Twofold Bay and whaling seem almost synonymous but whaling was already a profitable business well before a whaling station was established at Twofold Bay. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, American whaling fleets operated around the coastlines of New Zealand and southern Australia.
Captain Thomas Raine established a shore-based whaling station at Twofold Bay in 1828. A whaling station was also built at Hobart by his brother, John. From 1832, Peter and George Imlay set up whaling stations at two sites in Twofold Bay – at Snug Cove and a second on the southern shore on a beach near the present site of Edrom Lodge at East Boyd.
This second station was manned almost entirely by Aboriginal whalers. The Imlays also had extensive whaling interests in Tasmania, Wilsons Promontory and Gabo Island.
Imlay’s pastoral interests and, eventually, their whaling activities were taken over by W. Walker & Company during the economic depression of the early 1840s.
Benjamin Boyd (1801-1851) was born in Scotland and by 1825 was working as a stockbroker in London. He also had a financial interest in the St George’s Steam Packet Company. He remained a London stockbroker for 15 years and during that time, he followed the shipping and commercial opportunities presented by New South Wales and the southwest Pacific region.
His vision was to improve communication in the region by employing larger, more reliable, steam-powered ships. He sought permission to select five or six locations on the Australian coastline to establish harbours and coaling stations.
The British Government supported Boyd’s proposal and Governor Gipps was instructed to give him all the assistance he required. The funding came from the Royal Bank of Australia, formed in London in 1839 specifically to finance Boyd’s entrepreneurial enterprises. One of his brothers, Mark, was the bank’s first London manager.
Boyd left Plymouth in his schooner Wanderer and reached Sydney on 18 July 1842. His much-vaunted arrival was witnessed by a large and enthusiastic crowd. His ship and his presence were honoured by the firing of a salute from one of Boyd’s schooners, Velocity. Boyd’s Sydney arrival had been preceded by the arrival of the steamers Seahorse in June 1841, Juno in March 1842, Velocity in May and Cornubia in June. All of these ships carried supplies for Boyd’s ventures.
On board Wanderer were another brother James, an old friend and artist, Oswald Walters Brierly, two other who would work at Twofold Bay as well as a crew of fourteen. Brierly later became a famous marine artist to Queen Victoria (Sir Oswald Brierly). Wanderer was a prestigious unit of the Royal Yacht Squadron of which Boyd was a prominent member.
Boyd wasted no time in setting up the Sydney branch office of the Royal Bank of Australia at Church Hill. He quickly initiated coastal shipping to Twofold Bay and Hobart. In December 1842, as Boyd was returning from a voyage to Melbourne in Seahorse, he decided that he and his party would stay at Twofold Bay, near where
Boydtown was eventually established, while Seahorse returned to Sydney for engine repairs.
In 1843, he bought land at Eden. Boyd chose Boydtown as his coastal base for it was from here that he could ship livestock, wool and tallow from the Monaro. At Boydtown, he started the building of a hotel, a church, houses, a wool store, salting and boiling down works, wells, a jetty and a lighthouse. In 1846, work began on the lighthouse at South Head. Sandstone was shipped from Pyrmont, unloaded onto Honeysuckle Beach and carted to South Head by bullock wagons. The structure was never commissioned as a lighthouse. He also established a whaling station at East Boyd. Whaling at East Boyd was initially carried out from a shore hulk moored nearby. His operations manager was Oswald Brierly. Eventually, Boyd employed nine ships in his whaling fleet.
To assist with the sighting of the whales, a lookout was placed at Honeysuckle Point and, after 1847, the ‘lighthouse’ on South Head became the lookout.
By May 1844, he had become the one of the largest landowners and graziers in the colony with the purchase of pastoral rights in the Monaro, the Riverina and the Port Phillip District. His properties were all well stocked but over capitalised.
With the economic depression of the 1840s, Benjamin Boyd no longer held the confidence of the London directors of the Royal Bank of Australia and he was replaced as a director. The bank was eventually wound up, Boyd’s properties and his fleet of steamers were sold for much less than their value. The Twofold Bay enterprise at Boydtown was closed down by 1849 with most buildings unfinished.
Boyd let the East Boyd whaling station run down and by April 1847 only had two, 7-man whaleboats in use.
These were not competitive with the five boats employed by Walkers who had taken over the Imlay interests.
Boyd left Sydney on board Wanderer on 26 October 1849, headed for the Californian goldfields. In California, he unsuccessfully tried to set up a Pacific island colony and while visiting San Christobel in the Solomon Islands on 15 October 1851, he went ashore from Wanderer and was never seen again. The crew searched but found no evidence of his survival. Consequently, Wanderer left San Christobel and headed for New South Wales and, in heavy seas, came to grief on the Hastings River bar at Port Macquarie. Whaling continued in Twofold Bay throughout this period. There were 30 whaleboats operated by several groups in 1844 and 27 by 1845. There was a boiling down works established by Barclay and Falkner at the north end of Fisheries Beach.
Alexander Walker Davidson built a cottage for his family at Kiah Inlet in 1847 where he established a mixed farm. In 1860 he left for the Kiandra gold rush but returned after a short time and acquired whaling gear and whaleboats from the bankrupt Boyd whaling venture. He started whaling in from Kiah Inlet in 1861. The Davidson family’s shore station operated until 1929.
Today there is excellent interpretative signage at the Kiah Inlet site.
No whaling has been conducted in Twofold Bay since that time. In Eden, there is a strong identification with the history of whaling but today, the emphasis is on the conservation of whales and tourist enterprises facilitate this. There are whale watch boats in Snug Cove and wonderful and beautifully presented displays at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, established in 1931. Perhaps their most prized display is the skeleton of Old Tom, the killer whale found dead in 1930 and prepared for display by the Davidsons.
What did this early whaling entail?
First, there were shore-based open boats with the harpooner stationed in the bow. As a whale surfaced, the harpooner would strike. The wounded whale would dive, dragging the boat after it. As the animal became exhausted and eventually died, the carcass was allowed to sink and the spot marked with a buoy.
As the body decomposed, generated gases raised the carcase to the surface and from there it was towed to the try works where the process of removing the blubber (flensing) was carried out. The large strips of flesh were hauled ashore and cut up and placed in cauldrons of boiling water. The oil came to the top and boiled over into metal tanks. From here it was strained and then stored in barrels ready for shipment.
Many products were made from the baleen, the sieve-like plates found in the mouths of some whales. This material was used to make accessories including corsets, umbrellas and shoehorns. Other whale products were used in perfume, gelatine, explosives and surgical stitches and the teeth were often used for piano keys.
Whale oil was used mainly in lamps but this waned once kerosene became available. It appears as if the meat was never eaten.
One of the fascinating features of Twofold Bay whaling was the almost symbiotic relationship between the whalers and the killer whales. Pods of killer whales would locate a whale, alert the whalers, herd the animal into shallower water then, when it was harpooned, would hasten its demise.
Their reward was to feast on the lips and the huge tongue of the dead whale, so the whalers quickly learned to leave the mortally wounded animal alone. This relationship appears to have been unique to Twofold Bay.
Old Tom’s skeleton in the Museum is a reminder that these animals played an integral role in the whaling operations of Twofold Bay.
There is still a wonderful Eden tradition. When a whale is sighted and reported to the Museum, a whale siren is sounded. This is no longer the signal for whalers to row out and harpoon the animal. It is a signal summoning interested persons to find a vantage point and watch these majestic, aquatic mammals make their way up or down the coast – a truly magnificent sight.
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.