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A Short Guide to Whitby
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#1
Welcome to Whitby! Here’s a little guide to help you get an idea of what the town was like in 1895 and perhaps get some inspiration for your characters. We are not very strict on historical accuracy, as long as it’s not horribly anachronistic. This guide is optional reading for the fellow nerds who would like to delve a bit deeper or would like a bit more context.
 
Geography and Town Description
 
History
 
Recent History and the Situation in 1895
 
Jobs and Industries
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Administrator

633 Posts
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Registered: Jun 2019

#2
Geography and Town Description

Geography and Natural Resources

Whitby is situated on the East coast of Yorkshire, England. Interestingly, because of the shape of the coastline, its harbour faces north. It is surrounded by the North Yorkshire Moors, a large, hilly area with rough moorland, woods, some cultivated land and small villages and hamlets. The nearest larger cities are Middlesbrough in the north-west, York, south-west across the moors, and Scarborough to the south, all situated beyond the moors. Because of its isolated location and the poor infrastructure across the moors, the easiest way of getting to Whitby before the coming of the railway was by sea.

Whitby is built around a natural harbour between two cliffs, where the river Esk meets the North Sea. Since it is the only harbour between the river Tees (Middlesbrough) in the north, and the Humber (Hull) in the south, it has always been an important port for any ship passing by. Ships carrying coal from Newcastle to London have often found temporary shelter from rough seas in Whitby’s harbour, giving one of the beaches in the harbour the name ‘Collier hope’.

Though Whitby’s harbour provides this rare shelter on the inaccessible Yorkshire coast, and though it is historically one of the most important ports in England, the coastline here is still treacherous. Directly east of the harbour we find an area of shale known as the Scaur (or Scar), stretching far along the coast and running treacherously far into sea, as countless seamen have discovered to their doom. When the tide is out, one may still find old wrecks along the Scaur (take a look at the site's banner!), especially further along the coast around Saltwick Nab.

As a result of its geological history, the Whitby area holds several natural treasures. Yorkshire was once a prehistorical tropical sea and at another point a prehistorical tropical forest. The Scaur is a great place to find ammonites and other fossilized sea creatures. Even fossilized dinosaur, horse, and human bones have been discovered in the shale! Jet, the pressed and fossilized remains of the monkey puzzle tree, is widely found in the cliffs and moors as well. This black gemstone has been used to make jewellery since before Roman times, but became particularly popular from the middle of the nineteenth century on and became one of Whitby’s main industries. In the seventeenth century, alum was discovered in the Whitby area. Alum was used in the tanning and cloth dying industry, and mining and processing alum became another big industry, until the mid-nineteenth century, when new dying techniques caused a decrease in the demand. All alum works in the vicinity have been closed since the 1870’s, but the landscape around Whitby still bears the marks: old mineshafts, abandoned pits and channels, and heaps of waste product can be found near Sandsend, Saltwick Bay and other places in the area. Coal has been mined on the moors, and ironstone is still being mined there at this time (1895), and these too have left scars on the landscape. Some of the villages on the moors began as, or still are, mining communities.

The Town

Now let us look at the town itself. To get a rough idea of the town’s geography, you can find a map from around this time here. The town is divided into an east part and a west part, connected by a swing bridge. The children of the town might well meet on the bridge for their occasional fights between eastsiders and westsiders. The river Esk is tidal for the whole Whitby area. The area from the bridge to the sea is known as the lower harbour. There are two landing piers in the lower harbour and a quay. Two piers at the end of the river protect the harbour and the town against heavy tides, but even so floods are not uncommon, especially in winter. The swing bridge allows for a 45 ft opening to the upper harbour. The upper harbour has several landing docks as well, but is also the traditional site of ship building and ship repair. Whitby was once the second ship building port in England. However, the harbour is small and the relatively narrow opening of the bridge does not allow larger vessels to pass through. When iron and steel replaced wood, and steam replaced sail, ships rapidly increased in size. Whitby could hardly compete with the larger ship building ports. Today (1895), only one shipbuilding yard remains in Whitby’s upper harbour.

No doubt, Whitby’s most significant landmark is the Abbey, which towers high above the town on the East cliff. It was abandoned when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and it fell into ruins over the following centuries. Nevertheless, the abbey is still a favourite destination for tourist, painter and photographer alike. Also on the Abbey plain, we find St. Martha’s church and its graveyard, which features in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. A flight of 199 steps leads down into town. Church Street, running parallel to the river, is the main street on the east side, and probably the oldest street in Whitby. The Market is also found on the east side of town. Henrietta street clings to the cliff under St. Martha’s. It used to be much longer, but several landslides destroyed the farthest end of it.

