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The inspiration behind Moby Dick
Burton Constable Hall
Burton Constable Hall is situated close to the Holderness coast

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, tells the story of Captain Ahab's pursuit of the whale that destroyed his boat and bit off his leg.

Published in 1851, the book is considered one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language.

One of the major inspirations for the work was the skeleton of a Sperm Whale exhibited at Burton Constable Hall, East Yorkshire.

The whale was washed ashore on the East Yorkshire coast in 1825.

The exhibit found its way to the hall due to the Constable family holding the position of Lord of the Siegniory of Holderness.

The Seigniory was a post set up by William the Conqueror in 1067. The hall's then owner, Sir John Constable, bought the position from another landowner in 1560. The title had an annual income of £2000, making him the wealthiest man in the region.

An illustration from Dr Alderson's report.
An illustration from Dr Alderson's report.

The Constable family have lived at the hall for over 700 years. The estate is now owned by the Burton Constable Foundation which manages it as a museum. Director of the foundation Dr David Connell said the position of Lord of the Siegniory brought many other money-raising opportunities.

"As part of the Seigniory, royal fish, as they were called, became the property of the Lord of the Siegniory. We have records going back hundreds of years of various whales coming ashore and being claimed. Sperm Whales were quite valuable because of the Spermaceti oil."

The "Moby Dick" whale was washed ashore at Tunstall on the 28th April 1825. It became a tourist attraction, with people travelling to see its body and, in some cases, chopping bits off.

A Hull doctor James Alderson carried out a dissection on the beach and published his findings in a paper presented to the Royal Cambridge Philosophical Society. The booklet was of great interest as it was one of the first scientific studies of a whale.

The interest grew after the remains were displayed to the paying public, as Dr Connell explained: "The skeleton was brought to Burton Constable Hall and set up in the park as sort of a public attraction.

The whale skeleton on display at Burton Constable
The whale skeleton on display at Burton Constable

"Another man interested in whales, by the name of Beale, came to have a look at it and, along with this account of the dissection, he wrote it up in his book, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.

"So, when Melville was in England a few years later, researching for his book Moby Dick, this was a primary source of information both on whales in general and the Burton Constable whale in particular."

Melville was so taken by the story of the exhibit that he makes direct reference to it in a passage in Moby Dick:

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.

Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side.

Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.

In search of Moby-Dick
18 Sep 08 |  Magazine




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