Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 16:40 UK
A whale tours South Yorkshire

Steve Deput
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire contributor

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 FC 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.

Finding the proof

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 the Whale up close
Jonah the Whale up close

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.

Overland voyage

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 he was 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.

Steve and the whale lorry
Steve and the whale lorry

After writing a book The Barnsley Whale, 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 where 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.

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 1960s 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.

Meeting Jonah

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.


Joanne Moon, Derby

I remember seeing Jonah in Derby, in the town center on the grounds of the Eagle Center now Westfield. Jonah lay across four or five open sided lorries. I can still the see the image clearly in my in my mind, although I am unsure of the exact year. It was such a relief to read your account of the experience as I too had the same response from all of my friends and anyone else I mentioned it to. Everyone thinks it is some random story. I remember being confused on the way there as to how a whale could live in Derby, then feeling really sad as it was dead.

Mick Potter, Barnsley

I saw the whale in Barnsley on the back of a trailer near Barnsley market next to Littlewoods in the late 60's or early 70's.

Martin Spencer, Doncaster

I remember seeing a touring whale in a field in between Newport and Cowes on the Isle of Wight around 1974/75. It was on the back of a long lorry.

Chris Wilson, Newcastle upon Tyne

Both myself and my wife remember seeing the whale in Newcastle upon Tyne when we were children, but no one believed us either. Coincidentaly, I was driving down a road near Hoddesdon and saw the trailer in a field. I stopped my truck and took a picture, evidence at last.

Karen Clayton, Barnsley

I work with Steve's sister-in-law in a local primary school. She told us your story at a meal out and the next day she brought in your birthday gift to your brother - a sweetpaper which you had framed which had been taken from between the teeth of the whale. I have asked around since then and spoken to several people who remember the visit of the whale. Unfortunately I did not see the whale myself and knew nothing of its existence until Hazel told us this story. I have since asked my mum why we weren't taken to see it but she thinks it must have visited Barnsley when we were on holiday. I am going to buy your book as I am quite taken with this story.

Amanda Jayne Howe, Sheffield

My mum saw the whale on the moor in the sixties, i thought she was on something. She passed away last November, this really brought a smile to my face because i looked on the internet about it and couldn't find anything!

Graham, Chelmsford

I saw the whale in Chelmsford Central Park in the late seventies. Glad I found this article, up till now I thought the whale had been destroyed in the late sixties, and it was all a dream... I remember being fascinated by the close-up view of his brushes.

Geoff Dixon

I saw the whale in Worksop on the market it was huge i was amazed with it. I was born 1952 i would be very young at the time but I remember it very well. But nobody else remembers when I tell the story. They think I am making it up. Does anybody else know about the whale in worksop. I would love to hear. Thanks Geoff

Mark Pinkney, Darlington

I remember being taken by my Dad to see a whale on the back of a lorry some time in the late '60s or early '70s in Darlington. I think it might have been on Bondgate on the site of the Jobcentre, before the ringroad was built. Glad to have found this article on t'internet - nobody believes me!!

Paul Murfin, Derby

i remember seeing this whale in the late or early seventies, is there any record of this as my family think i am mad

steve deput

To bob rowbothham

The 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 a whale 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!


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific