Malcolm Barker: Pages of history from day when war came to Whitby

AN old copy of the Whitby Gazette, handed down through the family for 100 years, has been retrieved from the loft. It is dated December 18, 1914, and to judge from the front page nothing untoward had happened in the old town since the previous issue. It consists entirely of advertisements, apart from a column headed “Local and District News”, which begins with an item about the sighting of a white blackbird.

Included is a summary of the week’s weather. Wednesday, December 16 is reported to have opened “cold and hazy with a south-easterly wind, improving to fine during the day”. Only on turning to the centre spread does the reader discover the Gazette’s report of the sudden terror and death that had also descended from the sky during the course of that fearful Wednesday.

Out of the mist at around nine o’clock that morning loomed the German battle-cruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger, which were steaming northwards after wreaking havoc in Scarborough. They paused beyond Saltwick to range their guns on the cliff-top signal station not far from the Abbey ruins, and opened fire. The Bombardment of Whitby had begun, even though the town was not the prime target.

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It was, however, in the line of fire as the warships sought to destroy the signal station. They would probably have argued that this was a legitimate aim, and could have supported their case by quoting from the Gazette, which consistently referred to the communications centre as a war signal station. But the battle-cruisers were unstable gun platforms as they pitched and rolled in a moderate sea, and many of their missiles flew over the cliff top, mostly landing in Fishburn Park (known as “The Railway” owing to the occupation followed by many of its inhabitants). A few landed on the West Cliff, others in the harbour, and one or two as far inland as Sleights.

The Gazette in those days was a big broadsheet produced on a flatbed press built at Otley. It was printed in two workings, the outer pages first, followed perhaps a day later by those inside, which explains why the main news pages were on the centre spread, and advertisements and news in brief on page one.

This was not regarded as any kind of handicap at the time, and in its issue of December 18 the paper really excelled, producing a house-by-house and shell-by-shell guide to damage inflicted in a few minutes under the bombardment.

The achievement of the Gazette staff would surely astonish reporters today. The paper promised “full details” in its headline, and was as good as its word.

For example: “No 3 Spring Hill Terrace, occupied by Mrs J Miller and the Misses Collier, was very severely damaged. A shell struck the front of the house and carried away the whole of the bay window of the room on the ground floor and severely splintered the front of the room above. The room was occupied at the time by Mrs Miller who, owing to ill-health, was sleeping there. She had a miraculous escape from instant death, but was struck by splinters and had to be conveyed in a state of collapse to the Convalescent Home in Chubb Hill.” (Mrs Winefride Miller died shortly afterwards, the third victim of the bombardment).

Also: “The travels of a piece of a shell that exploded near the Pier were particularly interesting. It was a small piece of metal which hurtled through the window of a sweet shop kept by Mrs C Mitchell. Mirrors were broken and the unwelcome visitor burst open the wooden partition separating the goods in the window from the interior of the shop, crashed through a gentleman’s leather purse which was hung up for sale with others on a card, passed through a box of chocolates and a glass-covered picture, and was ultimately found by Mrs Mitchell in a box containing ladies’ purses on a shelf in the shop.”

The Gazette ran a leader, commenting that “as a whole the town stood the punishment with marvellous composure”, although many had “showed a restless move towards the country”. This skims over the fact that in the aftermath of the shelling virtually the whole population of the town took to their heels and headed for the countryside, among them my father, then aged 11.

I had no intention of getting immersed in the Gazette’s admirable coverage when I retrieved it from the loft, but that is the trouble with old papers. They often prove irresistible.

Whitby quickly made good the damage. Soon it was as if the bombardment had never been, although the site of one explosion, in a field above Stakesby Vale, was marked for some years by a German field gun. That, too, disappeared, being taken for scrap during 1939-45.

The Gazette’s leader on December 18 reminded readers that the onslaught from the sea was “but an incident in the great war that is testing the spirit of the nation”. Anticipating a poster prepared for a future conflict, Whitby kept calm and carried on.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.