Modern history

Chapter 8

Greasy Johnny

The mighty whale doth in these harbours lye, Whose oyl the careful merchant deare will buy.

William Morrell

New England, 1625

So Mr John Wood has bought it for two hundred and twenty-six pound,

And has brought it to Dundee all safe and all sound;

Which measures 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail,

So I advise the people far and near to see it without fail.

William McGonagall

‘The Famous Tay Whale’

Ah me! How the old celebrities of Dundee do move off to the silent land! Here is now John Woods, of Tay Whale fame, gathered to his fathers. John then achieved a celebrity he never would have had but for his purchase of the playful finner which exactly 12 years ago this month was disporting itself in the shallows of our noble river.

An ordinary whale would have been little to its proprietor. But this whale had been the talk of the town and district for months. Its capture after many abortive attempts, its exhibition over the country, its dissection by Professor Struthers at Aberdeen University, and the presentation of its skeleton to our local museum, made the gigantic cetacean and its owner famous.

John was a character in his way. He was not unknown in our local courts, where the authorities had a word to say to him regarding the scents and odours of his oil factory, designated by the unsympathetic authorities by the hard and unpoetic name of nuisances.

But these I would not parade to the prejudice of the departed. I would rather ask his compatriots to think of the whale, and to go and visit the anatomy of the monster mammal in its resting place in the Albert Institute, and there shed a tear to the donor’s memory.

Obituary in The Piper o’ Dundee

December 1895

The Death occurred this week at Woods Cottage, East Dock Street, of Mr John Woods. Deceased, who was 66 years of age was best known in Dundee and throughout the country on account of his connection with the Tay Whale . . . Mr Woods, who has carried on the business of an oil merchant for a number of years, was at one time interested in the old Seagate Theatre. He was married three times.

Obituary in The Courier

November 1895

The memory of John Woods has fared less well than his star attraction these last 125 years. I suppose a name-check in a McGonagall poem is immortality of a kind, even a misspelled name-check, but whereas the whale has lived on in death as a more-or-less permanent exhibition showpiece, John Woods vanished with that less-than-heartfelt obituary in the irreverent (and now long extinct) weekly journal, The Piper o’ Dundee, and a handful of lines in The Courier, Dundee’s still vigorous daily newspaper. But he was, you can be sure, among the crowds that thronged the riverside vantage points when the whale was strutting its stuff in the Tay. He liked stuff-strutters. He was one himself. He was short and dark and tending towards stoutness, thanks to what some say was an over-fondness for expensive French wine. He dressed more flamboyantly than many townspeople thought was appropriate in one who made his living by turning whales into a bad smell on the east wind, into what the magistrates had called ‘nuisances’. But his flamboyance was flawed; his mustard-coloured waistcoat was stained with wine, his wine-coloured waistcoat was stained with mustard. He had a habit of bursting into his office, removing his brimmed hat with a flourish and in the same movement tossing it towards the hat stand in the corner, but he lacked the hand–eye co-ordination to make an accomplishment of the gesture, and the sophistication to pick the hat up from the floor, which is where it remained until he needed it again. His leather boots had higher heels than he could walk in comfortably. They compensated for the stature that nature had denied him, but they made him walk precariously, an uncertain gait which he tried to hide by swaggering use of his forearms and thrusting stomach and which was much mimicked by giggling single files of street urchins.

His taste for theatrical gestures had led him into a mild flirtation with the old Seagate Theatre and outrageous flirtation with selected members of the cast. He put money into it and considered buying it, eager to raise his profile from the city’s C-list celebrity to its A-list, but he made his serious money from dead whales, which was always going to be a drawback to his social ambition, and behind his back Dundee was more apt to call him Greasy Johnny than Mr Woods.

And whereas the jute barons built their mansions on the furthest, most fragrant fringes of the city with views over field and estuary, John Woods built Woods Cottage in East Dock Street within sight and sound and smell of his factory. Whale oil, you might say, was in his blood. His industry’s relationship with the jute industry was like the meadow pipit’s to the infant cuckoo. It dwarfed him, it stood there with its huge mouth agape demanding to be fed, and he spent his working hours trying to satisfy the needs of that which could never be satisfied, and the retch-inducing stench of it all was in his nostrils night and day.

