Whalers and Whaling

South Australia's Early Days

Maureen M Leadbeater
surname *

Whalers listed in SA Government Gazettes 1844 to 51 together with their employers and positions.

Abstract: Long before the colony of South Australia was even dreamed of, the seas along the southern coast of Australia were busy with whalers and sealers seeking the rich harvest of the sea. Indeed the colony's first major export was whale oil and whalebone collected by the shore-based whaling stations.

As early as 1803 Captain Isaac Pendleton in the brig Union used Kangaroo Island as a base for his operations. He wintered there for four months and his men built the schooner Independence from island timber. Kangaroo Island was only one of the places where men were left to gather seal skins and salt. Months later the ship would return to bring provisions and collect the results of their work. Whaling ships arrived from America, France, Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) and Sydney. By the 1830s the whalers Socrates, Henry and Elizabeth were regular visitors from Hobart.

Enthusiastic reports of profits to be made encouraged the South Australian Company to send its ships carrying South Australia's first colonists early, as the Company was anxious to join the whaling industry. After leaving their pioneer passengers on Kangaroo Island the Duke of York and Lady Mary Pelham went on to Hobart Town to refit as whalers in the Pacific. Two other SA Company emigrant ships, the South Australian and Solway, also became involved with whaling until they were wrecked at Encounter Bay in a December 1837 gale. The first was a store ship for the whaling station, the second was to have taken on casks of oil for export. The John Pirie was refloated after she ran aground in the same storm. She made several trips bringing whaling hands from Hobart to Encounter Bay.

The whale being sought was the black or bay whale, more commonly known as the right whale. It was a slow swimmer, came in close to shore and it floated when dead. Thus it was an easy target for shore-based whalers. Whale oil was used in lamps, soap and leather making. The plates in the mouths of toothless whales to strain plankton and krill from the water are known as baleen or whalebone. Baleen was used in corset stays, hoop skirts and umbrellas. The bones of whales, as distinct from "whalebone", could be used to produce boneash for porcelain. There is a report that one ship took off whale bones for export, but it appears that the bones were usually discarded.

The Register newspaper proudly announced in November 1838 that the colony's second cargo of oil and whalebone was bound for England in the Goshawk. The Katherine Stewart Forbes and Lalla Rookh were two more ships that were involved in exporting the whale products to England. The oil and whalebone from a good whale could yield £500-600.

While some whaling activities were from deep-sea ships with the try-works for boiling down on board, others were shore based. Generally the whaling ships sought the faster sperm whales and the shore-based stations harvested the bay whales. In 1840 as Edward John Eyre passed Fowlers Bay he noted that the bay was littered with whale bones and carcasses after a successful season by an American whaler. A report by Hart, Hagen & Baker noted thirty foreign whaling ships in SA waters in 1841. The season lasted from April to October when the whales sought warmer waters for calving. Having spent the summer in the Antarctic, the whales swam along the shore of Van Diemen's Land reaching Portland Bay in April. As the season progressed, they continued along the coast to Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, returning south in October.

Over 15 whaling sites have been identified on the shores of South Australia. Some were depots or lookouts. Others were occupied for many years. Remains of huts, hearths, slipways, try-pots, whale bones and small objects such as clay pipes and glass bottles mark these sites. The SA Company set up whaling stations on Thistle Island and Sleaford Bay near Port Lincoln. But with the scarcity of whales, they soon closed. The station at Fishery Bay near Cape Jervis lasted until 1855 with several different owners. Other sites were at Cape Buffon (South East), Onkaparinga, Hog Bay (Kangaroo Island), Port Collinson and Sceale Bay (both near Streaky Bay) and Spalding Cove (near Port Lincoln). The whaling ships visited Port Lincoln at the beginning and end of the season to take in fresh food, water and wood. The SA newspaper Observer reported five ships had called into Port Lincoln in September 1841.

The most well-known shore-based stations were at Encounter Bay, where two whaling stations were set up in 1837. Captain Blenkinsop's was at first on the mainland and later based on Granite Island. The SA Company managed by Samuel Stephens was located at Rosetta Head (the Bluff). Blenkinsop's suggestion to work co-operatively, as occurred in Tasmania, was rebuffed by Stephens. As a result, when a whale was sighted, boats from both stations set out in pursuit and raced to intercept the animal.

To resolve the conflicts Parliament passed an Act for the Regulation and Protection of the Whale Fisheries in September 1839. The whale belonged to the party whose harpoon first struck the whale. If the line broke and a second harpoon was struck, the whale became joint property. The Act also specified the provisions to be supplied to the men - 12 lbs of beef or 9 lbs of pork, 12 lbs of bread or flour, 4 ozs tea and 2 lb of sugar per week. The lack of vegetables was compensated by the owners supplying two gallons of tea or half a pint of strong rum per day. Some reports indicate that the men had little to do between whale chases but "eat, drink and sleep, play cards, sing and make a noise".

A lookout kept watch from high ground. When a whale was sighted, the whalers would race to the boats which were already stocked with harpoons, lines and fresh water. The cook handed over waterproof bags containing beef and damper because the chase could last many hours. Three boats set out following directions flagged by the lookout. In each boat were the headsman in charge of the long steering oar, the harpooner (also known as the boatsteerer) in the bow and four pulling hands.

Once they were close enough the whale was struck by a hand-thrown harpoon which was attached to the boat by a long line. Then it was just a matter of waiting until the whale tired while towing the boat perhaps many miles. After the harpoon was thrown, the headsman changed places with the harpooner who took over steering the boat. This seemingly clumsy exchange of places between the bow and stern of the boat is documented in several contemporary accounts. Even Herman Melville who sailed for three years on a whaler mentions the same change-over in his novel Moby Dick.

