Scoresby's Polar Bear – Whitby, England - Atlas Obscura

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Scoresby's Polar Bear

A monument to the real explorer and bear who inspired characters in Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials.' 


The quaint seaside village of Whitby can conjure up many a fanciful imagery, from the maritime exploits of the town’s illustrious sea-faring industry to its literary connections with, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and Bram Stoker. The former being the author of The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and the latter penning the ultimate gothic vampiric tale of Dracula, both of which take inspiration from the town’s setting.

But a visitor might be hard-pressed to decipher why there is a large polar bear mounted atop a building on the east side of the Whitby Bridge. For the answer, one would have to be aware of the common business of sailors often capturing wild animals on their voyages, to be sold for a hefty price, to the burgeoning markets of Victorian zoos.

This is the case with one particular cub who was raised by Captain William Scoresby (1789 - 1857). The skipper had trained the wild animal to follow his commands while on the long journey home from an expedition to the Arctic. Scoresby and the bear resided in a home along Church Street. But one fateful day, the noise and unfamiliar surroundings upset the animal and they escaped. As was to be expected, this caused a distressing panic in the crowded lanes and confined yards of this seafaring community. Eventually, the animal was cornered in the nearby Cock Mill Wood, but before any harm could befall them, Captain Scoresby was able to calmly harness them and lead them to safety.

The polar bear would eventually be taken to London’s Tower Zoo. Besides being born in Whitby, Captain Scoresby was also a preacher and scientist. His work in the Arctic led to contributions to the discovery and development of terrestrial magnetism. His father, William Scoresby Sr., invented the barrel crow’s nest. Scoresby is also the inspiration behind the character of Lee Scoresby, in the author Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of novels.

Know Before You Go

The Polar bear is visible at any time, just past the Whitby Abbey side of the swing bridge, atop the Holland and Barratt health food shop. It can get very crowded.

The Whitby Museum contains a replica of Scoresby's crow's nest, along with several other artifacts pertaining to the family.

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November 17, 2022

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