Jonah’s visit saw city have a whale for a time

Gloucestershire Echo - - NOSTALGIA - nos­te­[email protected] Robin BROOKS

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

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