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North Riding
Whitby harbour from new Quay - geograph.org.uk - 47082.jpg
Whitby and River Esk
Grid reference: NZ893109
Location: 54°29’9"N, 0°37’14"W
Population: 13,594  (2001)
Post town: Whitby
Postcode: YO21, YO22
Dialling code: 01947
Local Government
Council: Scarborough
Scarborough and Whitby

Whitby is a town in the North Riding of Yorkshire; an ancient town, a seaside town and port town. It stands on the east coast of Yorkshire at the mouth of the River Esk, and climbing up precipitous slopes behind.

Whitby has a combined maritime, mineral and tourist heritage, and is home to the ruins of Whitby Abbey, founded in the early days of Christianity amongst the English. The fishing port emerged during the Middle Ages and developed important herring and whaling fleets,[1][2] and it was from Whitby that Captain James Cook learned seamanship.

Tourism started in Whitby in Georgian times and developed with the coming of the railway in 1839. Tourist interest is enhanced by its location surrounded by the high ground of the North York Moors national park and coastline and by association with the horror novel Dracula. Jet and alum were mined locally, and Whitby jet, which was mined by the Romans and Victorians, became fashionable during the 19th century.

The town


The earliest record of a permanent settlement is in 656, when Streonshal, was the place where Oswy, the Christian king of Northumbria, founded the first abbey, under the famed abbess, Hilda. The Synod of Whitby was held there in 664. In 867, the monastery was destroyed by Viking raiders, and was re-founded in 1078. It was in this latter period that the town gained its current name, Whitby (from the Norse for "white town").

In the following centuries Whitby functioned as a fishing settlement until, in the 18th century, it developed as a port and centre for shipbuilding and whaling, trade in locally mined alum and the manufacture of Whitby jet jewellery.

The abbey ruin at the top of the east cliff is the town's oldest and most prominent landmark with the swing bridge across the River Esk and the harbour sheltered by the Grade II listed east and west piers being other significant features. Statues of James Cook and William Scoresby and a whalebone arch all point to a maritime heritage. The town also has a strong literary tradition and has featured in literary works, television and cinema; most famously in Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula.

Whitby's cultural and historical heritage contribute to the local economy. The town suffers from the economic constraints of its remote location, poor transport infrastructure, and limitations on available land and property, so tourism and fishing remain the mainstay of its economy. It is the closest port to a proposed wind farm development in the North Sea, 47 miles from York and 22 miles from Middlesbrough. There are transport links to the rest of northern Yorkshire and north-east England. According to the 2001 census, Whitby parish had a population of 13,594.

Name of the town

The Arms of Whitby, featuring three green ammonites

The earliest recorded Old English name for the settlement was Streonshal in the year 656. Streanæshalc, Streneshalc, Streoneshalch, Streoneshalh, Streunes-Alae in Lindissi were recorded spellings between the 6th and 8th centuries.

Prestebi, meaning the habitation of priests in Old Norse, is a 9th century name. Its name was recorded as Hwitebi and Witebi, meaning "white town" in Old Norse, in the 12th century, Whitebi in the 13th century and Qwiteby in the 14th century.[3]



The ruins of Whitby Abbey reflected in the abbey pond

A monastery was founded at Streonshal in 657 by King Oswiu or Oswy of Northumbria, as an act of thanksgiving, after defeating Penda, the pagan king of the Mercians. At its foundation, the abbey was an Anglo-Saxon 'double monastery' for men and women. Its first abbess, the royal princess Hild, was later venerated as Saint Hilda.[4] The abbey became a centre of learning and here. Caedmon, the cowherd was "miraculously" transformed into an inspired poet whose poetry is the earliest surviving example of the Anglo-Saxon heroic verse form harnessed to a Christian theme. The abbey became the leading royal nunnery of the kingdom of Deira, and the burial-place of its royal family.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby was held here. At this synod, representatives of the Church from across Britain met to debate varying practices across the church in such matters, since the Church was divided between the practices of the Irish church which predominated in the north and Roman practice, which predominated in the south, rurning on such issues as the shape of a monk's tonsure and, crucially, the methiod of calculating the date of Easter. The synod, which much ill-will, agreed to accept Roman practice in these matters and in the event led to the acceptance of papal authority over the Church of England.[5] Notwithstanding its historic role in suppressing different expressions of Christianity, Whitby today is home to a rich variety Christian denominations.

