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Whitby, North Riding of Yorkshire

Historical Description

Whitby, a picturesque seaport town, a township, a favourite watering-place, and a parish in the N.R. Yorkshire. The town stands on the coast, at the mouth of the river Esk, and at the termini of railways from York, Scarborough, and Middlesborough, 21 miles NNW of Scarborough, and 245 from London. The town is thought by some writers, but without any good evidence, to occupy the site of a Roman station. It was known to the Saxons as Streonesheale; appears to have originated in the founding of a priory in 657 by King Oswy; suffered devastation by the Danes in 870, and then took the name of Presteby, signifying "priest town;" underwent some revival after the Norman Conquest, and then began to be called Whitebye or Whitby, signifying "white town," seems, nevertheless, to have been then and for ages afterwards a mere village; had no more than about forty houses and about 200 inhabitants in 1540; and acquired prosperity from the erection of alum works at Sands End, and from the improvement of its harbour in 1615. By the Reform Act of 1832 it was made a parliamentary borough, sending one member to Parliament, but it was disfranchised under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, and merged into the Whitby parliamentary division of the North Riding.

The priory founded by King Oswy was the meeting-place in 664 of a great synod for adjusting the controversy between the Culdees and the Romanists respecting Easter. Hilda, of high reputed sanctity, was its first abbess; she had charge in it of the Princess Ethelfleda, the daughter of King Oswy, from infancy upward; she is alleged to have transmuted multitudes of snakes around it into coils of stone, which now are known to be simple fossil ammonites; and she died in it in 680, and was succeeded in her office by the Princess Ethelfleda. The monk Caedmon, the earliest known Saxon poet, resided in the priory in the time of Hilda and Ethelfleda, and one of his poems is preserved in Turner's " History of the Anglo-Saxons." The priory was destroyed by the Danes in 876, and it lay desolate for more than 200 years. A Benedictine Abbey was founded on its site in the time of William the Conqueror by William de Percy; rose from a comparatively humble condition to a very splendid one between the year 1142 and the year 1316; was raised to a mitred rank by Henry I.; suffered many troubles at many periods from sea-pirates and land-robbers; had at the dissolution revenues amounting to £437, and after several short appropriations passed into the possession of the family of Cholmley. Several traditions respecting it are graphically engrossed in Sir Walter Scott's " Marmion." Its site was the crown of a sea-cliff, elevated 250 feet above the beach, and commanding a magnificent view. Some remains of its church still exist, and form a prominent and picturesque object, as seen from various parts of the town and of the surrounding country. The architecture is partly Early English, partly Decorated, and presents many interesting details. The nave was of eight bays, the choir of seven bays; both nave and choir were 69 feet wide and 60 high; the transepts were 150 feet long, and the entire edifice from E to W was 300 feet long. A tower rose from the centre to the height of 150 feet, but fell in 1830, and is now represented by only two piers. A mansion, called Whitby Hall, was erected out of the materials of the monastic buildings, and on the site of the abbot's house in 1580 by the Cholmleys; was enlarged and fortified in 1635; was seized and occupied by the Parliamentarians in the Civil Wars of Charles I.; and was afterwards repaired and much enlarged, but began to be little used about 1743, and suffered curtailment of its N front about 1802. It is now the property and residence of the baronet family of Strickland. A white hospital was founded at the town before 1160, and an hospital of St John before the time of Edward II., but both have disappeared.

The town is divided into old and new by the river Esk, and it partly occupies steep ascents rising from the river's banks. The ascent on the E or old town side is very steep, occasions the houses on it to rise tier above tier in a seemingly dense and irregular mass, and is traversed upward by a flight of no fewer than 199 stone steps leading to the parish church. The ascent on the W side is more practicable, and has allowed the streets to run in lines over its summit to the further side. Part of the town stands also on low ground contiguous to the river. The larger proportion of the inhabitants live in the houses on the west cliff, and very few visitors lodge in the old part of the town. A stone bridge 172 feet long and 22 wide spans the Esk, was rebuilt in 1835 at a cost of about £10,000, and comprises three arches, together with a cast-iron swivel centre-piece, to allow vessels to enter the inner harbour. Two piers, respectively 900 and 2400 feet long, run out from the river's mouth to form the outer harbour, and the W or longer one terminates in a platform 70 feet by 80, with lighthouse, and serves as a delightful promenade. A spacious and elegant building, called the Public Baths, stands on the inner part of the W pier; is three storeys high, and contains commodious baths in the first storey, an extensive subscription library in the second, and a well-stored museum, with rich collections of fossils, in the third. The beach is about 3 miles long. A hotel and other buildings have been erected on the W cliff, chiefly for the accommodation of summer visitors, and they command both a marine and an inland view of surpassing beauty. A terrace 500 feet long and 100 wide was cut out of the side of the west cliff, supported by a massive retaining wall. Upon this terrace a handsome building was erected in 1876-79, consisting of a concert-room 90 feet by 42, with stage at one end, and galleries, reading and cloak rooms, and a refreshment department. Pleasure grounds surround it, and there are numerous lawn-tennis courts and a covered promenade. There are also assembly-rooms, a town-hall, a temperance hall erected in 1887, a market-hall built in 1877, a customhouse, a spa, a court-house, and charming rural walks and drives.