On the west side of town, one finds two railway stations, the Central Station near the harbour, and the West Cliff Station, on the cliff, beyond the edge of our map. The area just in front of the Central Station, around Baxtergate and Flowergate, and the part alongside the river, underneath the cliff, are the older parts on this side of the river. Further to the west, on Bagdale and St. Hilda’s Terrace (still Flowergate on the map) are some stately Georgian houses, built in the late eighteenth century when the wealthier members of the community moved away from the harbour into the suburbs. South of the Central Station, new rows of terraced houses have been built during the second half of the 19th century, to serve as middle class homes, boarding houses, and better working class homes. When the railway came to Whitby in the 1830’s, the area on top of the West Cliff was bought and developed in one grand scheme to provide hotels and boarding houses for the expected influx of tourists. Alas, only half of what was planned was finished before the developer went bankrupt. This area, with its orderly, well-planned streets and stately houses, stands in stark contrast with the ‘old town’. Almost all the buildings here are hotels and boarding houses. The East terrace offers a magnificent view of the town and sea below. The Spa Pavilion is located on the north side of this area, on the slope between the Promenade, on the cliff, and the beach below.

In the older parts of Whitby, many yards are tucked away behind the houses facing the streets. Originally, many of the houses had plots behind them. When the population of the town grew during the 18th and 19th century, these were filled in with tons of cottages and tenements, stacked next to and on top of each other. These yards and their small dwellings are the home of many of Whitby’s poor people. Some yards run down to the river and are locally known as ‘ghauts’. Others lead up to the cliff, its houses clinging precariously to the cliff side. Some lead to other yards and lanes, providing a network of shortcuts for those who know the town well.

Below the East Cliff, on the seafront, we find the Scaur. Though it might not be a good area for traditional beach enjoyment, tourists may still visit this area to go fossil hunting. More often, fisher women and girls may be encountered here looking for driftwood, seaweed and limpets for the fishing lines. On the other side of the Esk, below the West Cliff, lies a sandy beach, accessible when the tide is out. In the summer, one may encounter many a tourist here, as well as those offering beach entertainment such as donkey rides and Punch and Judy Shows. Some ladies might make use of machines to bathe ‘modestly’. Here too one will encounter local women and children gathering driftwood, seaweed, limpets and limestone.

Old Whitby Photographs

If you would like to get a better impression of the town, why not take a look at the photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (some of which have already been linked to above). Sutcliffe was a local photographer who took many pictures of Whitby in the late 19th century. The online gallery can be found here.


This document is written by Jack.
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#3
History

Earliest History and the First Monastery: until the 11th century

Although there is evidence that people have lived in the Whitby area since the Stone Age, Whitby did not become a settlement worth mentioning until the 7th century AD. By the time the Romans arrived, the area was part of the Celtic kingdom of the Brigantes. It is unclear whether Romans were stationed in Whitby. After the Romans left Britain around 410, Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the regions of modern-day Germany and Denmark settled on the island.

It was during the reign of the Angles in the region, that the east cliff of Whitby grew into a flourishing settlement, known then as Streoneshalh. For it was here that St. Hild, abbess of a monastery in Hartlepool, founded a new monastery in 657 on land given by the Northumbrian king Oswiu after an important military victory. The ruins that can be seen on the east cliff today, date from a later period. St. Hild’s monastery was probably constructed out of wood and may not have been located on the same spot as the later monastery. It is likely that a small village developed below around the harbor at this time.

The first monastery and St. Hild have been recorded because a very important church council took place here under her watchful eye that determined the future of the English church. England had been christened during the Roman occupation, but after the Romans left, the Celtic church had been largely cut off from the rest of the Roman church and had developed its own practices and traditions. When Pope Gregory the Great sent new missionaries to the island, this led to a clash between the two traditions. Among other things, the date of Easter was calculated differently, famously resulting in a situation where half of the Northumbrian court was celebrating Easter, while the other half was still fasting. At the council of Whitby in 664 it was finally decided that the English church would follow the Roman rather than the Celtic tradition.

To locals in 1895 St. Hild might be known for less historically accurate reasons: According to a well-known Whitby legend, St. Hild cleared the site of her monastery of snakes by turning them to stone, forming the ammonites found in the shale under the east cliff.

