The Revd Francis Haydn Williams joined the Flowergate Chapel in Whitby in 1888 at a time of change in the town's history.
From the mid nineteenth century all of Whitby’s major traditional industries; whaling, alum, jet, shipbuilding and fishing, faced the growing challenge of changing markets and new technological innovation.
It was town in relative decline.
It was also a town of two halves.
The impressive grandeur of the west side of the River Esk housed the professional classes and accommodated the growing tourist industry so feted and recorded in the history books of the late Victorian town.
In contrast, the east side of the river was witness to the gross inequality of income and wealth that existed in Whitby and elsewhere in late Victorian England.
It was, in large part, a ghetto of small mean houses, stacked together lining narrow streets and yards clinging to the east side cliffs.
It provided accommodation for the poor of Whitby, the destitute, the unemployed, the unskilled and skilled artisans, who provided the labour for the town’s shipbuilding and fishing industries and serviced the growing needs of the west side businesses, residents and tourists.
The 1891 Census records the average age of Whitby’s population of 13414 to be just 27 years, a figure which indicates extremely high levels of infant mortality amongst those who lived on the east side of the town.
The Whitby Gazette of 31st January, 1919, just nine years after Francis Haydn William's death, published a letter objecting to dark, damp and crowded housing on the east side, declaring them to be far worse than the London slums in the East End and advocating that
"The unhealthy houses be pulled down, the streets widened, and that Whitby shall be made into a place of health and beauty… Then will be the time for artists to paint Whitby with its red-tiled roofs that are watertight."
This was the Revd Williams' Whitby, a Whitby little referenced in the popular histories of the town, both then and now.
Whitby in the 1890s
The East Side.
FHW’s own map of Whitby divisions
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, who lived and worked in Whitby in the Victorian period,
There is little information available for any detailed study of the economic and social conditions experienced by the people living on the east side.
Public record keeping, collection and collation and commentary were not high priorities in late Victorian England beyond the census and the more general histories of the period, which tend not to talk a lot about poverty, overcrowding, still births, malnutrition and disease: the common experience of many working class families in late Victorian England.
The nearest and most relevant insight into living conditions in late Victorian Whitby is provided by
Seebohm Rowntree's study of poverty in York, "A Study of Town Life", published in 1901
Rowntree's research involved studying a sample of over 46000 people in over 15500 families, a third of York's population.
The sample excluded those individuals who were able to afford to employ a domestic servant. Working with a concept of poverty similar to Booth's in his study "Life and Labour of the People in London (1889)"
Rowntree found that 28% of the population in York were living in poverty; defined by falling below a calculated minimum weekly sum of money 'necessary to enable families to secure the necessities of a healthy life,’ to provide enough food, fuel and clothing to keep them in good health.
Since this was almost half of York’s entire working-class population, there could be no question that London was an exceptional case, or that there was not still a huge problem of poverty in Britain at this time.
Whitby was no exception.
Rowntree found that the poverty he identified had two chief causes.
First, in 25% of the cases, poverty was a result of an absolute lack of income, on account of the chief wage-earner being either dead, disabled or otherwise unable to work.
However, in around 50% of cases, the chief wage-earner was employed in regular work, but paid mere pittance, unable to sustain a healthy level of living.
The major insight provided by Rowntree's study was to demonstrate clearly that poverty in Britain in late Victorian England was not confined to Booth's London or the growing urban industrial centres, but that it was widespread and that such poverty was characteristic feature of late Victorian industrial society.
Rowntree's study and insight into the widespread incidence of poverty found in York, strongly suggest that such conditions would have existed in Whitby, only 47 miles north east of York and although not yet detailed in any historical study, poverty would have been a significant experience of many families living on Whitby's east side in 1888 at the time of Revd Williams' arrival in the town.