7 Secrets of St. Mary’s Churchyard that will freak you out.
Whitby’s Parish Church, St. Mary’s, high on the East Cliff has a colourful history. Some parts of it date back to Norman times, the early 12th Century. It has been modified and extended over the centuries without being completely rebuilt. The lovely interior is essentially 18th Century and an excellent example of pre-Victorian furnishing. That interior contrasts dramatically with the fortress-like exterior which fits well with the North Sea setting which can be wild and stormy at times. The location of the Church is close to the ancient Whitby Abbey and both receive significant number of visitors each year.
Some are ‘’disciples’’ of Bram Stoker and his dramatic character, Dracula. The Church was the setting of an incident in his 1897 story, something written just after he had left Whitby but certainly inspired by it; Stoker lived in Whitby between 1890 and 1896.
St Mary’s Churchyard helps to tell the history of Whitby. There are numerous tombstones, many of them weathered by the elements, covering several centuries. Ordinary folk, sailors and fishermen all have their final resting place in St. Mary’s. Its location at the top of 199 Steps means that it was quite an effort to carry a coffin up to its final resting place although wealthy families could use a horse and carriage to go up the track parallel to the steps.
Many of the wealthy Cholmley family after whom the 17th Century Gallery within the Church is known, the Cholmley Pew, are buried at St. Mary’s. Their former family home is nearby and is an extremely interesting museum.
The Museum has many interesting exhibits but the Churchyard itself has much of interest, fact and fiction and often a little chilling.
Tour guides have stories to tell though some are certainly fiction; Dracula is not buried in the Churchyard. Vlad Tepes, a 15th Century Prince, the ‘’real Dracula’’ is buried near his home in Transylvania, Romania at Lake Snagov. Dracula means son of a dragon and Tepes was known for his cruelty which included torturing and impaling enemies on stakes.
Other exaggerations are the stories that graves with a skull and crossbones carved on the stone represent pirates who were buried in the Churchyard. The skull and crossbones in fact indicated that the deceased was a mason or freemason, much less ‘’romantic’’ a tale.
Mr. Swales, a character Stoker used, is merely a name on a tombstone in the Churchyard. He talks to two women, Mina and Lucy, visiting the graves about folk stories, specifically one where the ladies are sitting at the time of their meeting. Its occupant is George Canon who fell off the rocks at Kettleness in 1873. Swales laughed as he told the story about his grieving mother and the women’s response was that it was not funny. Swales’ story was the Canon hated his mother and committed suicide so she would not receive an insurance compensation. Lucy was mentioned again in Dracula; she was walking in the graveyard and became a victim of the vampire, Dracula.
Far less sinister is the grave of the Arctic explorer William Scoresby. He was also responsible for the invention of the crow’s nest for ships. George Chapman’s headstone is a rarity; cast iron. Chapman was a famous engineer.
Several of the tombstones are engraved ‘’in remembrance of’’ rather than ‘’here lies.’’ That is an indication that many sailors and fishermen were lost at sea and their bodies never recovered. John Storr was the coxswain of the Whiby lifeboat in 1861 when a storm hit the area. The lifeboat was launched 6 times to help the crews of boats in trouble but the final time, all but one of the lifeboat crew perished. Storr’s gravestone is up against the door of the Church. Erosion and landslips have led to several graves slipping off the cliffs with bones subsequently found at their base. Storr’s tombstone memorial has been saved even if his remains have never rested there.
There is a mix of fact and fiction in the Graveyard. One tombstone close to the Church is of Humpty Dumpty. It is not the egg but a canon of the same name. Folklore also suggests that Tom Thumb is buried here but time has worn away inscriptions so the mystery continues.
The Huntrodds Family’s original inscription on the grave has been lost over time. A new one replaced it and some say that it reveals a hidden message or code because of the unusual use of punctuation, spacing and wording.
St. Mary’s Churchyard is a fascinating place. Many cemeteries everywhere are treasure troves for historians. St. Mary’s is no exception but it also includes legend and folklore as well as the true stories of Whitby, its history and the sea. Given the chance, and the energy to climb the 199 steps, every visitor should spend some time in the famous place in Whitby.