A History of Whitby

By Wendy Pyatt

Whitby is best known for its Jet jewelry, wonderful fish, Captain Cook, Whitby Abbey, Dracula, and the North York Moors Railway. But where does the name come from?

Whitby was originally called Sinus Fari by the Brigantes who were a Celtic tribe controlling large sections of Northern England but by 71 AD they had been conquered by the Romans. In 657 AD Whitby became known as Streonshalh when the then Christian King of Northumbria, Oswy founded a monastery and Abbey there. The Vikings arrived in 867 AD destroying the monastery and renaming the settlement Whitby from the old Norse for White Settlement.

Whitby today is a traditional maritime town and historic port in North Yorkshire, where the River Esk meets the sea. It is located in the North York Moors National Park, designated in 1952, and on the Heritage coast, designated in 1979. There have been recorded settlements here since the Saxon period but the erection of the Abbey in 657 AD marked the birth of the town.

During the medieval period, Whitby was a place of major religious significance, it was one of the earliest and most important centers of Christianity in England. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540 Whitby remained a small fishing community of approximately 200 people until the Elizabethan period when Alum was discovered and mining began, the port then grew in maritime and commercial significance.

In the mid 18th-19th century, there were bustling shipyards, ropeworks, and sail yards in Whitby, and ships such as HMS Bark Endeavour, Resolution, and Adventure were built there. But by the mid 19th century the shipbuilding and whaling industries were in decline and it was hoped that the railway would help to regenerate the town.

A new development began to grow on the West side of the river designed with tourism in mind including a promenade, bandstand, and luxury hotels. It is still a busy working environment with a fishing fleet, pleasure boats, shipbuilding works, dry dock, and of course the lifeboat which was one of the earliest to be established in 1802.

A Short History of Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey was founded by Hilda in 657 AD. It was a double monastery of Benedictine Monks and nuns run in the Celtic tradition. Probably the most significant event in the history of the English Church was held at the Abbey in 664 AD, The Synod of Whitby. The most eminent clergymen of the Christian Church were summoned to settle the dispute over which tradition, Celtic or Roman would be followed and how the date for Easter should be calculated. The result was that the Celtic church adopted the Roman calendar, the calculation of Easter, and the monastic tonsure or shaving of the head.

Also at this time, Whitby Abbey was home to the great Saxon poet and father of English sacred song Caedmon, whose 7th-century poem, The Song of Creation is the earliest known poem in English. In present-day Whitby at the top of the 199 steps is the Caedmon memorial cross, a 19th century memorial to the poet.

However, In 867 AD Whitby fell to a Viking attack, and the Saxon monastery was abandoned and destroyed. When the Normans arrived in 1078 the Benedictine monastery was re-founded under orders from William de Percy and the current ruins are the remains of the Abbey which was begun around 1220. In December 1539 the monastery was dissolved and destroyed following the Second Suppression Act of Henry VIII. Whitby Abbey was further damaged in 1914 when the west front was hit by shells from a German warship.

Dracula in Whitby

Also at the top of the 199 steps is the church of St. Marys. In 1890 the Irish Author Bram Stoker stayed in the Royal Hotel in Whitby and it is said that the churchyard and the town were his inspiration. The book was published in 1897 and Tate Hill beach is where the Russian boat Demeter runs aground and Dracula in the form of a dog comes ashore.

Captain James Cook and Whitby

Born in 1728 in Marton, Yorkshire, Cook is famed for his exploration, navigation, and cartography. His connection with Whitby started in 1746 when aged 18 he moved here to join John and Henry Walker, prominent local ship owners, as a merchant navy apprentice plying coal along the English coast. Their house in Grape Lane is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

After his 3 year apprenticeship, he began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea, and in 1755 he volunteered for the Royal Navy. During the siege of Quebec in 1759, he showed his talent for surveying and cartography whilst mapping the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River.

His later connection with Whitby was through the ships he made his 3 pacific voyages in, HMS Bark Endeavour and HMS Resolution. These ships were built in Whitby by Thomas Fishburn and were originally used for carrying coal.

Endeavour was launched in 1764 and was originally called the Earl of Pembroke but was bought and re-named in 1768 ready for Cook’s voyage to Tahiti to record the transit of Venus. This voyage lasted until 1771 during which time Cook mapped the East Coast of Australia and circumnavigated New Zealand.

HMS Resolution was used for his second and third voyages; it was originally called the Marquis of Granby and was launched in 1770 and then bought by Royal Navy in 1771. In 1773 it was the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle.

Whaling in Whitby

Whitby was once the 6th largest port in Britain and during the period 1753 to 1833, it was the capital of the whaling industry, bringing home 2761 whales.

Whaling first started at Whitby in 1752 but the first ship did not sail to Greenland until 1753. The most successful year was 1814 when 172 whales were caught giving a total of 1400 tons of oil which was used for street lighting in Whitby. Jawbones would be attached to the ship’s mast to signify a successful catch, hence the commemorative whalebone arch still sited at West Cliff today. During 1785-1788, 20 whalers were operating from Whitby but by 1840 Whaling from Whitby had ceased.

One family name synonymous with Whitby whaling is that of Scoresby. In 1785 William Scoresby Senior (1760-1829) first became involved with Greenland Whale Fishery on a Whitby ship named Henrietta. By 1791 he was becoming a successful whaling captain with his record catch of 36 whales coming in 1798.

In 1807 he invented the crow’s nest or masthead lookout which was designed to protect sailors from the sea and weather and is believed to have been inspired by the pulpit in St. Mary’s church at the top of the 199 steps. During his whaling career, he caught a total of 533 whales on 30 voyages, the greatest number anywhere in Europe, and even once brought back a polar bear. His last voyage was in 1822 and during his retirement, he helped improve the harbor and provide work for the poor.

His son, also called William was involved in whaling and became an apprentice to his father in 1803, aged 13. He is also credited for discovering forms of snow crystals and the Greenland magnet which made ship’s compasses more reliable.

Whitby Jet

Jet is the fossilized remains of Araucaria better known as Monkey Puzzle Trees which were washed into the sea during the Jurassic period. Jet first appeared on beaches due to the erosion of shale cliffs and has been made into jewelry for thousands of years, often associated with mourning.

In the early 1800s, it was thought to keep evil spirits away and during the 19th century, it became extremely popular and eventually was mined from areas within the North York Moors. Its popularity grew after Queen Victoria wore Whitby Jet as part of her mourning dress and indeed was the only ornament she would allow herself to wear, the court and middle classes then followed her example.

The first shop opened in 1808 and mining began in 1851 when demand was rising. At the height of its popularity, the industry was a major employer in the region with over 200 miners and 1500 other workers in Whitby. But by 1870 inferior and cheaper Spanish Jet was being imported, this critically injured production, and the industry declined and once again relied on chance discoveries. By 1914 workable deposits in Whitby were virtually exhausted and people shunned its association with death but there has been a recent revival.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Whitby is either the beginning or the end of this 18-mile long heritage railway which calls at Grosmont, Goathland of Harry Potter and Heartbeat fame, Newton Dale, Levisham, and Pickering. The line was a victim of the infamous Beeching report in 1963 and finally closed on 8th March 1965. However, 2 years later it was brought back to life by locals running steam trains and has now developed into a very popular heritage railway.

Today Whitby is a flourishing Yorkshire town. Today the population of Whitby is about 13,500.