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About Whitby

Whitby is a historic town in North Yorkshire on the north-east coast of England. Nowadays it is a fishing port and tourist destination. It is situated 47 miles from York, at the mouth of the River Esk and spreads up the steep sides of the narrow valley carved out by the river's course. At this point the coast curves round, so the town faces more north than east.


Many interesting fossils have been found in the Whitby area including entire skeletons of pterodactyls. Whitby is known for its well preserved ammonite fossils, which can sometimes be found on the seashore, or purchased from any number of stalls or shops in town.

Saxon Whitby

In about 657, Oswiu or Oswy, the Christian king of Northumbria, fulfilled a vow by founding a monastery there.

Faced in 655 with the mighty army of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, which greatly outnumbered his own, Oswiu asked God to grant him victory, promising to consecrate his infant daughter Ælflæda to the service of God and to give land to found monasteries. Penda and most of his nobles were killed in the battle. Oswiu honoured his pledges by granting 12 small estates of 10 hides each in various places for monasteries to be built. One of them was at Streanæshealh, later known as Whitby Abbey. This was the house that Ælflæda herself entered as a pupil and of which she later became abbess.

The first abbess was Hilda, a remarkable figure, later venerated as a saint. Under her influence, Whitby became a centre of learning, and the poetry of Cædmon is amongst the earliest examples of Anglo-Saxon literature. It was the leading royal nunnery of Deira, and the burial-place of its royal family. The Synod of Whitby, in 664, established the Roman date of Easter in Northumbria at the expense of the Celtic one, an important and influential decision.

In 867, Danish Vikings landed two miles west of Whitby at Raven's Hill, and moved on to attack the settlement and to destroy the monastery. It was only after the Norman Conquest of 1066 that William de Percy ordered that the monastery be refounded (1078), dedicating it to St Peter and St Hilda. Later it became Presteby (meaning the habitation of Priests in Old Norse) then Hwytby; next Whiteby, (meaning the "white settlement" in Old Norse, probably from the colour of the houses) and finally Whitby.

Late Medieval and Tudor period

According to Langdale's Yorkshire Dictionary (1822) and Baine's Directory of the County of York (1823), even up to the reign of Elizabeth I Whitby was little more than a small fishing port. In 1540, it had consisted of only around twenty to thirty houses and had a population of about two hundred inhabitants. In that year Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including Whitby Abbey.

At the end of the 16th century, Thomas Chaloner of York travelled to Italy and visited the alum works in the Papal States. He recognised that the rock from which the alum was made was identical to that abundant in several areas in and around his Guisborough estate in North Yorkshire. Alum was a very important product at that time, used internationally, in curing leather, fixing dyed cloths and for medicinal uses. Up to this period the Vatican had maintained a virtual monopoly on the production and sale of the product.

Chaloner secretly brought some of the Pope's workmen to England, and over the following years developed a thriving alum industry in Yorkshire. (It is said that this development significantly lowered the international price of alum, impacting the profitability of a traditional source of revenue for the Vatican, and that Chaloner was excommunicated).

Whitby Abbey and St Mary's Church

Whitby Abbey from pond

Whitby Abbey from pond

Whitby Abbey from St. Mary's Churchyard

Whitby Abbey from St. Mary's Churchyard

Over the centuries, the town spread both inland and onto the West Cliff, whilst the East Cliff (sometimes called the Haggerlythe) remains dominated by the ruins of Whitby Abbey and St Mary's Church. It is quite a distance to reach the East Cliff by road, the alternative being to climb the 199 steps, which are famed enough that many who make the climb can be heard counting on the way up. 2005 saw the completion of the first major restoration of the 199 steps since the 19th century, when they were changed from wooden "stairs" to stone steps. In an attempt to raise funds, each step was sponsored for £1,000 by locals and visitors alike. The culmination of this project was a service at St Mary's Church on Sunday 1 October 2005. To commemorate the occasion, each step features a page dedicated to its sponsor in a book that is currently available, on request, at the church.

Modern history - since 1605

Whitby, showing St Mary's Church in distance.

Whitby, showing St Mary's Church in distance.

Whitby's twin piers

Whitby's twin piers

Among the resulting alum producing centres, several were established close to Whitby, including that near Sandsend (now Sandsend Ness), just three miles from the town, in 1615. With this, two new, rapidly growing activities were promoted in the port of Whitby, the transport of the alum itself and that of the coal necessary for its production.

With this, the town's wealth increased and Whitby began to grow, extending its activities to include shipbuilding, using the local oak as raw material. Taxes on imports entering via the port raised the necessary finance to improve and extend the town's twin piers, thereby improving the harbour and permitting further increases in trade.

In 1753 the first whaling ship set sail from Whitby to Greenland. This initiated a new phase in the town's development, and by 1795 Whitby had become a major centre for the whaling industry.

Whitby was the site of the Rohilla disaster of 30 October 1914, when the hospital ship Rohilla was sunk (either by running aground, or hitting a mine; accounts differ) within sight of shore just off Whitby. Eighty-five people lost their lives in the disaster; most of them are buried in the churchyard at Whitby.

Also in 1914, Whitby was shelled by German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger, aiming for the signal post on the end of the headland. Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked. Whitby Abbey sustained considerable damage during the attack.

