Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Local history was quite a common interest for independent individuals, parish priests, geographers, teachers et al in England and similarly so in many other countries during the period 1770 to 1840. They were often regarded as antiquarians (not as historians or archaeologists) at the time and aimed to learn more about almost everything from a historical and for them present-day perspective. This included ancient monuments, landscapes, architecture, churches in the vicinity, trade routes affecting the area, manners and customs or manufacturing of textiles. Such written materials could result in printed books, or the amassed texts stayed as unprinted reports or documents. Whitby in North Yorkshire was no exception, which this essay will observe more closely. Two young men with several years of study at Edinburgh University, moved to Whitby more than half a century apart to work in their respective professions, together they came to register this area from all possible angles during a 70-year period.
Lionel Charlton (1720–1788) moved to Whitby in 1748 and worked as a land surveyor and school teacher. Judging by his in-depth publication, printed in 1779 he had collected information over many years, but unknown when he started to write. The main part of the book described historical observations far back in time and in particular from the Middle Ages, whilst this essay will focus on observations of textile manufacturing, philanthropy and general notes linked to such everyday matters in Whitby during his lifetime.
The second antiquarian was the Presbyterian minister George Young (1777-1848), who also moved from Scotland to Whitby, this was in 1806, a place where he came to work for the rest of his life. Young published more than 20 books, with a systematic approach which evolved his work over the years. Three of these books have been studied from a textile perspective. For instance, in 1840 he wrote about the whaling trade. ‘The principal articles exported or carried coastwise from Whitby are alum, whale oil, whale fins, sailcloth, dried fish, butter, hams and bacon, oats leather and freestone’. This list included two products from this lucrative trade, of which whale oil was the most profitable. So far as textiles were concerned, whale oil was useful for washing wool free of fat, while whale bones/baleen [also called fins] were used among other things for strengthening women’s stays/bodices during various periods of fashion. The lucrative whaling business began as early as 1753 when the first two ships set out from the town for Greenland. The whaling trade reached its peak in 1786-88 when twenty Whitby ships were involved, to be reduced to between about seven and twelve ships leaving Whitby for northern waters each year up to 1840.
Poverty, workhouses, philanthropy and such developments in Whitby over more than a hundred-year period, were reflected upon by Charlton as well as Young in the respective publications. For people being economically dependent on society was usually caused by old age or long-term or sudden illness, or in the case of a child being without parents, or being an unmarried mother with a child or, in the case of young or middle-aged people, being out of work. In addition, subsequent census returns from the local area show that elderly dressmakers, washerwomen and tailors together with people from many other categories of occupation have not seldom ended their lives in conditions like this:
Lionel Charlton in 1778;
George Young in 1840;
Another branch of interest for Georg Young – almost contemporary with his portrait below, was Whitby Museum – Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society – founded in Whitby Town Hall on 17 January 1823 (celebrating 200 years in the year and month of this essay). The Museum’s main aim over the coming decades was to collect objects linked to geology, archaeology and natural history – fossils (or ‘petrifications’) were of particular interest at a time when Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) discoveries and theories first attracted popular attention. These areas interested the original founders and many of their successors, whether professional or amateur, not to mention the Museum’s 19th century visitors. This is how Young, one of the Museum’s first promoters, described its earliest days in his 1840 book: ‘The Museum is situated in Baxtergate, and already contains a rich collection of petrifications, minerals, rock specimens, fossil bones and teeth..., antiquities, shells and miscellaneous curiosities.’
The sewing of sails had a long tradition in Whitby, as Georg Young made clear in his publication of 1817: ‘The sailcloth-manufactories are comparatively modern; for before the year 1756, the Whitby sailmakers procured the canvas from other places.’ It has not been possible to prove from other sources that the weaving of sails was introduced to the town in that very year, but it is extremely likely to have been around that date. What can be proved however is that categories of workers such as flax dressers and weavers appeared earlier in the Whitby parish church registers, especially during the 1730s and 1740s. However, it is not possible to be sure whether these skilled workers prepared linen material to be used for sails, or for clothes and interior furnishings. Yet sailmaking had existed on a small scale since at least the 1710s and increased with every decade to reach its greatest extent during 1770-1840, the peak period of sailcloth weaving in Whitby. During this climax, the town had either three or four weaving mills to supply the many sailing vessels with sails.
Even if times of war ensured the production of exceptionally large quantities of canvas – mostly not for local consumption – weaving continued on a large scale throughout this productive era. This can be confirmed from several sources, first from the parish church registers in particular, where it is possible to trace those connected with this work up to the year 1837; and after that in the censuses from 1841 onwards, and in Georg Young’s books published between 1817 and 1840. According to Young, as many as 5,000 yards of sailcloth a week were still being produced in 1782, increasing to 7,400 yards in 1796-1805. During 1805-1815 production stood at about 5,400 yards, finally growing to no less than 9,000 yards a week in 1840. This increased production at the end of the period did not signify that a greater number of workers were involved; rather the opposite, judging by the parish church registers of the late 1830s and the 1841 census – the fact was that more weaving was now being done on mechanically assisted looms making an increased rate of production possible. Using a now-lost census dated 1816, Young writes that in that year Whitby had 40 sailmakers, 104 weavers and 39 flax dressers.
Lionel Charlton also commented briefly on the importance of foreign imports of raw material in his book printed in 1779: ‘From Holland we import flax’ and ‘From the East Country we have hemp, flax...’. Together with a record of the number of spinners needed to provide the weaving-mills with yarn for this kind of spinning-wheels in the age of hand-spinning: ‘Four canvas factories were now at work in Whitby, giving steady employment to 700 or 800 spinners...’
A few decades later, the existence of a new local spinning factory was a revolutionary change described in George Young’s book of 1817:
Additionally, Young’s notes give valuable information on the development of sail-weaving in Whitby, both concerning the location of the weaving-mills, who owned them, and the number of looms. These matters were described thoroughly in the same book printed in 1817, at a time when the three mill owners possessed a total of 93 productive looms:
As a concluding quote, from his book printed in 1840, George Young still had some informative remarks on the owners of the weaving-mills and their productions: ‘The present manufactories are three in number; viz. that of Messrs J. & W. Chapman, near Spital bridge; that of Mr. Impey, in the upper part of Bagdale; and that lately begun by Messrs T. & J. Marwood, in Flowergate. The canvas business is at present uncommonly brisk...’ However, just a few years after Young’s death in 1848, the 1850s and further on came to see a steep decline in the weaving of sailcloth in Whitby, particularly evident in the 1851 census.