18 May 2023
Saint Mary’s Church, Whitby,
is filled with box pews and
has never had electricity
Saint Mary’s Church in Whitby stands beside the ruins of Whitby Abbey, sharing the East Cliff at the top of the 199 steps leading from the harbour and the town up to the top of the North Yorkshire headland.
The 199 steps were first referred to in 1340. However, it is said the steps were made long before this. One legend says Saint Hilda used the steps to test the faith of her followers The steps were originally made of wood and stood that way for hundreds of years until 1774, when the steps were replaced with Sneaton Stone.
Last week, two of us climbed the 199 steps, also known as the Church Stairs, from the Old Town up to Saint Mary’s and the ruins of Whitby Abbey.
The abbey’s minster church may have stood on the site of Saint Mary’s Church, but Danish raids in the ninth century destroyed the monastery and the minster. When Benedictine monks re-founded the abbey, they rebuilt the church for the parishioners of the town below. This means church is older than the surviving 13th century abbey ruins.
Saint Mary’s Church was founded around 1110, but the interior furnishings of the church are Georgian and date mainly from the late 18th century. The church is known for its links to seafarers, including Captain Cook who worshipped there, and the churchyard was a setting for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897).
We entered the church through a small low ceiling area, and double doors opened into a building that took my breath away. The church never had electricity and is lit only by candles on sconces and a large brass chandelier. A Victorian cast-iron stove provides the only form of heating inside the church.
A Norman church was built on the site around 1110 and added to and altered over the centuries. The tower and transepts are from the 12th and 13th centuries. The nave, chancel and west tower date from the 12th century, the north and south transepts were added in the 13th and 14th centuries, while battlements were added around the roofline in the Tudor period.
The nave is largely Georgian, but the chancel has been relatively untouched, with three round-headed Norman windows and stonework, and three aumbries, including one with a small piscina. The side walls originally had three bays with similar windows, but they have been altered. The altar is Tudor, but the Victorian stained glass windows are by Charles Eamer Kempe.
The nave has five bays and is contemporary with the quire. Its south wall is much altered but three external buttresses remain.
The transept was built in the 13th century and has three altered lancet windows in its northern arm while its southern arm is considerably changed and its windows all replaced. A squint cuts through from the south transept to the quire.
The three-decker pulpit was installed in 1778 and altered in 1847. No matter where someone sits in the church, they can be seen by the preacher in the top level of the three-decker pulpit. A set of hearing trumpets at the back of the pulpit are said to have been used by the wife of a former rector because she was hard of hearing.
The interior of the church is dominated by the 18th-century box pews and seem to be crammed into every corner. As a result, Saint Mary’s can seat 3,000 people.
Larger, more luxurious pews near the pulpit once went for a higher price. A few plain, unadorned pews at the back of the church were reserved for poor parishioners. These are marked ‘Free’ on the pew doors. Others were for strangers to the church and are marked ‘For Strangers Only.’
The pews on the north side were for people from nearby villages who did not have their own parish church and had to travel to Whitby to worship. Each of these pews is marked with a village name.
There was also a special pew for the Cholmley family, who bought the site of Whitby Abbey in the mid-16th century and built a large elegant mansion by the ruins. The Cholmley pew had a prominent position between the chancel arch and the nave, and blocked direct views of the high altar. It was supported on barley sugar columns and was reached by an external stair.
There was a special pew for the church maid, whose duties included keeping the privately-owned pews clean. Because of the church’s position on the cliff above the town, smoke from the chimneys of houses near the harbour would rise up and settle on the pews, so that anyone sitting there would soon be covered in soot and dust. The church maid kept the pews covered before and after services.
The galleries were installed in the 19th century, but to create extra space the staircases to some of the galleries are on the outside.
When the church was enlarged in 1818, most of the north wall was removed and replaced by columns to accommodate an aisle. Four large square-headed windows were inserted on the south side, the south porch was built in 1823 and a north porch was built in the new annexe. The ceilings over the nave have several skylights.
An 18th-century royal coat of arms sits above the chancel arch, and a second royal coat of arms is above the west door.
Painted boards against the north wall display the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Other 18th century boards on the walls bear Biblical texts.
A studded oak chest for parish valuables dates from the 15th century or earlier. The chest was stolen in 1743 and thrown over the cliff by thieves. It was recovered from the base of the cliff but the church plate and parish records were never found.
Several carved mediaeval stones are on display in the church, as well as a broken section of the stone coffin of a Saxon child. A small cupboard was once used for loaves of bread given to the poor.
The three-stage west tower was originally taller, but the top stage was taken down in the 17th century. As a result, the low, squat tower looks oddly out of proportion to the rest of the church, its corners supported by flat buttresses. The embattled parapet is a 16th-century addition. There is a ring of eight bells: six are inscribed, ‘Whitby 1762 Lester and Pack of London fecit’; two were added in 1897.
Captain James Cook, the 18th-century seafaring explorer and cartographer was apprenticed to a shipowner in Whitby in 1746-1749. He lived in Whitby for another six years before joining the Royal Navy, and during those years went to church in Saint Mary’s.
Saint Mary’s churchyard provided Bram Stoker with a setting in his novel Dracula:
‘For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary's Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible ... It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.’
Many gravestones have the names of ships, trades or professions and name the place where people died or are buried. Several tombstones are engraved ‘in remembrance of’ rather than ‘here lies,’ for many sailors and fishermen were lost at sea and their bodies were never recovered.
Other graves include that of the Arctic explorer William Scoresby, who invented the crow’s nest for ships. But fact and fiction are mixed together in the churchyard: one stone is said to mark the grave of the original ‘Humpty Dumpty.’
Because of erosion and landslips, several graves have slipped off the cliffs, with bones later found below. Two significant recent landslips due to broken drainage and torrential rain have placed the churchyard and properties below the cliff in jeopardy, and pathways on the cliffside of the church have been closed.
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