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Whitby Piers And Their History

In Whitby, you can watch the sun rise and set over the sea during the summer. There is nowhere quite as magical to do this as the piers themselves. You can learn more about Whitby’s piers and their history from this article.

Whitby Piers lie east and west of the harbour mouth, designed to protect the harbour from flooding. There has been some form of protection at the mouth of the River Esk since as early as the 1300s. Today, the piers are a favourite spot for local fishermen and amateur photographers. They are also popular with people like us to walk off our fish and chips!

Whitby Piers Sun Setting into the sea
Watching the sun set into the sea is one of our favourite things to do from the Whitby piers.

A brief history of Whitby harbour and Whitby piers

Believe it or not, once the easiest way to reach Whitby was via the sea, as it took a lot of work to get to Whitby before they built the first turnpike road in 1764 to cross the North York Moors. Between the rivers Tees and Humber, the only natural harbour was the estuary of the River Esk. This was until the early 1300s when they improved the natural harbour by adding quays, a bridge and a pier made from oak. At this time, Lombardy and Northern Europe merchants sailed to Whitby to trade with the wealthy Abbey.

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Many items were shipped to Whitby, for example, wine and coal for the Abbey, with records dating back to the 1390s. The main export was salt herring until alum shale was discovered in the area in the early 1600s; this required huge shipments of coal and urine (to make ammonia) to produce the finished product. This called for the development of shipyards to support larger vessels along the west bank of the upper harbour.

Whitby Piers at sunset.
Whitby piers today are perfect for an afternoon stroll.

Whitby was a massive producer of merchant ships.

A stone-built west pier was commissioned in 1632, and a new drawbridge was commissioned in 1634 by Sir Hugh Cholmley. Whitby’s shipbuilding and repair industry took off, the driving factor being the alum trade demand and the coal shipping from Newcastle to London. By the 1700s, Whitby ships were regularly venturing to the Baltic to receive large quantities of timber, pitch and hemp for shipbuilding, sail and rope-making. By 1790 Whitby was a massive producer of merchant ships.

The piers were extended and altered many times to ensure they could guide ships safely into the harbour and lessen the channel’s silting. The West Pier Lighthouse was added in 1840, and the East Pier Lighthouse in 1856. Pier extensions were added in 1912, and today’s swing bridge opened in 1909.

Along the older main west pier, there is seating and lighting. There remain some capstans and old mooring posts. A new addition at the beginning of the west pier is fossil imprints in the paving, which are fantastic to show children.

Tate Hill Beach
Tate Hill Beach is a lovely spot to watch the boats coming in.

Colliers’ Hope

The sandy and rocky bay between the west pier and east pier (Tate Hill Beach) is still known as Colliers’ Hope to many. This is a lovely nod to the pier’s history, as from 1702, every passing collier ship had to pay a vital toll on maintaining the piers. However, this was also a safe space. If there was a storm and a ship could reach that small beach and she was safe until she could set sail again.

Whitby West Pier Lighthouse
Get fantastic views from the top of Whitby West Pier Lighthouse.

Whitby pier lighthouses

Whitby piers boast two iconic lighthouses located on the east and west piers. Both of these lighthouses are in use today. A new footbridge was installed in 2020, so visitors and locals can walk the entire pier length and right up to the beacon. The West Pier Lighthouse is often open to the public for a small fee. Great for photographers or those who want a unique view over the town and coastline, there isn’t a view quite like it on a clear day.

Whitby Piers Wide Angle
Whitby piers on a calm and peaceful day.

Are the Whitby piers haunted?

We will let you decide on this one! There are reports of ghostly sightings all over Whitby and its piers. In addition, there is a famous ghost story of the West Pier Lighthouse. It is said to be haunted by a one-armed ghost of a man who fell to his death onto the rocks under the lighthouse. You can read more Whitby ghost stories here.

Fishing from Whitby piers

Fishing from the piers at Whitby can be a lot of fun. Fishing is allowed from both the piers and the bottom of the west pier, although this is often closed off due to weather conditions. Avoid fishing from here entirely in bad weather and follow local signage and guidance.

Please remember fishing is prohibited at the harbour entrance. Therefore cast your rod off the piers and out to sea instead.

Yorkshire Coast Boat Trips Dolphins
Dolphins spotted by Yorkshire Coast Boat Trips.

Spot dolphins from Whitby piers

If you visit from June to November, you might even be lucky to spot bottlenose dolphins from the piers. They follow shoals of mackerel and herring swimming south from the Arctic. Several species of whale, porpoise and dolphin can be seen off the Whitby coast, so it’s worth trying out one of the boat trips.

Whitby piers are fantastic to photograph. Wander along or just sit down on and enjoy a portion of fish and chips. We hope you found this article helpful, feel free to comment your thoughts below. 

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