Whitby Walk 
 
Point 3 - Market Trading 
 
 
 
Whitby's Market Square is as old as its cobbles feel. It can be traced back to 1640. The imposing Town Hall was built by local notable Nathaniel Cholmley much later in 1788. 
 
The Square has an old trading tradition
As well as being the location for Whitby’s stocks, the square has witnessed the various twists and turns in the town’s trading and economic history. From urine to whale blubber and even fashion trends inspired by Queen Victoria, the square has been a hub of town life. 
 
Can you imagine being able to make money from selling your own urine? Although this sounds like the latest dietary fad, this was precisely what happened in Whitby during the mid-17th Century. 
 
It was in fact stale urine that was essential to the crude processing of alum. Used to as a mourdant to make colours "fast", alum was a rare substance. It was discovered, and subsequently mined at Whitby and nearby Ravenscar from 1600.  
 
The alkaline properties of stale urine made it an essential ingredient for alum miners - it was even shipped in especially from London. 
 
Huge vats of stale urine were stored on Whitby’s market place, so you can imagine the smell… 
 
The Market Square has not changed much
Bubbling blubber 
 
But the stench of stale urine was nothing compared to the aroma produced by the bubbling tubs of whale blubber which were found dotted around the town during its spell as a whaling port. 
 
Between 1753 and 1837, Whitby had a healthy number of whalers. Though the town lagged behind the busier ports of Hull and London, Whitby’s whalers earned a reputation for their skill and technique. 
 
The whaling season was in the summer, ships left port in spring to return in the autumn, carrying the blubber and jaws of whales they had killed. 
 
A ship, which had as much blubber as it could carry, would have whale jawbones fastened to the mast, decorated with ribbons for all to see. 
 
Once they returned, it was custom for the town’s boys to race to be the first to remove the garlands. 
 
The smell of decomposing and boiling whale fat was quite dreadful. It was said to be unpleasant enough to make full-grown men weep! 
 
Luckily the next turn in Whitby’s trading fortunes was of a very different nature, relying more on the taste of a Queen than the smell of sizzling blubber. 
 
Jet still enjoys healthy sales
Whitby jet 
 
The most unlikely reincarnation of Whitby’s economy was that instigated by Queen Victoria’s fashion sense – the jet industry. 
 
Whitby jet is the fossilised remains of the Monkey Puzzle tree and since the Bronze Age, people have been crudely carving pieces of Whitby jet. 
 
The mechanisation of production in the first decade of the 19th Century helped transform it from a minor industry into a larger employer than the town’s shipyards. 
 
The Victorian notion of the annual holiday, and the inevitable souvenir hunting which accompanied these trips, helped boost demand for Whitby jet. 
 
More importantly, the deaths of the Duke of Wellington (1852) and Prince Albert (1861) led to jet becoming an integral part of Queen Victoria’s attire. 
 
Any woman who wished to appear associated with aristocracy quickly adopted mourning jet jewellery too. 
 
By 1873 Whitby had more then 200 manufacturing shops, employing around 1500 of the town’s men. Shops selling jet were located in Church Street, whilst jet workers are known to have lived in Henrietta Street. 
 
Whitby’s jet industry has all but disappeared, though as always in this town; if you look hard enough it is possible to find a living, breathing remnant of its history. 
 
The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre is located at the end of Church Street, and is proud to display the last remaining example of an authentic Victorian jet workshop. 
 
If you can tear yourself away from shopping for jet - walk back over the bridge and look out for the pressgang at point 4.