An authentic look at the historic whaling industry through film

Mar 5, 2023

MATTAPOISETT—Audience members of the Mattapoisett Museum’s showing of the 1922 silent film “Down to the Sea in Ships” caught a glimpse into the town’s past.

“Down to the Sea in Ships” tells the love story of Patience Morgan, a whaleman’s daughter, during the height of the New Bedford Whaling industry. Patience’s father, William, insists she marries a Quaker whaleman, despite her interest in childhood friend Thomas Allan Dexter.

The film features scenes of familiar locations including the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford, the Apponegansett Meeting House in Dartmouth and Mattapoisett’s own Water Street and Cannon Street.

“It looks the exact same,” said Mattapoisett Museum Board Member Jessica DeCicco-Carey referring to Cannon Street’s cameo in the film. Cannon Street can be seen as Morgan runs off with conman Sameul Siggs to get married.

In an attempt to win the approval of Morgan’s father, Dexter embarks on a whaling journey that sets off from New Bedford. During these scenes director Elmer Clifton filmed a real whale hunt.

“Blo-o-ows white water,” said Dexter as he harpooned the whale.

Many audience members had not seen footage of whaling and were intrigued by its authenticity.

“I thought it must have been difficult [ to film],” said Eddie War. “They had to be on a ship filming, it looked kind of scary.”

The opening scene of the film is dedicated to photographers A.G Penrod and Paul H. Allen who “stood by their cameras at the risk of their lives to photograph the fighting whales.”

“Down to the Sea in Ships” saw a wide release on March 4, 1923. Now, exactly 100 years later, the graphic nature of the footage led some viewers to ponder the differences between time periods.

“I wonder if people would be repulsed by the fact that you can’t make a film like this now because you can’t kill an animal,” asked Chuck diCiacomantonio.

Museum Secretary Mary Ellen said that the real footage gave a more authentic feel to the film as opposed to special effects.

This was not the first time that “Down to the Sea in Ships” was shown at the Mattapoisett Museum. According to DeCicco-Carey, the film was shown in the 1960s to fundraise money to build the carriage house located in the back of the museum.

According to DeCicco-Carey, the museum hopes to continue to provide a variety of free and fundraising events.