Arctic whaling and the Shetlanders

There are many places nearer to my home in Norfolk than Shetland that have material about Britain’s Arctic Whaling Heritage so why spend a month Shetland researching it?  Well, I got to be artist in residence at Bressay Lighthouse for the whole month of July with a huge studio space to start to develop work in response to my research (thanks to Shetland Heritage Trust). I travelled round the islands visiting and photographing key whaling related sites and spent a lot of time in Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick, which I knew from previous visits was a great place.  So I think the reasons are understandable! It was a very long drive though. 

What was Shetland’s role in Arctic Whaling?  From the late 1700s ships from places like Hull and Peterhead picked up crew from Shetland (and Orkney) in the spring and returned them in the autumn. The Shetlandmen were generally excellent mariners and crewed the small boats that went after the whales in the seas around Greenland and Spitsbergen.  They were also cheaper to employ.  

Agents in Shetland hired the men and dealt with all the financial arrangements.  These included the basic daily pay and the bonuses of oil money.  It also included selling things to the Shetland men that they would need for the voyage.  Items such as tea, sugar, clothing and other kit they might need. This was supplied against the expected wages.  In some cases family members (e.g. wives or mothers) were also able to acquire items such as tea and sugar during the period the ship was away. These accounts were written in annual ledgers and for one Shetland company Hay & Co a number of these still exist.

Working on whaling documents in Shetland Archives

Working on whaling documents in Shetland Archives

 

The Shetland Museum and Archive hold a collection of documents – letters, lists and ledgers from Hay & Co and they let me look at them and photograph them.  These documents, particularly the ledgers bring this industry alive for me.  Although the ledgers are formal business records they allow glimpses into the lives of these men through what they purchased (or didn’t eg tobacco and spirits).  Occasional written notes – a date of a death and who outstanding wages was to be paid to, or my favourite – a cryptic note against one Hercules Ridland  “Mark this chap that he does not go again” (I checked the following year’s ledger and he did go again, on the same ship!). 

Hay & Co 1865 Accounts for Arthur Yell of Walls

Hay & Co 1865 Accounts for Arthur Yell of Walls

I’ve been interested in the Hull Whaler Diana for some years. I have blogged about its nightmare voyage in the arctic in 1866, forced to overwinter in the arctic leading to crew death due to scurvy with a higher proportion of the Shetlandmen affected. Hay & Co did not act for the Diana, but I wondered whether I could find any of the Shetlandmen on earlier voyages and I found a few in the years before.  Of particular in interest was Arthur Yell of Walls who sailed on the Polar Star the year before in 1865.  Examining the lists of things he had purchased prior to that voyage – things like Boots, So’ Wester etc I suspect that might have been his first voyage and so it would seem he died on his second whaling voyage.

Shetland Hay And Co Receipt

Shetland Hay And Co Receipt

 

And what of Hay & Co?  I will admit it took me a few days before the penny dropped.  The Museum’s café is called Hay’s Dock, the Museum and Archive is a new build surrounded by an old Quay and dock buildings – Hay’s old location! But then I discovered that the Buildbase Builders Merchants adjacent to the Museum site and spread across a range of buildings old and new is the current incarnation of Hay & Co.  I had a look round the shop and even made some appropriate purchases – some sisal rope and a pair of workman’s gloves.  You cannot imagine my joy when I saw the receipt still had Hay & Co on the top.