Great Britain

The day Jonas the dead whale came to Durham

WHALE! I’ll be blowed! A 66ft-long, 69 ton dead whale once toured the country on the “longest lorry in the world” which called in at Durham, Darlington, Bishop Auckland, Stockton, York...

There was a refrigeration unit in its belly and a set of fairy lights around its teeth so that you could look down its throat.

Some people even remember entering the carcase through a door cut in its skin near its mouth and exiting through another doorway which must have been near an appropriate orifice.

And it smelled. It had a powerful whiff of the formaldehyde with which it was injected daily, and of rotting whale flesh.

Poor thing – but it was all done in the name of science, and in the best possible taste. It first toured in the mid-1950s and then came around once more in about 1972.

“I saw it in Durham City when I was a school boy in the early 1970s,” says Iain Smith. “We lived just by the viaduct and I remember it being parked on a trailer nearby at Millburngate (before the riverside was all developed).

“I recall being able to see inside and a nasty smell of chemicals - kids today don't know what they're missing!”

Iain still has the information leaflet that was distributed when the whale – known usually as Jonas but often as Jonah – came to Durham. The leaflet appears to be exactly the same as the one given out when Jonas went on its first tour in 1954, and it explains how Jonas was one of three fin back whales harpooned off the Norwegian coast by the University of Oslo and the World Wildlife Fund in 1952.

The hunting boats towed the whale at great speed back to a whaling factory where scientists raced against time to replace its 7,000 litres of blood with the same amount of formalin preservative.

"Entrails have to be cut out, including the liver which weighs about 12,000lb (equivalent to six standard cars), and the tongue weighing 4,800lb, or nearly as heavy as three standard cars, " said the leaflet.

Then Jonas began its “educational and scientific” tour…

“The whale exhibition business is a real money maker,” explained the Mail in 1954. “When Jonah was on show in Paris, he was taking £25,000 a week (that’s more than £700,000 today, according to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator).

“Jonah and the other whales are a novelty as no one has ever managed to preserve a whale before. A whale did once start a tour of the US but stank unbearably after a few weeks. The secret is gallons of formalin pumped into the body at high pressure and a refrigerator inside the whale’s stomach.”

This appears to be a reference to a whale called Miss Haroy – who also appeared under her married name Mrs Haroy – who was probably the first to go on tour. It was harpooned off the Norwegian island of Haroya in 1951, and taken to New York by a showman. Its appearance was launched with a press party in which Louis Armstrong played his trumpet inside her mouth, but it quite quickly decayed in the heat of the Manhattan sun. By the summer of 1954, the New York press was reporting Miss Haroya’s “unladylike odors” was driving customers away from nearby restaurants but then, on July 13, 1954, she mysteriously caught fire.

By which time Jonas was beginning its tour of the UK on what was billed as “the world’s largest lorry”.

From London, it came up to St George’s Field in York and then Bondgate in Darlington. It is possible that it came to Durham, and may have been displayed at Aykley Heads.

Despite all the formaldehyde and the refrigeration unit, Jonas did start to decompose, and there are reports that its eye fell out. It was popped in a glass jar of preservative and continued the tour.

Following these 1954-55 appearances, the whale’s trail goes cold until the early 1970s, when a showman bought it out of cold storage and put it back on the road. It stopped in the Market Place in Bishop Auckland, and possibly even Ferryhill, and, as Iain Smith reported, it definitely came to Durham City.

It spent most of its time covered by a tarpaulin inside a hoarding – you had to pay to see it, and when the show began, the tarpaulin was rolled back. Children, in particular who came from a pre-TV age when Blue Planet in high definition could not possibly have been conceived, were amazed by the enormity of the leviathan of the deep.

They remember its teeth and, of course, they remember its whiff.

This, though, was the whale’s swansong, and it was never seen in the North-East again.

There are reports that in the early-1970s, a whale's travelling carcass was disposed of in a National Coal Board furnace in Barnsley but, more recently, there are stories that the body of a whale called Jonah has been found in a giant fridge on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. In 2019, it was reported that it had been bought by another showman was about to hit the road once more.

Perhaps it was a good thing that the pandemic struck when it did and the poor whale has been able to rest in peace.

L We would love to hear from anyone who has any memories or memorabilia from Jonah’s tours in the 1950s or the 1970s. Please email [email protected] if you have any whale-related stories at all.

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