Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Whale of a time in Bournemouth
Last week a Northern Bottlenose Whale washed up dead on the beach at Bournemouth. It had been spotted swimming in the shallows for several days and the Press had named it Gilbert, but on September 22nd when it beached at Boscombe it was identified as a young female. It had not been feeding for several weeks at least. There are sharp net marks on the beak and tail but further checks need to be made to find the cause of death.
This is not the first time that a whale has died in the Bay here, but it is the first time in living memory. The last whale landed at Alum Chine in 1887. This was a much larger animal, being some 65 feet long. The local newspaper wrote 'Boys took running jumps up its slippery sides, and tobogganed down them on the seats of their trousers gleefully. Earnest schoolteachers took parties of youngsters and gave lessons in natural history. Farmers poked the thick hide of the beast with sticks, and inland folk raised exclamations of astonishment at its length, its strength and its thickness.'
Children also used to recite a rhyme, one version of which went as follows: Have you been to Boscombe? Have you seen the whale? Have you stood upon its back And smelt its stinking tail?
No-one really knew what to do with it and it was eventually auctioned and bought by a Dr Stockley for £29. He intended to exhibit the skeleton in a travelling road show. However it ended up on Boscombe Pier. It was displayed for several years, and often used as an impromptu slide by local children; the skeleton was eventually removed and ground down as fertiliser. Although no-one remembers it we have a written record and a photograph. The story is published on a poster on Boscombe pier. At the time it was regarded as a novelty; nobody then alive could remember it happening before.
Beached whales in Bournemouth are a once-in-a-lifetime event. I know there was one last week because I saw it and I know there was one 122 years ago because I've seen a photograph, and while you can PhotoShop pictures today you couldn't then. Then there is the written record. You can read it for yourself here.
This reference also refers to the records of Christchurch Priory, which dates from 1094. We have this record: On 13th October, Wednesday after the Feast of St. Denys, 8 Henry IV [ie the 8th years of the reign of Henry the Fourth = 1406], wreck occurred on the Earl of Salisbury's estate of Westover near la Bournemowthe [ie the mouth of the River Bourne], namely a great fish estimated to be 18 feet long, which was brought into the Earl's manor called Wyke [Wick] at Westover and there cut up into forty pieces.
A charter preserved among the records of Christchurch Priory reveals that in 1273 Isabella de Fortibus (then Lord of the Manor of Westover) made various gifts to the Priory, including: the right to dig 100 cartloads of turf a year for the Priory's kitchen, and two cartloads of heath daily for their brewery, from any part of her "field of Westestures". In addition to providing this fuel for the Priory, the heath of Westover was a major source of fuel for the inhabitants of the settlements along the banks of the River Stour. By ancient custom these people were entitled to take fuel from the heath for their own use - the common right of turbary [part of Bournemouth is known as Turbary Moor].
The Lord of the Manor of Westover was entitled to tithes of all fish caught, except of whales, of which he was entitled by ancient custom to the left fin. These rights had temporarily been assigned to Christchurch Priory by the then Lord, Isabella de Fortibus, in 1273. Anything that washed up on the beach was classed as "wreck", and this included not only driftwood but also the occasional whale. Wreck was the property of the Lord of the Manor (granted by royal charter as part of the Manor), but in practice appears to have been divided among the tenants.
This document is significant as the earliest known reference to Bournemouth - la Bournemowthe
This ancient document is 736 years old. There is only one copy. It has been preserved by Christian Monks. We find no reason to disbelieve it. The entry about the whale is later, being only 603 years old, but although it refers to an unlikely event, we still believe it.
How about this document: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This was written within 20 years of the events referred to and we have physical documents of the New Testament dating from 130 AD, some 80 years after it was written down. We have 8000 manuscripts of a Latin Translation and close to 5000 manuscripts in the original Greek. Compare that with our evidence of other pieces of history written about the same time. We have 10 manuscript copies of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, written after 58 BC and before 50 BC. The oldest of these manuscripts dates from 900 AD. In fact we have very few roman documents that date from before 900 AD - the oldest are the histories of Pliny the younger which are contemporaneous with the New Testament. We have 7 copies, the oldest of which dates from 850 AD.
Luke, a gentile historian writing at the same time as Pliny has been shown by modern scholarship to be an accurate and careful academic. He wrote: After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
and again: The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
and further: If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.
and finally: "What are we going to do with these men?" they asked. "Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name."
What is truth? Some things happen so rarely that we doubt that they can happen at all. Whales washing up on English beaches or a group of black swans flying by are certainly unusual. Dead men coming back to life seems impossible to us, just as it must have been to Dr Luke. Nevertheless there were plenty of witnesses and there is a written record - transcribed when many of the witnesses were still alive.
As a historical record it is unimpeachable. As a legal witness statement it cannot be denied. The only reason for disbelieving it is that we can't conceive of how it could happen. I am not so arrogant as to believe that we know everything. What I can say is that the belief in a dead man walking has turned the world upside down.