Maritime Heritage

Whitby’s history is forever linked to the sea. It is the story of ships and the men who sailed in them, from fishing in local waters to crossing the vast oceans of the world. A story of ship builders and shipowners, of lifeboatmen and explorers. It seems fitting that one of the largest sections of the museum is devoted to the history of the port, the ships, the shipbuilders, and the sailors of Whitby.

The Shipping Wing houses a fine collection of paintings and model vessels, ranging from early sailing ships to 20th century steam ships. Several of the model vessels were built by the sailors themselves, whilst others are display models made in the shipyards where the actual ships were built. Of interest are the man o’ war ship models made of bone, by French Napoleonic prisoners of war. There are displays showing the fishing boats and fishermen of Whitby, and of the Whitby lifeboats and the port’s dramatic lifeboat rescues and shipwreck disasters. And in the “How do they do that?” category, there is a collection of ships (and other things!) in bottles.

The Shipping Wing collection is so large that not all objects can be shown at once, and displays are often changed to reflect a particular story or interesting period in the history of Whitby people and the sea.

Included in this collection

Whaling and the Scoresbys

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries Whitby was a prosperous port with booming shipbuilding and whaling industries. Two of the most successful whaling captains were William Scoresby senior and his son, the Reverend Dr William Scoresby junior, DD, FRS. Whitby museum has an extensive collection of objects and papers linked to Arctic whaling and to the Scoresby family.

Books about the Scoresby’s and whaling and books written by William Scoresby junior are available for study in the Museum Library.

William Scoresby senior (1760-1829) grew up on a small farm near Pickering and was an agricultural labourer before going to sea. After various adventures, he joined the crew of the whaling ship Henrietta in 1785, rising through the ranks to become captain in 1791. In 1806 he broke the British record for sailing furthest north, reaching latitude 80° 30′, with his son William junior as chief mate. In 1807 he developed the crow’s nest, to provide shelter for the navigator at the top of the main mast. He retired from whaling in 1823.

William Scoresby junior DD, FRS (1789-1857) was apprenticed to his father aged 13. At 17 he was promoted to chief mate and at 21 he replaced his father as captain of the Henrietta. From the age of 17 he went to Edinburgh University to study sciences, returning to Arctic whaling in early spring each year. While at sea William junior studied the Arctic seas, their climate, currents and biology. In 1820 he published his Account of Arctic regions, which remains a standard work on the Greenland Whale Fishery. In 1822 he mapped a large part of the east coast of Greenland, publishing his chart the following year. William junior finished whaling in 1823, aged 33, to train for the ministry.

Following his ordination in the Church of England, Scoresby was the first pastor of the Floating Church for seamen in Liverpool. In 1832 he moved to the Bedford Chapel in Exeter and in 1838 was appointed Vicar of Bradford. In Bradford Scoresby tried to improve conditions for factory workers and succeeded in founding several Church schools for factory children. Scoresby resigned exhausted from Bradford in 1846 and visited the United States before settling near Torquay.

Dr Scoresby made a lifelong study of magnetism in order to improve the accuracy of the ship’s compass. He experimented with various grades of steel to improve the reliability of the compass needle. He carried out experiments to discover the effects of iron on compasses, which were growing less reliable as the amount of metal in ships increased. Scoresby collaborated with J P Joule in early experiments on electro-magnetism. In 1856 he travelled to Australia on the SS Royal Charter to measure changes in the angle of dip on either side of the equator.

Scoresby Archive

Daisy Hill School, Bradford

The Scoresby archive contains a large amount of material, including correspondence, notes, printed papers, charts and drawings, not all of which have been catalogued in detail. The A2A Access to Archives website has a detailed list.

The archive includes:

  • Ship’s journals for the Resolution 1803-1812, Esk 1813-1817, Fame 1818, Baffin 1820-23
  • Manuscripts and illustrations for the Account of Arctic Regions
  • Scoresby senior’s printed plans for improvements to Whitby town and harbour
  • Notebooks relating to Scoresby junior’s studies at Edinburgh University
  • Drawings of ice, snowflakes and Arctic wildlife
  • Notes, papers and charts regarding climate and the extent of the Arctic ice sheet
  • Guidebooks and notes from Scoresby’s visit to Paris in 1824
  • Notes, correspondence, lectures and papers regarding ship magnetism, the compass and related subjects
  • Papers and correspondence regarding Scoresby’s ministry, particularly in Bradford
  • Notebooks and correspondence regarding Scoresby’s two visits to America
  • Lectures and notes on zoistic magnetism and hypnotism, etc.
  • Correspondence and papers regarding the search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition
  • Correspondence and papers regarding Scoresby’s visit to Australia
  • Notes, lectures and drawings on refraction and optical spectra

Published books by or about the Scoresby’s may be consulted in the Museum Library. An appointment is advisable.


The Prince Rupert

Shipping in Whitby began to expand in the seventeenth century, under the stimulus of the coal trade. Whitby became an important harbour of refuge on the East coast and began to construct ships. By the second half of the eighteenth century it was the sixth largest port in England and, on occasions, the second biggest shipbuilding area, with 11 shipyards along the estuary of the Esk. Local fishing was put in the shade after 1750 by the growth of the Whale fishery in which Whitby played a major part. It is therefore natural that one of the Museum’s largest collections should relate to shipping and visitors will be struck, particularly, by the large number of ship models.