The monastery at Whitby was destroyed between 867 and 870 in a series of raids by Vikings from Denmark under their leaders Ingwar ("Ivar the Boneless") and Ubba. Its site remained desolate for more than 200 years until after the Norman Conquest of 1066.[3] After the Norman Conquest of England the area was granted to William de Percy who, in 1078 donated land to found a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Peter and St Hilda.[6] William de Percy's gift included land for the monastery, the town and port of Whitby and St Mary's Church and dependent chapels at Fyling, Hawsker, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby, Dunsley, and Aislaby, five mills including Ruswarp, Hackness with two mills and two churches.[7] In about 1128 Henry I granted the abbey burgage in Whitby and permission to hold a fair at the feast of St Hilda on 25 August. A second fair was held close to St. Hilda's winter feast at Martinmas. Market rights were granted to the abbey and descended with the liberty. Whitby Abbey surrendered in December 1539 when dissolved as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.


Captain Cook's statue in front of the Royal Crescent

In 1540 the town had between 20 and 30 houses and a population of about 200.[8] The burgesses, who had little independence under the abbey, tried to obtain self-government after the dissolution of the monasteries. The king ordered Letters Patent to be drawn up granting their requests, but it was not implemented. In 1550 the Liberty of Whitby Strand, except for Hackness, was granted to the Earl of Warwick who in 1551 conveyed it to Sir John York and his wife Anne who sold the lease to the Cholmleys.[9]

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Whitby was a small fishing port. In 1635 the owners of the liberty governed the port and town where 24 burgesses had the privilege of buying and selling goods brought in by sea. Burgage tenure continued until 1837, when by an Act of Parliament, government of the town was entrusted to a board of Improvement Commissioners, elected by the ratepayers.[3]

At the end of the 16th century Thomas Chaloner visited alum works in the Papal States of Italy[10] where he observed that the rock being processed was similar to that under his Guisborough estate. At that time alum was important for medicinal uses, in curing leather and for fixing dyed cloths and the Papal States and Spain maintained monopolies on its manufacture and sale. Chaloner secretly brought workmen to develop the industry in Yorkshire, and alum was produced near Sandsend Ness 3 miles from Whitby in the reign of King James I.[11] Once the industry was established, imports were banned and although the methods in manufacture were laborious, England became self-sufficient.[12][13] Whitby grew significantly as a port as a result of the alum trade and by importing coal from the Durham coalfield to process it.[14]

Whitby grew in size and wealth, extending its activities to include shipbuilding using local oak timber. In 1790–91 Whitby built 11,754 tons of shipping, making it the third largest shipbuilder in England, after London and Newcastle.[15] Taxes on imports entering the port raised money to improve and extend the town's twin piers, improving the harbour and permitting further increases in trade. In 1753 the first whaling ship set sail to Greenland and by 1795 Whitby had become a major whaling port. The most successful year was 1814 when eight ships caught 172 whales, and the whaler, the Resolution's catch produced 230 tons of oil. The carcases yielded 42 tons of whale bone used for stays which were used in the corsetry trade until changes in fashion made them redundant.[16] Blubber was boiled to produce oil for use in lamps in four oil houses on the harbourside. Oil was used for street lighting until the spread of gas lighting reduced demand and the Whitby Whale Oil and Gas Company changed into the Whitby Coal and Gas Company. As the market for whale produce fell, catches became too small to be economic and by 1831 only whaling ship, the Phoenix, remained.[17]

Whitby benefited from trade between the Newcastle coalfield and London, both by shipbuilding and supplying transport. In his youth the explorer James Cook learned his trade on colliers, shipping coal from the port.[18] HMS Endeavour, the ship commanded by Cook on his voyage to Australia and New Zealand, was built in Whitby in 1764 by Tomas Fishburn as a coal carrier named Earl of Pembroke. She was bought by the Royal Navy 1768, refitted and renamed.

