For a place that has always been far out of the way, Whitby has a remarkable tenacity as a holiday resort.
Even before the early arrival of the railway, the Whitby Public Baths Company tried to promote sea-bathing at the foot of the West Pier, where baths were “replenished with the purest sea and fresh water; and are fitted up with the greatest regard both for the comfort of the valetudinarian and the gratification of the pleasurist”.
A further attempt to utilise another spring led to the building of the Victoria Spa in Bagdale in 1844. Neither of these projects was a lasting success.
A locally-sponsored Whitby Building Company issued a prospectus proposing fourteen lodging-houses on the West Cliff Fields in 1843.
The following year George Hudson, the “Railway King”, who had taken over the Whitby & Pickering Railway, purchased the West Cliff Fields, apparently to establish an interest in the town that would enable him to become its MP. (In fact, he was elected as Conservative MP for Sunderland, where he was expected to promote the Monkwearmouth Dock and the Durham and Sunderland Railway, in 1845, and the Whitby seat went to his associate, the engineer Robert Stephenson, who was returned unopposed in 1847.)
Hudson proceeded, under the auspices of the York Building Company, to construct boarding houses and hotels as a speculation.
By the time East Terrace was finished so was Hudson, discredited by his manipulation of railway finances.
Whitby achieved modest growth as a resort: its population grew from 10,989 to 12,051 between the 1851 and 1861 censuses. Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell stayed here in 1859, and accumulated background material for her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). Other nineteenth-century authors who visited Whitby include Alfred Tennyson in 1852, Lewis Carrol in 1854, Charles Dickens in 1861 and his friend Wilkie Collins, who wrote the novel No Name (1862) while staying in the town. The Punch cartoonists John Leech and George du Maurier were visitors respectively in the 1860s and 1880s and incorporated Whitby scenes into their published work.
The West Cliff Estate passed to the self-made industrialist Sir George Elliot, Bt (1814-1893), who projected the Royal Crescent (John Dobson 1876-9) and the West Cliff Saloon and Promenade (1880, now the Spa Theatre).
One look at the architecture of the Royal Crescent and the gothic Church Square behind it (St Hilda’s parish church itself dates from 1884-6) tells the tale of over ambition and half-completion. There were simply not sufficient Mrs Gaskells to fill the place.