So when the Tay Whale turned up and the crowds flocked to the shore and roared their approval of its spectacular and occasionally haunting presence, John Woods watched the whale and then he watched the crowd, and what he saw was theatre, wild and unpredictable and unscripted and utterly compelling (for it drew the crowds back day after day for six weeks), and John Woods loved theatre. He loved a performance, and in that regard the whale was a star attraction. He loved full houses too, and the whale guaranteed those. He also reasoned that in hard commercial terms, the whale – like all whales – was worthless while it lived. But if it could be killed, and if after death it could by some theatrical sleight of hand still be made to resemble the whale when it lived, he could give the people a show they would never forget, and he might make himself as famous as the Tay Whale itself.

So he became a theatre director. He had an unwritten script in his head, a star who had no intention of signing the unwritten contract he had in mind, his stage was the Dundee waterfront, his audience was the agog citizenry, and he began to plan for a national tour; even the great cities of Europe and America were not out of reach when Greasy Johnny started to daydream. And remarkably, he made most of it happen, and when the great museums of Europe and America came courting him, he turned them down, and selflessly donated to the local museum that which his home city had come to think of as its own.

He let it be known, as surreptitiously as possible (for even in the fetid world of whale-boilers there were envies and rivalries and old scores unsettled) that there would be a memorable payday for the whaler crew that landed the Tay Whale at Dundee docks. It may be that word of his involvement galvanised the whalers out of their sluggish early involvement in the whale hunt; it probably did not occur to them that they were already cast as bit-part players in his grand pageant. And when the pageant degenerated into grotesque pantomime, the only person who was happy with the squalid turn of events was John Wood. It is true that it took so much longer to land his star attraction that it cost him a great deal more than he had planned. But at every inglorious step of the way, the Tay Whale made more and more headlines, and these travelled the length and breadth of Britain, and no carefully constructed public relations exercise on behalf of his theatrical production could have paved the way to greater effect.

Woods was a face in the crowd at every step of the way, and he enjoyed himself hugely. For there was to be one other co-star in his production, one human face that would grab its share of the limelight alongside the Tay Whale, and that was John Woods himself.

When the whale escaped with three harpoons in it and the whalers slunk back to Dundee with nothing to show for a night at sea, he sought out two old whaling skippers with whom he had shared the occasional bottle of claret, and each told him independently that the fishermen from Broughty Ferry would find it in a day or two, and it would be dead on the surface, or beached on a quiet ebb along the Angus shore. They would let him know. He thanked them, but he made it his business to ensure that he knew before they did, and he went among the fishermen at ‘The Ferry’ (as Dundee styles its old fishing port) and with a bottle here and coin or two there he bought new sources of intelligence. He was thinking on his feet, ready for anything, and as the Dundee whalers had got more or less everything wrong up to that point, he was also prepared to anticipate that they could be wrong about the next bit too. So it proved. He let the unscripted twists in the plot do his work for him, sending a trusted representative up the coast when, after that nerve-jangling week in which the whale went about the business of dying with what little dignity was still available, it resurfaced much further north than the old whaling skippers had predicted, and the next scenes in his pageant shifted to Gourdon, then to Stonehaven.

So it was at Stonehaven that the landlubber component of the east coast of Scotland first made the acquaintance of the Tay Whale at close quarters. As the tide withdrew and the whole mass of the animal lay on the shore, water suddenly began to pour from it, and over minutes it deflated to something like its natural living girth, although there was nothing less natural on earth than the spectacle on offer. Stonehaven was never a whaler’s port, and there could never be the same relationship with the creature that Dundee had already established, and would consummate over the next 125 years. The crowd of townspeople that had gathered in the half-dark of that early January early morning must have looked down at its prostrate carcase with something between bewilderment and profound distaste. They were accustomed to the omnipresent smell of freshly caught fish, and it sustained the economy of the town. But why would anyone make a fuss out of this putrid, shapeless slab? Not that it stopped them coming to stand and stare and point and scoff, and a few wept over that most forlorn and publicly exhibited of corpses, its belly ripped open by seabirds, its upper body bristling with the Dundee whalers’ missiles.