Whitby is governed by an urban district council. The town-hall was built in 1788, and is in the Tuscan style. The parish church, or St Mary's, was originally Norman, but has been much modernized. It now consists of chancel, nave, N aisle, transepts, S porch, and a low embattled western tower. A church, called St Ninian's Episcopal Chapel, was built in 1778 and improved in 1881-82, and two chapels of ease, called St John's and St Michael's, were built in 1850 and 1856. There is also a splendid new church in the cliff dedicated to St Hilda, built at a cost of £17,000. It is considered one of the finest of modern character. There are Congregational, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, Wesleyan, Primitive Methodist, and Unitarian chapels, an endowed school built in 1869, a large seamen's hospital, founded in 1676 and rebuilt in 1842, a seaside home reopened in 1887 with four wards, a dispensary, a workhouse, and a cemetery of over 120 acres for the three townships of Whitby, Ruswarp, and Hawsker with Stainsacre.

The town has a head post office, two railway stations, several banks, four first-class hotels, and publishes two weekly newspapers. It is a seat of county courts and a coastguard and lifeboat station. A weekly market is held on Saturday, fairs are held on 25 Aug. and Martinmas Day, and shipbuilding, rope-making, canvas-making, fishing, and the manufacture of jet ornaments are carried on. The principal commerce is in coal, stone, alum, timber, hemp, flax, fish, and grain. The harbour is tidal, and has been deepened by dredging; it has a rise of from 10 to 15 feet at high water, but as it cannot admit the larger vessels of the present day there is some decay in the trade of the town. The number of vessels registered as belonging to the port in 1895 was 135 (130,000 tons). The entries and clearances each average 670 (110,000 tons) per annum. The port is a sub-port of Middlesborough. The town is governed by an urban district council. The water supply is obtained from the moors at Goathland, and a comprehensive sewerage scheme was carried out between 1885 and 1895.

The township comprises 46 acres of land and 44 of water and foreshore; population, 7501. The parish includes six other townships. Population of the ecclesiastical parish, 12,819. The living of St Mary is a rectory, with St Michael, St John, St Ninian, and St Hilda, in the diocese of York; net value, £520 with residence. Patron, the Archbishop of York.

Whitby Parliamentary Division of N.R. Yorkshire was formed under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, and returns one member to the House of Commons. Population, 54,776. The division includes the foiling:-Pickering Lythe (East)-Allerston, Ayton (East), Ayton (West), Brompton, Broxa, Burniston, Cayton, Cloughton, Ebberstone, Gristhorpe, Hackness, Harwood Dale, Hutton Bushel, Irton, Lebberston, Newby, Osgodby, Sawdon, Scalby, Seamer, Snainton, Silpho, Staintondale, Suffield-cum-Everley, Throxenby, Troutsdale, Wykeham; Pickering Lythe (West)- Aislaby, Barughs Ambo, Cawthorn, Cropton, Farmanby, Goathland, Habton (Great), Habton (Little), Hartoft, Kingthorpe, Kirbymisperton, Levisham, Lockton, Marishes, Marton, Middleton, Newton, Pickering, Rosedale (East side), Ryton, Sinningtop, Thornton, Wilton, Wrelton; Ryedale- Ampleforth (Oswaldkirk), Ampleforth (Birdforth), Ampleforth (St Peter), Appleton-le-Moors, Beadlam, Bilsdale Midcable, Bilsdale Laskhill, Bransdale (West side), Brawby, Cawton, Coulton, Edston (Great), Edston (Little), Fadmoor, Farndale (East), Farndale (Low Quarter), Farndale (West Side), Gillamoor, Gilling, Grimston, Harum, Helmsley, Hutton-le-Hole, Kirkby Moorside, Lastingham, Muscoates, Nawton, Ness (East), Ness (West), Newton and Laysthorpe, Normanby, North holme, Nunnington, Oswaldkirk, Pockley, Rivaulx, Rosedale (West), Salton, Scawton, Skiplam, Spaun-ton, Sproxton. Stonegrave, Thornton Risebro', Welburn, Wombleton; Whitby Strand-Aislaby, Barnby, Borrowby, Egton, Ellerby, Eskdaleside, Fylingdales, GIaisdale, Hawsker-cum-Stainsacre, Hinderwell, Hutton Mulgrave, Lythe, Mickleby, Newholm-cum-Dunsley, Newton Mulgrave, Roxby, Ruswarp, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby, Ugthorpe, Whitby; Langbaurgh, East (part of)-Danby, Easington.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5

Church Records

Findmypast, in conjunction with various Archives, Local Studies, and Family History Societies have the following parish records online for Whitby:

St Hilda1888-19071897-19311897-1905 
St John the Evangelist1850-1911   
St Mary the Virgin1608-18741653-18891608-19081600-1907
St Michael1848-1904   
St Ninian1864-1889   
Whitby1831-18741876-1906 1823-1946

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for the North Riding of Yorkshire is available to browse.


Online maps of Whitby are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following North Riding newspapers online:

CountyNorth Yorkshire
RegionYorkshire and the Humber
Postal districtYO21
Post TownWhitby