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These bones of contention

PUBLISHED: 14:50 01 September 2009 | UPDATED: 09:08 11 August 2010

A sperm whale

A sperm whale

TRAVELLING along one of the borough s main roads, you may ask yourself: What s in a name? The whale bones that defined the past identity of the area around Whalebone Lane, the artery road that connects Becontree Heath with Chadwell Heath leading up toward

TRAVELLING along one of the borough's main roads, you may ask yourself: What's in a name?

The whale bones that defined the past identity of the area around Whalebone Lane, the artery road that connects Becontree Heath with Chadwell Heath leading up toward Hainault, hold a curious legacy of past tales straight from the great mammal's jaw.

The two bones are the jaws of a common Greenland whale or maybe a sperm whale thought to have been stranded in the Thames sometime between the 1600s and the 1800s.

Though the exact origins of the bones are unknown to this day, Daniel Defoe claimed in the early 18th century that one of two massive jaw bones had been washed up on the night that Oliver Cromwell died after a great storm raged on the Thames on September 3, 1658.

The bones had been fixed on the road "for a monument of that monstrous creature, it being at first about eight-and-twenty feet long". Another explanation might be the stranding of a sperm whale or white whale as documented in the Barking Advertiser on August 1, 1891.

When the animal was caught in the death trap of Barking Creek's shallow waters, bargemen and residents stabbed it with boat hooks until it bled to death.

The bones were kept over a toll gate and octagonal toll house which had been built after 1721 at the crossroads between Chadwell Heath High Road and what is now called Whalebone Lane.

Having changed location several times over the years, the bones were moved to the gates of Whalebone House on the High Road, which was destroyed during aerial bombings in the Second World War.

They were then taken to the Valence House Museum in Becontree Avenue, Dagenham, where they stood in the front entry of the museum for some decades until they began to deteriorate.

In 1994 the bones were taken into the building's cellar where the cool and damp air helped to preserve them from acid erosion.

It is still not clear if the bones belonged to the same whale or not but they certainly defined the area, which boasted a Whalebone School, Whalebone Farm, Whalebone House and, of course, Whalebone Lane.

Linda Rhodes, from the local studies centre at Valence House, said: "What we believe is that there were several sets of bones.

"They were really important to the identity of the area."

Even a seedier kind of cultural reference - the term 'going up the whalebones' - was created in honour of the marine creature, as the area of the Rose Lane estate used to be East London's main prostitution area.

The bones will soon be on display again. Specially built glass cases will preserve and exhibit the area's beastly namesakes once the refurbishment of Valence House Museum is complete in next Spring.


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