The fishermen who had landed it lost no time in striking a deal with some canny fish merchant who knew gold dust when he saw it. There was doubtless a murmur of disbelief that went through the crowd at the news that the fishermen had been paid £10 a head for their labours, about £600 at today’s prices. So the merchant paid out around £150, and there were a few on that shore who thought him quite mad, madder still when work began cleaning up the corpse in preparation for an auction the following day. It was generally made as presentable as any dead whale can be, although no attempt was made to remove the harpoon or the various spikes and bolts, the souvenirs of battle. The merchant knew his market better than the mob, and when word of the auction was sent back to John Woods in Dundee by his travelling representative he sent explicit instructions by return. His preparations were far advanced. A tug boat was standing by. Whatever it took, he must have the Tay Whale.

If anything, the crowd was bigger. Business was surprisingly brisk. But it became clear that there were only two serious bidders – John Woods and Professor Charles Struthers of Aberdeen University; Greasy Johnny the oil merchant with a taste for populist theatre and another taste for making money, and the biology professor whose ambitions were wholly scientific. It also lent the proceedings a competitive frisson between that coast’s two great commercial rivals, Dundee and Aberdeen, and, in the minds of some observers at least, the respective ambitions of the rival camps in the matter of the whale’s future encapsulated the distinct characters of the two cities. You might also conclude that the auction and the motives of the bidders were the most grotesque indignities that had yet been heaped on a creature that sang its way round the oceans of the world.

The bidding stopped at £226, about £12,000 in today’s money. The whale was Greasy Johnny’s. The professor was aghast at the thought. But he reckoned without the most surprising trait in Greasy Johnny’s complex character; his appetite for grand gestures also embraced his generosity. The professor was invited to make measurements of the whale on the beach at Stonehaven, and to accompany it to Dundee, where he would be able to make a thorough examination of it at Greasy Johnny’s yard. He probably failed to realise that by accepting the invitation he was instantly recruited to the growing cast of the Tay Whale Show. Greasy Johnny wasn’t about to pass up the chance to feature a walk-on part for a toff in a top hat.

The tug Excelsior arrived from Dundee the morning after the auction. If Greasy Johnny missed the irony of using a Dundee tug to tow the whale that had so recently towed a Dundee tug in the opposite direction, it was tellingly underlined for him in a newspaper report. Alas, it is not clear which newspaper, but judging by the reporter’s vicious vitriolic PS, it was surely one based furth of Dundee. The heading is simply: ‘THE DUNDEE WHALE’, then there is this:

A good deal has been heard lately concerning ‘the Dundee whale’. Dundee has long been famous for whale fishing, but it is news to hear that it breeds them. The term ‘Dundee whale’, however, may simply mean that this one paid Dundee a voluntary visit. That it should have selected Dundee was not inappropriate. Perhaps it had in view something of the nature of a reprisal. Dundee has made war against whales for a long period, and it was possibly a satisfaction to this one, on that account, to be able to run away with a Dundee steam tug. But as usual, Dundee has had the best of it. The dead whale has been caught, and sold – it is not explained by whom – to a Dundee merchant. Seeing that while it lived it towed the tugs, the tugs are going to tow it now that it is dead. It is going to be lifted by hydraulic power from the sea, sixty horses have been selected for the landward portion of its last journey. Dundee is great. It yields large homage to its victims, even after they are gone, and this whale has undoubtedly by its somewhat eccentric action secured for itself an immortality. Even a Dundee wife-beater does his work with a refinement which is equalled nowhere else, and the man who adulterates milk in that town is obviously fit to be president of the British Association. But the whale has really had a good time. If as much fuss were to be made about every human being finding it possible to visit Dundee, life would be worth living, and there would be some recompense for the ‘bitter end’ if one could be sure of being raised by hydraulic power and drawn along in state by sixty horses.

It is fair to say that newspaper coverage of the whole Tay Whale saga was liberally laced with sarcasm, but that report has a sinister edge that still chills.

