Whale at The Home Office?

I love a good urban myth – and this one is no exception… a whale temporarily stored in Home Office grounds.

It was brought to my attention by Alan Bennett (now in his nineties), a retired Home Office employee and writer and illustrator of ‘Cat’s Eye’ – broadsheet of the Home Office Sports and Social Association [HOSSA]. In 1987, Bennett wrote about a mysterious whale connected to the naturalist Frank Buckland.

 

Poem and Illustrations by Alan Bennett - 'Cat's Eye' 1987
Poem and Illustrations by Alan Bennett – ‘Cat’s Eye’ 1987

 

Francis Trevelyan Buckland, known as Frank, was appointed to the Home Office Fisheries Inspectorate in 1867. This role meant overseeing new legislation designed to reverse the decline in the country’s freshwater fish supplies (over-fishing, industrial pollution, river obstacles to salmon migration, etc). Frank, as it happens, was a good old-fashioned eccentric – one who loved animals and never wasted an opportunity to observe them, dissect them, eat them and own them (see William Snell’s article for a taste of his life – fabulous!)

Frank’s time at the Home Office is remembered in one isolated incident, states Alan Bennett and he quotes from a talk given by Sir Edward Troup, Permanent Under Secretary, some time before his retirement in 1922:

‘… On one occasion a young whale had found its way up river and was captured and killed. Buckland took possession of its corpse and had it laid out in the inner quadrangle, where for some days it was the chief interest of the Department, until an ancient and fish-like smell began to pervade the rooms, and Buckland, who was, I imagine, impervious to smells, had to be told to take his whale away.’

Bennett has deduced, since there is no mention of this whale in any of Buckland’s writings nor in those of his biographers, that the tale should be read with caution. However, he has identified the Gilbert Scott buildings’ inner quadrangle as the most likely site to deposit a whale… although the quadrangle would have been reached by a small doorway in a narrow passage – not ideally suited to transporting a large mammal!

But there was a mini-whale in Westminster in 1877-1878, which Bennett believes could provide a foundation for Buckland’s myth. The whale was a 9ft-long beluga whale captured off Labrador and transported via sloop, train, steamship and wagon (as seen in the illustration below from The Graphic, 8 June 1878) to the Westminster Aquarium in Tothill Street, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

ImageThe beluga whale did not last long in the confines of its 40ft x 20ft x 6ft fresh-water tank, fed on live eels. Not wanting to lose its star attraction, the Aquarium removed the dead whale from its tank and exhibited the body the next day for all to see. A plaster cast was made and a necropsy was performed by naturalists and physicians who determined its death was caused by congested lungs – it had caught a cold during its travels. Could Buckland have been one of the naturalists present at the dissection? It’s highly likely. And could he have wanted to take the remains of the whale to his house in Albany Street for further inspection? This is also highly likely… was the Home Office a stopping-off point for the whale? Possibly…

Does anyone have further ideas? I’ve looked for references in newspaper archives for a possible whale capture in the Thames, or similar, without success…

 

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4 Comments

  1. The closest we’ve come to a story like this in New York was last summer, when someone left a dead shark (small, about 3 feet or so) on the N train of the subway from Coney Island! But this story is certainly a whale of a tale — groan…

  2. One unmentioned aspect to this is perhaps the nature of the Civil Service as it was in those days. It was peopled by eccentrics (it was a job for life after all) and the culture was to show great personal respect for those eccentricities. This lasted until the sixties and early seventies when at last it succumbed sadly to the modern age. I remember when I joined being issued with soap and a personal towel while blue coated messengers called several times a day collecting files and transported them to adjacent offices. I even remember a man who brought a car engine into the department and another who decorated his entire office with bamboo. So that someone should bring a whale into the Home Office does not surprise me and no doubt the Home Office paid for its ride home in a Hansom.

    Buckland may have also been faced with the problem that having taken possession of the whale it now became government property and therefore had to be disposed of according to the rules. He might have been sacked had he just taken it home and eaten it. As it belonged to the government it had to be stored on government property until a decision could be properly made what to do with it and certainly no-one had encountered this problem before. So the intervening days were no doubt spent composing and signing off Regulations: Whales captured by fishery inspectors, how to disposal of etc. It would be worth putting this to the Home Office archive and seeing if you could find chapter and verse.

    1. You in the Home Office – well, what a coincidence… All that insider info! I’m going to try and follow this up further.
      Loved your pig memories too, btw – you do write so beautifully!

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