Rebuilding Whitby's west front after First World War bomb damage
While the origins of Whitby Abbey are well established in Anglian history, the ruins visible today belong to the later medieval Benedictine abbey, built largely in the 13th century.
Between 1330 and 1350 an impressive west frontage with distinctive Kentish-type tracery was added to the abbey church.
At the dissolution in 1539 the walls of the abbey church were left largely intact and retained as an important landmark for maritime navigation.
Over the following centuries parts of the building gradually collapsed. The south transept fell in 1736, the west front window in 1794 and the central tower in 1830.
The architectural styles of the surviving abbey church have attracted the interest of historians since the 18th century.
Detailed studies such as those by Edmund Sharpe in the 1840s are still used today, as they provide an important record of lost features, including details of the west front destroyed in 1914.
The bombardment of 1914 destroyed the west door, blind tracery panels and the north stair.
Architectural historian John Bilson reported on the damage but no immediate action was taken, resulting in further collapse.
Unable to meet the cost of the work required, the then owner agreed to place the monument into state guardianship in 1919.
Work started in 1920 with the erection of timber scaffolding to shore up the fragile remains. The collapsed rubble was carefully sorted, with almost 500 stones being identified against previous drawings and photographs.
Each piece of masonry was individually marked with its corresponding number plotted on an elevation survey.
Steel beams inserted into the wall cores provided much needed support for the unstable historic fabric. Where architectural components had been completely destroyed, replacements were carved in stone.
These were deliberately without detail so there could be no confusion between historic fabric and modern replacement.
The works were controversial, but stabilised the existing fabric and restored the west front to its pre-1914 condition.
With reconstruction complete, attentions shifted to clearing the accumulated overburden from the rest of the church. Work was delayed by two years due to insufficient funds, but began in the nave in 1922.
Funds were eventually secured to continue clearance of the church, and work was well underway by March 1922.
The vast quantity of overburden and collapse, which in places was more than 12 feet deep, was removed using tipper trucks running on a narrow gauge railway system. Many historic artefacts were recovered.
Clearance of the church was completed in March 1923, and opened to the public soon after.
Some societies criticised the work: ‘HMoW [His Majesty's Ministry of Works] have started in on Whitby to do their damnedest to give us another frozen ruin’. But many people considered it a triumph. Either way, Whitby Abbey was saved and opened to the public.