When I was growing up in Ulverstone in the 1950s & 60s there was a house at the bottom of South Road with the large vertebra of a whale sitting on its verandah. It was one of those childhood curiosities I longed to know more about, but over the decades it slowly faded from my memory.
Very recently I saw a photo of that very bone, posted by Craig Broadfield, administrator of the Ulverstone History FB group. It shows his great-grandfather Thomas Horsham posing with the relic before it ended up on his descendant’s front verandah.
Now thankfully these days in Tasmania people go to extraordinary lengths to rescue stranded whales. But for our pioneer ancestors the call, ‘Thar she blows’ meant a rare opportunity to earn some much needed extra money from the oil.
WHALE AHOY IN THE LEVEN
Following the stranding of another whale on the beach at West Ulverstone in 1918, an article in The Advocate recalled the 1874 capture. Here is how it unfolded.
The captains of two trading schooners, Captain Reid and Captain Burt, had unloaded their cargo and were waiting at the Leven River wharf when the great whale was spotted stranded on a spit at the entrance to the harbour.
Amid the initial excitement, both vessels sailed out, with only a couple of small knives and their 12ft paddles as weapons. Captain Reid clambered onto the creature and rather foolishly thrust his oar into its blowhole. Not surprisingly the whale ejected it, with such force that Reid was knocked off. Fortunately he fell back into his boat rather than the icy water.
TIME FOR A RE-THINK
The vessels returned to the wharf and the men reassessed the situation. All manner of hauling lines, blocks and tackle, and anchors were collected. As the winter sun went down they secured the whale as best they could, but by the next morning the giant visitor had broken free and vanished. When it reappeared to the east later that day another attempt at capture was made.
Mr P. Smith, the local blacksmith, hastily fashioned a harpoon from a sythe blade fixed to a spar. It was Smith himself who acted as harpooner, and dispatched the poor creature. The carcass was measured at 97ft long and 57ft in girth. It was towed up the Leven to the wharf where beer barrels, some obtained from the neigbouring towns of Penguin and Forth, were used to float it in position.
I so love the following account published in the Launceston Examiner on August 13. It mentions the extraordinary energy required by local men to dissect the whale and boil down the blubber. The Mr Fogg mentioned was the harbour master at Ulverstone, then still referred to frequently as The Leven.
A shed had to be improvised, boilers to be secured from all directions, casks from the Don cooperage, and these required to be well steamed to make them staunch, while a day and night party were constantly at work. Mr Fogg treated all hands in a liberal manner by giving 7s 6d a day with board. Much trouble was experienced in stripping the whale for want of cutting implements, and also through inability to turn the carcass when required. A very small portion of fatty material remains on the back, which is expected to be got off tomorrow if they can succeed in giving the monster a slight lurch. About nine or ten tons of oil will be realised; there would have been more, but some has unavoidably been lost. The event caused some sensation even at the capital, for a telegram has been received from Dr. Crowther requesting that the skeleton might be preserved and he would pay all expenses.
Dr Crowther was a Hobart surgeon, and also a collector of natural history specimens.
Someone who procured a decent amount of the oil was Thomas Shaw [son of Colonel M.M. Shaw], a settler on the Castra Road who had just established a flour mill. It was said that he was still using it to light his mill a few years later.
The Leven was in the news again in September, when the small settlement’s oil supplies were boosted by the stranding of a seal. ‘The honour of this transaction belongs to Mr McDonald’s household, by whom it was detected in a rather helpless state on the Leven beach, not very far from where the whale got stranded. The animal measured eight feet in length and will yield about five gallons of oil, which in addition to the skin will cause the adventure to be, pecuniarily, a success.‘ (Launceston Examiner, September 15)
If Dr Crowther did receive the skeleton there were definitely bits missing, including the vertebra that ended up on the verandah at the bottom of South Road. It is now held in the Ulverstone Museum.
I should add that Dr Crowther had been involved in the whaling trade himself, with a fleet of ships. He was a highly controversial character. For more information, CLICK HERE.