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Nostalgia: Ancient rivalry of two sea ports

Early 1900s view of Scarborough's old town and south bay.
Early 1900s view of Scarborough's old town and south bay.

Two hundred years ago, the ancient rivalry between Whitby and Scarborough was as strong as ever, especially amongst the sea-faring communities in both towns.

In terms of history and geography, it seemed that Scarborough had nearly all the advantages, whereas Whitby had suffered from several insuperable obstacles. Ever since the 12th century Scarborough had possessed a royal charter of corporate status. The 44 self-elected members of its Common Hall annually chose all the officers of municipal government from their two magistrate bailiffs, who presided over its criminal courts, down to posts such as warrener, gaoler, pinder, alefiner and bread weigher.

Aerial view of Whitby's two piers, harbour and river Esk as it disappears into the distance.

Aerial view of Whitby's two piers, harbour and river Esk as it disappears into the distance.

In return for an annual payment to the Crown, the borough had two weekly street markets and a 40-day annual fair. The Common Hall was responsible for the harbour and collected quayage to pay for its maintenance. As a result, Scarborough had prospered and expanded inland to absorb the arable and pastures of the manor of Falsgrave and had attracted all three of the chief orders of friars, Dominican, Franciscan and Carmelite, to build their houses there. The continued presence of the royal castle overlooking the town and harbour gave Scarborough further claims to strategic importance and Crown favour.

However, after its medieval heyday, Scarborough went into long, slow, continuous decline. Richard III was the last royal patron and protector of the borough and his death was severely damaging. The Reformation robbed Scarborough of its three friaries, all but one of its hospitals, and the Black Canons of Bridlington, who had invested so heavily in its parish church. Scarborough’s great annual herring fair came to be dominated by Dutch and Flemish traders and the town’s markets, provisioned by its agricultural hinterland, were challenged by neighbouring Seamer.

Yet during the 17th century Scarborough was saved by sea-coal and mineral water. The former, mined near the north-east coast, shipped out of Newcastle and Sunderland, and sold mainly to meet the insatiable demand of Londoners, increased year by year in volume and value. Therefore, when Scarborough’s one decayed pier was virtually obliterated by storm in 1614, the Privy Council imposed a levy on all coal shipments out of the Tyne and Wear to pay for its reconstruction and future repair. Scarborough had become an official “port of refuge” for the growing fleet of east-coast colliers.

Secondly, sometime in the 1620s, Thomasin Farrer, the wife of one of the town’s leading burgesses, discovered that the spring waters at the foot of Driple Cotes (South Cliff) had medicinal properties and potential. Scarborough spa was born, though it took several decades before it and sea-bathing made the town Britain’s first seaside health and pleasure resort for the opulent.

Finally, the coastal coal trade provided the opportunity and incentive for Scarborians to become ship-builders and ship-owners. As a source of skilled employment and income, fishing declined, but the new industry brought abundant wealth to its burgess elite.

In contrast, Whitby’s history had been markedly different. Unlike Scarborough, Whitby had a river outlet, the Esk, which bisected the town, but only a narrow coastal plateau, not a fertile agricultural hinterland. Also, the tidal Esk was navigable for about only a mile upstream to Ruswarp and its estuary was shallow and narrow. Tightly hemmed in by steep hills to the west and east, even as late as 1801, Whitby township covered a mere 48 acres and half of that sand dunes and mud banks.

Whitby’s historical heritage also contrasted with Scarborough’s. It was overlooked and dominated by the rich and powerful Benedictine abbey, whose extensive estate in Whitby Strand had the independent status of a Liberty. Whitby had won borough status only briefly and its maritime trade in fish, both white and red herring, wine, salt and coal, was abruptly impoverished by the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.

Alum did the same service for Whitby as sea-coal and spring water had done for Scarborough. About 1607, huge quantities of alum shale were found at nearby Mulgrave and Sandsend and, as Hinderwell reported two hundred years later, since then the industry was “the original cause which raised Whitby from its obscurity”. To service the alum mines and industrial processes at Mulgrave and Sandsend, the western river frontage of Whitby became a principal landing, storage and shipping space for garths of coal, timber, urine and kelp. At first, most of the supplies and products were carried in Scottish and Dutch vessels, but soon Whitby itself began to build and equip an increasing proportion of the alum fleet.

By 1640, Whitby’s carrying merchant fleet and the value of its cargoes had surpassed all its Yorkshire rivals except Hull. During the 1650s, the first of Whitby’s great stone piers, 180 metres long, was designed and built to protect the mouth of the river estuary; and in 1702 and 1709, despite predictable objections from Scarborough’s two MPs, Acts of Parliament made Whitby “a harbour of refuge”, to be maintained by a tax on the sea-coal trade out of Newcastle. As a result, in 1702 and 1734, both the west and the east piers were extended into the open sea, each more than 400 metres long.

From the 1750s, Whitby seamen in Whitby ships took part in the whaling trade, venturing into the Greenland Sea and later the Davis Straits. By Hinderwell’s lifetime, Whitby’s ship-yards on both banks of the Esk were building up to 25 large vessels every year and the port’s merchant fleet numbered over 320, much larger than Scarborough’s.

As Whitby prospered its population increased rapidly, so that by the census of 1811 there were 1,850 families and a total of 6,469 residents living there, only 241 fewer than recorded in Scarborough. So this once remote inaccessible “fishing village” had become one of the nation’s leading maritime industrial ports.

Though Hinderwell seems to have been unaware of the navigational feats of Captain Luke Foxe (1586-1635), the explorer of Hudson’s Bay, or even the maritime inventions of the Scoresbys, he devoted two whole pages in his account of Whitby to the career of Captain James Cook (1728-79). Yet even in this case he managed to exclude any reference to either New Zealand or Australia, ending only with an account of his death at the hands of “the savage nativies of Owyhee”. Was Hinderwell embarrassed that Scarborough had no one to compare with Cook?

(to be continued)