YORKSHIRE PAST AND PRESENT.
HISTORY OF THE BOROUGH AND WATERING PLACE OF WHITBY.
THE very ancient town and pleasant watering place of Whitby, standing on the boldest part of the Lias rocks of the Yorkshire coast, and which has risen to the rank of a parliamentary borough in modern times, is built at the mouth of the Esk, which flows down from the moors of Cleveland, from an elevation of 1300 to 1400 feet, and enters the sea at one of the finest parts of the north-eastern coast. We have already described* the small but beautiful stream of the Yorkshire Esk (named from one of the almost innumerable corruptions of the old British word uisg, meaning water (or a stream of water) which contains both trout and salmon. Unfortunately it is not navigable for any distance above the town of Whitby. Hence that place has never possessed the advantage of inland navigation, and was almost entirely cut off from intercourse with the interior, until the introduction of the railway system gave it a cheap and easy communication with all parts of Yorkshire. It is now frequented in the summer months by thousands of visitors. Its sea-fisheries are extensive and valuable, and give regular employment to 231 fishermen. Its mineral products consist chiefly of alum, found in the Lias strata, and of jet, gathered from the cliffs and the hills in all parts of Cleveland; and there are several small but valuable manufactories here of jet into articles of taste and ornament. Its extensive shipbuilding formerly gave it a considerable amount of prosperity, from the high reputation of the vessels built here. It still maintains its old reputation, though iron has very largely taken the place of wood in the ships now constructed. The discovery of iron ore in all parts of the district, and the opening of extensive blast-furnaces in the valley of the Esk, have given a fresh impulse to the town; and its prosperity has been further increased by the great attractions presented by the shores, the rocks, and the sea, which have caused it to be greatly frequented by visitors in the summer months, and have given it the position of the second watering place on the coast, of which Scarborough is undoubtedly the first. Whitby is also very near to the great iron field of Cleveland, whose wonderful development during the last thirty years has materially influenced the trade of the port.
Antiquities of Whitby.- We have already given, in the first volume of the work, an account of the origin and early history of the ancient town of Whitby, in which we have stated that it is supposed to stand on or near to the site of the ancient British port of Dunum Sinus, mentioned by the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, about 130 years after the date of the Christian era. As we there stated, the Anglian name of this very ancient town and port was Streoneshall, or the Hall or Place of the Lighthouse, which shows that it must have possessed commercial importance from an extremely early period. That is the meaning given to the name by the Venerable Bede, in his history of the Anglian church and nation. In the year 655 of the Christian era the abbey of Streoneshall was founded by Oswy, the victorious king of Northumbria, in fulfilment of a vow made by him previous to his last great battle with and victory over Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, fought at Leodis, or Leeds, in that year; by that vow he engaged to consecrate his infant daughter to the service of religion. But the most celebrated abbess of Whitby was St. Hilda, the niece of Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria, the friend of Paulinus, and the founder of the earliest York minster. The building of the abbey of Whitby is said to have been begun in the year 657, and it was in that abbey, under the presidency of St. Hilda, that the synod of Whitby was held, in the year 664, the result of which was to add greatly to the strength and influence of St. Wilfrid, archbishop of York, and at the same time greatly to increase the divisions between the adherents of Wilfrid and those of Coldman, and the other British bishops. Whitby was the most celebrated school of learning in that early age, and was the place of education of several eminent Anglian bishops, amongst whom were Bosa and John of Beverley.
The Poems of Coedmon.- But far the most interesting event connected with this
monastery, as we have already intimated, was, that it was the place in which the first of
English poets, Coedmon, was received and entertained for many years, by the kind friendship
and patronage of St. Hilda, after he had abandoned the active life of a layman, in which he
was educated, and had turned his whole attention to the study of English poetry, taking for
the subject of his noble poems all that is most striking in the historical parts of the Old
and the New Testaments. His poems, of which we have already given a full account and many
curious and interesting specimens, were to a great extent the Bible of the English race for
many generations, and must have been the chief means of popular instruction during that
period. His friend and patron, St. Hilda, died in the year 680, justly honoured, and supposed
by many of her contemporaries, and a long course of successors, to have possessed even
miraculous gifts. The Anglian abbey or monastery of Whitby or, more correctly, of
Streoneshall, was destroyed by the Danes in the year 867, and for a time the history of this
interesting place is very obscure. But in the meantime the Danes themselves were converted to
Christianity, and became the principal founders of churches and monasteries in this and other
districts in the north of England, subject to the Danish law. It was in this period that the
name of the place was changed from Streoneshall, or the Town of the Lighthouse, to Whitby, or
the White-town, a name derived from the lofty white cliffs which line the sea-shore at the
point where the river Esk enters the sea. The following passage from Scott's
"Marmion," canto ii., stanza 13, throws a pleasing light on the early traditions of
the abbey of Whitby:-
"Then Whitby's nuns exulting told, | A Saxon princess once did dwell- How to their house three barons bold | The lovely Edelfled; Must menial service do; | And how, of thousand snakes, each one While horns blow out a note of shame, | Was changed into a coil of stone And monks cry 'Fie upon your name ! | When holy Hilda pray'd. In wrath, for loss of sylvan game, | Themselves within their holy bound Saint Hilda's priest ye slew.' | Their stony folds had often found. 'This, on Ascension-day, each year, | They told, how sea-fowls' pinions fail. While labouring on our harbour-pier, | As over Whitby's towers they sail; Must Herbert, Bruce, and Percy hear.' | And sinking down, with flutterings faint, They told, how in their convent cell | They do their homage to the saint."
