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13 November 2014

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You are in: South Yorkshire > History > Local History > It happened here... Jonah the whale

It happened here... Jonah the whale

Big whale on a lorry. Anybody remember this? I saw it in Barnsley town centre when I was a kid in the 60s. Thousands turned out to see it. Somebody must remember… But no one did remember it - everyone I mentioned this to just thought I was mad...

Jonah the whale in 1970 and in 2006.

Jonah the whale in 1970 and in 2006.

Walking to work in the summer of 2000 I’d been struck by a vision of a huge whale I’d seen way back in the 60s in Barnsley and my home town Sheffield. Attempts to research this strange event went from bad to worse. I could find nothing that had ever been written about this whale. No one wanted to know - libraries, local and national papers, radio stations you name it I tried it. Everyone just laughed or put the phone down.  Even on the internet there wasn’t one piece of evidence and anyone I emailed never replied.

"For a moment of madness I considered buying Jonah but realised that I knew very little about the practicalities of touring with a 70ft whale."

Steve Deput

Only when I posted my question on a Barnsley football Club website did I find a handful of people who’d had a vague dream of having seen a whale on Barnsley. But try as we might we found nothing – much to the amusement of most on the site who knew it couldn’t be true. I became obsessed. I left my job in London and toured the country asking my questions in pubs, on the street and in museums. Rather than ignore me or laugh down the phone people could do it in my face 

The breakthrough came with a call to the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield. Dr Vanessa Toulmin didn’t laugh and as soon as I could journeyed to Sheffield. There in the fading pages of an old copy of ‘The World’s Fair’ I found the proof.

Jonah was a 70ft, 70 ton finback whale (I originally thought it was a blue whale) caught off Trondheim, Norway in 1952. Originally examined then exhibited at Oslo University his organs were removed, lungs inflated and a refrigeration unit placed inside him before being loaded on a specially constructed 100ft trailer - at the time the biggest lorry in the world.

He was originally toured by the Norwegians to promote whaling (remember this was post-war Europe with a ruined economy) but he probably did far more to convince children who saw him that whaling should be stopped. Mounted on the lorry were also grisly reminders of death – the harpoon and other instruments employed in whaling. On a lighter note a dormouse in a glass case was placed on his nose as a demonstration of the world’s largest and smallest mammals.

Jonah the whale, up close

His 25 year overland voyage took him to just about every town in Europe, Japan and Africa. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, saw him. Over the years he passed into the hands of circus owners and showmen and finally a Swiss business man. As an educational exhibit school classes were often allowed in for free and he came to Sheffield on several occasions in the 50s, 60s and 70s, being displayed on The Moor.

After writing a book The Barnsley Whale – the true story of the world’s inland whale hunt published by Mainstream in 2003 I appeared on Home Truths with John Peel, BBC local radio and in the national press. I had many hundreds of responses from those who had seen the whale and who, like me had never been believed.

I’d proved Jonah really did exist but one big question remained. What happened to him in the end? Finding out any more was still hopeless. Despite all I’d done, people still regarded the whole thing as fiction – which is why my book ended up in many bookshops.

I couldn’t really waste any more time and effort on whale hunting, remarking to my wife in 2005 that the only way anyone would ever take me seriously was if a whale swam up the Thames - and of course that was never going to happen.

Months later it did.

Steve with the giant whale

Steve and the giant whale... lorry

The 2006 story of the London Whale stranded in the Thames captured the world’s imagination and set me back on my quest. I contacted just about every newspaper and TV and radio station I could. Predictably I was ignored. Yet one national newspaper took an interest and ran with my story. As it turned out that was all I needed.

In Budapest, Mike Austen, head of one of the UK’s oldest circuses noticed the story and contacted me. In the 60s and 70s he’d actually driven the whale lorry around Europe. The next week I was at his home in Norfolk. He couldn’t tell me how Jonah had met his fate… he went one better. Jonah still existed! He’d been kept in storage for the last 30 years in Holland and Belgium.

That December we set sail from Dover to Calais on the last leg of my six year whale hunt. Hours later we arrived at a warehouse on the Belgian/Dutch border. There in the yard was the same tarpaulin covered lorry I’d seen 40 years ago. Rolling back covers there lay Jonah as huge and awe-inspiring as I remembered.

Originally there were three on tour – Jonah, Hercules and Goliath. Hercules was disposed of in Spain when a circus went bust and Goliath simply disappeared. Jonah is the last of the great inland whales. What’s more he was for sale and still capable of going on tour. For a moment of madness I considered buying him… but realised that as a writer I knew very little about the practicalities of touring a 70ft whale.

Jonah was bought by another showman and he’s now back in the UK undergoing restoration. One day soon he may be back on the road and heading for South Yorkshire.

last updated: 08/07/2009 at 10:13
created: 07/07/2009

Have Your Say

Do you remember Jonah? What are your memories...

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steve deput
To bob rowbothhamThe whale you saw was another finback called Eric. He was caught off Southern California and transported to Europe, originally being displayed at Southend. He toured the country (admission 6d)and just before the Second World War was rumoured to have been disposed of by being buried under a rollercoaster in Morecambe. One for 'Time Team' perhaps?

jan butterfield
i remember seeing the whale in leeds when i was a child late 60s or early 70s can't remember, i think it was outside littlewoods store

bob rowbotham
i saw awhale on a lorry in rotherham next to the odeon when it was being built in 1934/5/6 i am now 80 but still remember it very well

david Gibson
I remember seeing it in Doncaster, my dad took us - it was MASSIVE !

Glenn Webb
I remember 'Jonah' coming to Goole in the very early '70's. the lorry park up at what is now the market hall!

Mike Baines
During the late 50's I remember seeing the Whale at the bottom of the Moor but always from the top of a bus going to and from school.

Steve Perry
Yes I remember Jonah in the 60's.My dad took me to the bottom of the Moor in Sheffield and I saw him with bits of card showing this and that including the harpoon wound!I'm surprised its still survived this long

Robert Warburton
Steve is aware of my interest. The whale was situated where Littlewoods and BHS were in Barnsley centre. It stank, it looked like it was smothered in tar and the front saw the gaping mouth with what looked like tassles for teeth. I was told it was to be destroyed at Soot Hill, Dewsbury, and someone said that when it was burnt, the kiln exploded due to the gases ~ but this whale must have stirred more rumours. Happy days! Robert Warburton

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