Another legendary Whitby figure of this period is Caedmon, who wrote the oldest surviving poem in old English. According to legend, Caedmon was an illiterate herdsman, tending flocks around the abbey, when one night he had a vision in which an angel commanded him to compose a song about creation. When he woke up, he did so and presented it to St. Hild. He became a monk in the monastery, where he composed religious poetry for the rest of his life.

During the 9th century the Danes invaded the area and sacked many monasteries. It is likely that Streoneshalh was sacked as well. Either way, the monastery was eventually abandoned, although the settlement below continued to exist. It was the Danes who named the settlement: ‘Witebi’, while the monastery or its ruins above were known as ‘Prestebi’.

The Norman Abbey and Late medieval Town: 11th to 16th century

There is evidence to suggest that the Whitby area suffered great destruction during the ‘harrying of the North’ by William the Conquerer, and the Domesday Book reports only a few people living here at the time. And yet it was under Norman rule that Whitby would once again become a location of religious, political and economic prominence. William de Percy, subtenant of Whitby at the time, offered the old abbey lands to Reinfrid, an ex-soldier under William the Conqueror. Reinfrid founded a monastery in 1076, which was to become the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Hild. A parish church for the town below was built near the abbey in the early 12th century: St. Mary’s church, which still stands at the top of the 199 steps today.

With the help of wealthy benefactors, the Norman abbey grew rich in lands and resources during the 12th century. By the 13th century, however, the abbey was in debt and work on the abbey church stopped until the next century. Renovations in gothic style were completed in the 15th century. It is the ruins of this gothic church that can be seen today.

Meanwhile, the town below shortly became a burgage (a largely self-governing town, with the abbey as landlord, rather than direct ruler) in the twelfth century, but this was soon reversed, and the town and port continued to be part of the lands belonging to the abbey. Still, the town seems to have developed into an economic center and have developed much like a burgage. Whitby received a market place, and it became the main market town for the surrounding area, as well as an important European merchant port. Burgage plots with fronts on the main streets, and gardens for growing foods in the back, were let to merchants and craftsmen. Narrow passages connected the wide streets to each other or to these gardens. On 18th century maps, this structure of the town can still be seen, but in the 19th century, the original gardens would be ‘filled’ in with cottages and tenements, to provide cheap housing for the growing population, forming the typical Whitby yards.

The wealth of the medieval monasteries became their downfall. From 1536, Henry VIII, having broken with the Roman Catholic Church, began closing the monasteries and claiming their wealth. The monastery at Whitby was dissolved in 1539 and stripped of its riches, including its lead roof, windows and bells. The property was sold to the Cholmley family, who probably used stones from the abbey buildings to build their home near the abbey. The abbey church was left to fall to ruins and over the following centuries different parts of it collapsed, most famously the central tower in 1830. In the absence of pilgrims and the abbey’s spending in the town below, Whitby lost much of its former prominence and sank into an economic depression.

Economic Insignificance and Religious Persecution: 16th to 17th century

Whitby’s economic insignificance seems to have lasted until the late 17th century. Like many places in England at the time, Whitby saw its share of religious persecutions and intolerance in the 16th and 17th centuries, with both Catholic and Protestant non-conformists falling victim. Yorkshire had high numbers of both. It was in Yorkshire that the Pilgrimage of Grace had started in 1536. The Cholmleys, who had bought the Abbey grounds, were Catholics until the early 17th century, and a number of catholic priests sent to England from the continent, arrived via Whitby and were given shelter by the Cholmleys. After serving the Catholics of Whitby in secret for decades, Father Nicholas Postgate was caught and executed in York in the second half of the seventeenth century – just one example of how religious oppression and persecution affected the religiously diverse town. The Society of Friends (Quakers) was founded in the 17th century and Whitby would have a large Quaker community, many of its members involved in the prosperous shipping trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. One publication describes Quakers as “the ruling power [in Whitby] in the eighteenth century”. In the 18th century, Methodism would also become a large movement in Whitby.

Whitby’s Golden Age: 17th to early 19th century

In the 17th century and especially in the 18th century, Whitby would once again rise to economic prominence, especially thanks to the alum industry and the town’s growing status as a ship building and ship owning port. Alum was used to fix cloth dye, among other things. It was only produced in Spain and Italy until the early 17th century, when the discovery of sources for its production in the cliffs around Whitby circumvented this monopoly. Soon alum works sprung up in the area. Although the industry brought great wealth to its owners, it was hard and unpleasant labour for the actual workers and highly polluting to the environment. The cliffs around Whitby still bear the scars in the form of quarried cliffs, abandoned harbor works, and huge piles of waste product. Seaweed was used in the production, and gathering seaweed became a real business, with shores being leased for its collection. Urine too was used, the demand being so high that urine was collected and shipped to Whitby from Newcastle and London. (You’re welcome.)

