Jonah’s visit saw city have a whale for a time
IN the late 1970s Gloucester had a whale of a time. More accurately, Gloucester had a whale for a time. Its name was Jonah and it arrived on the back of a ten wheeled truck that parked for a couple of weeks outside the old swimming baths in Barton Street.
For a few pence visitors could join the queue and shuffle past the embalmed creature.
It was a sight once seen never forgotten and a smell once smelled never forgotten.
The mingled whiffs of formaldehyde in which the whale was pickled, diesel fumes from the generators used to power the refrigeration plant that struggled to keep the gargantuan carcass cool, plus that earthy pong that goes hand-in-hand with anything fishy that’s past its best, are unforgettable, even 40 odd years on.
Jonah was a 69 ton rorqual whale, more specifically a finback, almost 70 feet long, which had been caught and killed in September 1952 off the Norwegian port of Trondhjem.
The gargantuan carcass was taken to Oslo University where its vital organs were removed, the inflated lungs put on exhibition and a refrigeration unit installed inside to preserve the corpse.
Then Jonah was loaded on a specially constructed 100ft trailer, which at the time was the biggest lorry in the world, and taken on tour.
The intended purpose was to promote whaling, an activity in which Norway was, let’s hope to its eternal shame, a world leader.
But when onlookers saw the harpoons and other fearsome instruments used in the grisly industry to catch and kill the magnificent mammals, the effect was to awaken public conscience to the barbarity of the business.
For the next 25 years Jonah was exhibited all over Europe, Japan and Africa having been bought and sold by a succession of travelling show owners and circuses.
The unfortunate deceased mammal was exhibited in Holland, Belgium, Germany and France, before being dispatched from Dunkirk in a Dutch coaster to arrive in Britain and go on show under Waterloo Bridge in London.
Education boards positioned around Jonah informed visitors on such matters as how many kinds of whale there are, what they eat, how they communicate and so on.
Much more memorable, however, was the macabre sight of the whale’s vertebrae, ribs, inner ears and eye, which were on display, the latter in a glass demijohn.
A dormouse in a glass case was placed on a pedestal alongside the leviathan, presumably to illustrate to anyone who hadn’t already noticed that animals come in all shapes and sizes.
I was one of the many who went to see poor old Jonah in Gloucester.
In the same queue was a confused woman who asked the attendant if she was looking at the actual whale that swallowed Jonah in the Bible story.
When the attendant said he thought it unlikely, she asked for her money back.
A few years ago a book titled The Barnsley Whale by author Steve Deput was published and told the tale of Jonah.
It seems that there were in fact three Jonahs exhibited on specially constructed lorries.
Mr Deput discovered that one was disposed of in Spain. The fate of the second was unknown, although it could have been incinerated in a furnace belonging to the National Coal Board in Barnsley, Yorkshire.
But the third, said the book, is still with us. It was taken to a warehouse on the Dutch/belgian border to undergo restoration and possibly hit the road again.
Consequently he could appear on temporary exhibition somewhere near you soon.
If you’re living down wind at the time, you won’t need anyone to announce the fact of his arrival, of that you may be sure.
Incidentally, Whale Wharf at Littleton-upon-severn is so named because in 1885 an unfortunate leviathan was stranded there and died.
Such was the public interest that the Midland Railway ran special excursion trains from Gloucester to go and see it.
Families paid to see Jonah the whale
You could have your picture taken with Jonah
Jonah on tour