Whitby jet mourning jewellery

Whitby developed as a spa town in Georgian times when three chalybeate springs were in demand for their medicinal and tonic qualities. Visitors were attracted to the town leading to the building of "lodging-houses" and hotels particularly on the West Cliff.[3] Then, in 1839, the Whitby and Pickering Railway connecting Whitby to Pickering and eventually to York was built, and played a part in the town's development as a tourism destination. George Hudson, who promoted the link to York, was responsible for the development of the Royal Crescent which was partly completed.[19] For 12 years from 1847, Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson, engineer to the Whitby and Pickering Railway, was the Conservative MP for the town promoted by Hudson as a fellow protectionist.[20]

The black mineraloid jet, the fossilised remains of the monkey-puzzle tree, is found in the cliffs and on the moors and has been used since the Bronze Age to make beads. The Romans are known to have mined it in the area.[21][22] In Victorian times jet was brought to Whitby by pack pony to be made into decorative items. It was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-19th century when it was favoured for mourning jewellery by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert.[23]

End of the shipyards

The advent of iron ships in the late 19th century and the development of port facilities on the River Tees led to the decline of smaller Yorkshire harbours. The Monks-haven launched in 1871 was the last wooden ship built Whitby and a year later the harbour was silted up.[24][25]

On 30 October 1914, the hospital ship Rohilla was sunk, hitting the rocks within sight of shore just off Whitby at Saltwick Bay. Of the 229 people on board, 85 lost their lives in the disaster; most are buried in the churchyard at Whitby.[26] In a raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby in December 1914, the town was shelled by the German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger. In the final assault on the Yorkshire coast the ships aimed their guns at the signal post on the end of the headland. Whitby Abbey sustained considerable damage in the attack which lasted ten minutes. The German squadron responsible for the strike escaped despite attempts made by the Royal Navy.[27]

Lively harbour

During the early 20th century the fishing fleet kept the harbour busy and few cargo boats used the port. It was revitalised as a result of a strike at Hull docks in 1955 when six ships were diverted and unloaded their cargoes on the fish quay. Endeavour Wharf, near the railway station, was opened in 1964 by the local council. The number of vessels using the port in 1972 was 291, increased from 64 in 1964. Timber, paper and chemicals are imported while exports include steel, furnace-bricks and doors.[28] The port is owned and managed by Scarborough Borough Council since the Harbour Commissioners relinquished responsibility in 1905.

A marina was started in 1979 by dredging the upper harbour and laying pontoons. Light industry and car parks occupy the adjacent land. More pontoons were completed in 1991 and 1995.[29] The Whitby Marina Facilities Centre was opened in June 2010.[30]

Old Town Hall


St Mary's Church

Churches in Whitbuy include:

  • Church of England
    • St Mary's: an ancient foundation
    • St Ninian's, consecrated in 1778
    • St John's, consecrated in 1850
    • St Michaels, consecrated in 1856
    • St Hilda's on the West Cliff, built in 1885
    • The Mission to Seafarers maintains a Christian ministry and has a chapel, reading room and recreational facilities.[31]
  • Congregationalist: West Cliff Congregationalist
  • Independent Evangelical:
  • Methodist:
  • United Reformed Church: Trinity URC
  • Roman Catholic: St Hilda was built in 1867 on Baxtergate.[3] There are places of worship for nonconformists including a


The marina

Tourism supported by fishing is the mainstay of Whitby's economy in an isolated community with poor transport infrastructure and restricted by building constraints in the surrounding North York Moors National Park. The economy is governed by the changing fortunes of fishing, tourism and to some extent, manufacturing. Structural changes have led to concentrations of deprivation, unemployment and benefit dependence. A narrowing employment base and dependence on low wage and low skill sectors has resulted in younger age groups leaving the area. There are few business start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises. Older people who make increasing demands on the area's health and social care capacity have moved into the area. Demographic changes, Whitby's relative isolation from the region's main growth areas and decline in traditional employment sectors pose an economic challenge.

