16 May 2023

Sorry, it’s not here! … it’s
just a story.’ Searching
for Dracula in Whitby

Saint Mary’s Church, Whitby, and the surrounding churchyard inspired Bram Stoker when he was writing ‘Dracula’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Our visit to Whitby last week was short and sweet. We took the bus from York, and over the course of a few hours in the seaside town in North Yorkshire we heard again how the ruins of Whitby Abbey and the graves in Saint Mary’s churchyard inspired Bram Stoker as he was writing his Gothic classic novel Dracula.

Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker (1847-1912), who was born in Dublin, was the personal assistant of the leading actor of the day, Sir Henry Irving, and the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in the West End when he came to Whitby on a holiday in August 1890 with his wife Florence and their son Noel.

In the late 19th century, Whitby was a fashionable seaside resort as well as a vibrant fishing port, and Irving this picturesque town as a holiday location to Stoker.

The Stoker family stayed at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent on Whitby’s West Cliff. Bram Stoker found a place to relax and to write, with walks along the windswept headland, climbing the 199 steps to Saint Mary’s Church, surrounded by swooping bats and a churchyard with empty graves, and strolling through the dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. He found time too to discover Whitby’s long links with jet, a semi-precious stone used in mourning jewellery.

At the end of the Victorian era, Gothic literature was set in foreign lands filled with eerie castles, convents and caves. But Whitby provided Stoker with a location nearer home for such horror stories.

Whitby’s rugged cliffs coastline, with its rich folklore and its fishing heritage, provided a dramatic setting for Stoker’s vampire to make his landing, and Whitby’s East and West Cliffs provided him with a natural theatrical backdrop.

Stoker heard about a Russian schooner, the Dmitry from Narva, that was shipwrecked in a storm in on Tate Hill Sands, below East Cliff, Saint Mary’s Churchyard and Whitby Abbey about five years earlier, in October 1885. The Dmitry ran aground carrying a cargo of silver sand. With a slightly rearranged name, this became the Demeter from Varna that carries Dracula to Whitby with a cargo of silver sand and boxes of earth that include Dracula and his coffins of Transylvanian soil.

The novel is written in the form of letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings and entries in the ship’s log of the Demeter. The log charts the gradual disappearance of the entire crew of the Demeter during the journey to Whitby, until only the captain is left, tied to the wheel.

As the ship sails close to the coast at Whitby, the vampire summons a storm. The ship runs aground below East Cliff and only one survivor lands safely – a large black dog, another manifestation of Dracula who has the power of transformation. The dog bounds from the wreck and runs up the 199 steps to the church, and from that moment things begin to go horribly wrong.

The name of the ship offers a link to the underworld: in Greek mythology, Demeter is the mother of Persephone who is forced to spend part of the year in the underworld after she is abducted by Hades, the god of the dead and king of the underworld.

Looking across Whitby Bay and towards the Crescent from Saint Mary’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on image for full-screen view)

The novel’s main female characters, Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, are on holiday, like Stoker, at the Crescent in Whitby. They spend much of their time in Saint Mary’s churchyard, just as Stoker did. There, in conversation with an old local fisherman named Swales, they learn about the town’s fishing and folklore and Swales tells them how many of the graves are empty, with headstones as memorials to fishermen and sailors lost at sea. These empty graves become ideal resting places for a vampire who must sleep during the day.

Swales also tells Mina and Lucy about the ghost of Saint Hilda who reputedly can be seen in the window of Whitby Abbey as a white figure. Saint Hilda was said to have banished snakes into the sea and, as they fell over Whitby’s cliffs, they turned into ammonites.

Later, Mina wakes up in her room at the Crescent, and realises that Lucy, who is prone to sleepwalking, is missing. Mina grabs a cloak and rushes from the Crescent on the West Cliff and spots Lucy on their favourite seat in Saint Mary’s churchyard on the East Cliff.

Mina rushes through the town and climbs the 199 steps to the churchyard. Clouds passing over the moon obscure her view, only to part theatrically to reveal a white-robed Lucy. Looming above her is a figure Mina cannot quite identify. Is it a man, or is it a beast?

Lucy has two tiny marks or incisions on her neck where – unknown to either woman – the vampire has taken her blood. Dracula has acquired his first British victim in Whitby, with his bite initiates Lucy into vampirism and the underworld.

Mina and Lucy are told about the ghost of Saint Hilda who reputedly can be seen in a window in Whitby Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Whitby also provides the name of the vampire. During his holiday, Stoker spent time in the town library where read The Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, a book by a former British consul in Bucharest, William Wilkinson, recalling his experiences not in Transylvania but in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, now in Romania.

There Stoker read about Dracula and his association with the Hungarian wars with Turkey in the 15th century. Wilkinson mentions Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. According to Wilkinson, Dracula means the ‘son of the dragon.’ Wilkinson adds in a footnote: ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. The Wallachians at that time … used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.’

Stoker spent six more years working on his novel before it was published in 1897, researching the landscapes and customs of Transylvania and the name of his villain. Dracula’s character may also have been modelled on Irving’s aristocratic bearing and histrionic acting style.

But some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes were inspired by Stoker’s holiday in Whitby. The innocent tourists, the picturesque harbour, the abbey ruins, the windswept churchyard and the salty tales he heard from Whitby seafarers – all became ingredients in the novel.

