Witegift c.1070. Probably "dowry land of a man called Hvítr". Old Scandinavian personal name + gipt.
A Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford University Press
There was once an important ferry at Whitgift. The ferry landing is no more, but the name lived on in the village inn, once aptly named the "Angel and Ferry", and more recently "The Angel Inn" before it closed.
The village church is famous for its clock, erected in 1919, which displays XIII instead of XII. There are two tales behind this, either the painter had one pint too many in the pub during his lunch break, or the original number was painted out because the new dials were out of sync, only for the gilt of an original I to show through.
The beginnings of Whitgift and its Ferry
For us today someone either owns a piece of land or he doesn't! In the Middle Ages such a concept of absolute ownership would have seemed absurd. Then it was taken for granted that there were a number of people with interlocking rights. The lawyers kept it all working more smoothly than we would expect and much of our knowledge of this distant past comes from their determination to preserve the key documents.
Whitgift and its linked townships of Swinefleet, Reedness and Ousefleet illustrate this very well. Firstly no-one denied that the whole area was within the Lordship (or Soke) of Snaith. This area had achieved some such identity before the Norman Conquest. It had become a Royal Estate and in due course the King had given it to the Lacys, Earls of Lincoln. From them it passed by inheritance to Thomas of Lancaster and after his execution reverted to the King. Eventually it was returned to a revived Duchy of Lancaster. Though that Duke made himself King the ducal estates were kept separate and the Duchy of Lancaster has kept the Lordship of Snaith ever since - though nowadays its powers are distinctly shadowy. Then in 1100 the King's Church at Snaith was given to the Abbey of Selby and the Abbot established an authority in spiritual matters for the Soke or Spirituality of Snaith comparable to that of the Lords of Snaith in temporal matters. Despite attempts to claim that Whitgift was not in the parish of Snaith, it soon became generally agreed that it was. And so, until very recently indeed, the right to appoint a priest to Whitgift has rested with the Abbot of Selby and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries his successor who was, rather oddly it must be admitted, the lay Proprietor of the Spirituality (or Peculiar) of Snaith. Thus until as recently as 1956 Lord Deramore as successor to the Abbot of Selby appointed the Vicar of Whitgift.
But these temporal and spiritual overlords did not prevent a variety of people owning the land in the more modern sense of the word.
For Whitgift the most important of these was the Abbey of St. Mary's, York. Soon after 1100 the King (who was at the time Lord of Snaith) having seen that the Church at Snaith was given to Selby Abbey, yet gave to St. Mary's Abbey at York "Useflete and Eyreminne et quod habui in Kaldenby et quicquid continetur inter Useflete et Ereymynne cum omnibus pertinentis suis" (Ousefleet and Airmyn and what I have in Haldenby and whatever there is between Ousefleet and Airmyn together with all that belongs to them). Yet despite this gift, through the centuries, there was an annual rent to be paid for these lands by St. Mary's Abbey to the Duchy of Lancaster. Yet St. Mary's York amidst the multitude of conflicting claims seems consistently to have been the strongest influence in the coast villages of Marshland. "Earls of Lincoln, Crown, Queens Isabella and Philippa, Selby Abbey, and Duchy of Lancaster, intervened at various times but at the Dissolution St. Mary's was still regarded as possessing the Lordship of Marshland including Whitgift, Reedness, Swinefleet, Hook, Goole and Ousefleet and the Lordship of Airmyn". And the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal of 1971 that summed the matter up like that could have added that the link survived at least into the 17th Century. In 1670 the visiting Henry Johnston tells us that "the Manor is called the Manner of Whitgift cum Airmyn, belonging to the Abbey of St. Marie's Yorke" and that the towns of "Reedness, Swinefleet and Ousefleet or Usfleet" are also in the parish. The monastic offices of Bailiff and Collector of Marshland or of Whitgift and Airmyn continued until the 17th Century.
The beginnings of Whitgift are uncertain. In 1154 Selby claimed that a fishery at "Whitegifte" had been one of the Conqueror's foundation gifts to the new Abbey in 1070 and there seems no reason to doubt their word in this. Whitgift is an improbable place for both town and Church. As can be seen it stands at a corner of the river well below high-water park. Its history is punctuated with cries of woe at the "great inundations". Before the decision to build a Church there must have been a decision to build the sea defences. In 1356 a Commission sitting at Whitgift tried to work out who was responsible for all the sea defences: it recorded that they had been built "at a time to which memory (or tradition) does not reach" and that the various local landowners were responsible for their maintenance. This probably takes it back before 1150. By 1231 there was a Market or Fair at Whitgift and this was a St. Mary's, York venture. My guess is that the ferry came first, then the sea defences and then the town, market and church. The Abbot of St. Mary's claimed (in 1253) that the town of Airmyn was a new foundation deliberately created by the Abbey. Was Whitgift with its ferry a similar St. Mary's, York commercial enterprise? It seems probable.
Clearly the Ferry was important and so too the roads leading to it. It was for the use not only of travellers moving north and south but also for those travelling east and west to and from Hull. For the route via Turnbridge and the Whitgift Ferry was drier and safer than the northern alternatives, it is said. Our unchanging fondness for bad news is shown by the fact that the ferry is better remembered for the handful that perished in the crossing than the multitudes that got across safely.
The Poll Tax returns of 1379 suggest that there may not be a great deal more at Whitgift then than the Church and the Ferry. The total to be paid was only 13/6 but this included two sixpences from "John de Walcote and his wife and Robert Toure and Alicia his wife" who were the Ferrymen.