Whitby lifeboat

There is a comprehensive collection of models of various types of sailing vessels, many recently restored ranging from the small models in the Turnbull collection to large models of such famous ships as the “Cutty Sark”. As would be expected from a town involved in shipbuilding there are also several builder’s 1/2 hull models as well as models of 20th century steam ships. Models are not limited to just sailing, passenger and cargo ships but also the fishing industry, particularly Yorkshire cobles, and of course of RNLI lifeboats and artefacts.

Bone ship made by French prisoners of war

Of special note are 5 ships made of bone by Napoleonic prisoners-of-war and also one of a whaling crew including a small exquisite ivory ship acquired for two cases of beer from a drunken frenchman.

The collection also contains navigational aids such as quadrants, sextants, telescopes, Walkers Log as well as some small types of fishing gear. There are items of particular local significance in the remains recovered from the first world war hospital ship the “Rohilla” which sunk off Saltwick Nab in 1914. Of particular note also is the barshot fired at “H.M.S. Revenge” during the Battle of Trafalgar.



Quadrants and Astranomical globe

The collection of objects is augmented by a significant collection of over 100 Pierhead paintings (paintings of individual boats), marine paintings generally including some Weatherills. Not on show, but available on request, there is a large collection of drawings and plans of various vessels, mainly built / owned in Whitby.

The shipbuilding industry is presented in the ground floor hall of the 2005 extension. The locations of the many different shipyards in Whitby (now nearly all gone) are shown along with the history of shipbuilding in Whitby. This display is liberally illustrated with typical shipwright’s and sailmaker’s tools.

Captain James Cook

James Cook R.N., F.R.S. was one of our greatest circumnavigators and his maritime career started in Whitby. He was employed on Whitby ships on the coal run operating down the east coast. From here he jumped ship and joined the Royal Navy. He worked on ships in Canada during which time he carried out a survey of Newfoundland and further survey work which helped the successful capture of Quebec. From here he was recommended to lead three voyages in Whitby ships to the Pacific to :

  • observe the transit of Venus and discover New Zealand and the east coast of Australia
  • look for the southern continent
  • look for the Bering Strait but he was killed by natives en route

Davis Backstaff used in navigation

Part of a feather cloak obtained by Cook in Hawaii in 1777

The exhibits in the Cook wing illustrate his association with Whitby and events of the voyages (1768 – 1779). Five exhibits are of particular interest and importance :

  • an original hand-drawn map, signed and made by James Cook as a non-commissioned officer, when he surveyed the coast of Newfoundland
  • four pages of manuscript in the handwriting of James Cook forming the only known surviving part of the original draft of his “Journal” describing incidents on his voyage towards the south pole in 1773-74
  • probate copy of his will
  • report on the transit of Venus in 1769
  • models of “Resolution” and “Endeavour”

Model of the Endeavour made by Graham Leech solely using matchsticks!

No visitor should come to Whitby without also visiting the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Grape Lane in Whitby.

Whales and Whaling

Greenland Right whale

Tail flukes

Whaling implements

The Collection includes:

  • Model of Baffin of Liverpool, whaler designed by William Scoresby
  • Model of Phoenix of Whitby, whaling ship
  • Model of Henry Morgan, American whaling ship
  • Replica crow’s nest, full size
  • Cabin chair and telescope belonging to William Scoresby senior
  • Compass chronometer made on board the Baffin
  • Ice saw, harpoons, harpoon gun, lances and other implements used in hunting and cutting up the whale

    Model of the Baffin

Whaling Industry and Products

Whale showing baleen

Moorsom’s Whalebone shed

False teeth made from walrus ivory

Knob from top of walking stick


Collection includes:

  • William Scoresby junior’s drawing of whale oil gas apparatus
  • Specimen of unprocessed baleen (whalebone)
  • Bottle of whale oil from South Georgia
  • Statistics on the catches obtained by Whitby whaling ships from 1803 to 1816
  • Old map of Whitby showing the locations of whaling related industries
  • Pictures of a shed made from whale jaw bones
  • Whalebone stay busks
  • False teeth made from walrus ivory
  • Pen made from whale bone
  • Silver-topped whip made from baleen

Carved bone and ivory: Walking stick carved from a narwhal tusk, engraved “R Sanderson, 1846” Knob from a gentleman’s walking stick engraved “F.D.1705”

Scrimshaw: carving on bone or ivory by sailors

  • Various items, including 3 engraved sperm whale teeth
  • Pair of walrus tusks engraved with fish, snake and bird
  • Whalebone stay busk carved as a love token

Inuit items

mystery figure

Arctic figure of unknown origin and purpose

This figure is around 450 mm (18″) tall and is made of skin wetted and stretched over wood, with some metal fastenings. It has an oval base and is described as being from a model kayak. It weighs around 2 kilos (4lb) which is unusually heavy because Arctic peoples moved frequently so their possessions were light and portable. Also wood and metal were scarce.

