St Ninian's Church, Whitby: here's how you can involved in future of historic building

St Ninian’s is one of the last remaining examples of the craftsmanship that went into the building of Captain Cook’s ships.

By Joyce Stangoe
Friday, 24th September 2021, 10:58 am
St Ninian's Church, Whitby.
St Ninian's Church, Whitby.

The same local men who built the ships built the church, using masts as supporting pillars and great baulks of sawn timber for the roof.

They put ships’ lockers in the vestry to serve as cupboards.

Known originally as the New Chapel, it was built in 1776-78, within a decade of the launching of all four of the Whitby cat-built barks used for Cook’s voyages.

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The plain brick frontage of the building, as viewed from Baxtergate, masks the fact that this is a wooden structure: clearly the work of ship’s carpenters.

As the English Heritage Grade II* listing notes: The oak posts supporting the gallery were supplied by a mast maker of Whitby, Isaac Allanson, with men from his yards deployed on the church when they could be spared. It is a Whitby church, unique as Whitby is, mirroring its achievements.

In typical Whitby fashion, the church was independently built and owned by 30 townsfolk who subscribed £64 each towards the cost, which entitled them to a free pew.

The original group of 30 proprietors included the shipbuilder Thomas Fishburn, responsible for three of Cook’s ships; Thomas Millner who owned the Earl of Pembroke before she was acquired by the Navy and renamed HMS Bark Endeavour; and Nathaniel Cholmley, the Lord of the Manor.

In 1778 they obtained a licence for worship from the Archbishop of York but selected their own minister and managed all the affairs of the church until 1873, when the Rector of Whitby agreed to appoint one of his curates to minister there.

The Church of England ended this agreement in 1998, since when the church has had a somewhat unsettled history.

A recent attempt to put the building up for sale for conversion to commercial premises has been stopped.

The church is still owned in trust by the heirs of the original 30 proprietors, but very few can now be traced.

St Ninian’s is the only remaining proprietary church in Yorkshire and probably one of only four remaining in the whole of the UK.

We believe that many in the local community will have views and ideas for the future of this building, which is a unique survivor of so much of Whitby’s history.

Any information you may have concerning the proprietors and the church, or any advice and help would be very much appreciated.

We now need to decide on the future of this Grade II* listed building in urgent need of repair.

If possible, we would very much like to see this building at the centre of community life in Whitby; in use for the benefit of the community as well as continuing as a Christian resource; standing for the independent spirit of Whitby.

The remaining proprietors and friends of St Ninian’s invite interested members of the local community to a meeting at the church on Tuesday, October 5, at 4.30pm.