WHITBY, a parish in the wapentake and liberty of Whitby Strand; 22 miles from Guisborough, 20 from Scarborough, 31 from Stokesley, and 47 from York; in 54 deg. 29 min. 24 sec. north latitude, and 35 mm. 59 sec. west longitude. The town stands on two opposite declivities, at the mouth of the Eske, by which river it is divided into two parts, which are connected by a draw-bridge so constructed as to admit vessels of 32 feet wide.

The Saxon name of this place, was according to Bede, Streanshall,, or the Bay of the Watch Tower! It was afterwards called Presteby, or the habitation of Priests; then Hwytby; next Whiteby, (probably from the colour of the houses) and now Whitby. Owing to the northern aspect of the district and the rising of the land to a considerable distance into the country, the sun beams fall so obliquely on the town and its immediate vicinity, that its climate may be considered nearly on an equality with Shetland and the Orkneys. It is closely and irregularly built, though the houses of the opulent inhabitants are large and commodious; the streets in general are narrow and inconvenient, and the act obtained for paving, lighting and widening them has been very imperfectly carried into effect. Whitby owes its origin to a famous abbey, founded here in 657, by Oswy, King of Northumberland, to redeem a vow that he had made previous to the sanguinary battle of Leeds, fought in 655, -that if God would grant him victory over Penda, the Pagan King of Mercia, who had invaded his dominions, he would build a monastery, and consecrate his daughter, Ethelfleda, then scarcely one year old, to the services of God by a life of celibacy. The prayers of Oswy were heard; Penda was slain with most of his nobles, and Oswy in gratitude to heaven built the monastery of Streanshalh, for monks and nuns of the Benedictine order, appointing Lady Hilda, niece of Edwin the first christian king of Northumbria, abbess. This lady was so famous for her sanctity that she attained the name of St. Hilda, and the monastery, though dedicated to St. Peter, is generally called after her. The story goes, says Grese, that in her time, this place and its environs were terribly overrun with serpents. These, by the prayers of St. Hilda, were deprived of their heads and turned into stones, as the writer of her life very properly observes, to the great amazement of the beholders! In her benevolence however she kindly provided houses for the snakes so petrified, all of whom are enclosed within a kind of stony matrix; these stones are still found in great quantities in this neighbourhood, and are what the fossilists call ammonitae. On the landing of the Danes at Raven's Hill, two miles to the west of Whitby, in 867, they destroyed this monastery which lay in ruins till the conquest, when William the Norman, assigned Whitby to Hugh de Abrincis, an expert soldier, who disposed of the place to William de Percy, by whom the monastery was refounded and dedicated to St. Peter and St. Hilda. In the reign of Henry VIII. this house shared the fate of the other monastic establishments, and its yearly revenues according to Speed. were valued at £505. 9s. 1d. The site of the abbey was granted in the 4th of Edward VI. to John, Earl of Warwick, by whom in 1551, it was sold to Sir Edward Yorke; and in the 1st of Philip and Mary, by him to Sir Hugh Cholmeley, Knight, ancestor of the present proprietor. The ruins of this once famous abbey stand on a high cliff south-east of the town near the parish church, and the ascent to it from the town is by a flight of two hundred steps. A small distance south of the abbey Mr. Cholmeley has a splendid mansion, built probably with the materials from the monastery. This noble abbey has gone greatly to decay, but the rudest shock it received in modern times was from a storm of wind in the night of the 2d of December, 1763, when the whole western wing was overturned and thrown down to the very foundations, though supported by at least twenty strong Gothic pillars and arches, nothing being left standing thereon but the north wall of the cloisters and a part of the wall at the west end. Unlike the other great religious houses in this country, which were generally built in warm sheltered situations, Whitby abbey stands on an eminence eighty yards at least above the sea, but if the situation is bleak the prospect is commanding, and presents a view of the town and port of Whitby, with the frowning heights of the black moors rising in the horizon in front, while in the rear is the vast expanse of the ocean, and the tout ensemble is truly magnificent.

