Once the sixth-largest port in Britain, with an enviable reputation for shipbuilding, Whitby earned its place in nautical history for seafaring exploration and maritime trade.
We explore Whitby’s rich maritime past and look at how various industries have shaped the town over the years.
In the eighteenth-century whaling industry dominated the town. The bustling harbour was an important node in the manufacture of many sailing essentials: rope making, sailcloth, and lamp oil – with the great boiler houses lining the harbourside this part of town was known for the odious stench associated with the rendering of blubber from whales in oil production.
A far and distant image to the one we know and love today. It is thanks to the prosperity derived from the whaling industry that the Pannett Park area owes its existence. The grand mansions of Bagdale and St Hilda’s Terrace were built on the fortunes of the blubber business.
Many locals were employed in the whaling industry. Primarily in the sailing of the ships to catch whales in Arctic Greenland.
A dangerous and precarious occupation; many boats were capsized, crushed by ice or men simply froze to death. Despite the risks, crewing a Greenland whaling vessel offered money and adventure to many men in the town – a heady combination for the brave seafaring townsfolk.
Alas, such prosperity couldn’t last. By 1837, the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, the last Whitby whaler, the Phoenix, was decommissioned.
The Great Colliers of Whitby
In the nineteenth century, as the whaling industry faded out, a new commodity took centre stage. Coal replaced whales as the catch of the day.
The shipbuilders of Whitby had built vessels for the whaling industry for years but it was the uplift brought by coal merchants that helped the craft take off. Colliers, the name given to ships that carried coal, were produced in Whitby.
Coal was mined north of Whitby across the Tyne and Wear at Newcastle and Sunderland in particular. These mines in the North East needed the skill of Whitby men to build and sail ships.
Whitby colliers supplied coal to London in vast quantities with Whitby men sailing routes all along the East Coast of England shipping coal to many of the towns along the way.
There are accounts of Whitby men sailing colliers across the North Sea, to the Baltics, the Local Countries, and even France and Germany. The earliest record of coal being transported in Whitby ships was in 1392. Coal from Newcastle was taken to Whitby Abbey to fire the warming house and Abbott’s lodging.
Shipbuilding in Whitby
One of the most famous ships of all time was built in Whitby as a collier. In 1764 the Whitby firm, Thomas Fishburn was commissioned to construct a vessel for Captain Cook. We know that ship today as The Endeavour.
In Whitby harbour, there is a moored replica of this very ship, complete with a museum and restaurant for visitors to enjoy. The tour of the ship invites guests to learn the vivid history of Captain Cook’s iconic voyages of discovery.
By 1773, Great Britain was at war with thirteen colonies in America. Known as the American Revolution, the conflict relied heavily on the Royal Navy sailing ships of men and supplies to the front line.
Whitby was building twenty ships a year by this time and these were supplied directly to the navy for this purpose. Such was the importance of the trade that American naval commander, John Paul Jones, planned to destroy the town’s shipbuilding industry to reduce the British Navy’s forces. Records show that during the American War of Independence such an attack did take place at Whitehaven, thankfully, Whitby remained intact.
The Whitby shipbuilding era peaked during the Napoleonic War. In the year 1802, there were 39 ships under construction in Whitby harbour; employing ancillary trades such as sailcloth manufacturers, boat builders, and ropemakers.
This prosperity could not last – the war ended and as the whaling industry began its terminal decline, the popularity of Whitby colliers waned.
Coal began to be transported by rail and canal and the shipbuilding industry concentrated on Tyneside and Wearside.
The perilous North East coast of England has claimed many ships over the years. There are more than 530 wrecks on the coast of Whitby. Weather, war, and whereabouts have sunk ships for hundreds of years on this hazardous stretch of the North Sea.
During both world wars, the naval action in the North Sea was intense. Skirmishes between U boats and merchant ships were common during the first second world war. Many mines were laid by both British and German naval ships during these conflicts.
A pair of such shipwrecks from this time include the merchant ship, the Giralda, and the attacking U-boat, the UC-70. Off the coast of Runswick Bay are the remains of these two unfortunate boats. A deeps dive is needed to visit them!
Whitby has a couple of very well known shipwrecks, of which, the SS Rohilla is the most famous. The ‘Three-Day Rescue’ is a local legend that stirs strong emotions for those that remember stories of the sinking of this British India Steamer. The Rohilla ran aground in 1914 during service as a hospital ship. Learn more about the SS Rohilla disaster here
The other easily visible shipwreck off Whitby is that of the MV Creteblock. This unusual concrete ship was struck at Whitby Scar on its way to be scuttled. In the efforts to clear the debris from the low tide, the MV Creteblock was blown up with dynamite.
The Whitby fishing industry
A town as famous for its fish and chips as Whitby needs must have a strong fishing industry! This simple meal became popular during the 19th century as sea and rail links made possible the delivery of fresh goods to cities.
North Sea trawlers have been working out of Whitby for years. This advancement in fishing helped reduce the price of fish and chips.
The boom in the capacity that came with it created a market for cod and chips across the country. Working men everywhere could afford this delicious meal.
A fitting way to end this article is to bring attention to the ancient Burgess Pier or Tate Hill Pier as it is known today. The earliest fishing vessels in Whitby set sail from this thin stretch of sand. It is thought to be one of the oldest in the world.
Since the building of the East and West Piers, the usefulness and importance of the smaller Tate Hill Pier began to diminish. However, the name of Tate Hill Sands will live on through the immortalisation of the location in the Dracula novel. Perhaps without this discrete yet essential mooring, Whitby may not have become the town it is today.
Whitby is still an active fishing port to this day supporting the livelihoods of many locals in the town.
Walk down to the harbour and you’ll instantly grasp the heritage and lasting legacy the fishing industry has made on the town. Click here to learn more about fishing in Whitby.