The town has a variety of self-catering accommodation, holiday cottages, caravans and campsites, and guest houses, inns, bed & breakfast establishments and hotels. The jet industry declined at the end of the nineteenth century but eight shops sell jet jewellery, mainly as souvenirs to tourists.[32] In 1996, Whitby West Cliff qualified for a 'Tidy Britain Group Seaside Award'. The town was awarded "Best Seaside Resort 2006", by Which?|Which? Holiday magazine.[33]

The harbour has a total area of about 80 acres and is used by commercial, fishing and pleasure craft. Inshore fishing, particularly for crustaceans and line fish, takes place along the coast. Lobsters, brown and velvet crabs are important to the local fishery.

The east coast has limited conventional energy generation capacity, but Whitby is the closest port to a proposed development on Dogger Bank, ideally placed to provide the offshore wind power industry with support vessel operations and logistics.[34][35] The Dogger Bank wind farm could include up to 2,600 giant 400-foot turbines covering more than 3,300 square miles.[36]

Sights about the town

The whalebone arch on the West Cliff commemorating the whalers
  • Whitby Abbey ruins
  • St Mary's
  • The Church Stairs climbing the cliff to the church
  • Swing bridge
  • Statues:
    • James Cook, on the West Cliff
    • William Scoresby, inventor of the crow's nest (inner harbour)
  • Sneaton Castle

The swing bridge spanning the Esk divides the upper and lower harbours and joins the east and west sides of the town. Whitby developed as an important bridging point of the River Esk and in 1351 permission was granted for tolls to be taken on the bridge for its maintenance. In 1609 a survey for a new bridge was commissioned while in 1628 it was described as a drawbridge where men raised planks to let vessels pass and tolls were collected. The bridge posts were rebuilt in stone at a cost of £3,000 in 1766. This structure was replaced by a four-arched bridge between 1833 and 1835, one arch made of cast iron swivelled to allow vessels to pass.[3] This bridge was replaced between 1908 and 1909 by the current electric swing bridge.[37]

The bridge allowed the town to spread onto the west bank, whilst the east bank, the Haggerlythe, is dominated by St Mary's Church and the ruins of Whitby Abbey which is owned by English Heritage. St Mary's Church is a grade I listed building on the site of a Saxon church. The church's ancient foundation dates from the 12th century. Over time it has been extensively altered and enlarged but retains several features including box pews.

The "Church Stairs" climb the East Cliff in 199 steps. An alternative is the footpath called "Caedmon's Trod".[38] The stone stairs, which replaced the original wooden steps, were built about 200 years old ago and renovated between 2005 and 2006. There are landings to assist coffin bearers on their journey to the graveyard on the cliff top.[39]

The east and west piers shelter the harbour: each with a lighthouse and beacon with fixed lights. The west lighthouse, of 1835, is the taller at 84 feet and the east lighthouse, built in 1855, is 54 feet high. On the west pier extension is a foghorn that sounds a blast every 30 seconds during fog.

A whalebone arch stands on the West Cliff and commemorates the whaling industry. It is the second such arch, the original is preserved in Whitby Archives Heritage Centre.

On the outskirts of town to the west is the 19th-century Sneaton Castle built by James Wilson who sold his sugar plantation where he had over 200 slaves and moved to Whitby.[40]

Culture, media and sport

Whitby Pavilion Complex houses the Pavilion Theatre

Pannett Park was donated by local philanthropist Alderman Robert Pannett in 1902. After his death in 1928, the trust he set up created a public park and art gallery.[41]

Whitby Museum was built in 1931. It holds a collection of the archaeological and social history of jet and has on display a "Hand of Glory": the hand of a hanged murder, the subject of old superstitions.[42]

The Lifeboat Museum sits in the old boathouse, built in 1895 and used until 1957.

The Penny Hedge in the harbour

The ancient "Penny Hedge" ceremony is performed on the eve of Ascension Day commemorating a penance imposed by the abbot on miscreant hunters in the Middle Ages.[43] The hunters using a knife costing a penny had to cut wood in Eskdaleside and take it to Whitby harbour where it was made into a hedge that would survive three tides. This tradition is carried out annually on the east side of the upper harbour.[44]

The Pavilion Theatre built in the 1870s in West Cliff hosts a range of events during the summer months.

