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Whitby Civic Society launches campaign to save listed church in Captain Cook’s home town

15 October 2021

HISTORIC ENGLAND

THE fate of a church built by the shipwrights who made the vessels used by Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery to Australasia is uncertain.

The Grade II* listed St Ninian’s, in the explorer’s home town of Whitby, was completed in 1778 — within a decade of the launching of all four of the Whitby barks used for his voyages. Its plain brick frontage masks a wooden structure, with ships’ masts forming pillars for its gallery and baulks of sawn timber for the roof. Cupboards in the vestry were originally ships’ lockers.

The church, which in the 20th century had a definitely Anglo-Catholic tradition, and for a time in the 1990s was in use as a Continuing church, closed two years ago. Now the fabric is declining. Whitby Civic Society launched a campaign last week to restore it as a community asset. Time, however, has obscured its ownership. It is a proprietary chapel: it was originally owned by the 30 people who each subscribed £64 for its construction. Control still rests with their descendants, many of whom are unknown today. A charity established in 2013 also has a claim to the building, but appears to be defunct.

The proprietors included Thomas Fishburn, the builder of three of Cook’s ships; and Thomas Milner, who owned the bark Earl of Pembroke, which was bought by the Navy for Cook’s expedition, and renamed Endeavour.

In a statement, the Civic Society described the church as “a unique survivor of so much of Whitby’s history”. It continued: “We now need to decide on the future of this building. If possible, we would very much like to see this building at the centre of community life in Whitby, in use for the benefit of the community as well as continuing as a Christian resource; standing for the independent spirit of Whitby.”

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