The Excelsior attached a hefty hawser to the tail of the whale, and a second line just in case. No one was being allowed to forget the farcical elements of the whale’s escape even though the whale was now dead and the sea docile. ‘Shortly after midday, the tug steamed out the harbour with its strange freight, which, at a distance, had a most remarkable likeness to a boat turned bottom up,’ reported the Advertiser. ‘The side flippers offered considerable resistance to the water, and caused the carcase to rock and sway from side to side in its progress, the flippers occasionally coming above the water . . . A pretty large number of strangers paid a visit to the monster previous to its removal, and as it left the harbour ringing cheers were raised by a great crowd of interested onlookers.’

Progress was slow. The whale, even when it was mortally wounded, made lighter work of towing the Iron King and its little flotilla of whaling hangers-on than the Excelsior made of towing the deadweight whale. It took 12 hours to cover 40 miles, so it was midnight before the Excelsior nosed into Victoria Dock. Bear in mind that it was midwinter, the 11th of January, and that it had been dark and frosty for around six hours, yet such is the pulling power of whales, and such was the head of steam that had built up around the story of this whale in particular, that a crowd of people at least 2,000-strong was there to greet the return of what the citizens of Dundee now considered their prodigal son. It hardly seemed to matter that the whale was dead, nor that it had died in circumstances that cast a less than flattering light on the city: it was home, and Dundee, ever the most hospitable of cities, was there to welcome it.

Meanwhile, John Woods had been busy. He had secured the services of the Victoria Dock’s 70-ton hydraulic crane. He had assembled a posse of carters, each with a horse or two (about twenty in all, not the sixty that the anonymous journalist with a chip on his shoulder had predicted), and half a dozen sturdy lorries, two of which had been lashed together, ready to receive the whale. Half a mile away, his factory yard was ready to accommodate the final return of the prodigal, and the hordes who (Greasy Johnny loudly assured everyone within earshot) would flock to see the monster.

What made the bizarre occasion all the more unforgettable was that a full moon shone from a clear sky. It was as if the theatre director had specified it to lend eerie majesty to his finest hour. In the history of Scottish theatre, no grand drama was ever more powerfully lit.

The audience suddenly began to stir out of its prolonged lethargy. The received wisdom, of which there was inevitably a great deal in such a crowd, had been that the whale would now have to lie in the water until daylight, and the crowd was restlessly resigned to shuffling its disappointment off into the night. But the moment it became clear that the great crane was about to become the centre stage of the next act, there was a frenzied mass sprint along the quayside for the best vantage points. The mood of the crowd transformed. ‘Some lively chaff was indulged in by the spectators, and much amusement was created by a man getting on the whale’s back and executing a series of acrobatic feats’, the Advertiser reported. It is not clear whether the whale was in or out of the water at this point, but it must surely be the first time in the history of whaling that a whale corpse was used as a trampoline.

Coils of chain were wound round the tail of the whale, and the crane’s massive hook took hold, and a new intensity gripped the crowd: would the slender rump of the whale stand the strain, or would the infinitely heavier front portion snap off and fall into the dock, thereby rendering worthless the entire operation from first harpoon to the Excelsior’s meticulously negotiated arrival through the dock gate, and scuppering Greasy John’s ambitions at a stroke? Wagers were struck, for and against the successful raising of the whale in one piece. The huge tail drew gasps from 1,000 throats as it was lifted clear of the water, the first time the crowd had seen it at such close quarters, though many on the quayside that night were veteran observers of the whale’s carefree antics in the estuary weeks before. Inch by inch, the whale transformed from something that looked like an overturned hull into something the world might never have seen before, a whale suspended head down and vertically over dry land by the light of a full moon. Someone in the crowd yelled: ‘Three cheers for the Tay Whale’ and 2,000 opened throats responded.

Greasy Johnny had had this moment in mind for some time, even if the presence of the full moon was a spectacular fluke. Dundee photographer Charles Johnson was recruited to immortalise it and, bearing in mind that newspaper photography at the time was more or less non-existent, and both the equipment and the evolution of the photographic art were still in their infancy, the result is remarkable. (Less remarkable, and less worthy of the art, was the decision to superimpose the whale lying in the unphotogenic surroundings of Greasy Johnny’s yard on a second photograph of a sunset over the Tay. Still, he was not the last photographer to manipulate reality to pander to popular appeal. Greasy Johnny, I would imagine, approved heartily.)