For over four decades the town has hosted the Whitby Folk Week and a bi-annual Whitby Gothic Weekend for members of the Goth subculture, drawn by the appearance of Whitby in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Whitby Regatta Boat Race 2009

The Whitby Regatta takes place annually over three days in August.[45] The competition between three rowing clubs – Whitby Friendship ARC, Whitby Fishermen's ARC and Scarborough ARC – forms the backbone of the weekend.[45] The event has expanded to include a fair on the pier, demonstrations, fireworks and military displays – including the spectacle of the Red Arrows aerobatics display team of the Royal Air Force.


The abbey ruins sit atop the East Cliff

Famed Victorian novelists

  • Bram Stoker: Part of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula was set in Whitby, incorporating pieces of local folklore, including the beaching of the Russian ship Dmitri. Stoker discovered the name "Dracula" at the old public library.[46] The connection brings some "interesting" sorts to the town year by year.
  • Charles Dickens is known to have visited Whitby and in a letter of 1861 to his friend Wilkie Collins, who was at the time in Whitby, Dickens says:
"In my time that curious railroad by the Whitby Moor was so much the more curious, that you were balanced against a counter-weight of water, and that you did it like Blondin. But in these remote days the one inn of Whitby was up a back-yard, and oyster-shell grottoes were the only view from the best private room."[47][48]
  • Wilkie Collins stayed in Whitby to work on his novel, No Name. He was accompanied by Caroline Graves, the inspiration for The Woman in White.[49]
  • Elizabeth Gaskell set her novel Sylvia's Lovers partly in the town, which she visited in 1859.[50]

Other authors

  • Mary Linskill was born in Whitby in 1840. She reached a wide readership when her second novel, Between the Heather and the Northern Sea, published in 1884.
  • James Russell Lowell, the American writer, visited Whitby while ambassador in London 1880–85, staying at 3 Wellington Terrace, West Cliff.[51] On his last visit in 1889, he wrote:
'This is my ninth year at Whitby and the place loses none of its charm for me.'[52]
  • AS Byatt: The novel Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt set in the town was adapted into a 2002 feature film called Possession starring Gwyneth Paltrow.[53]

Other literary works referencing Whitby include:

  • Caedmon's Song by Peter Robinson[54]
  • The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps by Michel Faber[55]
  • The Resurrectionists by Kim Wilkins[56]
  • The Whitby Witches trilogy by Robin Jarvis[57]
  • Never the Bride, Something Borrowed, Conjugal Rites, Hell's Belles by Paul Magrs[58]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Whitby)


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  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Page, William, ed (1923). "Parishes: Whitby". A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 2. Victoria County History (British History Online): pp. 506–528. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=64701. Retrieved 5 September 2010 
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  20. Seatrobe, JB (29 October 2010). "They were also MPs: Robert Stephenson (1803–1859)". Total Politics. http://www.totalpolitics.com/history/5553/they-were-also-mps-robert-stephenson-18031859.thtml. Retrieved 20 July 2011. 
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  31. "Charity overview". charitycommission.gov.uk. 2011. http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityWithoutPartB.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=1022837&SubsidiaryNumber=0. Retrieved 21 July 2011. 
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  33. "Whitby voted best seaside resort in UK". Whitby Gazette. 12 May 2006. http://www.whitbygazette.co.uk/news/local/whitby_voted_best_seaside_resort_in_uk_1_1868229. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
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  36. Jeeves, Paul (26 May 2011). "UK firms becalmed in wind power race". Yorkshire Post. http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/business/business-news/uk_firms_becalmed_in_wind_power_race_1_3415754. Retrieved 19 July 2011. 
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  • Waters, Colin (1992). Whitby, A Pictorial History. ISBN 0-85033-848-4. 
  • Waters, Colin (2004). Whitby Then and Now. ISBN 0-7524-3301-6. 
  • White, Andrew (2004). A History of Whitby. ISBN 1-86077-306-0. 
  • Waters, Colin (2011). Whitby Then and Now IN COLOUR. ISBN 0-724-6315-5. 
  • Waters, Colin (2011). A History of Whitby & its Place Names. ISBN 1-4456-0429-9.