A Brief History of Whitby 

The story begins long before any humans had come here. Look in our museum and you will see the fossil bones of the prehistoric animals who lived here.

Out on the moors you will find the Bronze Age burials and perhaps these people came down to Whitby to fish in the river and the sea.

Britons and Romans lived here but we don’t know what name they gave to the place. Digging drains showed that there was a small Briton village which had some Roman articles. The first name we get for the area was given by the Saxon invaders and it gives a clue to the Roman occupation. They called it Streoneshalh which is translated by the Reverend Bede, the monk historian, as The Bay of the Tower. This must surely mean that one of the Roman protection towers built along the coast was at Whitby. The sites of some of the others have been found, but none at Whitby. The sea is constantly eating into the land around Whitby so it is very likely that the Whitby tower was pulled into the sea.

The Reverend Bede tells us how Whitby became a place of importance. King Oswy who was a Christian defeated Pendla who was pagan and in thanks Oswy gave the land for a monastery to be built at Whitby. It’s first leader was a member of the royal family, the Abbess Hild. It was a mixed monastery but the chief post was reserved to a woman. It became the burial place of the royal family who wished to be buried near St. Hilda. The Saxon monastery flourished for two centuries until it was destroyed by marauding Vikings. The site was left desolate for hundreds of years until the time of the conquest of William the Conqueror. It seems likely that Vikings stayed to live and farm here. In the Domesday Book the names of local landowners were Viking but nothing has been found of the Viking period. In the Domesday Book Whitby does not have a church and is listed with another area. The Normans speak of the ruins of the old monastery as forty roofless chapels.

A Norman, Reinfrid, a former soldier, set out to revive former monasteries in 1073/74. He and his companions refounded the monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth and then set out to refound Whitby. The local landowner William de Percy was first helpful, then disagreements arose but eventually it came into existence as a priory with Serlo de Percy, the brother of William de Percy, the local landowner as prior. It became an abbey and the next abbot also belonged to the local noble family. The abbey prospered but does not appear to have produced any notable characters.

The small town below the abbey was the property of the abbey. It was laid out with houses which had land attached, called yards.The word yard still means garden in American English. Fishing was the livelihood of the villagers and they gave a portion of their catch to the monastery. The abbot received the rents and tried minor crimes.

As time went on they resented the rule of the abbey and persuaded an abbot to give them rights as burgesses, but the following abbots fought this and had it taken away, but the towns’ people continued to call themselves burgesses.

When the abbey became private property all the rights of the abbot came to the new owners and they received their rent and tried minor crimes in the building in the marketplace which is often misnamed the town hall.

At the suppression of the monastery the buildings were stripped of lead and left to fall in ruin with only the church allowed to stay as it was; a landmark for boats at sea but its roof and all lead were taken away and it was left to fall into ruins.

The Cholmley family were the new owners and friction between them and the townspeople continued. Fishing continued to be important but the manufacture of alum began around Whitby. This was a valuable commodity which was used to make colour stay on cloth. Fortunes were made and lost but the product had to carried by boat to London and it started the building of boats in Whitby. Whitby specialised in a type of boat with a flat bottom which was easily painted and repaired on a beach.

A market for taking coal from Newcastle to London came with more mining and the Whitby ships were very suitable, so Whitby dominated both in the manufacture and repair and the transport of coal in this trade.

There was also the need for the manufacture of cord and sails. Carpenters were needed to build and repair ships.The demand for accommodation soared and the Whitby yards were used to build houses up the slope behind Church Street and also in the other streets of Baxtergate and Flowergate.

Apart from the actual building of ships, food was needed for the supply of ships and their builders, and Sandgate filled with butchers shops. Shopkeepers also acted to keep money safe and also to lend money and give insurance while shipowners waited for their produce to be sold, so some shop owners became bankers as well. Quakers, known for their honesty, did especially well. By the end of the 18th century Whitby was very prosperous. 

The 19th century brought changes which did not help Whitby. Boats became larger and were made of metal and propelled by steam. Whitby bridge was too narrow to meet this need. Whitby shipyards were reduced to being only able to repair the dwindling number of
sailing vessels. One Whitby shipyard which had adapted carried on until the First World War. Whitby searched for other ways to make money. Whitby was one of the earliest places to get a railway,though it had to be propelled by a horse. Later when it had steam, visitors
came from London and other places to go in the sea. It became a fashionable place for fairly well off people.

This did not give much employment to many people. Queen Victoria chose to wear nothing but black after the death of her husband and chose jet as her preferred jewel. This started a fashion for jet and skilled workers in Whitby began to fill the need, and for a time
about 3000 Whitby men were jetworkers. Like most fashions it did not last long. Most employment now came from fishing.

Whitby ship owners had ships built elsewhere and employed some Whitby seamen. In the Wars many Whitby ships were sunk. After the First World War well off people went abroad for their holidays and the railway brought less well off people who now had paid holidays. Whitby filled with visitors during the school holidays. The fishing industry improved and Whitby people worked at Boulby Mine and in other Industries on the route to Middlesbrough and at the Fylingdale Early Warning station.

By the 1980’s much of this work had dwindled and Whitby went through a bad period and then the arrival of the copy of Captain Cook’s Endeavour arrived in Whitby and Whitby got lots of publicity. Whitby became a tourist attraction. Day visitors came all through the summer. Hotels and bed and breakfast extended their season and people hired summer lets and many bought houses for retirement. Whitby looks prosperous but young people wanting work still go away to find it.

For a more detailed history of Whitby please see Young's_History_of_Whitby.pdf here.