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The skeleton of a fin whale, suspended outside the entrance of the Museum of Zoology, has inspired awe and affection among sightseers and scientists for the past 145 years. We trace its epic journey from the open sea to the centre of Cambridge

It has been auctioned three times, housed in a cricket ground and 68 children once huddled in its jaws.

Like many Victorian melodramas, the whale’s tale began on a dark and stormy night. Well after sunset on a winter evening in 1865, a south-easterly gale blew the carcass of a 67 foot-long male Fin Whale onto the shingle of Pevensey Bay.

By the following morning – Tuesday, 14 November – the storm had passed and, the Hastings Chronicle reported: “The weather was as beautiful as if a fine day had been especially looked out.”

News of the visitor’s arrival travelled fast, and thousands of sightseers set off by road and rail to see the monster. According to the Chronicle: “The road was used by a stream of vehicles of all kinds, from the aristocratic carriage and pair down to the donkey cart [and] in the afternoon, hundreds of working men were seen au pied hurrying in the same direction, taking the ‘short cut’ along the beach.”

Among the crowd was Hastings mayor Mr Ticehurst, who claimed the prize for the corporation. But local customs officials also had wind of the whale, and the next morning the town crier announced it would be auctioned for the Board of Trade.

And so, a little after 1pm on Wednesday, 15  November, ten local fishermen became the whale’s first owners. They paid £38 for the animal, quickly recouping their outlay by erecting a screen around it and charging for admission. One of the many visitors that week was William Henry Flower, conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Keen to see its skeleton properly preserved, Flower revisited the whale the following Monday and Tuesday, when local agricultural merchants had begun to cut it up for oil, leaving strict instructions to clean the bones carefully.

He wrote at once to the University of Cambridge, reporting that the whale’s tail, fins and sternum were safely locked up in the lifeboat house. Other parts gave him more concern. “They have not moved the head and anterior part of the vertebral column out of the reach of the waves, but I hope that this is done today, otherwise in this stormy weather it is in some danger. They nearly lost the whale a few nights ago, for it swung round in the water, fixed only by the snout. If nothing else happens to injure it, it will make a magnificent skeleton,” he told the Museum of Zoology’s John Willis Clark.

Once cleaned, the fin whale’s skeleton was, indeed, magnificent. But Flower and Willis had to wait to see it properly displayed. On 1 December the fishermen sold the whale – this time for £50 – to one Ainslie Harwood.

Big band in its jaws

At Christmas 1865 and Easter 1866 it once again went on public display – this time without its flesh – at Hastings Cricket Ground. “No less than 68 children have stood in the mouth at one time. A band of music also plays between the jaws at stated periods,” the poster proclaimed.

It also speculated about the whale’s origins, offering: “It was probably brought into the world in the cold regions – the Arctic Seas – some time after the Great Flood, where it has sported about, catching ‘small fry’, and otherwise amusing itself, probably for centuries.”

Having made his profit Harwood auctioned the skeleton on 29 May, 1866 and – third time lucky – the University at last got its hands on the specimen it had so long so desired. The whale finally went on display in the old Museum of Zoology in 1896. Suspended above the skeletons of an African and an Indian elephant, it stretched from one end of the gallery to the other.

When the old museum was demolished in the 1960s, the whale went into storage. “It cluttered up the stores in the museum for many years. Everywhere you went there were bits of this huge whale,” remembers Ray Symonds, who retired as the museum’s collection manager in 2008.

The final chapter of whale’s tale begins in the mid-1980s, when the bones were cleaned and planning for installation at its current position outside the new museum began. Ray, together with Dr Adrian Friday and technician Mick Ashby, then started to reassemble it. “The first phase was to get shuttering put up around the podium so that we could work out how to do it in private: you can’t go out and buy a book on how to put a whale together,” Ray says.

The team reused the original metalwork, beautifully designed and cast by the University’s Engineering Laboratory in the 1890s, and Mackay Engineering built an additional beam to suspend the whale on the podium.

“Attaching the beam to the ceiling needed someone to crawl into the floorspace, and it just so happened that Mackay had a lad who was a keen potholer, so he was sent up there to deal with the fixings under the floor,” he says.

The final challenge was getting the whale’s enormous skull onto the podium. According to Ray: “Early one morning a large crane arrived and extended its jib right across the lawn to help us lift the skull out of the pit and onto the lawn. But the roof meant the crane couldn’t get it up onto the podium, so with every technician we could lay our hands on we carried it up the stairs. It took 19 of us, shoulder to shoulder.”

Watching the shuttering come down in 1996 was, says Ray, a very moving experience. “All of a sudden, we saw it there – as a spectacular, great thing.”

Which is where it continues to work its magic on Cambridge visitors and academics like Professor Bill Sutherland and zoologist Dr Jeremy Niven. “As a conservation biologist it’s great to be able to gaze from the lab and be reminded that serious and complex conservation problems can be resolved. It’s inspiring,” says Professor Sutherland.

Says Dr Niven: “On Saturdays I see visitors startled by the whale as they come through the arch. It is remarkable. Zoologists here retain a feeling of wonderment about the natural world. Having the whale embodies that. And it makes me happy every day coming to work. Every morning, whatever the weather, there’s still always the whale.”


31 January 2013