The History of Whitby
It is traditional to take 656AD as the year Whitby was founded, this being the date when Oswy King of Northumbria established the abbey there. Given the place already had the Saxon name Streonshal, or Streannshall, it is clear however that the spot was already inhabited. Oswy gave thanks for his victory over Penda of Mercia by building several abbeys, but the one at Whitby was where his daughter Elfleda became prioress, after its first head St Hilda. Under Hilda Whitby Abbey became a place of great learning, and in 664 it hosted the Synod of Whitby to settle various differences between the Celtic and Catholic branches of the Christian church.
Whitby’s Abbey tempted the Vikings , who raided and destroyed it in 867. The Vikings however put down some roots and gave the town its name, originally Hwytby, ‘white place’, probably recalling the colour of the houses.
In 1078, more than 200 years after its sacking, the abbey was rebuilt by William de Percy. This did not prompt growth of the settlement, however, which remained a tiny fishing port for centuries, indeed with the Dissolution Whitby lost some significance. That situation was reversed rapidly in the final decade of the 16th century when Sir Thomas Chaloner sparked a boom in the exploitation of local alum resources. Alum was vital to medieval industry, used in dyeing cloth and tanning leather. Chaloner’s venture meant alum, and soon coal too, was shipped from Whitby. The port grew until it required stone piers building in 1632.
In the next century a different source of revenue brought wealth to Whitby: whaling. The first whaler left the town in 1753. It took some time for the industry to yield dividends, but within 50 years Whitby had a large whaling fleet.
The transportation of alum and coal, and the booming whale trade, sparked development of shipbuilding in the town, which became known for the sturdiness of its craft – all of Captain James Cook ’s expeditionary ships were built there. At about this time Whitby was making perhaps 20 ships a year, selling them to merchants in London , Hull and Liverpool as well as locally.
During the 19th century the nature of Whitby began to change: in 1839 the railway arrived. Eventually this would hit the shipping and thus shipbuilding trades; but it also promoted tourism. Whitby became fashionable, its ruined Abbey and picturesque cottages suiting the Victorian gothic imagination, and inspiring it in turn: Bram Stoker based part of Dracula in the place after a visit in 1890, and an episode in the story was inspired by the wreck of a Russian ship on the shore at Whitby. Other authors were drawn there: Lewis Carroll visited in 1854 in his early twenties; Wilkie Collins came in 1861; and novelist Margaret Storm Jameson was born there in 1891. It is conjectured that the idea central to The Moonstone may have been suggested to Collins by the presence of Duleep Singh, former Maharajah of the Punjab, who from 1858 to 1863 made one of his homes at nearby Mulgrave Castle – Duleep Singh had been relieved of the great Koh-i-Noor diamond by his British conquerors.
Violence from the sea which affected Whitby through the Vikings returned during WWI . On October 30 1914 a hospital ship the Rohilla was sunk (probably by a mine) just off Whitby, with the loss of 85 lives. That same year, on December 15, two German battle-cruisers bombarded Whitby, trying to tempt a section of the British fleet to engage them, with major naval reinforcements standing by should the Royal Navy bite.
Whitby today remains a popular holiday resort, benefitting from its Dracula links, its beautiful coast, and world famous fish and chips; and of course for its legendary Whitby Lemon Buns made there since Elizabeth Botham set up business in the town in 1863.