Elhanan Bicknell’s whale oil refinery in London; the site identified.

89 Newington Butts in 1949
Front elevations of 87-91 Newington Butts in 1949

I am grateful to Mark Howard, whaling history expert who got in touch with us in 2017, for forwarding today a photo taken in 1949 published in October 2010 by the LCC Photograph Library at the London Metropolitan Archives. The text to the photo there reads as follows:

QUOTE – Shops in Newington Butts: View of front elevations of 87-91 Newington Butts, Elephant and Castle. At 87 is Lewis’ Stores, grocers, with shop windows and doorway displaying pyramids of tins and other dry goods. A pram or pushchair is by the door, and an advert for Benedict Peas is partially visible behind two boards on the pavement. In front of the four-storey shop is a Police Telephone Post. High on the left of 87 is a billboard poster advertising beer, designed to look like graffiti on a wall with the slogan “Build up with Reid’s Stout”. This “brick wall” design was first used in 1937 and became a long-running campaign by brewers Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. Ltd. Above this is a poster for Fairy Household Soap. Number 89 Newington Butts is a four-storey stone clad building with double gates leading to a yard beyond, and occupied by J.E. Whiter, builder. Late nineteenth-century maps show that the entrance at number 89 led to a large sperm oil works where whale spermaceti was refined into oil and wax. Elhanan Bicknell and John Langton, leading sperm oil merchants, had premises opposite Newington Church, so this refinery behind 89 Newington Butts may have been the site of their business. To the right at number 91 is H. Barnard, umbrella manufacturers, with a window display of baskets and umbrellas, partially obscured by a wooden sided, drop-end lorry loaded with sacks and parked in front of the shop. Number 87-91 Newington Butts were demolished to make way for Draper Estate, built by the LCC in 1965, with the land these shops occupied becoming a green area in front of Sherston Court and Draper House. (1949 – London Metropolitan Archives, LCC Photograph Library – Updated 2010 10 28, photograph, SC_PHL_01_372_F5871) – UNQUOTE

Some background… Elhanan was Clarence Bicknell’s father. Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861, my grandfather’s grandfather), returned to London in 1808 and joined a business run by his uncle, John Walter Langton (1746-1822). Langton had established himself as a tallow chandler at Newington Butts , about a mile south of London Bridge, by 1788. Bicknell became a partner in the business about 1809 and the following year he married his cousin, Langton’s daughter Hannah. She was the first of his four wives with whom he had a total of thirteen children. The business partnership was also productive and saw the firm become the leading oil merchants and spermaceti refiners in London by 1835. Bicknell was also part-owner of a number of South Sea whaling ships and used his fortune to invest in contemporary painters like Turner.

The City of London Poll-Book (Election 1837) lists Elhanan as a vintner. Several Bicknells have had connections with the Vintners and Elhanan was the elected Master of the Vintners for a time. There is no record of Elhanan being involved in the wine trade, so the use of “vintner” as an occupation could have been to give a better gloss in society then “whale oil merchant”. Read more about Elhanan and whaling in the article by Mark Howard, who provided the link to this photo, at https://clarencebicknell.com/wp-content/uploads/elhanan_bicknell_oil_trade_mark_howard.pdf. He also shows a copy of the oil painting in the Vintners Hall by T. Phillips “Elhanan Bicknell, Master of the Vintners in 1853”. Is it a coincidence that the shop at 101 Newington Butts is today called Winemasters?

No.89 Newington Butts does not exist today. The note from the archives, above, says it is now “a green area in front of Sherston Court and Draper House”. A look at Google Street shows the site is the gap between Tiendas Del Sur (on the shopping parade from 91 to 101 Newington Butts) and Theo’s restaurant. You are certain to want to know, “established over 8 years, Tiendas Del Sur (“Shops of the South”) is a fun-filled and vibrant Latin American shopping centre run by manageress extraordinaire Luz Lopez and her dedicated husband Herman”!