Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Blackgang: a whale of a chine

There aren't many roles for whale skeletons in literature, but one appears in Maxwell Gray's 1913 novel Something Afar (published in the USA as The Desire of the Moth), where the author gets in a reference to her native Isle of Wight and a description (fancifully embroidered by Blanche, the protagonist's wife) of the celebrated whale skeleton at Blackgang Chine.
Como was a favorite place for honeymooning, the baroness thought, commenting on the wastefulness of choosing the most beautiful spots for that class of travelers, who ought to be too happy to care where they went; while Gino cynically hinted at a need of consolation in such cases, to the great indignation of Blanche, who held that a honeymoon could be spent with equal enjoyment in a balloon or a coal mine. "Ours," she said, "was in the Garden of England— that is, in one of them—the darling little Isle of Wight— inside a whale. How happy we were inside that sweet whale!"
      "A honeymoon inside a whale, Signora? Una balena?" the baroness asked, mystified.
      "So poetic, dear Baroness. It was, of course, quite innocuous—dead, long dead, and may be so still for all I know. Ah me! the days that are no more—just like a church aisle, only the arches got smaller toward the tail and began on the ground so there were no pillars. How it all comes back—the bones, the bliss, the starry night, one is afraid to say how long ago, but that tall child tells such sad tales. We walked up and down the whale, realizing the sensations of Jonah. So sweet and scriptural! There was melon at dessert that very evening."
      "Charming," the baroness smiled, very much mystified, but justly divining that appreciative adjectives would come in handy.
      "The very night we walked up and down under the stars in the whale—I saw some, walking by the lake to-day, green, but of course not so fine as on that dear night."
      "Not much sea-room for whales in Lake Como," Ronald supposed, and was told that melons, not whales, were alluded
      On reaching the terrace, Blanche was much comforted by coffee, which she said reminded her more strongly than ever of the Garden of Eden and that of England, and caused her to produce more reminiscences of the long defunct whale, whose remains embellished the hotel grounds in Blackgang Chine.
- Something Afar - US title The Desire of the Moth (Maxwell Gray, London: E. Arnold, 1913, Hathi Trust Catalog Record 100225565).
As I mentioned in the previous post - Blackgang Chine, March 2015 - we visited the Chine amusement park on March 30th, and stood inside this very whale, a fixture that has been with the park ever since its founding. I thought it'd be of interest to check out its early history.

The local press reported its finding early in April 1842:
Newport, April 9.
An enormous whale (90 ft. long, 35 ft. round, and 11 ft. through,) was discovered, scarcely dead, and floating in Totland Bay, between Yarmouth and Allum Bay, by one of the Coast Guardmen, on Sunday last. The Deputy Vice-Admiral of the Island (H. Hearn, esq.) having laid claim to it, as the property of the Crown, Mr. F. Pittis was ordered to sell it by auction. Many sums were offered for it, during the week, by private contractas high as 120l. we hear, for the body, and 40l. for the head only; which sums were, of course, refused. Since its discovery, crowds have visited the place for the sake of inspection; in fact, it has been like a fair there, for the last three or four days. The same whale, it is supposed, was seen alive off the Needle Rocks about six weeks ago, by a mariner, who reported it, at the time, to be a large porpoise; and it is the general opinion that it injured itself on some of the shingles, or rocks, which so abound along that coast.
- Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, April 09, 1842; Issue 977. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.
Alexander Dabell - portrait in
whale skeleton display hall
The outcome of the auction wasn't described in the report, but accounts soon after show that the winner was Alexander Dabell, an entrepreneur who had made the shrewd move of collaborating with the owner of the recently-built Blackgang Chine Hotel and developing the chine as a scenic attraction. You entered the park via a bazaar containing the whale skeleton, where you got entry to the paths down the chine either by entry fee or buying something.

