A Norwegian Whale Oil and Shipping Magnate

Long before Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and Sir Joseph Swan (1829-914) were conducting experiments on the incandescent electric lamp, homes were lit by whale oil lamps. Sandefjord is situated at the head of a long fjord near the western outer entrance to Oslo Fjord, and has a natural deep water anchorage protected from heavy southerly seas by a narrow entrance. There has been a harbour at Sandefjord since Viking times, and a full sized Viking longship was unearthed at nearby Gokstad in 1880. The Vestfold area surrounding the fjord sent out many ships before 1850 on whaling and sealing expeditions to the Arctic and the extreme north eastern part of Norway. Expeditions loaded their stores and equipment in the quiet waters of the fjord, and two Sandefjord men became extremely rich on the profits of these expeditions, in Thor Dahl (1862-1920), and later Anders Jahre (1891-1982), the latter with his ‘Kosmos’ fleet of whale oil factory ships.

Thor Dahl

Thor Dahl was born on 28th May 1862 as the son of schoolteacher Thor Helgesen Dahl and his wife Anne Oline, daughter of a Sandefjord coastal skipper. They had married in 1857 and Thor was their first child, but Anne died when he was only two years of age, and thus it was his father that gave him his character when he was growing up. Thor Dahl started his business life at an early age by delivering goods from the shops on the narrow waterfront and pier head. He set up his own business as Thor Dahl A/S on 1st October 1887 at the age of 25 years with a large shop and ship chandlery on the waterfront. This not only fitted out the whaling expeditions but also sold all manner of goods to the local Sandefjord population.

The Dahl ‘Big Shop on the Pier Head’ sold household goods, hardware, stoves, tables, chairs, lengths of wood, wines, newspapers and magazines, fish particularly herring, butter, fruit of all kinds including apricots, pineapples, bananas, pickled ginger, strawberries and raspberries, peas and beans. In fact, Thor Dahl was running an early form of supermarket that made him into a very wealthy man, owning several large two storey wooden houses with large open verandas on the upper floor to give excellent views over the fjord. He could view from the veranda his small wooden coastal steamers delivering goods from his shop and businesses to the nearby villages and fjords.


The 12,201grt Ole Wegger was built in 1914 by Swan, Hunter at Wallsend as the tanker San Lorenzo for Eagle Oil Transport. In 1928 she was sold to Thor Dahl and converted into a whaling factory ship. In 1941 she was captured by the German raider Pinguin, and on 26th August 1944 she was scuttled as a block ship at Rouen. In October 1944 she was raised and towed to Falmouth but was beyond economic repair so she was sold to be broken up at Gothenburg.

Thor Dahl also purchased Vestfold Farm in November 1900, where he also built another big house that he owned for the rest of his lifetime. One of the upper floors of another house was also rented out to his whaling manager, Ingvald Bryde. These very long whaling and sealing expeditions were initially to the Arctic, but in 1908 the Bryde and Dahl Whaling Company A/S was formed with a view to sending expeditions to the Antarctic. An expedition was sent in that year to establish a ground station at Godthul on South Georgia. Thor Dahl provided all of the stores and equipment needed for the long whaling season, including up to 700 tonnes of stores for a big floating whale factory, four tonnes of nylon ropes, thirty thousand Svend Foyn type harpoon heads weighing 134 tonnes, and a mountain of food including one hundred live pigs. Svend Foyn had invented the steam powered harpoon gun in 1865 by combining the bomb-lance, gun and steam from the engine of a steam powered whale catcher into one lethal weapon that made killing a whale into a deadly clinical business when fired from the raised bow of the catcher ship.

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