When the abbey of Whitby was in the zenith of its glory, the town was little more than a small fishing station, and so late as the year 1540, it did not consist of more than from twenty to thirty houses with a population not exceeding two hundred inhabitants. At that time it is probable there was not a single chimney in the town, the abbey chimney excepted, the common way then, even in towns and cities of much greater consequence, being, to have a hearth in the middle of the room in which was made the fire, the smoke ascending and passing through a large hole at the top of the building, after the fashion of the smoke vomitory of an Irish cabin of the present day. It does not appear during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, that there was a single vessel deserving the name of a ship that belonged to this port; but the important discovery of the alum mines at the close of that reign raised Whitby from its obscurity, and by opening a channel of commerce, elevated the town to a degree of maritime consequence. The successful progress of the alum works, established by Mr. Chaloner at Guisborough, says Mr. Hinderwell, excited a spirit of emulation, and works of a similar kind were erected in the year 1615, near Sands end, within - three miles of Whitby. This also proved advantageous, and the vicinity of Whitby abounding with alum-stone other adventurers were induced to embark in these undertakings. In consequence of these extended speculations, two great branches of trade were opened at the port of Whitby -one for supplying the works with coal, the other for conveying the alum to distant parts. This infant commerce was gradually matured; the number of vessels were increased; ship building from the oak timber which the vicinity produced was commenced, and by the industry, the enterprise, and the successful speculation of its inhabitants, the town of Whitby rose to opulence, and became a place of considerable importance. Up to the year 1632, the piers were constructed only of wood, with a few loose stones put in the framing, but during that year the stone piers began to be built. through the influence and exertions of the early benefactor of Whitby, Sir Hugh Cholmeley, who, by favour of his relation, the Earl of Strafford, procured liberty for a general contribution throughout England, by which nearly £500. was collected in aid of this public work.

Since that time the piers have been progressively extending with the increase of commerce. For the support and extension of these piers, there is paid a duty of a halfpenny per chaldron on all coals shipped at Newcastle or its dependencies, except in Yarmouth vessels, and the sum raised by this duty, together with the perpetual duties levied at Whitby, in virtue of the acts of 1702 and 1720, on salt, grain, and foreign goods, landed here, and on butter and fish shipped hence, amounts to £2000. a year. From the funds thus provided, the harbour has been wonderfully improved, and an effectual barrier interposed to protect the town from the fury of the German Ocean. Since the year 1702, the east pier, which extends six hundred and forty-five feet into the sea, has been entirely built; and the west pier has been enlarged and improved, and now extends to the distance of one thousand eight hundred and sixty feet from the shore. Besides these outer piers others have been formed within the harbour at sufficient distances to direct the current, to break the force of the waves, and thus to give a great security both to the shipping and to the premises abutting on the harbour. Rocks that formerly obstructed the mouth of the haven have been removed, and immense beds of sand that once filled a considerable part of the harbour, and even threatened to choke up the entrance have by the projection of the piers been all cleared away. A commodious quay from Haggersgate to the west pier has been recently erected, and forms, says Mr. Young, in his excellent history of Whitby, one of the finest improvements which the town and harbour have experienced. The entrance to the harbour between the heads of the two outer, piers is about ninety-two yards wide; between the Burgess pier and the Scotch head the width is seventy-two yards; but the third entrance between the Fish pier and the Coffee house does not exceed sixty-eight yards. The depth of the water in the harbour at neap-tides is from ten to twelve feet, and at the spring tides generally from fifteen to eighteen feet. In stormy weather it is necessary for vessels to go above the bridge to escape the swell but there is room in this inner harbour to accommodate a large fleet, and the water up to Boghall is of sufficient depth to receive them. A harbour master is appointed to direct the vessels & their proper mooring, and there are fourteen pilots belonging to the port who take charge of vessels entering into the harbour or going out to sea. The batteries are closely connected with the piers, and the cost of their outfit and support is defrayed from the same fund. When the west pier was lengthened in 1734, its circular termination was formed into a battery with embrasures for five pieces of cannon, which have since been increased to six; and since the erection of the quay a battery which before existed near the Scotch head, has been strongly re-built in the form of a crescent, with a small tower at each angle, and is furnished with eight eighteen pounders.

Whitby in a commercial view claims a superior rank among the minor ports, and as far as the opulence of her merchants and the extent of her ship building establishments are concerned she has some fair pretensions to aspire to the major class. The shipping of Whitby has increased amazingly during the two last centuries. In 1622, it is highly probable that the aggregate burthen of all the vessels belonging to this port did not exceed five hundred tons; in 1700, the vessels had increased to one hundred and thirteen, but their tonnage did not then exceed six thousand tons, and the number of vessels may now with safety be stated at three hundred, and their burthen at fifty two thousand tons. These vessels are navigated by upwards of two thousand seamen. The seamen of this port have long been distinguished for their courage, activity and skill; and many of them have been eminently successful. Of one of this number, Captain Thomas Pyeman, it is mentioned, that he was never shipwrecked or captured, nor did he ever lose so much as either an anchor or cable, during forty-five years that he was at seal and it is proper to add, for the connection is worthy of remark -he was never intoxicated (Young's Picture of Whitby).