While the suspended whale was being manoeuvred into position above the waiting lorries, and while those who had wagered against a successful outcome began reluctantly to stump up, it was suddenly noticed that the whale appeared to be growing longer by the moment.

Was it stretching under its own weight?

Was that what happened when you suspended such a monster by the tail?

Perhaps the thing might break apart yet?

Then it became clear what was happening. The whale’s tongue was falling out of its mouth. One moment it was slithering out into the moonlight, the next, it became too heavy for its own anchorage deep in the throat of the whale, and fell out into the dock, where it sank. It was not quite how the doom-mongers had envisaged the whale breaking apart, but it added unique spice to those who waged the wager argument.

So the tongueless whale was edged down to where the two lashed lorries awaited it. The crane set it down as gently as a baby on a mother’s knee. The springs on the lorries creaked and groaned and shattered, and the crane lifted the whale aloft again. The crowd roared. This was worth the long wait in the January night. Greasy Johnny grinned to himself, despite the fact that these were his lorries that had been wrecked. He had half expected it. He commanded them to be hauled away, and two much heftier vehicles were wheeled into place, and again they were lashed together, and again the whale was lowered into place, and again the springs protested, but this time they held. The horses meekly took up their positions. They were long accustomed to hefting strange burdens at their masters’ bidding, and this one was no different, except that it smelled worse than most. But in any case, 20 straining workhorses produce their own distinctive aroma. The wheels rumbled, the whale moved, the crowd cheered again, then groaned as the wheels splayed out from their useless axles after a few yards.

Greasy Johnny called in the big guns. It is tempting to imagine that he had orchestrated even this, just to hold the crowds, to delight the journalists, to raise the standing of his prize whale in the eyes of the watching world. He summoned a huge bogie whose day job was transporting industrial boilers, and commanded it to moonlight a dead whale. He ushered in more horses. (I imagine these held discreetly in a nearby warehouse, not to be led out until a pre-arranged signal announced the arrival of the bogie). There were now 30 horses in all, and these reinforcements were hitched without fuss to the front of the queue. And bathed by the huge, low, full moon that now laid a broad furrow of brilliant silver light across the mile-wide Tay estuary, the mightily reinforced procession rumbled forward. The clatter of horseshoes, the shouts of the carters, the groan of iron wheels on stone streets, and the excited banter and shuffling footfalls of most of the assembled crowd were welded into a cacophony of such unscriptable weirdness that Greasy Johnny, stuff-strutting like a pipe major at the head of the leading horse, laughed aloud at the wonder of his own genius. Not even Shakespeare, he told himself, would have dreamed of such daring.

And superimposed upon it all, beyond pain, beyond fear, beyond life, the Tay Whale stared sightlessly forward.

‘The fish was much improved in appearance after being taken out of the water,’ wrote the Advertiser’s man:

The fins and tail were white, and the glossy skin appeared beautiful in the moonlight. The whale will be exhibited in Mr Woods’ premises in East Dock Street for a few days. The operations were carried out with skill and coolness, and those who witnessed the strange scene will not soon forget it.

It is stated that several scientific gentlemen from different parts of the country are anxious to secure the skeleton of this rare visitor to our latitudes, and that it is therefore doubtful where its bones may ultimately find their last resting-place.

Uh-huh, I detect the hand of Greasy Johnny again, playing off one ‘scientific gentleman’ against another, ratcheting up the price, either as an insurance policy against the commercial failure of his immediate plans (unlikely, his actions thus far were not those of a man who spends much time contemplating failure), or, more likely, enhancing the magnitude of the decision he had already made to donate the skeleton to his home city. This was, after all, the Tay Whale, and he had, after all, brought it ‘home’. For the next 125 years, it would occur to no one that its home could possibly be anywhere else.

Yet this was an animal that could have travelled the oceans of the world for 200 years, singing.

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