Present day Whitby

Aerial photo showing the River Esk flowing into the North Sea at Whitby

Aerial photo showing the River Esk flowing into the North Sea at Whitby

Whitby east cliff

Whitby east cliff

The modern Port of Whitby, strategically placed for shipping to Europe, with very good proximity to the Scandinavian countries, is capable of handling a wide range of cargoes, including grain, steel products, timber and potash. Vessels of up to 3,000 tonnes DWT are received on a routine basis at the Wharf, which has the capability of loading/unloading two ships simultaneously. 5,000 sq metres of dock space is currently (2004) allocated for storage of all-weather cargo and a further 1,600 sq metres of warehouse space is reserved for weather-critical goods storage.

The town is served by Whitby railway station which forms the terminus of the Esk Valley Line from Middlesbrough, formerly the northern terminus of the Whitby, Pickering and York line. Whitby is also served by the Yorkshire Coastliner bus line, which can take travellers to and from Leeds, Tadcaster, York, Scarborough, Bridlington, Pickering, Malton and many more towns in Yorkshire.

The town was awarded "Best Seaside Resort 2006", by Which? Holiday magazine.

The town's college, Whitby Community College has recently expanded with a brand new design and technology, however it lost its speciality status due to being placed under special measures, this has now been rescinded as of March 2007.

Whitby has a fish market on the quayside, which is not set to any particular day of the week, instead taking place when the need arises. This ready supply of fresh fish has resulted in an abundance of "chippies" in the town.

West Cliff

West Cliff has its own landmarks — a statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed from the town, and a whalebone arch, commemorating the once large whaling industry. There is also a new science museum — Whitby Wizard. The whalebone arch is the second to stand on this spot; the original (a larger version) is now preserved in Whitby Archives Heritage Centre. By the inner harbour, next to the tourist information office, there is also a statue commemorating William Scoresby, inventor of the crow's nest.

Whitby jet

The black mineraloid, jet is found in the cliffs around Whitby, and has been used since the Bronze Age to make beads and other jewellery. The Romans mined jet extensively, and Whitby jet was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-19th century, especially after it was favoured as mourning jewellery by Queen Victoria.

Whitby Museum holds a large collection on the archaeological and social history of jet. It also displays a “hand of glory”.

Jet Mourning Jewelry

Jet Mourning Jewelry

Whitby and literature

Whitby from St. Mary's Churchyard

Whitby from St. Mary's Churchyard

One unusual feature of Whitby is the Dracula Museum - a large portion of Bram Stoker's famous novel was set in Whitby, describing Dracula's arrival in Britain on a ship washed ashore in the harbour, and how Lucy watched from the churchyard as the sun set over the nearby headland of Kettleness, but did not know how many steps she climbed to get there. Stoker's story incorporated various pieces of Whitby folklore, including the beaching of the Russian ship Dmitri, which became the basis of Demeter in the book.

The novel Caedmon's Song by Peter Robinson plays in Whitby. Whitby also features significantly in the novel Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Michel Faber's novel, The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps is set in Whitby.

Whitby appears prominently in The Resurrectionists, by Kim Wilkins.

Robin Jarvis has written The Whitby Witches, a trilogy of children's fantasy novels set in Whitby, that borrow from bits of local folklore.


Whitby Regatta occurs once a year for three days in August. Originally a local rowing competition, over the years it has expanded to include events such as a large fair stretching down the pier, police demonstrations, fireworks and military displays - including the spectacle of the Red Arrows, providing the weather is good.

Rowing still forms a major part of the weekend and races span out over three days between the three old rival clubs - Whitby Friendship ARC, Whitby Fishermen's ARC and Scarborough ARC. The races increase in distance as the competing crews grow in age and experience, with the grand finale of the men's senior race on the Monday night, which is rowed from Sandsend to Whitby over a distance of over 4,000 metres. The 2007 senior race was won by Whitby Friendship ARC's senior crew stroked by Adam Young and coxed by Jamie Wassall. The men's junior race was also won by the Friendship with Shaun Hopper, Marc Blackburn, Andrew Grady and James Collinson in the stroke seat. This gave Friendship the 2007 Wilson Cup after being defeated by Scarborough the previous year.

Each year, on the eve of Ascension Day, the Penny Hedge ceremony is performed.

For at least the last two decades the town has hosted the Whitby Folk Week, which currently includes around 600 different events in various venues.

Whitby also hosts the bi-annual Whitby Gothic Weekend, a festival for members of the Goth subculture.

Whitby Now has been a massive part of the live music scene in Whitby over the last decade or so. Originally thought up by local legend Mark Liddell, the event grows from strength to strength each year. 2007 saw over 15 local bands perform to a sell-out crowd. Bands such as YabbaDabbaDoo, The Merkins and Wasting Charlie really showed what a thriving music scene such a small town as Whitby has.

The town has played host to Musicport, an annual world music festival, since the late 1990s. From 2008, Musicport will move to Bridlington.

The yearly Whitby Fair is hosted by a Neil Howard, who services, cleans and maintains the rides. He also sells time in the fair. Although a popular event, the food is often reviewed as poor at best and the rides outdated and unfresh