History: How a whale captured in Weston-super-Mare was pieced back together 157 years later

PUBLISHED: 17:30 12 July 2017 | UPDATED: 18:29 13 July 2017

The whale, completed. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.

The whale, completed. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.

Grant Museum, UCL.

The skeleton of a whale caught off Weston-super-Mare’s beach 157 years ago has been put back together again after decades collecting dust in a museum storeroom.

An ink drawing of the whale beached at Weston on November 7, 1860 about to be butchered by a man with a large knife. It was drawn by Benjamin I Mable. Picture: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust, 2017An ink drawing of the whale beached at Weston on November 7, 1860 about to be butchered by a man with a large knife. It was drawn by Benjamin I Mable. Picture: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust, 2017

Whales were not a protected species back in 1860 when Jonathan Elwell fired 20 rounds into the poor creature and waited three hours for it to die.

Mr Elwell had been shooting with his son Gordon when he heard two huge fish were flapping furiously in shallow water at Sand Bay. They turned out to be a pair of whales.

One swam off, but one was claimed by Mr Elwell’s shotgun.

It turned out it was a northern bottle-nose whale, one of the deepest-diving mammals on the planet, and they hunt for fish and squid near the sea floor. They are rarely seen in UK waters.

Museum exhibition

The bottle-nosed whale was towed back to Knightstone Harbour and taken to Bristol, where it was exhibited in a museum – flesh and all.

Edward Goodingham bought it for £120 to take it on an exhibition around the country, and then promptly realised there was little demand to see the smelly whale. He sold it for £5.

It was bought by Mr and Mrs Mable, the founders of Weston Museum, who buried it and waited for the flesh to rot away.

They exhumed the skeleton two years later, boiled it, and then hung it in the museum for all to see.

The whale at the Grant Museum. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.The whale at the Grant Museum. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.

It hung there until 1948 before being taken to the zoology department at University College London, now known as UCL.

Early years in London

By the time the whale arrived in London in the 1940s, it had already been dismantled into its separate bones.

The whale was packed in several boxes but was not looked at again until 2012 when the museum curator uncovered it.

They eventually realised its skull was already on display in the Grant Museum of Zoology, run by UCL and has one of the best-recorded histories of all whales in the museum.

Whale, re-assembled

The public was invited to the Grant Museum at the weekend to put the whale bones back together again.

Before the work started, museum manager Jack Ashby said: “It will allow us to work with the public to help protect this incredible specimen for the long-term by cleaning 157 years’ worth of dust.

“But most of all, we want to know whether we have a complete skeleton. It’s so big that we’ve never been able to lay it all out before.”

The work revealed three pieces of the final vertebrae were missing and they were made of wood.

Volunteers piece the whale together. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.Volunteers piece the whale together. Picture: Grant Museum, UCL.

A random rib bone, one far too big to belong to a bottle-nosed whale, was also found in the box of bones.

MORE HISTORY: When the Nazis set their sights on Weston-super-Mare – the blitz of 1942.

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