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Drawing for 'The Whale' © David Begley 2021

Measuring the whale © David Begley 2021

Edward Wickham © David Begley 2021

The Tale of The Wexford Whale

On Wednesday Morning March 25th 1891, a 23 year old lifeboat pilot, Edward (Ned) Wickham, spotted a whale floundering between Rosslare point and Raven point outside Wexford Harbour. Wickham and two pilots, Saunders and Blake, rowed out to the whale. Agitated as they approached, the whale thrashed its enormous tail. The men retreated to Rosslare Fort. 

 

As the day passed, the whale continued to struggle but found was no escape. It was stuck fast in the muddy bank of the Hantoon channel. Had Wickham and his fellow Rosslare Fort pilots wanted to save the whale, they could not. Without the buoyancy of water, the whale began to suffocate under its own weight. Through the night, it suffered. As it weakened and grew tired, Wickham and several men rowed out to end its life. After 1am on Thursday, March 26th, in the light of a full moon, Wickham drove a blade into the whale’s heart and killed it.

 

The captured whale measured 92 ft (25 metres). On Easter Saturday March 28th and Easter Sunday, 29th, three vessels took sightseers out to view the body of the whale at Swanton bank, Wexford Harbour. 

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Onlooker, drawing for 'The Whale' © David Begley 2021

Nine days later, William Armstrong, chairman of Wexford harbour board, bought the carcass at auction from the royal agent for £111. Ned Wickham was paid £50 for salvage of the whale. Some months later Armstrong sold the whale’s skeleton including its baleen to the Natural History Museum, London, for £256.

 

To prepare the skeleton for shipping, Armstrong had the whale towed to Raven beach, Curracloe, and hired a team of workers to butcher and clean it. This process took several weeks. The stench of the animal was appalling. Large lumps of meat washed in at Rosslare, Curracloe, and other sites along the coast. Meanwhile on Rosslare Fort, the whale’s blubber was being boiled to produce whale oil –  Armstrong harvested 14 barrels of whale oil, each holding over 200 litres of oil.

 

Today the skeleton of the blue whale (named ‘Hope’ by The Natural History Museum) hangs in the Hintze hall of the The Natural History Museum, London.

Richard C. Sabin, Principal Curator, Mammals, at The Natural History Museum, London writes: 

 

“Hope was a blue whale female (identified at the time of her death in March 1891 but confirmed in 2018 by DNA analysis of her bones and baleen). She was a young female, approximately 15-20 years old (blue whales can live up to around 80 years). By taking samples from her baleen, we were able to look at traces of carbon which were laid down in these tissues as she travelled from (approximately) Iceland to the Azores each year, going south to mate in the winter and returning north to feed in the summer. Another set of samples from her baleen allowed us to look at hormones present in her tissues, specifically, the presence of pregnancy hormones which confirmed that she had given birth in the year before she died. As she returned north, passing SE Ireland in March 1891, she may have been weakened from producing milk for her calf and may not have been strong enough to free herself when she became stuck on a sandbank in Wexford Harbour.”

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Edward Wickham 1868 - 1944

Edward Wickham was a 23 year old Rosslare Fort lifeboat pilot when he captured the whale. Ten years later he married Margaret Duggan. In 1913 when the couple had six children, Margaret died. Six months later, as coxswain of the lifeboat James Stevens No. 15, Edward and his crew saved the lives of ten men at the Mexico rescue.


A courageous, brave and compassionate man, Edward Wickham saved 151 lives in his lifetime.

Edward Wickham © David Begley 2021

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Further reading

While researching this project including the history of Rosslare Fort, the life of Edward Wickham, and the story of the whale, I learned  from these sources:

The Whale

Natural History Museum, London

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2018/march/a-cetacean-relation.html?utm_source=tw-link-post-20180325-kp&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=news

 

Natural History Museum, London's video on 'Hope' the blue whale:

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/wexford-blue-whale.html

Book on the whale's capture and the conservation of its skeleton:
'Hope : The story of the blue whale'

by Richard Sabin and Lorraine Cornishpublished by NHM, London 2020

Jim Hurley's brilliant and fascinating whale facts and story of the whale

http://www.wexfordnaturalists.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ned-wickhams-rosslare-whale.pdf 

 

Edward Wickham and Rosslare Fort 

http://www.rosslarelifeboatmemorial.com/

 

Andrea Doyle of The Rosslare Ancestry Project advised me on many aspects of Fort life and Edward Wickham's history.

 

 

Newspaper clippings from 1891

Gráinne Doran archivist at Wexford County Council kindly sent me clippings and maps. These can be seen at:

https://www.facebook.com/thewexfordwhale

Wexford photographer Charles E. Vize 1876 - 1927

‘Historic Portraits from the Charles E. Vize Collection’ by John Power, published by C&R: wonderful book of Vize's plates with biographical notes.

Des Kiely on photographer Charles E. Vize: Vize:https://www.facebook.com/famouswexfordpeopleinhistory/photos/charles-vizepopular-portrait-photographer-of-the-early-1900scharles-e-vize-was-b/236633890206147/

 

Maps of Wexford harbour

 

Treacherous sandbanks outside Wexford caused the wreck of 20-30 vessels during the 19th century. See maps: 

https://www.wexfordharbour.info/iHistory/content2.php

(1845.23) 

Rosslare Maritime Museum 
If you are in Rosslare Harbour, visit to the Maritime Museum!

https://www.facebook.com/RosslareHarbourMaritimeHeritageCentre/

Chaneys and nineteenth century shipwrecks near Rosslare
http://www.michaelfortune.ie/Finds_from_Morans_Bay.html

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The whale © David Begley 2021

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Ireland Wales Cooperation programme.

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