The exports of Whitby to foreign parts are very limited, they consist principally of alum, whale oil and dried fish. The imports are much more considerable; they are chiefly articles of Baltic produce, comprehending timber, deals, hemp, flax and ashes. The coasting trade is also considerable, and the shipments made hence to other parts of England consist principally of alum, sail cloth, butter, bacon, grain, and leather.

The progress of the artificers of Whitby in ship building has eminently contributed to the prosperity of the place. A number of ships have been built here for the ports of London, Liverpool, Hull, and Shields, and taken on an average the ships built during the last twenty years may be about twenty a year. Boat building, rope making, and sail cloth manufacturing, are all carried out here, but in these departments as well as in the demand for ships, the cessation of war has made a considerable reduction.

The Custom House here is situated in Sandgate, near the Market place, and Christopher Coulson, Esq. is the collector. The business of the Excise Office is transacted at the Angel Inn, under the direction of John Brown, Esq. collector. Mr. George Clark in Church street, is the distributor of stamps; and Mr. Richard Rodgers in the Old Market place, is the post-master. The annual revenue yielded to the government by these establishments may be thus stated :


One of the most lucrative branches of trade that this port has enjoyed is the whale fishery. The first ship sent from hence to Greenland was dispatched in the year 1753, by club or community of enterprising men, but it was not until the year 1772, that the beneficial effects of this branch of commerce began to be sensibly felt, and not earlier than 1795, that they fully developed themselves. In former times a vessel was thought well fished, as it is technically called, with four or five whales, but within the last seven and twenty years the average has not been less than fifteen, yielding one hundred and twenty seven tons of oil for each ship, and eight tons for each fish. The number of whalers dispatched to the Greenland and Davis Straits fisheries, from this port has of late amounted to about eight annually. Their success has tended not only to benefit the owners, but also to enrich the town, as will be inferred when it is stated that each full ship is estimated before its departure and on its return to spend in the place £3000. Two recent discoveries however useful and agreeable in other respects have tended materially to impair the prosperity of our fisheries. these are -Gas Lights and Soft Stays- the former of which have diminished the demand for oil, and the latter for whale bone. The domestic fisheries of Whitby are on a very circumscribed scale. Though both the Eske and the Ocean are at hand, and both of them ready to afford their contributions for the supply of man, the distance from and the rugged communication between this place and the large towns of the interior, preclude the possibility of fishing here to much advantage.

When it is considered that the limits of the jurisdiction of Whitby comprize about forty miles of coast, extending from Huntcliff fort contiguous to the Tees to the north, to within a mile of Scarborough castle to the south, and that within this distance here are several extensive works, it will not be thought surprising that a great deal of business is done here on Saturday which is the market day. The two annual fairs which commence on the 25th of August, St. Hilda's day; and on Martinmas day, each last three days, but all the business done at them might very well be transacted in a much shorter time. The banks here so intimately connected with trade and commerce are five in number, stable in their character, and highly conducive in their operations to the prosperity of the place: they will be found enumerated in their proper place in the subjoined directory.

The alum works, the staple trade of Whitby, which comprehend no fewer than six separate establishments, employing in the whole six hundred work people, and producing two thousand eight hundred and forty tons annually, claim a particular notice in the history of the trade and commerce of this place. The precise period when the art of alum making was introduced into this country is unknown, but the year 1595, is the earliest period assigned. It appears that Sir Thomas Chaloner, one of the ancestors of the worthy member for the city of York, in his travels in Italy, about that period visited the alum works of his Holiness the Pope, and having ascertained that the rock from which the Italian alum was made was of precisely the same nature as that with which his own estate at Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire abounded, Sir Thomas engaged a number of the Pope's workmen to accompany him to England, and for secrecy conveyed them on board the vessel in which they embarked in hogsheads. With the assistance of these workmen, the Knight begun his alum-works at Belman Bank, near Guisborough, and soon became a most formidable rival to the traders of the Vatican. The monopoly of the alum trade which had been enjoyed by the Court of Rome for ages being thus destroyed, and a highly profitable source of revenue greatly impaired, his Holiness is said to have excommunicated not only Sir Thomas Chaloner, but also all the other persons engaged in this manufacture, and this ancient and terrible malediction may be found in Grose's Antiquities, vol. i. page 107. as well as in several other works. The profits made by Sir Thomas were more operative than the fears excited by the denunciation of the holy father, and hence several other works were set up in various parts of the country, and in time the competition became so severe that instead of alum being sold as it was in the Italian works for the sum of £53. 6s. 8d. per ton, it was reduced to below one-half of that price. Up to this day the alum works on the Yorkshire coast are the principal establishment of the kind in England, and the noble Lords Dundas and Mulgrave, with three other manufacturing concerns already mentioned, are the great alum makers of England.

