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The historic town of Whitby sits on the North East coast of England, nestled comfortably by the cliffs between Scarborough and Redcar. Now a quaint and attractive tourist destination, Whitby has experienced its fair share of tumult over the years.

The rise and fall of Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey was founded in 657 by the Christina King of Northumbria, Oswy. It was run by the patron Saint Hild (or Hilda) and operated as a double monastery housing both Benedictine Monks and nuns, as well as the founding father of English sacred song and poetry: Caedmon.

Whitby Abbey hosted one of the most significant events in the creation of the early church: the Synod of Whitby. The most important clergymen of the Christian Church at that time travelled to the Abbey to decide whether the Church would follow the Ionian or Roman tradition, as well as how to set the date for Easter.

They decided that going forward, the Celtic church would adopt the Roman calendar and calculation of Easter, as well as the traditional ‘monastic tonsure’, or shaving of the head to indicate status as a monk.

In 867 AD, the Viking attacks sweeping across Northern England caused Whitby Abbey to be abandoned and fall into desolation. The Abbey remained unused for many years, until it was reinstated under orders from William de Percy during the Norman invasion of 1078.

Although the Abbey continued to thrive for many years, it was almost entirely destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in December 1539. It took additional damage in 1914, when a German warship situated on the coast targeted it with shells.

Industry in Whitby

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Whitby became home to a small fishing community of around 200 people.

It remained that way until the Elizabethan period, when Alum was discovered nearby. Alum was used in the production of quality woven paper, but was typically imported from Papal and Spanish mines.

Of course, Henry VIII’s ban on all things Catholic led to a need to find local sources of Alum. Whitby became a mining town and port, growing in both commercial and maritime significance as time went on.

Between the mid 18th and 19th Century, the era of maritime exploration boomed. Whitby became famous for designing and building ships in the ‘cat’ style, the most famous of which is undoubtedly the HM Bark Endeavour, captained by Lieutenant James Cook.

These ships were distinctive due to their flat bottoms and sturdiness. This made them ideal candidates for trips made by explorers into unknown waters, as they could take land and therefore be repaired easily.

The HM Bark Endeavour

The Endeavour was constructed in Whitby by Thomas Fishburn, a local shipbuilder. It was designed in the famous style of the Whitby Cat, with a flat bottomed hull made of traditional white oak.

The ship was named Earl of Pembroke and initially performed as a collier, but was bought by the Navy and recommissioned as the HM Bark Endeavour; a scientific discovery vessel tasked with observing the transit of 1769 Venus across the sun.

Captained by Lieutenant James Cook, it set sail from Plymouth on the 16th August 1768, carrying 98 people and provisions for the next 18 months.  

The Endeavour carried out its scientific and explorative observations with ease, and charted the coast of Australia for six months. It was the first European ship to land on Australia, making this a historic moment.

In June 1770, the ship ran into disaster when it encountered what would come to be known as the Great Barrier Reef. A midshipman named Jonothan Monkhouse suggested fothering the damage.

Fothering is a technique that involves sewing tough material into a sail and passing it underneath the damaged hull. Water pressure then pushes the sail into the hole, plugging the gap.

Thanks to a quick and efficient recovery effort from the crew, the ship managed to stay afloat and navigate to a broad watercourse, which Cook named the Endeavour River.

The ship continued its voyage towards Batavia, and eventually began the return journey home. Unfortunately, the ship’s crew fell ill, and many were buried at sea after losing their lives to illness or injury.

In order to preserve the health of those still aboard, the Endeavour docked at Cape Town for urgent medical treatment and repairs to the masts.

The Endeavour docked at the port of Dover on the 12th 1771, and Cook was subsequently promoted to the post of Commander as a reward for his hard work and success.

Whitby today

Today, Whitby is home to several attractions which maritime enthusiasts and casual tourists alike can enjoy.

Visitors can visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey, where religious significance collides with literary inspiration – it was here that Bram Stoker penned his first musings for the novel that would later become ‘Dracula’.

There’s also the Captain Cook Museum for history buffs, as well as regular whale watching tours and several beaches which all offer a fantastic day out.

Whitby’s latest attraction comes in the form of the HM Bark Endeavour. On our replica of the original ship, visitors can voyage below deck and get a first-hand look at where the crew aboard the original vessel would have lived and worked.