“THANK you for confirming an event that I distinctly remember and have related to many disbelievers over the years,” says Nicholas Corker.

This was a familiar response to last week’s unbelievable article about Jonas the dead whale. Jonas was 69 tons of stinking, decaying blubber who toured the country for decades on the back of the world’s longest lorry, attracting large crowds of curious youngsters who didn’t have Blue Planet beamed in High Definition into their living rooms.

“I was taken to see the whale by my grandfather in Darlington,” says Nicholas, a Cockerton lad who now lives in Northamptonshire. “It would have been the early 1970s and I would have been 10 or 11 or so.”

The Northern Echo:

Crowds look at Jonah the whale at the Rewley Road railway station in Oxford in 1954

But Jonas’ story starts in September 1952 when it was harpooned off the coast of Norway by the University of Oslo and the World Worldlife Fund. Its 7,000 litres of blood were sucked out and replaced by formalin preservative, and its 12,000lb liver and its 4,800lb tongue were cut out with all its other organs so its carcass could embark upon an educational tour.

Geoff Carr in Spennymoor, who recalls seeing Jonas in Bishop Auckland in the early 1970s, has found a cutting from the Northern Daily Mail, published in Hartlepool on July 23, 1954, which tells how a third finback whale, named Goliath, was about to tour Europe before going on to South America.

“The other two whales touring the world are Miss Haroy in the US, which tips the scales at 50 tons, and 58-ton, 65ft long Jonah, at present touring Britain,” said the Mail.

The names Jonah/Jonas appear interchangeable, even in the Bible, and the creature’s vital statistics also change over time.

The Northern Echo:

A souvenir postcard picked up by John Phelan of Crook in 1954 when he saw Jonas the whale in London

Miss Haroy – who also appeared under her married name Mrs Haroy – was probably the first of these touring whales, harpooned off the Norwegian island of Haroya in 1951, and taken to New York by a showman. Her appearance was launched with a press party in which Louis Armstrong played his trumpet inside her mouth.

“The whale exhibition business is a real money maker,” explained the Mail in 1954. “When Jonah was on show in Paris, he was taking £25,000 a week (that’s more than £700,000 today, according to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator).

“Jonah and the other whales are a novelty as no one has ever managed to preserve a whale before. A whale did once start a tour of the US but stank unbearably after a few weeks. The secret is gallons of formalin pumped into the body at high pressure and a refrigerator inside the whale’s stomach.”

In its sentence about the stinking whale, the Mail may well have been referring again to Miss Haroy who had been badly troubled the Manhattan sun and had begun emitting what the New York press described as “unladylike odors”. Her stench drove customers away from nearby restaurants until, on July 13, 1954, she mysteriously caught fire.

It is also worth noting that the Mail’s article does not mention that Jonas had been seen in the North-East – that came a few months afterwards.

The Northern Echo:

A boy in Oxford in 1954 inside Jonas the whale’s mouth

Last week, we established that Jonas was on display in London in April 1954, but towards the end of that year, it definitely put in an appearance at St George’s Field in York, Bondgate in Darlington, and elsewhere.

“In the 1950s, when I was a little girl, I saw the whale on a huge trailer, which was parked on what I believe was a bomb site, just off The Moor in Sheffield,” says Gillian Banks, who lives in Durham. “I remember the huge whale accompanied by a tall, very blonde, man. I think it cost 6d.

“My family laughed at me for years for telling what they thought was a tall story, so thanks to you I am no longer a laughing stock.”

This seems to have been the start of two decades of touring by Jonas – that is presuming that he is one and the same whale who crops up quite regularly in the region between 1954 and about 1972. There are worrying reports that the poor chap decayed so badly that its eye fell out. The eye was popped in a jar of preservative and continued the tour, but if many more appendages had dropped off, Jonas’ owner might have been tempted to substitute in a fresher whale.

It feels as if Jonah did a big tour in the late 1950s, took the 1960s off, and then was back in the early 1970s.

We’ve had a report of the whale appearing in Ferryhill market place and in Durham where the Gala Theatre is today. Peter Loughlin reports that he saw the whale on Clairville Common in Middlesbrough when the admission was 50p – this must therefore have been after decimalisation of 1971.

