Ever wondered why is there a Polar Bear sitting above Holland & Barrett near the bridge in Whitby?
Tens of thousands of people flock to Whitby every year to visit this historic fishing town on the Yorkshire Coast. Many cross the swing bridge and walk through the old town to walk up the famous 199 steps to Whitby Abbey or just come for fresh fish and chips.
I often wonder how many people look up and see the huge model polar bear sitting above the Holland & Barrett health food shop and ever consider what on earth it is doing up there?
Well the story is a fascinating one...
During the 1700’s and 1800’s, Whitby was one of the main whaling ports in England. Each year a large fleet would sail out north up to Greenland to hunt for whales, bringing home up to 172 whale carcasses for processing in a good year. The oil from the carcasses was used for street lighting and the whale bones were used in women’s corsets that were the fashion at the time.
During the height of whaling – the Scoresby family of Whitby became synonymous with Whitby Whaling. The father William Scoresby Senior was a skilled navigator and led many successful trips to the Greenland waters, catching over 533 whales over his 30 voyages.
He is even credited with having invented the “Crow’s Nest” – a raised, protected look out high up on the ship used to spot whales and land. (It is believed his design was inspired by the pulpit at St.Mary’s Church near Whitby Abbey!).
William’s son, William Junior, was a scientist and he also accompanied his father on a number of his trips acting as first mate.
During one of the visits to Greenland, some of the crew of Scoresby’s ship the Henrietta, encountered a Polar Bear with a cub. As was protocol they shot the mother and bought the bemused cub back to the ship. Cubs were often brought back and sold to zoos as an extra source of income from the trips.
Over the rest of the mission and the journey home, Whaling Captain William Scoresby Senior became enchanted with the cub, gradually training the bear using slithers of whale meat as reward until he was able to walk the growing polar bear around the ship on a lead.
When he returned to Whitby, the tame bear was tethered to some railings by the side of the river near the bridge and was allowed to swim in the River Esk, becoming a tourist attraction of sorts.
But one day, spooked by the attention and strange environment the bear reared up breaking its tether and ran around the old town of Whitby, terrifying the locals and causing general mayhem. The bear was eventually cornered by some locals who were about to despatch the bear when William Scoresby himself showed up.
By all accounts the bear, who was almost fully grown now was pacified upon seeing Scoresby, who approached the bear and was met by being licked on the hand. Scroresby attached a leash to the bear and walked it away from the baying mob.
Unfortunately, soon after event the Polar Bear was deemed by the local authorities to be too dangerous and was sent down to the Tower Zoo in London.
This interesting tale is the reason for Polar Bear model now sitting proudly above the shop near the River Esk, a real nod to just one of the many stories of Whitby’s fascinating past.