Country house offers
whale bone amnesty

East Yorkshire's Burton Constable Hall celebrates link with Moby Dick author

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An East Yorkshire country house is appealing to the public to find bones separated from the skeleton in its collection of a 19th century whale that inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

The sperm whale was claimed by landowner Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable when it was stranded on the Holderness coast in 1825.

It was dissected by Hull doctor James Alders, who presented his observations to the Royal Cambridge Philosophical Society – becoming one of the first scientific studies of a whale.

The skeleton of the 58.5ft long whale was then put on display in parkland at Burton Constable Hall, where scientists, writers and tourists flocked to get a glimpse of a creature then little known to mankind.

The whale stranded on Holderness coast in 1825. Main photo: children view what’s left of its skeleton at Burton Constable Hall

Among the visitors was Melville, who was inspired to include the scene in his famous novel about Captain Ahab and his revenge on the whale Moby Dick.

He wrote: “Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities – spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan – and swing all day upon his lower jaw.”

The skeleton at Burton Constable then suffered long years of neglect, with local children in the mid 20th century playing on the frame and members of the public taking bones as souvenirs.

In 1995 the whale was retrieved from the grounds, before being conserved and put on display in the Great Hall at Burton Constable in 2009.

Melville read about the Burton Constable whale in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale

Burton Constable Hall is commemorating the bicentenary of the famous American writer and is asking members of the public who might have any bones to return them in an amnesty, so the skeleton can be fully restored.

Many of its vertebrae and much of the left flipper are missing.

Burton Constable’s celebrations include an exhibition by the artist Caroline Hack in the Carriage House. Opening on 9 July, the display will consist of print, hand-made books and textile works inspired by the British books that Melville used in researching Moby Dick.

She discovered that Melville read about the Burton Constable whale in Thomas Beale’s 1839 book The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. The book references Alderson’s dissection report.

Hack told Big Issue North: “Melville ordered Beale’s book as he was starting to think about turning his nearly finished whaling adventure book into the longer and more complex novel he eventually published.”

This is not the only whale in the UK’s history to captivate and inspire crowds. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, thousands attended tours by three dead sperm whales, Goliath, Jonah and Hercules,

The harpooned whales had been preserved in formaldehyde and placed on custom-built refrigerated lorries, and put on show across the country, from York, Coventry and Worcester to Barnsley, Plymouth and even Forton service station on the M6 near Lancaster.

Exposing the dramatic shift in animal welfare attitudes in the past half a century, today the UK and many EU countries have banned or restrict whaling as many species are endangered.

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