Whitby Civic Society

Welcome to
A Potted History of Whitby

Whitby is one of the most interesting towns in England. In its history it has been influenced by different events and industries of which most have left traces which we can identify to-day. To show this I will pass very briefly over the many different periods and how they affected Whitby.

Prehistoric First have a look at the cliffs around Whitby to see the traces of geological history of the area and go to Whitby Museum, Pannett Park to see the fossils of our earlier inhabitants. Since they were deposited at the end of the last Ice Age our coast line has been withdrawing so where Whitby is now would have been further inland. It would have been the flood plain of the river. Up on the cliff would probably be forest. In the Neolithic period men lived in the area which is now the North York Moors and their burial mounds are visible to-day. Further up the coast a fish trap was found so they may have fished here too.


Romano Briton period The Reverend Bede gave the translation of the old name of Whitby Streonhalch as Bay of the Tower or Light House so it is probable that one of the Roman Coastal Defence Towers such as that at Goldsborough was also at Whitby. Just recently a new evidence of Romano Briton times came to life while digging drainage work near Larpool Lane. It was a small Briton settlement of three round houses and in the debris was found some Roman pottery.

Anglo-Saxon In thanksgiving for a victory a monastery was founded above the cliff with Hild, a nun and a princess of the royal family as its first leader. It became the burial place of Nortumbrian kings who wanted to buried near Hild now recognised as a saint. The dispute about the time to celebrate Easter,the chief Christian festival, was resolved by adopting the Roman rather than the Celtic date in the famous Synod of Whitby. The monastery which had been started according to the Celtic tradion, consisted of many scattered buildings rather than just one in the Roman fashion. This fashion continued until its destruction by the Vikings.

Viking Period After robbing and destroying the monastery some Vikings came to settle here. We know this because the Doomsday Book gives the local people as having Scandinavian type names.Local words such as wath for a ford or foss for a water fall still continue to this day but so far we have no physical evidence of anything concrete.

Norman Period The Normans found what they called forty ruined chapels as the remnants of the monastery of St Hilda.These were not really chapels but some of the monastery buildings. It was decided to restore a monastery on the site and the first Norman monastery was built and the shape of the first chapel can be seen on the ground inside the ruins of the later chapel. The monastery came to own all the land around it and a small town came into being, the real beginning of the town we know to-day. It was divided into strips of land with a house and land belonging to it. This pattern continues till to-day except that the land behind the house was later built on and became our yards. Since Whitby is so isolated by land the sea was used not just for fishing but as a way of transport.

The Reformation When Henry VIII seized the monasteries,the buildings were stripped of their lead and slates and the monks quarters became a quarry for the Cholmley Home and local people while the chapel was left to the elements as it provided a focal point for ships. The secular church was changed to Protestant worship with many pews and galleries and the altar hidden by the lord of the manors special raised pew. A three tiered pulpit was added to emphasise that the word was more important than the sacrament. To-day it retains this reformation appearance. The ownership of the town was purchased by the Cholmley family.They built better piers and tried to improve the harbour.The Protestant community was not united and radicals wanted a simpler form of worship. At first they struggled to change the established church but in the reign of CharlesII they were expelled and allowed to have their own chapels or meeting houses.The most radical of all were the Quakers who had no clergy, creed or sacrament but met in silence waiting for a member of the congregation to feel that they were being inspired to speak. The Quakers did well in Whitby and were prominent in business and wealth.

The Alum trade Alum was found locally and larger boats were needed to carry it and a profitable trade of carrying coal to London from Newcastle and large quantities of urine needed for the alum trade brought from London to Whitby. It was in this trade that James Cook learned his seamanship. Whitby built the boats needed for this trade and developed as a ship building port. To-day along the coast you can still see the remains of alum works.

Whaling Whitby boats and seamen entered the profitable Whaling trade. The Scoresbys, father and son, made a name for themselves by their skill.The whale bones next to the Captain Cook memorial reminds us of this time. Scoresby invented the crows nest to be able to see farther than his rivals.Until recently you could see a monument to the Scoresbys and the crows nest by the side of the Tourist Office but this was torn down in a storm and not replaced.

Boatbuilding Owning and building ships needed money and insurance and local people, especially Quakers, known for their honesty, formed banks and provided insurance for the shipowners.These banks flourished until eventually they joined up with similar banks elsewhere to become some of the national banks we know to-day like Barclays. Britain was engaged in wars in the 18th c and needed ships to transport soldiers and goods and Whitby ships were ideal for this so Whitby became very prosperous which can be seen to-day in the large houses in St. Hilda's Terrace and Bagdale and elsewhere. Boatbuilding involved not just the building of boats but the manufacture of sails and ropes. The ropes were made in long low single story houses and one of our streets is still called after the ropery which had been there. Iron ships began to replace wooden ships and Whitby was not able to change from wood to iron, due among other things to the width of the bridge.Ship owning continued with ships built elsewhere.

The Jet Trade Fortunately for Whitby Queen Victoria started to use jet jewellery after the death of her husband Prince Albert and this started a national fashion until over a thousand Whitby men were employed making jet jewellery

TourismThe coming of railways brought crowds of well off people in the summer, brought by the beaches and the supposed health giving qualities of the sea water and by our two spas.This ended with the first World War.

Paid Holidays Later when ordinary people were given paid holidays, Whitby again attracted people until foreign holidays,cheaper and with dependable weather, meant people went abroad and Whitby had a lean period. The arrival of the Endeavour replica gave publicity to the charms of Whitby and it is now once again a popular holiday resort.