Malcolm Greaveson says that he took his young daughter to see the whale in the early 1970s when it appeared in Crook market place. “I wonder if anyone else remembers the Crook visit, and possibly has a photograph?” he asks. “Had it appeared today, there would have been dozens of digital photos available.”

Sadly, we have no photographic record of any of Jonas’ appearances in our area. If you have any pictures, or any memories, of an encounter with Jonas, please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk. Here are some more stories of people’s memories of the day they met the dead whale…

The Northern Echo:

An Edwardian postcard of Bishop Auckland Market Place, which was also visited twice by the dead whale. Buses stopped outside Doggarts on the right and the whale was on display on the left outside the town hall

Bishop Auckland, late 1950s

“I vividly remember a rumour going round school that there was a huge whale in Bishop market place, which naturally we thought was a wind up,” says Geoff Carr, of Spennymoor. “Then as we became more convinced, about four of us got the bus to Bishop and there it was!

“The buses all parked near Doggarts, and the whale was just across the road next to the town hall.”

Geoff remembers it between 1958 and 1961, as he went with his mates from the grammar school.

“We were all keen biologists so the smell of formalin was quite normal to us,” he says.

Darlington, early 1970s

“The exhibition was parked up at the top of Bondgate next to the Odeon,” says Nicholas Corker. “A tall palisade was erected around the site to stop anyone having a look for free, and to get in you had to queue and pay at a kiosk.

“Once inside, the whale on top of a low loader was visible and a sort of one way system allowed you a closer look. The body of the whale was black and my grandad thought it had been painted with tar. Despite signs saying do not touch, when I thought no one was looking I reached up to feel a body quite hard and cold.

“I felt very sad for the creature and I’m sure it kindled an environmental awareness in me that became a life long passion.”

The Northern Echo:

Bondgate in Darlington on August 23, 1961. In the mid-1950s and at least once in the early 1970s, the dead whale tour stopped here, outside the Odeon (which is now the Majestic) cinema

Bishop Auckland, early 1970s

Robbie Young of Crook remembers working at the Shildon shops in about 1972 and going to the Belle Vue showground in Manchester to see the annual railway queens’ contest.

In those days, most towns still had an annual railwaymen’s carnival to raise money for local charities, and each town selected a local young lady as its Railway Queen. The queens from all over the country gathered at Belle Vue to select the queen of queens.

Belle Vue was known as “the showground of the world” as it was a giant theme park featuring fun fairs, rides, rollercoasters, a circus and a zoo. “It was a great day out,” remembers Robbie, and the wagonworks put on a special train each year so its employees could see if the Shildon lass would win the national title.

But in about 1972, when he was 23 or 24, there was another attraction on the showground: the dead whale, surrounded by a tarpaulin so that people had to pay to see it.

“Then, a bit later, I was down Bishop Auckland, just outside the town hall, and the whale was there again, surrounded by a tarpaulin,” he says. “I think it cost half-a-crown and I paid to see it again.”

Various bits of the whale’s anatomy had signs on them so visitors knew what they were, and Robbie remembers that beside a hole in the carcass, a sign said: “Harpoon entered here.”

And Radar Wood says: “I remember a whale being parked in Bishop Auckland market place in about 1974 when I was eight or nine. It was in three lorries fastened end to end and was almost the length of the town hall almost.

“The sides of the lorry were lifted up and I remember seeing the stripes along the side of its body. I was fascinated by it and whales are still my favourite animals.

“Usually, events like that happened on a Sunday in the market place. I remember seeing a man was suspended in a cage from a very high crane. He was supposed to be 200ft up in the air and stayed in the cage all day, but I don't know why.”

So the dead whale was definitely in Bishop Auckland – but can anyone remember a man hanging around in a cage?

To complete the story: there are reports that in the early 1970s, a whale’s travelling carcass was destroyed in the National Coal Board furnace in Barnsley. However, in 2019, there were reports that Jonas’ body had turned up in a giant freezer in Belgium, and a showman was going to put him back on the road.

If he appears in our region, it really will be a case of whale meet again!