Note, importantly, that Alexander Dabell didn't build the hotel, which was a speculative development by a Newport builder, and first appears in local papers in 1837:
Black Gang Chine, Chale, Isle of Wight
TO BE LET, with immediate possession,
a newly erected and perfectly free house, —
with about Five Acres of Pasture and Garden Land.
The House contains, on th ground floor, kitchen,
cellars, store rooms, pantries, wine cellars, &c. &c. &c.
On the basement, four sitting rooms, a bar, and bar-
parlour, On the first floor, seven capacious bed rooms,
the attics (which are light and commodious), seven
sleeping and one store room, There is a large tap-room
over the sculleries and out-offices coneniently detached.
The stabling for twenty horses, lock-up coachhouse,
and open car shed, with sleeping apartments over, and
conveniently and comfortably fitted up.
It would be useless to dilate on the beautiful and ex-
tensive views, romantic scenery, and numerous advan-
tages of a situation so justly celebrated and extensively
known as Black Gang Chine.
Black Gang Chine is nine miles from Newport,
and situated midway by the great thoroughfare netwee
Ryde and Freshwater.
For further particulars (if by letter, free of postage),
apply ro Mr. W.H. Jacobs, Chale Abbey Farm;or
to Mr. Wm. Stratton, Builder, Newport, Isle of Wight.
- Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian Royal Yacht Club Gazette, Southampton Town and County Herald, Isle of Wight Journal, Winchester Chronicle, and General Reporter (Southampton, England), Saturday, March 25, 1837; pg. [1]; Issue 714.
According to the entry for Chlae, Isle of Wight, in the Post Office Directory of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Dorsetshire, 1855, the initial owner was a George Jones ("Jones George, Blachgang [sic] Chine hotel), and Dabell is listed as "Dabell Alexander, bazaar & lodging house, Blackgang".

George Brannon, author of the classic Isle of Wight guides, didn't much like the setup, finding the development detracted from the grandeur of the scenery ...
A large and commodious HOTEL stands immediately at the head of the chine, bearing the designation of the place: it was built for the purpose, about the time when the Clarendon was wrecked. At a short distance from the hotel, above and below it, are three or tour genteel houses, a large shed containing the skeleton of a whale, and other erections, which by no means contribute to preserve the peculiar character of the scene, which certainly is that of savage magnificence. Upon the whole therefore, the reader must give as credit for describing what it was, rather than what it is.
- The Pleasure-Visitor's Companion to the Isle of Wight (Eighth edition, George Brannon, 1843).
... but he nevertheless thought the whale impressive ...
Close by is a long building containing the skeleton of the Whale mentioned at page 13: the gigantic dimensions (upwards of 80 feet in length), of this beautiful preparation, seldom fail to excite the liveliest feelings of admiration and astonishment.
- Vectis Scenery, George Brannon, 1856
Blackgang Chine Hotel, from
The Pleasure-Visitor's Companion to the Isle of Wight, 1843
Nelson's Hand-book to the Isle of Wight has a more typically positive description ...
From the beach at Blackgang Chine the tourist ascends to the upper cliff by a rough flight of steps, formed by small logs of wood imbedded in the earth at somewhat irregular distances. At the summit there is a "bazaar," with a collection of many-coloured bottles of Alum Bay sand, curious pebbles, agates, and fossils. Within a species of tent is preserved the skeleton of an enormous whale, stranded in 1843 on the shore of Gurnard Bay. A commodious hotel and some lodging-houses are seated in excellent positions upon the cliff; very pleasant in the genial months of summer and autumn, but a little too exposed for winter residence. 
- Nelsons' Hand-book to the Isle of Wight (William Henry Davenport Adams, 1877, Internet Archive nelsonshandbook02adamgoog).
Before long, the whale made its first appearance in fiction, in Harriet Myrtle's The Ocean Child, which is set in the Isle of Wight Undercliff.
     “We actually must make an expedition to Black Gang some day before I go,” said Uncle Harry, one morning, as they sat at breakfast. “Blanche and I have walked there over the hills twice this summer, and both times we have so longed for mamma and Chrissie, that it has half spoiled our pleasure.”
     “Yes,” said Blanche. “It is so delicious, mamma, to stand on the beach and see the great waves come in. There are no such waves ever here. Then there’s the whale.”
     “What whale?” asked Mrs. Howard.
     “Have you never been at Black Gang, then, since the whale was there?” asked Chrissie. “It is an enormous skeleton of one that came ashore there; it is more than ninety feet long, and is kept in a shed built on purpose for it. We rode there one day to see it.”
The Ocean Child: Or, Showers and Sunshine. A Tale of Girlhood (Mrs Harriet Myrtle, London: Addey & Co., 1857, Google Books ID uUpWAAAAcAA).
(Harriet Myrtle was a pseudonym for the Scottish author Lydia Mackenzie Falconer Miller - née Fraser - who wrote improving books for young people. An aside I won't go into here: The Ocean Child has a remarkably similar scenario to Maxwell Gray's 1879 The Broken Tryst - see The Ocean Child: MG inspiration? at A Wren-like Note).

