Whitby’s history, from as early as the Middle Stone Age, is reflected in our museum. The collections include representation of the Iron Age, the Roman and Saxon periods in Britain, the Victorian era and more recent times. They inform our understanding of ancient peoples and how they lived compared to the way we live now.
The archeology collection informs visitors about our hunter-gather origins with arrow heads, spear heads, and flints. Whitby Abbey is an imposing feature visible from far inland and across the town. The site contains the ruins of an early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) monastery, where St Hilda was abbess. Here at the museum, you can learn about her, the importance of the Synod of Whitby in 664 ad, and why Easter is timed the way it is. The extractive mineral industries are featured, reflecting ironstone mining and alum production. Very special is our collection of animal remains, including hyenas, from the Kirkdale Caves. The discovery of the bones in 1821 challenged orthodox views of the day relating to evolution.
Our superb Abbey collection has recently been re-interpreted, showing artefacts that at one time were in daily use. Do come and see them. And for researchers of local history, our map collection, dating from the 18th century, is an amazing and important resource. Please note that permission must be obtained to view it.
Included in this collection
The Story of Whitby
When the new extension on the SW side of the existing Museum was being designed it was felt that the Museum lacked a comprehensive display relating to the history and importance of Whitby. Of necessity such a display would be mainly text and images and it was decided to mount the display as a series of boards on the walls of the new lecture (Normanby) room.
Rosalin Barker, a historian who has spent much of her life in university adult education and is an Honorary Fellow of Hull University, was asked to compile and write the information required for the display. We are pleased to say she accepted and Roger Dalladay offered to design the boards and produce the necessary images. Some 22 boards (A2 size) resulted and were mounted round the walls of the Normanby room. It was felt that they deserved wider exposure and so a PDF has been produced which can only be accessed from this website.
Download the ca. 19.5MB PDF The Story of Whitby. Sorry that it will take a while but a smaller file loses definition.
The archaeology collection includes objects acquired throughout the history of the Society, but only began in earnest with the discovery in 1867 – 1876, during building operations in Black Horse Yard (east side of Church Street), of the refuse heap of the Anglian abbey of St Hilda. Subsequently, several local collectors left us their collections of prehistoric flint and bronze tools. Large collections were received from R.T.Gray, E.K. Simms and A.Smith.
The displays are arranged chronologically, from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages, and include the following :
Objects from the hunter-gatherer site at Starr Carr (near Scarborough), circa 7000 B.C.
An extensive collection of flints, no doubt including a few fakes made by the the notorious Victorian forger Flint Jack. Copies of the Neolithic carved stones uncovered by Fylingdales moor fire in 2003 are also present.
Burial urns and tools from local barrows.
Relics of the Romano-British village at Roxby.
Collections of objects from three local Roman sites; Cawthorn Camps, Goldsborough signal station and Lease Rigg Camp.
A reconstructed 13th century iron furnace or bloomery from Goathland, artefacts from the medieval pottery kiln at Ruswarp Bank and finds from excavations at Mulgrave Castle.
The history of Whitby and surrounding area would not be complete without reference to its industrial past. The landscape of the North York Moors around Whitby are often thought to be essentially pastoral and rural. Whilst one would expect the presence of remains such as limekilns, watermills and windmills it may come as a surprise to find that the extractive mineral industries have featured very considerably in the past and that therefore the region is ‘rich’ in industrial archaeology terms. The biggest of these industries was undoubtedly iron making due to the presence of ironstone which during the late 1860s made Cleveland one of, if not the, biggest iron producers in the world. Furthermore the Liassic alum shales formed the basis of the United Kingdom’s earliest chemical industry with a history reaching back to the beginning of the 17th century and the occurrence of ‘Whitby’ jet created a considerable mining and jewellery manufacturing business in the 19th century. These three industries, which are to a large extent peculiar to the area, along with other more traditional industries such as building stone and roadstone quarrying; railway networks; pottery, brick & tile making; and the localised and specialised glass-making industry in Rosedale make this region of great interest to the Industrial Historian.
Regrettably because of the extractive nature of some of the industries and perceptions during the early 20th century that the ‘debris’ remaining behind after these industries were ‘eye-sores’ the remains are not as extensive as they might have been with today’s emphasis on preservation of our industrial history. In many cases the only signs of once very extensive industries are the uneven ground and smallish pit heaps left following the abandonment of a mine.furthermore there are few small artefacts remaining meaning that these important historical industries are not well represented in Whitby Museum.
However there are some notable exceptions, in particular the remains of the ironstone industry in Rosedale and its remarkable mineral railway, the remains of the alum industry, particularly visible at the Peak Works near Ravenscar which is now in the hands of The National Trust.
Whitby Abbey above the Esk valley on the East Cliff near the mouth of the river is an imposing feature visible from far inland and across the town. The site contains the ruins of an early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) monastery led by St Hilda, a Benedictine abbey founded after the Norman Conquest and Cholmley’s house built after the Civil War. The Abbey church remains became a romantic ruin much visited, painted and latterly photographed. As a result of renewed interest in the early medieval period in the last 200 years, people looked for and collected artefacts found at or near the Abbey and brought them as gifts to the Museum. A major part of the collection is from the excavation in the 1920s and was recently donated to the Museum.
The objects in the collection tell the story of how people lived and worked for over 1300 years. Some things are very similar while others seem very strange to us.
This is a permanent exhibition newly redesigned with objects not seen in Whitby for a long time, many not since they were found one or two hundred years ago. The following provides more information on the displays and some background on St Hilda and the archaeology and history of the site.