So far we have found nothing similar in the collections of other museums. The style and workmanship do not look European.

The Museum would like to hear from you if you have any information about our strange figure, or if you have seen anything similar.

The collection includes:

    • Greenland kayak with paddle
    • Small model kayak with paddle
    • Figure made of skin stretched over wood
    • Sealskin mittens from Savage Islands
    • Sealskin boots, kamiks
    • Innuit fire hearth (bow drill)
    • Small bear carved from walrus ivory
    • Bone spatula and decorated comb
    • Two eye shades
    • Bone knife for cutting blocks of snow
    • Hunting implements including throwing sticks, the prong from a bird dart
    • Fishing line with hook, harpoon, spear point



Bone knife

Eye shade

Natural Sciences

Scoresby’s drawing of plankton

Drawing of snowflakes

Drawing of squilla

Whale fin dissection

Collection includes:

  • The skeleton of a narwhal and several narwhal tusks
  • Whale vertebra, several intra-vertebral discs, whale ear bone, sperm whale teeth
  • Stuffed Greenland Falcon, brought from the Arctic by William Scoresby junior
  • Copies of the following drawings by William Scoresby junior:
    • Plankton under the microscope
    • Dissection of the fin of a young whale
    • Deep sea squilla
    • Snowflakes under the microscope
    • Mirage of ships in the Arctic
    • Watercolour of Arctic wildlife
  • Replica of Scoresby’s marine diver, used in experiments on water temperature at varying depths and on the effects of water pressure at depth
  • Volcanic rocks collected by Wm Scoresby junior on Jan Meyen Island, together with a copy of his chart of the island

Science, magnetism and the ship’s compass Collection

Greenland magnet

Compass cards

Fox dip circle

Dip needle on graduated arc

Collection includes:

  • Several compass cards, compass needles and dip needles are on display
  • Dip needle on stand with graduated arc
  • Fox dip circle
  • Variation compass in box
  • Two very large compound horseshoe magnets, with keepers
  • Two smaller compound magnets, with keepers
  • Scoresby’s magnetimeter
  • Mounted loadstone
  • Electro-magnetic rotating apparatus
  • Magneto electric machine
  • Astatic galvanometer
  • Bennet’s gold leaf electroscope
  • Orrery (model of solar system)

World cultures

Silver earings from Tibet

The museum has an important ethnographic collection, reflecting the worldwide travels and trading connections of local people, particularly during the era of sailing ships. Following Captain Cook’s explorations, Whitby merchant ships were commissioned to carry thousands of convicts to Australia. Typically, they then crossed the Pacific, calling at islands en route for fresh water and food, to pick up cargoes from China or India before sailing home. Much of the collection consists of items brought back by the captains of these ships, who vied with other to add ‘curiosities’ to the collection of the fledgling Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society.

Bronze from India

Japanese Samurai Warrior in full armourprobably acquired in Canton since the Chinese had some illicit trade with Japan, which was closed to foreigners till 1860

The result is a notably early collection of Oceanic material, largely collected and donated to the museum before 1840. The weapons and status objects obtained by the captains on their fleeting visits to the South Sea Islands are complemented by examples of more domestic items, such as fishhooks and bark cloth collected by the first missionaries. All show the ingenuity of the Polynesian peoples in fashioning the necessities of daily life on islands with no source of ores for metal objects, or clay for pottery, or animal fibres for clothing.

Mauri house figure representing ancestor gods

The New Zealand collection is particularly noteworthy, containing weapons, carvings and cloaks collected as early as 1831 (except for missionary outposts, the first British settlers arrived in 1840). There are also several superb and rare items presented to the second Marquess of Normanby when he was Governor of New Zealand in the 1870’s.

Caboceer’s stool from Dahomey

Collections from other parts of the world also reflect the extraordinarily adventurous lives of Whitby people. John Beecroft was a merchant adventurer who was eventually appointed as the first Governor of Dahomey in West Africa. Before quinine, the West African coast was known as the White Man’s Grave because so many died from malaria. Yet Beecroft travelled extensively and received many gifts now in the museum, such as headmans’ robes and an Amazon warrior’s costume. The Cabboceers Stool (or ‘throne’) given to Beecroft by the King of Dahomey in 1851 is a rare item.

Beaded Calabash from the Cameroons

The Beecroft collection marks the start of British colonial expansion in Africa and is contrasted with collections from South Africa made by late Victorian missionaries and with West African handicrafts collected by a headmistress in the 1950-60’s, at the very end of the colonial era.

In most museums, the ethnography collections reflect the activities of connoisseurs who tried to amass, at second or third-hand, a comprehensive range of items from particular areas or peoples. In contrast, the Whitby collection is less systematic and more quirky, but retains its first-hand connection to the experiences of the local sea-captains, missionaries and colonial servants who saw, for themselves, ways of life far different to that of their home country. What they found interesting, unusual and worthy of bringing home tells us as much about them and the Whitby of their day, as it does of the lands they visited.

Totem Pole Totem Pole explanation
Totem pole from Nootka Sound