If you know of any other fictional references, please let me know.

The whale, by the way, is a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), which goes under various names: finback whale, razorback, or common rorqual. As an unusually well-prepared and complete skeleton, it attracted academic interest in the 19th century, a time when whale species were still being documented, and it appears in a number of scholarly journals.
The third skeleton was prepared from the animal which was washed ashore on the south coast of the Isle of Wight in April 1842. A short notice of it has been given by Dr. Gray*; and it once received a visit from the distinguished Danish cetologist Eschricht, as mentioned in his valuable Untersuchungen über die nordlichen Wallthiere; but no further description of it has ever been published. My notes are brief, but they are sufficient to determine the species. They were taken on the 11th of last August. The skeleton belongs to the proprietor or exhibitor of the well-known gully in the cliff called “Black Gang Chine,” about six miles west of Ventnor, and is at present in a stable attached to the house which forms the entrance for visitors to the “Chine”.
* page 50, Zoology of Erebus and Terror, 1866
- The Proceedings of the Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London, 1869
The skeleton is complete except for the baleen (the feeding filter, which went to the British Museum - see page 142, List of the osteological specimens in the collection of the British Museum, 1847) and a chunk cut off the jawbone. Unfortunately my camera battery chose this moment to run out, and I didn't get a picture, but as Jan Toms relates in the 2011 The Little Book of the Isle of Wight (page 32), this concerns the alleged incident when the visiting Queen Mary knocked off her hat on the whale's jawbone, and one of the chine staff immediately sawed off the projecting portion.

Out of interest, Alexander Dabell came by another whale a few years after the first ...
During the storm of last week on Wednesday, a whale of the bottle-nose variety was blown on shore at Grange Chine, near Brighstone. Sir R. Simeon, Bart., made claim to the wreck as Lord of the Manor, but Mr. P. Bright, the Receiver of the Droits of Admiralty, took possession of the fish, and employed Mr. Pittis, of this town, to sell by auction, on Monday February the 11th the disputed prize. After a short competition, it was knocked down to Mr. Dabell, of the Bazaar, Black Gang Chine, for the small sum of 20s., thus swallowing up the fish and leaving the Crown minus the expenses beyond the sovereign.
- Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc (Portsmouth, England), Saturday, February 16, 1850; Issue 2628. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.
... but what became of it isn't recorded.

Blackgang Bazaar - widely circulated
postcard image, c. 1918
There are some nice postcard images of the fin whale skeleton in situ in the bazaar in the early 20th century at the Isle of Wight Family History Society page Photo Gallery : Isle of Wight - Chale; at (Whale skeleton at Blackgang Chine); and at the Carisbrooke Castle Museum HistoricImages site (this one of the bazaar, with the skeleton just visible through the door at the book; and search "whale skeleton").

I will post here this postcard image I found in a defunct eBay listing, however, as it's rather different and enlightening: a postcard published by Walter Scott and dating from the 1940s, showing an outdoor view of the whole skeleton. You can tell it's at Blackgang by St Catherine's Oratory being visible on the hill above. Why it's outdoors is unclear. Was it during a move? Or was it at some stage of its career kept outside? This would make sense of the description in Maxwell Gray's Something Afar ...
... we walked up and down under the stars in the whale ... the long defunct whale, whose remains embellished the hotel grounds ...
... that otherwise seems mistaken. Something Afar was published in 1913, so presumably written in 1912 or so, and set in that year. The Ronald and Blanche Leith have been married 22 years; so if Maxwell Gray's chronology is real, that would place the open-air whale scene around 1890.

