Francis Gibson’s plan of the defences of Whitby, 1794

In 1794, Britain was under threat of invasion by France, which had declared war in 1793. Internal defence was largely the responsibility of the Lords Lieutenant of the counties and the surviving papers of the Lords Lieutenant of the North Riding and their deputies for this period, together with other related material, were published by the Record Office in 1977 in a volume entitled To Escape the Monster’s Clutches

Unfortunately, not many official papers do survive so the rediscovery of a plan of Whitby in 1794 with comments on its defences is a welcome addition to our knowledge of the practical steps taken in response to the threatened invasion. Companies of volunteers were being formed throughout the county and, by 1795, there were five companies in Whitby under the command of Colonel H.W. Yeoman. The officers included Francis Gibson, the maker of this plan, who as captain had commanded the first Whitby company when it was formed in 1794.

M85 Plan of the defences of Whitby by Francis Gibson, with observations on the town and port, 1794

Francis Gibson, born in Whitby in 1752, was a man of many parts. George Young’s History of Whitby (1817) tells us that he spent several years at sea and in 1778 became master of the Lord Howe, partly owned by his father, but also that he studied military science and took an active part in the Whitby Volunteers. He was appointed collector of customs at Whitby in 1787 and also had antiquarian and literary interests.

His knowledge of military fortifications and the skills he had acquired in drawing charts of coasts and harbours whilst at sea were brought into use in 1794 when he surveyed the defences of the town and port of Whitby and drew the plan which is now held at the Record Office. In his “observations” he pointed out that Whitby was the principal port of the North Riding but, unlike Scarborough, had no garrison to defend it and was “peculiarly liable to the insults of the enemy by sea”. It was therefore essential to improve the towns defences. 

Since the beginning of the war a half moon battery had been constructed on the west cliff, and two guns established at the end of the west pier.  Gibson saw that if any ships were forced by the enemy to run aground under the half moon, it would be impossible to fire on the pursuing enemy vessels without firing through the British ships. He therefore recommended the construction of a battery on the east cliff which would be able to fire on the enemy ships and yet by its elevation be safe from their returning shot. A battery of seven 18 pounders was constructed and is shown on the plan along with the half moon battery, the position of the guns on the west pier and the position of signal flags and beacons.

A copy of Francis Gibson’s 1794 plan, reference M85, can be purchased through our online shop.

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