Library & Archives – Laura looks at Goth Culture

One of the prerequisites of the Heritage Lottery Funding was to encourage student placements from York University. These placements are for students undertaking a Masters course in History-related subjects at the University of York. This placement module has been running for over 10 years and has proved enormously successful for both the students and placement partners, and it is a cornerstone of the Public History MA programme. These placements run over the course of Semester 2 for 10 weeks.

Two students joined us – Laura chose to research Whitby’s Goth Culture and has written the following blog. Hopefully in the Autumn prior to the Goth Weekend there will be a display in the Jet Cupboard Cabinet featuring Goth memorabilia.

Whitby Goth Weekend is celebrating its 30 year anniversary this year. I have been working on placement at Whitby Museum, researching its history and significance as a major part of the town’s culture. These days the weekend is perhaps most recognised for the striking fashion of the visitors who gather bi-yearly. However, those outside the subculture may not know that the Whitby Goth Weekend (WGW) is primarily a music festival.

It began in 1994, when Jo Hampshire organised a get together for a group of Goth pen pals and a few Goth bands over the 2nd-4th September. Whitby was chosen for its links to the 19th century gothic movement; after visiting the town in July 1890, Bram Stoker was famously inspired to write Count Dracula as arriving in England on Whitby’s shore. Whitby Museum holds a wealth of material detailing how Stoker found writing material, from basing the ill-fated Demeter on real-life shipwreck of the Dmitry to exploring how the ruins of Whitby Abbey provided the scenery for the vampire to prowl for victims. To return to the first Goth Weekend a hundred years later, Whitby again proved to provide a perfect backdrop for the darkly inclined. The event was a success from the outset, with around 200 visitors cramming into the Elsinore pub, rather than the expected 30-40!

It has been fascinating to track the development of the WGW using the Museum’s Whitby Gazette Archive. Although mass communication in the 90s of course lacked the ease, which we are now accustomed to, the Weekend grew rapidly in popularity over the decade. The Gazette reported that only a year later 1000 goths descended on the town and talk had already begun of Whitby being the centre of an ‘annual pilgrimage.’ Over the years, it becomes clear how the WGW became not only a permanent fixture of the town but also a part of Whitby’s identity. In 1999, the problem of how to accommodate so many visitors was the subject of the newspaper’s April Fools joke: readers were told of plans for a gothic castle hotel.

(Whitby Gazette 28th March 1997)

The festival has certainly changed since its first conception. As Whitby residents (and Goth Weekend visitors) will know, the originaltrad goths’ are now often joined by Steampunks, Emo and other alternative subcultures thus has given rise to a more visual aspect of the festival, with outfits becoming more extravagant and requiring more preparation over the years.

However, for many visitors the focus on coming together as a community and providing a space to celebrate Goth culture has remained the same. During my research, I have particularly aimed to focus on collecting personal stories and photographs of those who have attended the Weekend over the years. I was struck by both the heart-warming and the unexpected nature of many of these accounts. From gothic wedding dresses purchased in the Bizarre Bazaar to Goth football matches to ‘Sexy Sunday’, the WGW has certainly smashed the stereotype of Goth being a gloomy subculture! One interviewee told of how the WGW was an important part in building confidence in her identity:

             “My husband and I started going around 2007 after my brother showed us a copy of The Whitby Gazette covering the Goth Weekend. We were hooked from that one visit: the way people dressed the atmosphere throughout the town. Here we met ‘our Whitby family’, wonderful like-minded people who have introduced us to the ways of the Whitby Goths…Every time we go to the festival it is like coming home, we feel safe wherever we roam day or night.”

Another wrote about how the Whitby Goth Weekend had a deep family connection:

            “Our first visit to the Goth Weekend was for my mum, something she never got to do and would have loved. I just didn’t realise how many different types of Goths there were. I have a full arm sleeve tattooed of Whitby Abbey, with the graves and windows of the church, for my mum, my love of Whitby and my enjoyment of the Goth Weekend.”

Ultimately, the Whitby Goth Weekend continues to stand out as an unlikely story of a grassroots meet up of a few Goth friends that grew into one of Europe’s biggest ‘alternative’ festivals. For many visitors the town has become like a second home and the Goth Weekend remains a safe haven for young people outside the ‘normal’ youth culture.  It has undoubtedly played an important role in shaping Whitby’s recent history, and as such is deserving of historical interest.

(Whitby Gazette 30th April 1999)

Laura Mills Public History Placement Student, York University

A huge thank you to all the Goths that have provided personal stories and photographs. 

#archivesforall #HeritageFund