Ann, Christine, & Jonah, The Whale who came to York

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Jonah the Whale exhibited 1954

On a cool spring morning in 1954, Ann & Christine were accompanied by their preparatory school classmates into St George’s Field. Displayed before them lay the largest creature either child had ever seen, Jonah the Whale! Strapped to the world’s longest lorry, their first impression was the pervasive smell of fish, formalin, and grease. Having just spent a month on London’s South Bank, Jonah was visiting York for one day only before moving on to Darlington.

“Bob a nob, children free!” called the barker as adults paid their shilling and children gleefully queued to climb inside the partially preserved cetacean. The mouth was propped open, exposing the baleen plates, for folks to pose for photos. Entering from behind the head you could walk through the emptied chest cavity, lit by a string of electric lights and chilled by a giant refrigeration unit, before the visitors exited out of another orifice.

‘Jonah was killed three months ago off the Norwegian coast by a harpoon gun. He was then pumped full of air and injected with 2,200 gallons of formalin. Two holes were bored in his lower jaw, and after he had been towed ashore his liver and heart were removed, and in place of the liver a refrigerator was installed to help to keep him fresh. The liver weighed more than 4,000lb. and the heart was the size of a cow’

Yorkshire Post, 30 June 1954

Jonah, alongside Goliath and Hercules, was one of three whales that toured the UK from the 1950s until the early 1970s. The Northern Echo established that Jonah was on display in London in April 1954, but that same year, it definitely put in an appearance at St George’s Field in York, and Bondgate in Darlington.

Between May and August 1954 Jonah visited Luton, Cambridge, Rugby, Coventry, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Morecambe, Carlisle, Edinburgh, South Shields, Sunderland, Scarborough, Hull, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Preston, Burnley, Liverpool, Chester, Hanley, Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Portsmouth, & Hastings.

Direct from Paris, Vienna, & London. See a whale in its natural state! Manchester, 28 May 1954

Andrea, who now lives in Newton Aycliffe , saw the 60ft leviathan in York in 1953 or 1954. “The trailer was parked in St George’s Field, near the swimming baths, and was bigger than anyone had ever seen.

“The whale did smell but the man in charge said this was the grease they had covered the whale with in order to preserve it.

“Its mouth was propped open with a long wooden pole so you could easily see inside. To me, at that age, it seemed like a huge cave with a sort of frill round it – I remember we were told that the frill allowed the whale to sift its food.”

Andrea has a brilliant memory, for the leaflet explains: “The mouth contains hundreds of baleenplates… which filter its food from the water.”

Andrea says: “It has stayed in my memory probably because of its huge size to a little girl and the fact that my mother told us that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a whale.

“I have been lucky enough to see whales in their natural habitat since, and although inspiring, they have never filled me with such unforgettable awe as the one in St George’s Field.”

Sorry to spout on, 10 August 2012, Northern Echo

Like Andrea’s experience above, Ann has also had the privilege to observe whales in their natural habitat, watching giant humpback whales breaching. As remarkable as seeing a 60 tonne cetacean propel its body fully out of the ocean, this first sighting in St George’s field has never been forgotten.

Jonah arrives at London docks (1954), British Pathé,



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