The whale gets a further mention in the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson's vivid, if highly jaundiced, account of the Blackgang Chine Bazaar after World War II. His description so closely matches the Barbara Jones book plate reprinted in the current display hall that I wonder if Jones based the picture on Grigson's text.

Blackgang Chine Bazaar - plate from
Barbara Jones, The Isle of Wight,
King Penguin imprint, 1950
- print in whale skeleton display hall
Still, at the head of the Chine, there is the Bazaar, now a hundred and forty-five years old. You go into a doorway, turn right for the Bazaar, go out straight ahead through another door for the Chine. And this door to the Chine is flanked by windows of orange, scarlet and royal-blue glass. On the left is a plaster bust of young Prince Albert with carefully curled hair; on the right a bust of young Queen Victoria. Above the door a stag’s head, in the spirit of Hills, or Howitt, or Landseer. On either side, by the busts, an art nouveau stand in purple and and green earthenware, supporting ferns. Leaning against the wall, bearing the words "Blackgang Chine" and negligently draped with a length of rope, a life-belt. In the Bazaar the Dabells (who started it and still keep it going) once sold pleasant china to well-to-do visitors, bell-glasses of coloured sand from the sand-cliff at Alum Bay, sea-shells to the amateur conchologists of the days of Sowerby and Edmund Gosse's father, shell-boxes and shell-trinkets. Now, in the Bazaar (or in 1939, for the Wight through much of the war has been a forbidden island), the Dabells stock gnomes and earthenware rabbits, and Whistler’s Mother in relief, in brass, and Fragrant Minutes of verse by Wilhemina Stitchstock for the charabanc passengers who get off at the Chine to do it all in twenty minutes. They still sell a few things of the age of Prince Albert and the young Queen. The Dabells still make and sell the bell-glasses of coloured sand. They still have Wedgwood and Doulton. They still have boxes of long, delicate shells, and shells like the skeletons of a fish; but these boxes lie in a neglected corner of the Bazaar, under the ribs of the whale, "the Balcenoptera Rorqual, or broad-nosed Greenland whale", whose bones were set up by the first Dabell in 1845. "The History of the Whale of Blackgang" (price 3d.) has some nice sentences of an earlier flavour: “The devotion of the mother to the cub is striking, as is also the fidelity of the mate . . . The tongue”(from here on it might apply to some flunkyfied business man in politics”the tongue, about 20 feet long, produces some 6 tons oil. . . . The eyes, about the size of an orange, are situated in a position at the back of the head to see in all directions, and are equipped with lids and lashes. . . “ Also there is a feathered metal canary, in a gilt cage, who sings for a coin. But dominant now, even over the whale, are the gnomes and the rabbits. In the garden outside, overlooking the ruin of the Chine, gnomes play at cards for charity; and for a penny, in the Mirrors of Mirth, you may elongate your legs, divorce your head from your body, or shrink to a wide, horrible mannikin.
- page 338, The Isle of Wight, Geoffrey Grigson, The New English Review, Volume 11, 1945.
By the 1960s, the style of the bazaar continued to be fairly tacky ...
From the neat and dwarfy cliff-garden you peer for the Needles, or get yourself photographed in the stocks, or go inside to the good little museum and marvel at the skeleton of a local whale whose tongue weighed two tons. You may attend the famous Blackgang Bazaar, a large antlered Victorian hall stocked to the ceiling with tourist trifles, anything from a bottle of coloured Alum sand to a condiment-set made of whisky bottle and soda siphon, or a Tease-Me screwdriver featuring a little lady who strips as you screw.
- Away to it all, William Sansom, Hogarth Press, 1964
... but now it's considerably more family-orientated, and has modernised with confidence, the genteel pottery gone, and replaced with a lot of dinosaur-related merchandise. The shop and whale have parted company, and the whale takes pride of place in its own hall in the Coast / Disappearing Village museum, delicately but atmospherically lit with flickering underwater effect - a far cry from the "shed" that originally housed it. It's still very impressive, and I like to think Mr Dabell would be pleased at what his descendants, who still run the site, have made of it.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment