Fishing for herring dominated the fishing along the East Coast, especially at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. But this is not the whole story. Following the coast from the Wash round to Essex, there were a number of different fishing operations, all set up to gain a living from the sea. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whaling operated from King's Lynn, and along the north west and north norfolk coasts there was a thriving shell fishery, for mussels, cockles and whelks. At Cromer, crab fishing and longshore fishing dominated. Inland, on the Broads, freshwater catches such as eels were exploited. In Essex, at Mersea, Burnham on Crouch and Brightlingsea, whitebait and oyster fishing were of more significance.
Whaling from King's Lynn
The Whaling Industry in King’s Lynn
The Growth of the Industry
Maritime industries have been vital to King’s Lynn’s economy for hundreds of years. From the eighteenth century until the late nineteenth century whaling was one of the most lucrative maritime activities-and also one of the most dangerous.
The earliest recorded reference to whaling in King’s Lynn comes from Thomas Southwell’s notes on the Arctic whale trade, quoting Sir Hamon Le Strange he says ‘a sperm whale cast ashore in his manor in 1626 was cut up and disposed of by some that had bine (been) in Greenland, fishing for whales’.
There were heavy investments in whaling in King’s Lynn during the eighteenth century, in part due to the rich rewards, including a ‘40-shilling a ton’ bounty, which could be gained. An Act of 1771 also encouraged the industry as it stated that whaling ships didn’t have to pay duties on their catches. The same Act also protected members of whaling crews from ‘press gangs’ during the whaling season, which ran from March or April until August each year. The purpose of the press gangs was to force unwilling men to join the Royal Navy, which at the time was a very unpopular profession.
The Uses of Whale Products
Whaling became such a significant industry in part because its products were so versatile and useful. Whalebone was used to make chair backs, brush and whip handles, by butchers for chopping blocks and in dressmaking for stiffenings. The jawbones were used to strengthen the hulls of ships and also ground down to make fertilizer. Grease made from whale oil was used to lubricate machinery and the oil was also as an ingredient in soap making and for street lighting and early lamps. St Margaret’s Church in King’s Lynn was illuminated using whale oils until 1839. The multiple uses of whale meant that it was a potentially very rewarding industry.
The Dangers of Whaling
These financial, and personal, benefits encouraged local men to invest in the whaling industry in King’s Lynn. During the eighteenth century the Greenland Company was established and around this time several whaling ships sailed from the town, including the Experiment, the Bedford, the Archangel, the Fountain and the Eclipse.
However, the men who worked in the whaling industry faced many dangers; from the sea, ice, the whales themselves and perhaps more surprisingly other Arctic wildlife. For example in 1788 Captain Cook, of the Archangel, was almost killed by a bear in Greenland, and was only saved when a member of his crew shot the animal dead!
Whaling in King’s Lynn
Whaling made its mark on the town of King’s Lynn, although there is limited physical evidence left now. In 1775 the Old Blubber House was built at Blubberhouse Creek. Horses towed the ships up the Nar to this site where the blubber houses were. Unfortunately this building was demolished in the 1960s. A house built on Bridge Street in 1605 for John Atkin, who was a merchant and mayor in King’s Lynn, was used as a public house for sailors of the whaling industry from the latter part of the seventeenth century. This association gave the name, ‘The Greenland Fishery’, to the building.
The Decline of the Whaling Industry
During the nineteenth century the King’s Lynn whaling industry went into decline. This was due in part to the increase in popularity of gas lighting as well as competition from Hull, Grimsby and London and the abolition of the encouraging bounty in 1820.
King’s Lynn relied heavily on its maritime economy and for a time the whaling industry was a highly important, but very risky, trade which brought a great deal of prosperity to the town.
Exhibition: The Maritime Collections of King's Lynn Museums
Model of the Mortar designed by Captain Manby
Image showing the Manby Mortar firing a line out to a stranded vessel
Gansey knitting stick or shield
Six steel double-pointed needles, of size 16 and 17 gauge, the type used for knitting ganseys.
Henry Valentine Little's Gansey
Walter 'Primo' Allen wearing his gansey.
Portrait of Cromer fisherman Gilbert 'Leather' Rook wearing a gansey and chummy hat.
The "Cromer" crew lookout