The objects forming this collection were found in the last 200 years in and around Whitby Abbey on the East Cliff. Some are casual finds but most were recovered during two major archaeological digs in the 1920s and in 1958. The collection from the 1920s excavation came to the Museum as a donation early in the 2000s and most are now displayed for the first time.
The current display was installed in 2020. This was made possible after the objects were catalogued fully for the first time, the display cases had been refurbished with improved environmental conditions, and extensive research was conducted into many categories of the finds, such as the pins, strap ends, and coins.
The aim of the exhibition is to let the activities of people in the past be imagined, be they visitors or residents on the East Cliff. They lost knives, pins and money from pre-historic flints and Anglo-Saxon adornments to Victorian coins. The displays concentrate on the Anglo-Saxon monastery, approximately 650 – 850 AD, because the majority of the finds in our collection are from that period. Although fewer in number, there is much of interest to look for in the objects of the last 1000 years.
The selection of items and their arrangement allowed for many choices but also had a number of constraints. Foremost, was the choice of what we wanted to exhibit and which objects could be loaned to English Heritage for their display at Whitby Abbey and to the Yorkshire Museum, York. Our intention was to extend the object intensive nature of the museum to this collection and allow us to come closer to individuals who wore or used these items. An example is the great number of pins, each one different and probably worn in a variety of ways. The arrangement of the objects lets us see that some pieces are timeless, such as tweezers, combs and hook fasteners, and others become fashionable and disappear again, such as 9th-century strap ends. The constraints centred mostly on space and exhibition cases available thus retaining the character of the Museum while still telling the story of the monasteries on the East Cliff.
For more information to the history and archaeology of the East Cliff download the information sheet.
For more information on St Hilda download the information sheet.
For specific requests for information, contact the curator, Christiane Kroebel via the Museum
One of the Museum’s hidden assets is the collection of over 2000 maps and plans, the majority of which are local or regional and are a very important resource for anyone studying local history and are also consulted by utilities when preparing environmental impact statements or carrying out excavations in the locality. The collection includes early maps of Whitby, many large scale maps, geological maps and copies of early maps of Yorkshire. Whilst some are on display in the Museum the entire collection may be studied by appointment throughout the year.
The maps of the World including Atlases from the early 18th century, the Continents and Europe reflect the involvement of Whitby seafarers, Captain James Cook particularly, but also the Scoresby family in the exploration and colonisation of the planet and the many wars in Europe.
The maps of the British Isles to North Yorkshire are of interest to those wishing to study the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries in both a national and local context.
The majority of the collection relates directly to Whitby and the surrounding area – defined loosely as that area bounded by Guisborough, Dogger Bank, Pickering and Rosedale. It includes tithe maps and awards, mine closure maps (mainly ironstone), drawings related to the alum industry, and drawings of public works, roads, railways, docks and hospitals.
Our favourites however are “the dreams that died!”, the huge Harbour of Refuge (early 19th century), the Whitby to Pickering Canal (1793). and the railways which although built were to close within 100 years.
The most consulted maps are the Ordnance Survey Maps from 1849 to 1950’s and visitors should be aware that the Society does not have any maps which are currently available commercially.
Kirkdale Cave (SE678855) lies between Kirkbymoorside and Helmsley. The slit-like entrance is in a cliff at the side of the Hodge Beck. Exploration is not recommended because it is both dangerous and space inside is very limited. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The cave was discovered in 1821 by workers from a nearby limestone quarry who were filling in potholes in the local roads. They assumed the bones were remains of cattle that had been dumped and removed some of them to use in their repair works. When a local naturalist, John Gibson, visited he realised that the bones didn’t belong to cattle. He notified a local doctor, John Harrison, who in turn contacted Dr William Buckland among others.
William Buckland (1784 – 1856), the first professor of geology at the University of Oxford, examined the bones in 1822. They were found to contain bones of a variety of animals which no longer live in Great Britain. The bones included elephants, mammoth, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, hyena, bison, reindeer, giant deer, wild ox, pig and smaller mammals and birds.
At first it was thought that the animals had arrived by being carried by flood water, possibly by Noah’s Flood as described in the bible. However Buckland established that the entrance was not large enough to admit the larger animals and the roof of the cave had never been open to the elements. He noticed that there was an appreciable amount of fossilised faeces from hyenas. He also found teeth marks on the bones which he was able to identify with the jaws of hyenas and concluded that the bones must be the remains of animals brought into the cave by hyenas using it as a den. He also argued that these animals had lived in Britain in ancient times. It is now known that the remains date from the ice age.
His conclusions upset many in the church. The Dean of York Minster published a stinging attack entitled The Bible defended against the British Association in 1844 while Adam Sedgwick, the famous geologist, rebutted the attack. In time Buckland’s work has come to be regarded as seminal in the field of geology showing that it was possible to determine the Earth’s history through careful observation and analysis.
The Yorkshire Museum also contains some of the remains discovered in the cave, being one of their founding collections.
Below are listed some of the notable Whitby personalities who lived in or have been associated with the Whitby area.
- George Chambers 1803–1840
- George Weatherill 1810–1890
- John Francis Branegan 1843–1909
- Albert T Pile 1882–1981
- Frank Meadow Sutcliffe 1853–1941
- Tom Watson of Lythe 1863–1957
- Hugh Lambert-Smith 1900–1981
- The Doran Brothers 1900– retired 1987
- John Tindale 1921–2001
- Des Sythes 1929–2008
Scientists / Surveyors
Roman Inscription from Ravenscar