The History Of Whitby

A new plaque has been erected at the north-east corner of the Donkey Field (Jacky Field). Picture and transcription submitted by Nigel Ward, who has been working with Councillor Tom Brown to achieve ‘Village Green’ status for this historic green space in the heart of Whitby.

  • 1 The interior of 19th century jet workshop.
  • 2 An Anglo-Saxon copper alloy dress-pin.
  • 3 19th century jet working debris.
  • 4 A modern jet necklace
  • 5 Excavated foundations of a jet workshop.

Digging the Donkey Field.

The Donkey field, more properly Jacky Field, is one of the largest open spaces in Whitby and lies immediately to the west of the Anglo-Saxon and medieval monasteries. All surviving maps of the town from the 1740s onwards show it as being undeveloped. Recent archaeological work, however, has revealed that in earlier times it was part of the wider activity taking place across the headland.

Works in 2010-11 to lay a new sewer pipeline gave the first opportunity to investigate the archaeology of this area. Excavation took place in a small area directly affected by the development, with the other remains in the access road being recorded then protected.

The earliest find were a small number of prehistoric worked flint tools. No features directly associated with the Anglo-Saxon monastery have yet been identified within the Donkey Field, but pottery and a copper alloy dress-pin were recovered which are from this period.

A group of ditches, pits and postholes excavated in the field adjacent to The Old Brewhouse date to the 12th century, and might have been associated with the medieval Abbey. Bones found in these pits showed that the diet in this period included meat from domesticated species such as cattle, sheep, goats. pigs and geese, alongside game such as hare, roe and red deer.

Archaeologists also found a large quantity of black-smithing waste including slag and ‘hammer-scale’ (the sparks that fly off when a smith is hammering hot iron). This indicates that the monastic forge was probably located close by.

In the 13th century there was a total change of use of this area, with a cobbled road being constructed over the earlier features.The roadway seems to have remained in use for many years, but had disappeared by the 18th century when the first plans and detailed descriptions of Whitby were recorded.

Near the north-east corner of the field, traces were found of the walls of a possible medieval barn. The building was more than 30m long, with walls 1.2m thick, and had a gravel floor. To the north there was a cobbled surface between the building and Church Lane.

Following the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, the area seems to have remained in cultivation until the 19th century. The success of the jet industry at this time meant that workshop space within Whitby was at a premium. Soon the field was surrounded by jet-workers’ cottages and workshops located within the yards running up the slope from Church Street and along Aelfleda Terrace. There is a record of two manufacturers, John Robinson and the Wren Brothers, operating in Jacky Field in this period, and the archaeological evidence suggests that temporary workshops were constructed here, A series of slightly-built stone foundations were identified within the north-east corner of the field and possibly fronting onto Church Lane.

The top-soil contained a high concentration of jet-working debris including a number of objects which had been broken during manufacture. Several iron implements recovered from the same area resemble Victorian jet-working tools.

Whitby Donkey Field

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Further Reading

Whitby Donkey Field Pictures