During its long history The Black Horse Inn, both in its current incarnation and in the ones that preceded it, has seen many changes in Whitby, with corresponding changes in it's clientele. From its possible origins as a pilgrimage centre; through the decline and fall of the whaling industry during the 18th and early 19th centuries; through the boom in ship building leading up to the Napoleonic Wars; and the Jet industry in Victorian times. Seamen, fishermen, whaling men, merchants, traders, jet carvers, pilgrims and tourists through out the generations have, and continue, to take refreshment at The Black Horse Inn.


Alum is a white crystalline chemical, essential to several industries including the wool trade, medieval England's primary industry, where it was used in the dying process.

Prior to the 17th century the main sources were the Middle East and the Papal States north of Rome, however these sources were susceptible to disruption. During the 16th century the Crown financed attempts to produce alum in Britain but the breakthrough came at the beginning of the 17th century with the discovery that the Jurassic Upper Lias shales found in the Whitby area contained aluminium sulphate - the most vital ingredient of alum.

The first successful alum works were established near Guisborough in 1604. Others followed and it is recorded that by 1823 the industry was employing some 600 people, and in the previous year, the six mines then in operation had produced 3,200 tons.

During the two and a half centuries that the production of English alum was concentrated in this region, it stimulated the development of other industries and helped to pave the way for the Industrial Revolution that was to follow. During the 19th century however, new techniques such as the production of alum by treating shale from coal mines with commercially produced sulphuric acid, and the invention of aniline dyes, which did not need alum, caused the industry to go into decline.

The last of the alum mines in the Whitby area, located at Sandsdend, were closed in 1871.


There are records to show that sailing vessels were being built in Whitby early in the seventeenth century however it was not until the development of the coal trade that the town became an important centre of ship building. Although Whitby itself did not produce coal it hired out ships to transport coal from Tyneside and Teeside to London. Indeed, one of the most famous ships in the world, Captain Cook's Endeavour, was built in Whitby c.1764 to carry coal. Originally called The Earl of Pembroke, she was bought by the Admiralty in 1768 when she was renamed and refitted for exploration.

During the American Wars of Independence (1775-1783) around twenty ships a year were being built in Whitby. So important was this that John Paul Jones, the acclaimed father of the US Navy, made plans for an attack on Whitby (never carried out). At the height of the Napoleonic Wars the average rose to twenty-five a year with the record being in 1802 when thirty-nine ships were built. By 1823, when Whitby ranked in its registered tonnage as the seventh port in England, there were no less than seven ship building firms in Whitby with supporting firms of boat builders, sailcloth manufacturers, rope makers, etc. However the industry was already in decline, with the wars over, and the sudden decline in the whaling industry in 1830, the demand for new vessels had fallen off with most of the few remaining contracts going north to Tyneside where the new iron-clad ships were being built.


Although some (most notably the historian George Young whose History of Whitby was published in 1817) suggest that the whaling industry did not get underway in Whitby until 1753, the town's Literary & Philosophical Society has comprehensive records to indicate that it began in the 1720s. Whenever it started, it is a fact that by the end of the century the industry was bringing great wealth to Whitby. One indication of the towns wealth was that it had municipal paving and street lighting i.e. paid for by the town as opposed to by private individuals, even before London. Of particular interest to us are the three great lanterns that were installed on Church street in 1790; one outside the foremost bank of the day, and the other two outside The White Horse & Griffin and our own Black Horse, both of which were operating as coaching termini by this time.

The famous whale bone arch on Whitby's west cliff.Whaling was a seasonal occupation, the season being from February to September, and probably the most successful was in 1817 when 1,850 tons was produced from 76 whales. The industry in Whitby came to an abrupt end in 1830 after the discovery of mineral oil in the shales of lowland Scotland. This new paraffin oil was cheap to produce, available in seemingly infinite quantities and burned with a bright clean flame. The whaling fleet returned in 1830 never to sail again.

The famous whale bones, that have overlooked the town for decades from the West Cliff, stand as tribute to this boom period in Whitby's history. The current bones, erected in April 2003, were a gift from Whitby's twin town of Anchorage in Alaska. They are from a whale killed by the indigenous Inupiat people, who legitimately hunt whales for their own subsistence.

