Hunt to find owners of ancient Yorkshire church crafted by Captain Cook's shipbuilders in bid to save it

An ancient church crafted by Captain Cook's shipbuilders survives to this day with a mast-maker's oak posts as pillars and sawn baulks of timber in the roof.

But Whitby' s St Ninians, among the last examples of a shipbuilders' craft, has fallen into dastardly disrepair with proprietors who may not know they have shares.

The church was built by prominent seafarers and funded the only way they knew how, by raising stakes through 30 townsfolk who each paid £64 which also secured them a pew.

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Now, in the belief the church may still be owned by their descendents as 1778 deeds seem to suggest, campaigners hope to form a new trust to run "Whitby's village hall".

St Ninians Church, Whitby.

"We are trying to find the 'owners and assigns', as the church is passed down to them," said Joyce Stangoe, of the Friends of St Ninian's and behalf of the proprietors. "Some people have probably forgotten they own the shares.

"We are trying to find as many as we can. We want to preserve that history, but we need to ask them if we can take it on as a trust. It's nearly 250 years old, it would be a pity to lose it.

"It would be nice to see it preserved for the people of Whitby."

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Joyce Stangoe pictured in the church

St Ninian's was built from 1778, after a group of entrepreneurs took matters into their own hands when elderly and infirm citizens were struggling to climb the town's 199 steps to church.

Among them were prominent names in the town's history, such as Thomas Fishburn who built three of Captain Cook’s ships; Thomas Millner who owned the Earl of Pembroke before she became HMS Bark Endeavour; and Nathaniel Cholmley, the Lord of the Manor.

The church, known as New Chapel, had prospered but by 1965, the Archbishop of York had recommended its closure, and in 1998, he withdrew its license. Recently, attempts to sell the building were stopped, and now the church's future is uncertain.

A public meeting earlier this month saw civic society members, councillors, solicitors and church preservation specialists, alongside dozens of people crowding the hall. The hope now is to create a community resource, and for the Baxtergate Grade ll church to become Whitby's 'village hall'.

Queries have been submitted to the Land Registry, as campaigners believe it may still be owned by the descendents of those original proprietors. Through vast research, they have tracked sales of the shares over hundreds of years, and have now made contact with a dozen proprietors.

Several have died, but four have said they are still interested.

"There's a lot of work to be done, it's going to cost a lot of money," said Ms Stangoe. "But it's important. It's linked to the shipbuilders that sailed the world with Captain Cook.

"It's been there for a long time. And for a long time it's been deteriorating."

A meeting is to be held on November 5 with interested parties invited to help set up a trust to save St Ninian's, at 2pm in The Coliseum Theatre in Whitby.

St Ninian's is believed to be one of only four proprietor churches in England, and the only one in Yorkshire. It's a "survivor" of so much of Whitby's history, said Ms Stangoe.

She believes Rosalin Barker, author of A History of Whitby, put it best when she described St Ninian's as "a Whitby church, as unique as Whitby is and mirroring its achievements".

"People in Whitby are independent," said Ms Stangoe. "Totally surrounded by the moors and the sea, people have had to learn how to get things done.

"That's reflected in the shipowners building the church."