Thomas Dunham Whitaker came from the Whitaker family of Holme near Cliviger, Burnley. He was born on 8 June 1759 at Rainham in Norfolk, where his father, William, was the curate. His mother, Lucy, was the daughter of Robert Dunham of Sedgford in Norfolk. In 1769, William Whitaker's elder brother, who was unmarried, died and he succeeded to Holme, which had been in the Whitaker family since the reign of Henry VI. Thomas was educated initially by the Rev. John Shaw of Rochdale. In 1774, after spending a period with the Rev. W. Sheepshanks at Grassington, he was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge and went up in October 1775 at the age of 16. In November 1781 he took the degree of LLB and his initial intention was to practice law. However, on the death of his father in 1782, he went to live at Holme to manage the family estate. In 1785, he was ordained but had no appointment until 1797 when he was appointed perpetual curate of the chapel at Holme on his own nomination. He had restored the chapel at a cost of £470 and had bought the patronage for £400. In 1801, he was awarded the degree of LLD.
Dr. Whitaker achieved his ambition of becoming vicar of Whalley in 1809, a benefice then worth about £100 a year. In 1813 he was presented by Thomas Clarkson, then a minor, to the living of Heysham in Lancashire but he never lived there. In 1819, he resigned the post and Mr. Clarkson was then qualified to nominate himself. In 1818, Dr. Whitaker became the vicar of Blackburn and retained the livings of both Whalley and Blackburn until his death. At this time it was not uncommon for clergy and bishops to have multiple livings and to use curates to perform their duties when they were absent.
At Holme, Dr. Whitaker worked to improve his estate and won the gold medal of the Society of Arts for planting 64,000 larches in a year. He established an informal literary society at his home with other clergy and gentlemen interested in arts and history. Among the regular members were the Rev. Starkie of Blackburn, the Rev. William Barton, incumbent of Harwood and Samlesbury, the Rev. Robert Smith, incumbent of Waddington and the Rev. Thomas Wilson, master of Clitheroe School.
It was in the late 1790s that Dr. Whitaker conceived his plans for major topographical works on the area. His History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honour of Clitheroe in the Counties of Lancaster and York, appeared in three parts from 1801. It was dedicated to Charles Townley, Esq., FRS, FSA, the owner of the Townley Estate in Burnley and of an extensive collection of historical manuscripts. He was one of the trustees of the British Museum with a great interest in history and art. In the preface to the first edition, Dr. Whitaker gives Mr. Townley pride of place in his acknowledgements for giving him access to the Townley MSS. It is interesting that Dr. Whitaker, who became one of the most prominent Anglican ministers in East Lancashire, enjoyed a good relationship with Mr. Townley, one of the leading Roman Catholics in the district. Two more editions were published during Whitaker's lifetime and an enlarged edition was edited by John Gough Nichols, FSA, and the Rev. Ponsonby A. Lyons between 1872 and 1876. The History of the Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven first appeared in 1805 with a second edition in 1812 and a third edited by Alfred William Morant in 1878.
Among his other historical works were an account in Latin based on John Home's History of the Rebellion of 1745 and Life and Original Correspondence of Sir George Radcliffe, Knt., LLD., the Friend of the Earl of Strafford. In addition he published sermons written by Dr. Edwin Sandys, formerly the Archbishop of York and a new edition of Langland's Vision of Piers Ploughman.
The History of Richmondshire in the North Riding of Yorkshire appeared in two volumes in 1823. This was part of a much more ambitious project to write a history of whole county. It contained 32 engravings made from paintings by J. M. W. Turner, RA, who had contributed drawings to Whitaker's earlier works. Dr. Whitaker planned but did not complete a history of Lonsdale, and new editions of John Whitaker's History of Manchester, Horsley's Britannia Romana and Tim Bobbin's Lancashire Dialect. During the period 1809 to 1818 he wrote 28 articles for the Quarterly Review.
Dr. Whitaker enjoyed widespread respect within the parishes of Whalley and Blackburn and intervened in trade disputes including one at Blackburn in 1817 for which he was presented with a public testimonial. In the period immediately following the Napoleonic Wars there was economic depression and industrial strife. Dr. Whitaker had been a magistrate for twenty years when he was called upon to read the Riot Act at Burnley in 1819. This was during the period of unrest associated with the campaigning of Henry Hunt, which reached its height in August at St. Peter's Field in Manchester.
Dr. Whitaker died at Blackburn vicarage on 18 December 1821 and was buried at Holme. He had married Lucy, the daughter of Thomas Thoresby, a merchant of Leeds, in 1783 and they has three sons and two daughters. One daughter died in 1816. His son the Rev. Thomas Thoresby Whitaker, who was curate at Whalley from 1809, was tragically killed in a fall from his horse in 1817. Another son, Robert Nowell Whitaker, became vicar of Whalley in 1839.
There are portraits of Dr. Whitaker by W. D. Fryer of Knaresborough, engraved for his works on Whalley and Craven, and by James Northcote, RA, a small version of which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine in February 1822. A bust was executed by MacDonald. There is a monument on the north side of the chancel at Whalley, erected by public subscription in 1842. It was designed by Anthony Salvin, FSA, and the effigy by Mr. C. Smith of London is based on the bust by MacDonald.
The Dictionary of National Biography
The introduction to the 4th edition of Whitaker's History of Whalley, 1876
History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster by Edward Baines, improved and revised by John Harland, 1870.
A version of this article will accompany the Lancashire Parish Register Society's fourth volume on the Registers of Whalley.