Whitby History: A Timeline

Now a peaceful seaside town, Whitby hasn't always had the easiest time over the past thousand or so years, especially the abbey which suffered at the hands of the Vikings and Henry VIII. But the town has been the location of some momentous events in history including the Synod of Whitby, which helped shape the face of modern Christianity. Whitby is also closely linked to the discovery of Australia and has even been an influence on world-famous authors. We've put together a timeline of the town's most notable moments that have shaped its history and culture.

Whitby Harbour on canvas from  Wikimedia Commons . 

Whitby Harbour on canvas from Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Roman Times - Personal effects and jet carvings have shown that the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe who controlled the majority of Northern England, were present in the Whitby area.

55 BC - The Romans invade Britain and by 71 AD have made it up to the North of England.

Late 4th Century -  The first record of a settlement at Whitby is a Roman garrison known as Dictium. It is thought that the Romans collected the small nodules of jet that were easily found along the beach at lowtide, and exported the gemstone across the continent to the Rhine region.

657 AD - Whitby is now known as Streonshalh and Oswiu, the Christian King of Northumbria, establishes a monastery after defeating Penda, the Celtic King of Mercia. Oswiu appoints St. Hilda as the founding abbess.

664 AD - The Synod of Whitby takes place at the monastery of Streonshalh. During the debate, leading religious thinkers calculate the date of Easter and establish Catholic traditions as the Christian norm in Northumbria.

670 AD - St. Hilda dies at Streonshalh and Oswiu’s daughter, Aelfflaed, takes over as abbess.

867 AD - The Vikings invade Whitby and ransack the monastery, and the Danes rename the settlement ‘Hwitebi’ and ‘Witebi’, both of which are Old Norse for ‘white settlement’. Some historians believe that the Viking took the name from the colours of the area's houses. The site of the monastery remains in ruins for over 200 years.

Whitby Abbey from  Wikimedia Commons . 

Whitby Abbey from Wikimedia Commons

1066 - After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror gives the whole Whitby area to William de Percy as a gift.

1078 - de Percy donates land and money in the name of St. Peter and St. Hilda, and Whitby Abbey is built. The money also goes towards chapels in Sneaton, Fyling, Hawsker, Dunsley, Ugglebarnby and Aislaby. Mills in Ruswarp and Hackness also benefit from donations. The town and port of Whitby also receive money.

1128 - Henry I grants Whitby Abbey burgage in the town and the permission to hold a fair on St. Hilda’s feast day, 25th August. Whitby is also given market rights.

1190 - Tate Hill Pier's is first mentioned in the records. 

1340 - The abbey's 199 steps are first mentioned in the records.

1539 - 1540 - Henry VIII orders the dissolution of the monasteries and Whitby Abbey is ransacked. Records show that there are around 20-30 houses in Whitby with a population of 200.

1540 - Whitby Abbey and its grounds pass over to the Cholmley family. 

1590s - Sir Thomas Chaloner discovers alum - used in tanning leather and dyeing cloth - in the coast’s cliffs, and starts to develop the alum industry in Sandsend and Whitby.

1632 - Stone piers are built to cope with the demand of Whitby’s port.

1745 - James Cook moves to Staithes aged just 16. In just 18 months time he will move to Whitby to live with shipbuilders.

1753 - The first whaling ship leaves Whitby for Greenland. Over the next fifty years, the town builds up a significant fleet of whalers.

1770 - Captain James Cook leads the first European expedition to reach Australia’s eastern coast.

1790-91 - Whitby becomes the third-largest shipbuilding centre in England after London and Newcastle, producing 11,754 tons of shipping.

1802 - One of the earliest-known lifeboats is established in Whitby.

1814 - Whitby’s most successful year for whaling and 8 ship catch 172 whales. The Resolution whaler's catch for the year produces 230 tons of oil.

1831 - The economic return for whaling falls, and Whitby is left with only one whaler.

1833 - Designed by Francis Pickernell, Whitby's first swing bridge opens.

1839 - Having become a spa town in the Georgian times, Whitby’s tourism takes off even more in 1839 with the construction of the Whitby and Pickering Railway.

1847 - The son of George Stephenson and an engineer of the Whitby and Pickering Railway, Robert Stephenson becomes MP of Whitby.

1853 - The town erects a whale bone arch on West Cliff.

1854 - Lewis Carroll visits Whitby as a student.

1858 - Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire stays at Mulgrave Castle until 1863.

1861 - The author Wilkie Collins visits Whitby.

1886 - Frank Meadow Sutcliffe takes his most famous photograph, “The Water Rats”.

1890 - Bram Stoker visits Whitby and is inspired to set part of his novel Dracula in the town.

Whitby by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe circa 1890. From  Wikimedia Commons .

Whitby by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe circa 1890. From Wikimedia Commons.

October 1914 - the Rohila sinks just off the shore of Whitby. Most of the 85 who lose their lives are buried in Whitby’s churchyard.

December 1914 - Two German battle-cruisers bomb Whitby, Hartlepool and Scarborough in an attempt to get the British Navy to engage with them. Whitby Abbey is significantly damaged.

1865 - Elizabeth Botham opens her bakery and cafe, and her lemon buns quickly become famous.

1908 - Construction begins on the modern swing bridge. 

1931 - Whitby Museum opens.

1964 - The local council opens Endeavor Wharf.

1965 - Whitby Folk Week takes place for the first time.

1972 - 291 vessels now work out of Whitby harbour exporting steel and furnace bricks and importing chemicals, paper and timber.

1978 - Prince Charles visits Whitby.

1979 - Construction begins on the new marina.

1994 - Whitby hosts its very first Whitby Goth Weekend.

2012 - The Olympic Torch comes to Whitby. 

Find out more about the history of Whitby at: