Whales of South London

I decided to take up the #inktober challenge and make a drawing a day in October (I’m a bit late but maybe I’ll catch up) and to add an additional challenge to that of making each drawing about something I have learnt about Courtenay Street, Kennington or Lambeth from the work I have been doing on my Artist in Residence in My Own Street project.

Prince of Wales or Whales?

I came across this passage in Clowes ‘History of the Manor of Kennington’ at the Lambeth archives:

“There are several bones of the whale in the neighbourhood, including two ribs on the site of St Anselm’s Church which were until lately, set up in the form of an arch. A similar arch formed the back entrance to Cuper’s Garden, and several large pieces of bone, one of which is now in the garden of 284 Kennington Park Road, were unearthed in Courtenay Street in 1912. Perhaps the Tradescants brought a whale’s skeleton to Lambeth.”

It caught my eye because I do the occasional Duty Manager shift at the Garden Museum and I was aware that they were fundraising to add to the Tradescant ‘Ark’ gallery a crocodile and a whale. They had been offered the skeleton of a whale that had been discovered at Greenwich in 2010 but was thought to be the whale noted in John Evelyn’s diary as being beached there in 1658.  Later historians of the Tradescant’s had noted that they did indeed have a whale arch at their property in South Lambeth (the old boundary of which is marked by Tradescant Road) and this was clearly a theme with visitor attractions of the time as Clowes notes (Cuper’s Gardens operated from 1686 to 1753). Why there should be a similar arch in front of St Anselm’s is a bit more of a mystery! A brief whaling industry in London was centred around Greenland Dock in Rotherhithe from the 1720s to early 1800s so perhaps some of these bones were simply bi-products of that industry or brought or bought by people involved in some way. The bones in Courtenay Street are equally mysterious although it is perhaps possible that they are connected to the ones at St Anselm’s and relate to an earlier property? They were uncovered during the building works of 1912.

In my drawing I have shown St Anselm’s as it is today – the current church was built in the 1930s so the one Clowe’s talks about almost certainly wouldn’t have looked like this. On maps of 1636 and 1725 the parcel of land on which both Courtenay Street and St Anselm’s stand was all one attached to what had been the Black Prince’s Palace, so it’s possible that the building that was there in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted the fashion for whale arches and one remained in front of what was to become St Anselm’s and the other (in Courtenay Street) fell in a ditch!

In 2006 a bottle nose whale swam all the way up the Thames from the estuary to Battersea Bridge – causing near hysteria in the population of London (and you know how difficult it is to get Londoners excited about anything). The whale did not survive its visit and became a symbol for environmentalists – its skeleton and a symbolic quantity of its oil were exhibited to the public.

The owner of the Manor of Kennington has (since the time of Edward II) been the Prince of Wales and Prince Charles as the Duke of Cornwall is still the owner of much of the land around Kennington including Courtenay Street. Prince of Wales and now Prince of Whales.

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