Whitby is a seaside town, port and civil parish in the Borough of Scarborough and English county of North Yorkshire. Situated on the east coast of Yorkshire at the mouth of the River Esk, Whitby has a combined maritime, mineral and tourist heritage, and is home to the ruins of Whitby Abbey where Caedmon, the earliest English poet, lived. The fishing port emerged during the Middle Ages and developed important herring and whaling fleets, and was where Captain 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 heritage 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 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 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 period that the town gained its current name, Whitby, (from "white settlement" in Old Norse). 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 the its economy. It is the closest port to a proposed wind farm development in the North Sea, from York and from Middlesbrough. There are transport links to the rest of North Yorkshire and North East England. According to the 2001 UK census, the town had a population of 13,594.
The earliest recorded Old English name for the settlement was Streonshal in AD 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 the white settlement in Old Norse, in the 12th century, Whitebi in the 13th century and Qwiteby in the 14th century.
A monastery was founded at Streonshal in AD 657 by King Oswiu or Oswy of Northumbria, as an act of thanksgiving, after defeating Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. 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 a saint. The abbey became a centre of learning and here, Caedmon, the cowherd was "miraculously" transformed into an inspired poet whose poetry is an example of Anglo-Saxon literature. The abbey became the leading royal nunnery of the kingdom 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.
The monastery was destroyed between 867 and 870 in a series of raids by Vikings from Denmark under their leaders Ingwar and Ubba. Its site remained desolate for more than 200 years until after the Norman Conquest of 1066. 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. 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. 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 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
In 1540 the town had between 20 and 30 houses and a population of about 200. 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. In the reign of 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.
At the end of the 16th century Thomas Chaloner visited alum works in the Papal States 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 production and sale. Chaloner secretly brought workmen to develop the industry in Yorkshire, and alum was produced near Sandsend Ness from Whitby in the reign of James I. Once the industry was established, imports were banned and although the methods in its production were laborious, England became self-sufficient. Whitby grew significantly as a port as a result of the alum trade and by importing coal from the Durham coalfield to process it.
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. 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. 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 products fell, catches became too small to be economic and by 1831 only whaling ship, the Phoenix, remained.
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. 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 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. The Whitby Marina Facilities Centre was opened in June 2010.