From blue whale to boatman

22nd November 2018

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What does Wadham’s Boatman, George Hudson, have to do with the 25.2 metre blue whale which hangs dramatically in the Hintze Hall at London’s Natural History Museum?

  • George works in the jaws of a blue whale

    George works in the jaws of a blue whale

  • The completed Blue Whale at London's Natural History Museum

    The completed Blue Whale at London's Natural History Museum

George, an expert welder and designer, was part of a small team tasked with creating the armature for the whale and hanging this enormous skeleton in position in the entrance hall.

After growing up in Oxfordshire on his family farm near Burford, George learned to weld, moving to Canada to set up a welding business. He worked in aerospace and architectural projects but much of his time was spent at the local shipyard where he gradually became interested in conservation projects, getting to know the Head of Biodiversity at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

UBC wanted a blue whale skeleton as the centrepiece at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum and George was commissioned to build the armature. The challenge was that the skeleton should have no external support structure.

The project involved creating a large steel armature to fit inside the 90-foot long skeleton. “The armature determines the pose of the whale and at UBC we decided to have the jaws open with steel tubes running inside the bones,” said George. The whale was then suspended from the ceiling by a series of steel wires.

Having completed an arts degree as a mature student, George was able to combine his welding skill with his creative flair to create a spectacular hanging whale for UBC.

When London’s Natural History Museum decided the time had come to replace ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus, with ‘Hope’ the Blue Whale, George was appointed as part of a team to create the armature and hang the structure.

  • The finished blue whale at UBC

  • Wadham's Boatman, George Hudson

Curators, conservation teams and engineers had been working on the blue whale skeleton for months, cleaning and preparing its 221 bones.

George spent several months working with museum staff before starting four months of welding the armature for the whale in an aircraft hanger in Bicester. “We wanted to keep the integrity of the skeleton so used more external steel, shaped and formed to appear part of the bone structure. Most importantly, the whale’s pose had to be anatomically correct, coming down from the ceiling, with an implied feeling of movement,” he added.

Lorraine Cornish, the Museum's Head of Conservation, said: “Hope is the only blue whale skeleton in the world to be hung in the diving lunge feeding position. Suspending such a large, complex and historical specimen from a Victorian ceiling was always going to be challenging, but we were determined to show her in as lifelike position as possible and we are thrilled that the result is truly spectacular.”

The five million annual visitors to London’s Natural History Museum have certainly been impressed by the stunning exhibit.

It was in July 2017 that George joined Wadham “for a complete change of career”. He spends his days at the boat house shared by Wadham with St Anne’s and St Hugh’s College’s. “I look after the students to make sure things happen safely. They often start rowing at 6.30am in the pitch dark and I make sure the boats are in good repair and the boat house is properly looked after.”

Does he miss the challenges of his welding/conservation work? “For the moment I’m really enjoying day to day life down at the boathouse, rowing to and from work, coming into Wadham for lunch and being part of the community here” he concludes.