Two other industries that brought wealth and status to Whitby were ship building and shipping trade. Whitby had been a site of (royal) ship building during the Middle Ages and continued to be a ship building port in the centuries that followed, but improvement of the harbor in the second half of the 17th century provided a great boost to the industry. By the late 18th century, Whitby was the third, and at one point even second, ship building port in England. Whitby’s upper harbor was littered with ship building yards at the time, and the wealthy ship builders and owners lived directly by the riverside. Many coal ships, whaling ships, war ships and even prison ships were Whitby-built. Many ships would winter and be repaired in Whitby. Related industries such as rope-making and sail-making thrived as well.

Supplies for shipbuilding, such as timber, were brought all the way from the Baltic region. Indeed, although Whitby itself was unimportant as a market port, due to the lack of larger towns in the vicinity, many Whitby people were directly or indirectly involved in the shipping trade. Ship owning was a popular investment, especially in the form of shares, which spread the risk. It was possible to hold as little as a 64th share of a ship. A large portion of the collier fleet that brought coal from Newcastle to London was in Whitby hands in the 18th century.

During the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, Whitby often played a role in British wars, building and hiring out ships to the state. This was a lucrative business for the shipyards and ship owners of the town, but also backfired on the town, when Whitby faced enemy blockades and attacks on her commercial ships, like during the American war of Independence. Guns were stationed on Battery Parade, just beside the West Pier, and at the end of Haggerslythe on the East cliff. The wars troubled Whitby in other ways: As skilled seamen, Whitby men were particularly targeted by pressgangs, although many also joined the Navy voluntarily.

One of these was the famous Captain Cook. James Cook (1728-1779) was born in what is now part of Middlesbrough. He came to Whitby as an apprentice to the Quaker ship owner John Walker. He sailed on several colliers and learned his navigation in Whitby, before joining the Navy. After a successful victory over the French in Quebec, Cook was ordered to undertake several expeditions in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific that would make him world-famous. The ships for these expeditions (Endeavor, Resolution, Adventure, and Discovery) were built in Whitby.

The locals from Yorkshire coastal towns had been involved in the smuggling trade for centuries, but high taxes and strict import and export legislation made the business particularly attractive in the 18th and early 19th century. Tunnels have been found connecting the attics of houses, and there are rumours of old smuggling tunnels connecting certain inns to the harbour. Even without these, it is not hard to imagine how Whitby, with its narrow 'ghauts' facing the harbour and its network of lanes and yards, was a smuggler's heaven. According to some, the entire fishing community was involved in the business.

From the mid-18th century up to the 1830’s Whitby seamen and ships were also engaged in whaling in the waters around Greenland. In the late 1780’s as many as 21 ships set out from Whitby in spring. It was a dangerous industry and some ships would not return, or return after several months without a catch, but when successful, there was a lot of money to be made. The parts of the whales brought back were the jawbones, used to make stays for corsets among other things, and the blubber was turned into oil in workshops just outside of town (a very smelly business). A record was set in 1814 when Whiby ships caught 172 whales.

Whitby’s most famous whalers were William Scoresby and his son, William Scoresby Jr. In 1807 they set a record attaining the highest northern latitude by sail. Apart from bringing home many whales, William Scoresby. invented the crow’s nest. William Scoresby Jr. joined his father early on, and later became a cartographer and researcher of the artic and of the earth’s magnetic field (he improved the compass), before becoming an Anglican priest.

Other industries developed as a result of Whitby being the largest town in the area: banks were established in Whitby in the 18th century, and the expanding town had its share of lawyers, physicians, teachers, etc. Fishing had been an important Whitby industry since early days and continued.

The increasing wealth led to the development of the town’s housing and infrastructure. Henrietta street, along the east cliff was developed in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although planned as an area for the wealthy, a landslide destroyed the farthest end in 1787, and more landslides in the century that followed shortened it further. As a result, it became an area for poorer families. On the west cliff, the town expanded during the same period, with new streets and houses, among them the stately houses on St. Hilda’s Terrace and Bagdale. Meanwhile, the harbour continued to be improved with the construction of staiths and quays. Whitby’s isolated position across land improved somewhat with the improvement of roads across the moors. This made possible the stagecoach service from Whitby to York and other places. (All wills must be made before departure!)


This document is written by Jack.
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#4
Recent History and the Situation in 1895

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Jobs and Industries

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