The Church at Whitgift
The first Church at Whitgift seems to have been built around 1130. As the Fair which is more ancient than the second church "is held yearly at the feast of the Blessed Mary Magdalene" it would seem that this first church was also dedicated to that Saint. In the settlement that was finally made between Selby and St. Mary about parochial rights and tithes in the Marshland, rather surprisingly the tithes of Whitgift and Reedness remained with St. Mary's, York. I take this to mean that the first church had been a St. Mary's initiative. After about 100 years it fell victim to the ambitions of the Rector of Adlingfleet and was totally destroyed. But it is possible that the large stones at the base of the Tower with their clear evidence of subsidence are part of this earliest church. And even though the church was destroyed the churchyard continued to be used for burials. And some right of sanctuary still clung to the ruins. For "William son of Richard de Whitegifte fled by reason of a trespass committed by him against the King's peace to the churchyard of Whitegifte, which is a cemetery dedicated to God, in order that he might there be defended and saved by the liberty and immunity of the church, other men pursuing him withdrew him by force and arms from within the cemetery, and bound him with chains and carried him thus bound to prison in the castle of York". The King is appealed to for help and orders that he be taken back to Whitgift churchyard and "replaced in the same state as he was in before". Alas we neither know what his "trespass" had been or what was his ultimate fate.
In 1250, both Selby and St. Mary's, York were in retreat under the blows from John the Frenchman, the all-powerful Rector of Adlingfleet. By 1300 it was a different world and Selby's power was near its peak. Certainly they took the lead in the rebuilding of Whitgift church.
In November 1304 Henry de Lacy, Count of Lincoln, granted to Selby Abbey "the cemetery in the vill of Wytegift consecrated a long time ago, as it is enclosed by ditches, as far as a certain place where our fair is held yearly at the feast of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, which church or chapel the present and future inhabitants in the vills of Ousefleet, Wytegift, Essetoft, Redenesse and Swynflet, and also the tenants of XI bovates of land in Folquardeby and XIII bovates of land in Haldenby, which aforesaid vills are within the boundaries of the parish of Snayth, will hear divine office and will receive and have the church's sacraments". It is no wonder that this splendid charter which sets out so clearly the largest claims of Selby-Snaith was carefully preserved in the Abbey of Selby. And it means that there must be very few ancient churches whose date of building is so precisely known. And though the South Aisle is Elizabethan and the Chancel Victorian and every generation has made its repairs and alterations with varying degrees of skill, basically the church we see today is the church that was built in 1304. The money to rebuild the church did not all come from Selby Abbey and the Earl of Lincoln. As with the river banks it would seem that some sort of levy was laid on all land-owning parishioners towards the cost - an early example of a "church rate". For a deed of 1314 records the lease by William Threl and Alice his wife of Useflet of a selion (that is a strip in the open field) of land to John Gouk of Adlingfleet "on condition that if any expenses are placed on these lands for the building of the church at Whytegift they will acquit John and Alice for the said selion during the said term".
The new church was clearly a dependent chapel to Snaith. In 1409 it was carefully decreed that the Abbot of Selby should appoint for Whitgift a "parochial stipendiary chaplain to be removed at the pleasure of the Abbot to take upon the care of the saide chapel without ordination of any vicarage or appointing any Vicar". I have failed to discover when Whitgift became a separate parish. I think it may have happened gradually as the "curates" whom the Abbot could dismiss at will, acquired some sort of "freehold" and so became "perpetual curates". This ominous phrase is not as sinister as it sounds and until this century was the correct title for a large number of incumbents: they were "perpetual curates and titular vicars". Throughout the 17th Century the "vicars" of Whitgift called themselves "curates". The church was undoubtedly within the "Spirituality or Peculiar of Snaith", but from about 1570 onwards it seems to have been generally thought of as a separate parish. Unlike the other ancient chapels in Snaith parish it has no liability for the repair of the churchyard wall there. The 1547 list of chantry chapels speaks of "the paroch church of Whitgyfte". We get a rare glimpse of pre-reformation church life here. For it tells us that there was a "guylde" with "certain landes given by well disposed persons ther… to the fundynge of the priest… to pray for the sowles and prosperitie of the parochians ther and to say masse in the saide churche at his pleasure". The "Guylde Priest" in 1547 was William Marshall and it would seem that he was also the Vicar. From this Guild he was paid 63 shillings. This wasn't really a "chantry" at all but a way in which devout parishioners of the past had given some modest endowment for their Vicar. All these centuries later it still seems outrageous that government of the day (Henry VIII and Edward VI) stole it.
Unusually, Whitgift Church was extended in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This may just possibly be the result of some reflected glory in having John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583 to 1604. His father belonged to Grimsby but the family affirmed that they had an ancient link with Whitgift in Yorkshire.
Today Whitgift Church feels as though it hasn't changed much since then. Despite the steady increase in the height of the river banks the river feels very close and passing ships from all parts of the world see Whitgift Church Tower and marvel at its clock which tells us that there are thirteen hours in the day.
The Parish Registers survive (despite various crises: they were stolen by Babthorp a Jesuit in 1648 and recovered in 1655) from 1593. The account of the great frost of 1607 makes good reading:
Anno Domini 1607: in this yeare there began such an extreme frost beginning ye first of November and so continuing dayly freezing so extremely to about Twelve day, being ye sixt day of Januarie. After men, women and children, horses and wagons loaded went on ye water at Ouse here at Whitgift ferrie and so continued until ye XIIII day of Februarie after going away in such safetie to ye pleasure of God and ye benefit of men without any danger at all. God be thanked.
Rivers, Rectors and Abbots, David Lunn - Bishop of Sheffield, 1990