The headsman readied himself for the final blow with his lance. Once the whale was dead, the men had the long row back to shore towing the huge animal, often taking several hours. On return the thick layer of blubber was stripped from the whale. This process was overseen by the tonguer, who received the tongue oil as payment. In the try-works the blubber was boiled down in a series of large cauldrons to extract the valuable whale oil. This often took up to three days. The residue of blubber was used to supplement wood as fuel, causing black oily smoke and a vile stench. The oil was stored in casks until collected by ship.

About thirty men were employed at each station. Besides the headsmen, boatsteerers and pulling hands operating in each boat, there was a cook, a cooper to make the casks and perhaps a steward and bullock driver. Often a boat builder was employed. Each man received a pre-agreed share (a lay) of the value of the whale oil and whalebone, depending on his rank and skill. In the off-season the whalers went up-country to help on farms, shearing sheep, fencing, sawing and helping with the harvest.

The competition from whaling ships was resented by the shore-based men. The locals were indignant that the foreign ships with their more modern and faster boats could come in and take the whales from their bay. In 1840 four French and American whalers were working off-shore. The following year thirty ships were reported working between Kangaroo Island and Cape Leeuwin. Some of these were from Van Diemen's Land.

Whaling was not without danger as a dying whale could cause serious injury or death. The newspapers reported a number of accidents when the infuriated animals smashed the boats. Men were drowned, others suffered broken legs - at least one whaler had a wooden leg. In June 1844 the Observer reported an accident in Encounter Bay when four boats got into difficulties while fast to whales. The infuriated whales smashed one boat and damaged the others. Steersman Montgomery struck his head, Jack Beddow fractured his leg and headsman Foster who could not swim was drowned. In the disturbance one of the whales managed to escape. On another occasion two boats were fast to two different whales, when a third whale struck and destroyed one of the boats. Storms also caused havoc. At the end of the 1844 season Captain Haynes, his headsman George McGeehan and crew were sailing from Kangaroo Island to Port Adelaide when a gale blew up. They were never seen again. Their boat the Sophia Jane was found washed up at Rivoli Bay.

An Act to Regulate the Whale Fishery Service in South Australia was passed in 1844. This included a requirement that the owner or employer publish the names of the men engaged to serve for the whaling season and their capacity (occupation). These names are listed at the end of this article. In March 1844 J T Haynes and James Wilde & John Howard published the names of men these two owners had engaged for the season and had paid an advance of wages. Yet some of these names appear the following month listed under the owner John Hart & Jacob Hagen. I do not know why. The names are presented as published in the gazettes.

By 1855 shore-based whaling was abandoned. In 1837 forty whales had been seen at one time off Glenelg. Twenty years later the number of whales was too few due to over fishing. Also the discovery of petroleum products in the 1860s meant that whale oil was no longer such a cheap fuel. Some whaling ships still cruised the seas between Kangaroo Island and Cape Northumberland. An attempt was made to revive the industry at Encounter Bay in 1871-72 with boats manned by local aborigines. Although several whales were made fast, they were lost due to various mishaps. At the end of the second season only one whale had been caught. Alexander Ewen who had served as pulling hand and boatsteerer in the earlier years was the chief headsman for this final event.

Despite the dangers and hard work involved in whaling, many men survived. Some purchased farms or took up land-based occupations, married and raised families. James Long arrived in the earliest days of the colony and worked on the Sarah and Elizabeth until he joined the SA Company at Encounter Bay. Henry Lush arrived in 1838 as a boy. In his reminiscences he said he did not engage in whaling until 1850.

One commentator stated that the whaling men were a "low type, mostly old convicts and the refuse of society". Yet these so-called refuse are some of our ancestors. They took part in dangerous and dirty tasks to provide highly valued products. The whalers gave the fledgling colony a valuable foundation.

The whalers listed in SA Government Gazettes 1844-51 can be found in this database which records each whaler's name, occupation, employer and the year.

As partnerships formed, merged and dissolved, the names of the owners/employers changed.

Whale Fishery Owners


James Frederick Bennett, Samuel Elkington Boord, William Johnstone & S R Clarke (1850)
James Frederick Bennett, Samuel Elkington Boord & William Johnstone (1851)


Joseph Barnett (1848-49)
Joseph Barnett & Thomas Clark (1850)


John Hart & Jacob Hagen (1844)
Jacob Hagen, John Baker & John Hart (1845-46)
John Baker, Jacob Hagen & John Hart (1847-48)


J T Haynes (1844)


James Wilde & John Howard (1844-45)
James Wilde, John Howard & William Johnstone (1846)
James Wilde & William Johnstone (1847)


Colwell Max, 1969. Whaling Around Australia
Cumpston J S, 1974. Kangaroo Island, 1800-1836
Gibb R M, 1969. A History of South Australia
Kostoglou Parry & McCarthy Justin, 1991. Whaling and Sealing Sites in South Australia
Nash Michael, 2003. The Bay Whales. Tasmania's Shore-Based Whaling Industry
Parsons Ronald, 1986. Southern Passages. A Maritime History of South Australia
Sexton R T, 1990. Shipping Arrivals and Departures. South Australia 1627-1850
Flinders University. The Archaeology of Whaling in Southern Australia and New Zealand (web page now unavailable)
Various articles in the SA Register, Observer, Southern Australian and Advertiser newspapers
SA Government Gazette
SA Acts of Parliament

Search the South Australia shipping passenger lists
Early South Australia history timeline