The Jet Industry

Jet, a semi-precious deep black stone which can be found along the Whitby coastline, has been used in the manufacture of decorative items since the Bronze Age. There is a record of a John Carlill following the occupation of 'jet-worker' in 1598 however Whitby's first 'proper' jet workshop not set up until 1808 after Captain John Tremlett saw local men making beads and proposed the use of a lathe in their manufacture. By 1851, when the work of some of Whitby's finest jet carvers was displayed at the Great Exhibition, there were fifty workshops.

Clearly Jet jewellery was already popular before the death of Prince Albert in 1861 however when Queen Victoria went into mourning and took to wearing nothing but black, the jet industry went into overdrive. At its height there were over two hundred jet workshops in Whitby and some fourteen hundred men (from a population of four thousand) were employed in Jet related trades.

Sadly the association with mourning seems to have been at least partly responsible for the industry's downfall. It was very much in decline in the 1890s and all but dead by the turn of the century. Today there are only a handful of skilled local craftsman capable of producing jewellery from Whitby Jet.

You can read more about Jet and see many fine examples of the existing local craft at The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre who are also the proud custodians of the only surviving example of a genuine Victorian Jet Workshop.


The river Esk, which flows into the sea at Whitby, has long been associated Salmon and is the principal salmon and sea trout river in Yorkshire. It is recorded that in 1891 Mr Charles J. Keighly caught 100 salmon in the Esk between 1st August and 31st October, which was considered a record for English rivers in those days. Whitby is however more usually associated with sea fishing.

In 1540 John Leyland (the librarian of King Henry VIII) wrote that Whitby was a "great fisher towne" and was particularly renowned for its herring fishing. It went into decline for many centuries until the formation of the Whitby Herring Company in 1833 for the curing of herring to produce kippers. By 1888 Whitby had between 150 and 200 herring boats of its own however the herring fleets of Yarmouth, Penzance, Lowestoft and Scotland also brought herring to Whitby. At its peak as many as 800 lasts (a last being a volumetric measure which usually equates to around 4000 pounds in weight) were taken in a season. About half of this was sold to vessels from Belgium and France while upwards of 120 lasts were cured by the Herring Company and others in the town. Today there are few 'Smoke Houses' left in Whitby. One of the best known being Fortunes Kippers on Henrietta Street which has been a family business for five generations having been established in 1872.

Whitby is also associated with cod to the extent that one has to travel some considerable distance from the town before being able to find cod on a menu which isn't described as 'Whitby Cod'.


Smuggling dates back to the fourteenth century when the export of wool was banned thus making it extraordinarily profitable to 'smuggle' it out to France. This trade continued until the export duty was lifted in the nineteenth century however by that time many other goods were so heavily taxed as to make them lucrative candidates for smuggling. For example, at one time it was possible to buy tea in Holland for 7 pence a pound while the price in England varied from 12 to 35 shillings (there were 12 pence in a shilling). Such high profits meant that the ringleaders could be very generous to the seamen, porters, labourers on the beach and lookouts that they employed. The rugged Yorkshire coastline with its isolated seafaring communities, was an ideal place to land such these illicit cargoes and it is said that at one time pretty much the entire population of Saltburn, Staiths, Runswick and Robin Hoods Bay were involved in what was simply referred to as 'The Trade'.

The penalties for being caught were also high and included hanging, transportation or a term of hard labour in the army, navy or prison. The Customs Officers and Excise Men however were disorganised, poorly paid and often in competition to claim the prize money for the seized goods - thus hindering each others efforts. One amusing local story tells of a time when soldiers were sent to sort out the smugglers who responded by simply getting into their boats and sailing out of gunshot range. Ships were sent from Tyneside but the locals used their superior knowledge of the area to run them onto the rocks. As the cost of the exercise mounted, the soldiers were recalled allowing the smugglers to return to continue their trade.

The Black Horse was notorious for it's involvement in The Trade. The front room on the first floor (now split into a guest room and the breakfast room) was a dining room throughout much of the inn's history and as such was the principal place where business (both legitimate and otherwise) was carried out. There are stories a plenty of secret passages, false panels and trap doors (long since sealed) which would have provided means of escape and places to hide contraband.


George Hudson, the infamous 'railway king' had ambitions to develop Whitby as a holiday resort when he purchased the Whitby & Pickering Railway in 1845. At the height of the railway era Whitby had no less than four railway lines which brought thousands of visitors to Whitby. After the second World War, railways gave way to motor transport in its various forms but the visitors keep on coming. Hardly surprising when you consider the rich and varied history of the town, only a fraction of which is describe in these humble pages.