The neighbourhood of Whitby abounds with natural curiosities; and the various petrifactions almost every where found in the alum rocks have long excited wonder and puzzled philosophy. Besides the petrified shells of sea-fish, others have been found in the scarr or cliff on the east side of the mouth of the Eske, which cannot be arranged under any class. In the early part of the last century Dr. Woodward, dug up on the scarr the petrified arm and hand of a man in which all the bones and joints were perfectly visible. In 1743, the Rev. Mr. Borwick found in the alum-rock the complete skeleton or petrified bones of a man, and sent it, though in a mutilated state to one of our Universities to enrich their museum. After this, in the year 1758, the petrified bones of a crocodile, an animal never known in this part of the world was taken out of the rock and sent to the Royal Society, in whose transactions at in Vol. L. Part II. it is described; and about four years after the skeleton of a petrified horse was found in the alum works at Saltwick, at the depth of thirty yards under ground, and sent as a natural rarity to the University of Aberdeen (Charlton's History of Whitby). The ammonitae or snake-stones, as already mentioned, are found in almost every place where the alum rock exists, and particularly in Whitby Scarr, between high and low water mark. The snakes are all inclosed in hard elliptical stones, which seem to have been struck within, being coiled up in spiral volutes, and every way resembling that reptile in their form and shape, save only in the head, which is always wanting. There are two different species -the round-bodied and the flat bodied. The round-bodied are girt or encompassed from end to end with semi-circular channels or cavities: while the other have a ridge on their back, and are plated on the sides, as if they had been pressed together, the marks wherewith they are pitted, resembling the impression of a man's thumb on a soft substance. The snakes are all enclosed in hard elliptical stones, which seems to be of a different mineral from the snake itself, which may, by care, be separated from it. These ammonitae are noticed by Camden and Leland, and both of them observe, that fame ascribes them to the power of St. Hilda's prayers. This is of course a vulgar superstition which it is much easier to reject than it is satisfactorily to account for the phenomenon.

The parish church at Whitby, dedicated to St. Mary. is situated near the top of the hill on the eastern side of the town, near the abbey, and is approached from the bottom of the vale by one hundred and ninety stone steps. The architecture was originally gothic, but it has undergone so many modern alterations that it retains little of its ancient form. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the patronage of the Archbishop of York, and the Rev. James Andrewes. is the incumbent. There is here also a Chapel of Ease, of the date of 1778, situated near the middle of Baxtergate, of which the Rev. Thomas Holloway, is the minister. In addition to the episcopalian places of worship, there are seven meeting houses in Whitby, two belonging to the Methodists, two to the Presbyterians, of different persuasions; one to the Independents; one to the Quakers, and one to the Roman Catholics.

The benevolent institutions of this place are the Seaman's Hospital, an establishment of the same nature as that at Scarborough; the Dispensary; the Female Charity for Lying-in Women; and the Charity for cloathing the aged Female Poor. There are besides Sunday Schools, and two flourishing Lancasterian Schools, the one for boys and the other for girls. The religious societies consist of the Whitby Auxiliary Bible Society; the Religious Tract Society; and the Missionary Societies.

The public Institutions consist of a Subscription Library, in Haggersgate, commenced in 1775; a Botanic Garden, begun in 1812, and situated on the east side of Grove lane ; and a News Room, in Haggersgate, built by subscription in 1814. There is also a Subscription Theatre on a large scale, built in 1784, and situated in Skate lane, where there are dramatic performances in the winter season.

The population of Whitby, according to the parliamentary census has increased at the rate of about 20 per centum, during the last ten years. In 1811, the aggregate number of inhabitants including Ruswarp, was 8,967; in 1821, they are stated in the official returns at 10,615.

Though the town of Whitby does not seem a desirable place of residence, its environs are romantic and beautiful, especially in the summer season, and the elegant mansions of the opulent inhabitants, mostly built on commanding situations, tend greatly to embellish the surrounding scenery, to which the shipping in the harbour and in the offing impart life and animation.

[Description(s) edited mainly from various 19th century sources by Colin Hinson. ©2010]