Today’s tourists find there are several Dracula-related activities in Whitby that are popular with the Goth community, including a Whitby Goth Weekend twice a year.

Dracula and Bram Stoker memorabilia on sale in Cholmley House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At Saint Mary’s Church, it seems Dracula has attracted the wrong sort of questions from visitors. A sign inside the porch reads:

‘Sorry, it’s not here!

‘Where is Dracula’s grave? Do you know, we are asked this question more than any other by visitors to this church. We are sorry to disappoint you but it’s not here.

‘In fact, it’s not anywhere, because Dracula is fiction.

‘It’s just a story, and anyway, even in the story Dracula finally turned to dust, with a stake through his heart, not here but in Transylvania. So even if there are bats in our belfry, no vampire is going to come and suck your blood.

‘But, really and truly, you’re standing on hallowed ground. This is where Hilda walked and talked, taught and worshipped. The memory of her is still green today. This church, and the Abbey buildings next door, have been here for well over a thousand years because of Hilda. Today we try to worship God here, and express the love of Jesus Christ for all people.

‘Before you go, try spending a moment of quiet up by the altar of the church. Join with those who have prayed here throughout the many centuries.

‘We hope you enjoy Whitby.’

And, in case the message is not received, a second sign in plainer, larger letters is pinned to the door and is more direct:

‘Please do not ask staff where Dracula's grave is as there isn’t one.

‘Thank you.’

Count the cost … cost the count … Dracula miniatures on sale in Cholmley House, beside Whitby Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (38) 16 May 2023

The Ascension (see Luke 24: 50-53) … a panel in a window in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Sixth Week of Easter, and Eastertide continues throughout this week and next week, until the Day of Pentecost. Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship also recalls Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), Social Reformer.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. As Ascension Day is later this week (18 May 2023), I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, is by NHJ Westlake, in memory of Amy (Hunt) Lester, wife of the Revd John Moore Lester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Ascension window, Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford:

The Ascension is the theme in the third window in the North Wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. This window, dated 1895, is by Nathaniel Westlake and was commissioned by the Stony Stratford architect Edward Swinfen Harris (1841-1924), whose works, mainly in the Arts and Crafts style, can be seen throughout the town.

This window is of three eyelets and depicts:

1, Enoch taken up to heaven by angels without dying (see Genesis 5: 21-24);

2, The Ascension (see Luke 24: 50-53);

3, Elijah taken up to heaven in the Chariot of Fire without dying (II King 2: 11-12).

Enoch and Elijah are both said to have been taken into heaven without dying. These images, along with central panel depicting the Ascension, are illustrations of the Christian hope of eternal life.

This window is in memory of Amy (Hunt) Lester (1850-1895), wife of the Revd John Moore Lester (1851-1884), Vicar of Stony Stratford in 1880-1884. They were married in Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, Westminster, in 1877 and were the parents of nine children. She died on 30 October 1895.

The Revd John Moore Lester was the Rector of Stony Stratford in 1880-1884. He was born in Mumbai (Bombay), a son of General Sir Frederick Lester, and was educated at Rugby and University College Oxford.

From Stony Stratford, he went on to be Vicar of the Holy Trinity Church, Ayr (1884), Vicar of Shifnal, Shropshire, and a Rural Dean in the Diocese of Lichfield (1891), Vicar of Yarcombe, Devon (1903), Rector of Saint Leonard’s, Bridgnorth (1905), and finally Rector of Litchborough, near Towcester in Northamptonshire, and 15 miles north-west of Stony Stratford. He died at Litchborough Rectory on Christmas Eve 24 December 1919.

Amy Lester’s son, Edward Gabriel Lester (1887-1917), was the father of the Canadian-born American actress Katherine Lester DeMille, who played 25 credited film roles from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. She was considered Hollywood royalty and was noted for her dark beauty.

Katherine Lester DeMille was born Katherine Paula Lester in Vancouver on 29 June 1911. Her father died of multiple wounds in France on 25 June 1917, during World I. Her mother, Cecile Bianca Bertha (Colani), was terminally ill, and travelled to California, supposedly to find Katherine’s paternal grandparents and leave her with them.

However, the child’s grandmother, who is commemorated in this window in Stony Stratford, had died more than 20 years earlier, in 1895, and the child’s grandfather was then living in Northamptonshire. Katherine’s mother died on 18 March 1920, unable to contact her in-laws. By then, Katherine had been placed in an orphanage in Los Angeles. Just weeks months before her grandfather’s death, when she was eight, she was found in the orphanage by Constance Adams DeMille, the wife of producer and director Cecil B DeMille. The DeMilles adopted her as their third child in 1922.

Katherine Lester DeMille married the actor Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), star of Zorba the Greek (1964), in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Beverly Hills, in 1937. They were the parents of five children. They were divorced in 1965, and she died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1995.

Enoch being taken up to heaven without dying (see Genesis 5: 21-24) … a panel in the third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 16: 5-11 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 5 ‘But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’

Elijah is taken up to heaven in the Chariot of Fire without dying (II King 2: 11-12) … a panel in the third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflected on the Ascension in the prayer diary on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Tuesday 16 May 2023, United Nations International Day of Living Together in Peace):

Let us pray for people to live together in unity and peace. May they be united in difference and diversity and seek to find solidarity in their desire for peace and harmony.


God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us
to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God our Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ gives the water of eternal life:
may we thirst for you,
the spring of life and source of goodness,
through him who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, the parish church of Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org