Souvenir hunters urged to return ‘Moby Dick’ whale bones for restoration

A stately home is appealing for souvenir hunters to return bones taken from a 48ft whale skeleton described in the classic novel Moby Dick.

The sperm whale was taken to Burton Constable Hall, East Yorkshire, after it washed up on the shore at nearby Tunstall in 1825.

The hall is planning to restore the skeleton to its former glory after it spent years neglected in the grounds of the home.

Philippa Wood, curator at the hall, said the restoration project is being launched to mark the 200th birthday of American writer Herman Melville, who described the skeleton in his famous book.

The whale was claimed by Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable, through his rights as seignior of Holderness, after it was washed up and dissected on the beach.

Whales bones
Whales bones

It was mounted on an iron structure and placed on display in the parkland of the hall, where scientists, writers and tourists flocked to see it.

In Moby Dick, Melville wrote: “Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale.

“Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities – spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan – and swing all day upon his lower jaw.”

But the skeleton was neglected and left in the grounds to gather moss and vegetation.

Ms Wood said local residents remember playing on it in the mid-20th century and she believes people took bones as souvenirs during that time – with 11 of its 44 vertebrae and much of its left flipper missing.

Curator Philippa Wood with the whale skeleton
Curator Philippa Wood with the whale skeleton

She said: “One of the bones is a really big one – the fourth vertebrae back down from the head – a bit larger than a dinner plate, so I’m sure whoever has taken it knows where it is.

“We’d like to try and rejoin the missing bones with rest of the skeleton before the major restoration project. There is the possibility of having them 3D printed but then you lose the authenticity so we’d really like them back.”

The whale – which originally measured 58ft 6in – was recovered from the grounds in 1995, conserved and placed on display in the Great Hall of the home in 2009 before being moved to the stable block.

Ms Wood said: “It was in a dreadful state. It was covered in moss and the surface was very weak. It has had some conservation work but you can still tell it hasn’t been in the best state.”

The curator said the Burton Constable Foundation, the charitable body that runs the site, plans to restore the skeleton and redisplay it as it would have been when Melville wrote about it.

Whale Bone Amnesty at Burton Constable! We are launching an appeal for the return of bones taken as souvenirs when the skeleton was left languishing in the grounds for over a 100 years.

— BurtonConstableHall (@BurtonConstable) June 11, 2019

She said the project will be “long and time-consuming” with a proposed completion date of 2025, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the whale being washed ashore.

Ms Wood added: “Most of the bones would need to be removed from site to clean them, improve their surface condition, repair any that are broken and allow them to be mounted for future display.

“If the bones will allow we would like to have the skeleton articulated and mounted with metal armature in a manner that is in keeping with how it would have originally been displayed, so that it looks like it could have been mounted in the mid-19th century.”

The bicentenary of Melville’s birth will be celebrated with an exhibition by artist Caroline Hack at the hall this summer.