Whitby History, learn more about the history of Whitby.
The history of Whitby is fascinating and includes ties to Dracula, Whaling, and Captain Cook. This small coastal town is still reminiscent of its past, and still boasts quaint cottages, cobblestoned creeks, the quintessential ruined Abbey, and a harbour complete with fully functional lighthouses. While Whitby seems to represent the typical fishing town, its history sets it apart as a truly unique town.
Whitby prehistoric past still visible today
A natural harbour on the North East Coast, Whitby boasts a rich and influential past. While the earliest record of a permanent settlement is around in the 6th century, findings of fossilised treasures allowed a glimpse into the prehistoric days in the area. In fact, the Whitby Museum houses over 6500 specimens of fossils and minerals, making it the largest collections of Jurassic eras from the Yorkshire coast in the world. Indeed, bones and fossils from large marine reptiles, plants and mollusk animals, such as ammonites, can be found there, which will make any fossil enthusiast rejoice. The presence of these fossils has fed the minds of locals with fascinating myths and folklore any local will be happy to share.
Visit Whitby Museum: Pannett Park, Whitby, YO21 1RE
The beginning of Whitby as we know it
As far as modern history is concerned, the event that marked the birth of Whitby is the construction of the Abbey in 657AD by Oswy (612–670), King of united Northumbria. It was indeed at the Abbey that, in 664AD, it was decided that the local Church would adopt the Roman calendar during the Whitby Synod. Furthermore, the appointment of Hilda, 614–680, granddaughter of King Oswy, as the abbess of Whitby contributed to maintaining Whitby status as an important and strategical hub on the religious and political fronts. Indeed, thanks to her wisdom, kings and peasants came to her to seek counsel and she had a great following of devout. Legend has it that she was the one who encouraged Caedmon, known today as one of the earliest English poets, to develop his talent upon overhearing his stories and poems as he would watch over his herd by the Abbey.
Visit Whitby Abbey: Abbey Ln, Whitby, YO22 4JT
Whitby’s whaling past
Thanks to its convenient location, it is not surprising that Whitby was involved in the fishing industry since its early days. But the most famous and profitable industry was definitely whaling. Whaling in Whitby soared between 1753 and 1883, with the Whitby Whaling Company was first established with only two ships owned by several merchants of the area. By 1883, the endeavour counted 55 ships and employed both local fisherman and Dutch specialists. The company went through good times but also bad times, due to the extreme weather conditions and the rough waters when many lives were lost over the years. Records show that, during the time the Whitby Whaling Company was active, over 25,000 seals, 55 polar bears and 2761 whales were captured. Once the ships would safely return home, their catch was brought to boiler houses built alongside the harbour, where the animals’ blubber was turned into oil. Back in the days, returning ships would indicate a great catch by displaying the jawbones on their masts. In the same way, the Whalebone Arch was erected on the West cliffs as a tribute to the town’s thriving whaling past. While the current bones aren’t the original ones, the monument is a vivid testimony of Whitby’s history.
Visit the Whitby Whalebone Arch: North Terrace, Whitby, YO21 3HA
You probably know that Whitby history is connected to Captain James Cook, 1728-1779, who was born in Marton, a few miles from Whitby, but did you know that the famous navigator began his maritime career in Whitby whaling fleet? Only 18 years old at the time, he started working as a merchant navy apprentice for John and Henry Walker, two Quaker brothers who own a few ships. (On your next visit, make sure to visit the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, which is actually housed in the Walker’s old house). Thanks to its acute charting and navigation skills, Cook quickly climbed ranks and was at the command of his own ship before he decided to leave Whitby for the Royal Navy on board HMS Eagle in 1755.
Having reached the rank of Master, Cook assisted with the capture of Quebec, and at the end of the Seven Years’ War, he took over the direction of British overseas explorations and in 1766, he embarked as commander of HM Bark Endeavour for the first of three Pacific expeditions. Captain Cook is also known for his voyages of discovery and charting, which included New Zealand and the coast of Australia. He was also the first man to completely sail around the world, and at the time of his death he was on a mission to find the North West Passage. We highly recommend you visit the replica of his famous ship The Endeavour at Whitby harbour to get a glimpse of his impressive scientific and geographical legacy.
Visit the Captain Cook Memorial Statue: Whitby, YO21 3HA
Aside its whaling past, Whitby is also famous for its lucrative herring fishing. Fishing remains a large part of Whitby’s heritage and economy today due to its rather remote location. The economy is based almost solely on the fishing and tourism industries due to the low availability of land and property. Today, you can still find some mouthwatering kippers, for example at Fortune’s Kippers, a traditional smokehouse still operating today.
Visit Fortunes Kippers: 22 Henrietta St, Whitby, YO22 4DW
Jet mining history
Whitby’s coastline is also home to a seven and a half mile length of one of the earliest gemstones called Whitby Jet. The jet from Whitby has been dated all the way back to its use by crafters during the Bronze Age, and remained popular enough that there were Jet crafting workshops opened in 1808. There were many dangers associated with mining the large jet supplies in Whitby, and the large demand for the gemstones led to a shortage around Whitby. There are still believed to be large stores under the hills along the shore, but these cannot be accessed easily. Most of the early jet used was exposed by the high winds and pounding surf against the shoreline, and many believe that the hidden stores will remain there until they are once again exposed by nature.
View our recommend Whitby Jet shops
In addition to the maritime successes, Whitby is also well recognised due to it being the location chosen for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker commonly stayed at the Royal Hotel in Whitby, and it was during one of his stays here that the story of Dracula was born. This has led to Whitby becoming known as a decidedly gothic town in nature, and has even led to it becoming the twice yearly home of the Whitby Goth Weekend, which is a festival held for those commonly referred to as Goths. It is believed this choice of location was due in large part to it being the setting for Dracula.
Visit the Dracula Experience: 5 Marine Parade, Whitby, YO21 3PR