Whitby Abbey: Bombardment and Restoration

Rebuilding Whitby's west front after First World War bomb damage

English Heritage

Sunrise at Whitby AbbeyOriginal Source: WHITBY ABBEY

Whitby Abbey

The ruins of Whitby Abbey are among the most celebrated sights of North Yorkshire. Perched high on a cliff, the first monastery here – founded in about 657 – was one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Whitby AbbeyOriginal Source: Whitby Abbey

But visitors may not realise that the abbey ruins came under threat again only a century ago, when they fell victim to the ravages of the First World War.

Shell Damage (1914)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

Bombardment

At 9am on 16 December 1914, Whitby came under attack from the German battlecruiser Derfflinger. Three people were killed and many left homeless. The abbey ruins were a target, being hit by three twelve-inch shells. One direct hit destroyed much of the west front. 

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.

Line Drawing of Whitby (c.1788)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Visitor at Whitby (19th century)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

West Front of Whitby Abbey (1914)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Supporting the Abbey Ruins (1920)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Drawing of Tracery (1877)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

Preserving Whitby

New approaches to monument preservation favoured ‘honest repairs’ – consolidation using clearly identifiable modern materials rather than reconstruction. At Whitby, the archive of detailed 19th-century drawings and photographs of the west front convinced the Office of Works inspectors that there was sufficient evidence to allow them to accurately reconstruct. 

Reconstructing Tracery (1920)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Workmen Outside Whitby (c.1922)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

The scope of the work required the skills of numerous individuals: architects, surveyors, masons, and general labourers, many of whom were war veterans.

Among the workforce at this time were Francis Agar Barnett and J Trueman, both residents of Whitby who continued working at the abbey until 1925.

West Front Interior Pre and Post Reconstruction (1914/1920)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Site Clearance of the Church (1922)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Abbey Church after Clearence (1923)Original Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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.

Yorkshire Travel: Postcard from Whitby AbbeyOriginal Source: WHITBY ABBEY

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Richard Mason, Rose Arkle

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