage or exploit.
I’ve been working for a while now on a book about William Scoresby Jr. and his 1822 voyage to Greenland, though with other work to do, progress has been slow.
By 1820, Arctic whaling was in decline in Liverpool, and it stopped altogether after the 1823 season, but in the late eighteenth century it was big business. Evidence of its significance exists even today in the street name “Greenland Street”, which runs perpendicular to the Mersey, and parallel with Parliament Street. It is divided now by modern development, but it used to connect up with what was then the southern end of the Queen’s Dock. Greenland Street is now home to Camp and Furnace and an ice-cream van depot, among other things. It seems likely, given the name of the street, that the oil works that stood by the Queen’s Dock in the late eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, serviced a mixed industrial area of bone cutters, stay makers and warehousing, centred there. In the 1780s, when Liverpool whaling was at its peak, Greenland Street would have been on the edge of town. I suspect it was a good thing that it would also have been downwind of the city most of the time.
The area around Greenland Street must have been an unpleasant place to live, but quite a few whaleship captains did just that. Between about 1818 and 1825, Scoresby himself lived a quarter of a mile up the hill, on the then relatively new development of Upper Stanhope Street. Very few of the buildings that Scoresby would have known now exist, apart from the church of St. James (above) and possibly the once rather grand, but now sorry-looking house below. Gore’s Directory suggests he lived at number seven, so not very far from this derelict remnant. On foot, he could have been at the Queen’s Dock in ten minutes.
In 1968, Dorchester brewer Eldridge, Pope brewed a special ale to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy, the novelist and poet who lived nearby. I’ve always had a vexed relationship with Thomas Hardy. The Trumpet Major, the novel quoted on the label of the bottle in the picture above, was one of my set texts for ‘O’ Level English Literature and I found it so tedious and infuriatingly slow that I gave up on it, preferring to read horror and crime novels instead. It’s not a strategy I would recommend for passing exams, though I must say that fifteen year-old me enjoyed it at the time. I like to think I’ve settled my differences with Thomas Hardy since then, but on the whole I still prefer his poetry to his prose. The Trumpet Major, incidentally, was first published in 1880, the year before Eldridge, Pope’s “new” Dorchester brewery opened.
Thomas Hardy’s Ale is a 12 percent ale intended to be reminiscent of the “Casterbridge ‘strong beer'” Hardy describes in The Trumpet Major. Of this beer Hardy writes:
The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.
According to thomashardysale.org.uk in 1968 Thomas Hardy’s Ale was matured in sherry casks for nine months and sold in three bottle sizes: pint and half pint, sealed with a cork, and ‘nip’ which was sealed with foil over a crown cap. Taking into account the cost of brewing and maturing the beer itself, numbered labels, a ribbon round the neck of the bottle, and a medallion showing a silhouette of Thomas Hardy, this beer must have been a marginal proposition from a business point of view, so marketing was important. Thomas Hardy’s Ale was sold as Britain’s strongest ale and because of its rarity, and the advice that it would last for 25 years, it acquired a mythology all of its own. The 1990-vintage bottle pictured above states on the label that it is “one of the few British beers bottled with its natural yeast.”. It was being sold to the few remaining beer drinkers who cared. Eldridge, Pope brewed it again in 1974 and 1975 and then every year from 1977 until 1999.
From the start, bottles of Thomas Hardy’s Ale carried a quotation from chapter 16 of The Trumpet Major: “It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady.” This bottle belonged to my late father in law, Raymond Chapman, who wrote a book about Hardy, and it lay undisturbed in the cellar of his house for almost 25 years. Opening it in 2015, any headiness it once had was gone, but it poured a syrupy dark brown, releasing aromas of dark chocolate and caramelised sugar. It was delicious: slow moving and relaxed, with the soft bitter sweetness of molasses. It had been spending its time profitably, lying there in the dark, and it was a real pleasure to share it with The Ormskirk Baron. The lines that precede the quotation on the bottle put it better than I can:
This renowned drink—now almost as much a thing of the past as Falstaff’s favourite beverage—was not only well calculated to win the hearts of soldiers blown dry and dusty by residence in tents on a hill-top, but of any wayfarer whatever in that land.
Like Sack and Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Eldridge, Pope are also a thing of the past. The brewery went out of business after a failed attempt to become a pub retail chain. Devon brewer O’Hanlon’s carried on with brewing Thomas Hardy’s Ale between 2003-2009, before giving up because of the cost. The once impressive nineteenth-century Eldridge, Pope brewery is now a retail and apartment complex known as Brewery Square.
On November 13th (6.30-8pm) I’m going to be giving a talk at the University of Liverpool about Arthur Conan Doyle and his 1880 voyage to the Arctic on the Peterhead whale ship, the S.S. Hope. Doyle’s journal of his voyage, during which he acted as ship’s surgeon, was published by the British Library in 2012. He would later draw on his experiences in the Arctic in stories and in a factual article in Strand magazine in 1897. Doyle was one of many young doctors who had visited the Arctic on whale ships over the previous century or so, but at a time when Arctic tourism was growing in popularity, his voyage can also be seen as an alternative grand tour for adventurous young men who preferred frozen seas to the Mediterranean.
You can book a place though the university’s online shop here.
The new academic year is beginning, and that means a new set of Continuing Education courses is beginning at the University of Liverpool. Quite a few courses are brought together under “themes” this year. We’ve linked up with the Liverpool Gothic Festival to offer a series of courses called Other Worlds: Gothic and the Supernatural, there’s a series on The Grand Tour (I’m giving a talk on Arthur Conan Doyle’s journey to the Arctic on November 13th) and on Liverpool: Ideas and Culture.
Registration has already opened, but I wanted to highlight a few of the literature courses coming up soon. From October 1st Dr. Katharine Easterby is running a 10 week course on Burning Books and Dr. Diana Powell has one on Jail Birds, covering prisoners in literature in the early nineteenth century. From October 2nd there is a course on Reading Kate Atkinson, with Dr. Shirley Jones, and Read the Shortlist, covering the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Dr. Hana Leaper. Booking information is here.
New this year to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 14th at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, is a collaboration between History and English. This includes lectures on women in science by Dr. Claire Jones and on Lovelace’s father, the poet Lord Byron, by Dr. James Bainbridge, as well as lunch, and a visit to the special exhibition The World in a Particle. To book a place on Ada Lovelace Day, go here.
Full details of these and many more courses and events can be found on the University of Liverpool Continuing Education website.