Whitby under the Normans.- The Norman monastery of Whitby was founded by William de Percy, the Norman lord of this part of Yorkshire, in the year 1122. For a while the abbot of Whitby was the chief ruler of the place; but civil government was gradually established, and about the year 1398, Whitby, which had always had considerable trade as a fishing place, became a town of some commercial importance, it being then almost the only harbour on this dangerous coast. In the year 1394, cargoes of coal began to be imported from Newcastle into Whitby; and in 1538, Leland speaks of Whitby "as a great fisher town." It no doubt was so in comparison with the small fishing villages along the coast, but the population, in the year 1540, is supposed not to have been more than about 200 persons; the number of houses at that time being not much more than thirty or forty, which scarcely gives a population of 200 inhabitants. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Whitby was greatly benefited by the discovery and by the working of alum mines at Guisborough, a few miles in the interior, and a little later, in the year 1615, another alum work was erected near Sands End, only three miles from Whitby. In the year 1650, the population of Whitby had increased to 2000, though at that time the number of vessels belonging to the port was not much more than twenty. But before the close of the same century it had still further increased to 4000, and the vessels to sixty, of about eighty tons each. In the year 1724, the number of vessels had risen to 130, of eighty tons each.
Whitby is described by Daniel Defoe, in 1727, as standing at the "entrance of a little nameless river (the Esk), which, however, is an excellent harbour." There, he says, they built very good ships for the coal trade, which made the town so rich.
Shipbuilding at Whitby.- A great impulse was given to ship building at Whitby, about the end of the reign of George II., by the general prosperity of the country; and that impulse continued during the whole of the reign of George III. In the year 1757, docks for shipbuilding began to be erected on the west side of the river Esk, and vessels of a much larger class to be constructed. In 1776, the number of ships belonging to Whitby was 250, besides those on the stocks; and it was then supposed that both the shipping and the population had more than doubled their numbers in the previous forty years. All the vessels used by Captain Cook for his memorable voyages round the world were built at Whitby; and the port had then acquired a very high reputation. In the year 1801 the population had increased to 7483 persons, and in 1821 to 10,435. At the Census of 1871 the borough of Whitby extended over an area of 5631 acres, and contained a population of 13,094.
The old town of Whitby rises on the left bank of the river Esk in numerous steep and narrow streets; on the right, it is built under the cliff crowned by the famous abbey of St. Hilda. The two parts of the town are connected by a bridge, of which the central portion is lifted for the passage of vessels. The mouth of the harbour is protected by two stone piers; but vessels taking refuge here in stormy weather are obliged to moor above the bridge, where the river widens into a basin large enough to contain a fleet, though nearly dry at low water. All the modern houses are on the West Cliff.
"As a watering-place, Whitby is one of the pleasantest on the Yorkshire coast. It is much quieter than Scarborough- a great recommendation to many. The sea-views are superb. Many places of interest are within easy access, and the inland country is varied and very picturesque, especially that over the moors. The chief promenades are on the West Cliff, and on the West Pier, nearly half a mile long, with a lighthouse at its farther end, which the visitor should ascend for the sea-view, and for that of the town below him, with its background of steep wild hills."
DATES AND NOTES RELATING TO THE BOROUGH AND WATERING PLACE OF WHITBY.
Whitby, supposed to be built on the site of the Roman harbour of Dunum Sinus.-Yorkshire: Past and Present, vol. ii. p. 566.
657.-The Anglian abbey of Streoneshall, or Whitby, erected by King Oswy.- Vol. ii. p. 566. Caedmon, the first English poet, a native of Whitby, and long resident in the abbey of Streoneshall.- Vol. ii. p. 567.
1122.-The Norman abbey of Whitby built by William de Percy.-Vol. ii. 567.
1540.-Whitby a great fishing town when visited by Leland.-Vol. ii. p. 568.
1727.-Defoe's notice of Whitby.-Vol. ii. p. 568.
1776.-Great extension of shipbuilding at Whitby.-Vol. ii. p. 568.
1801.-Population of Whitby.-Vol. ii. p. 568.
1821.-Population of Whitby.-Vol ii. p. 568.
1871.-Population of Whitby.-Vol. ii. p. 568.
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