Tobacco Trade

During the 1690s the tobacco trade was firmly established at Whitehaven, helping to create the Port of Whitehaven as "the third, if not the second most important port in the Kingdom in the Tobacco Way". Whitehaven became such an important port in the tobacco trade principally due to the expansion of the coal trade.

The ships used to carry coal had to be especially strong in construction, particularly in Whitehaven where the harbour dried out at low water and the ships took to ground. Many vessels at Whitehaven were built "double-bottomed", so when the opportunity arose, they were sturdy enough to tackle the transatlantic passage. Another reason also stemmed from the coal trade. Coal was exported chiefly to Dublin, and other Irish ports, which were victualling ports for the colonial trade.

The fleet of ships based in the port of Whitehaven grew. In 1676 there were 32 ships. By 1685 there were 46 and in 1689 there were 55. From the 1670s tobacco from Virginia was imported and by the 1740s only London imported more tobacco than Whitehaven.

The first ships carried tobacco to Ireland, Scotland and Lancashire. Local ships were 'carriers' for some time before tobacco was handled in some quantity. The crossing to America took generally eight to ten weeks. Once at his destination, the shipmaster faced complex problems of purchasing the tobacco cargo. Although he had instructions, these were often useless in practice, as unforeseen hazards such as crop failure; sickness or accident could alter his entire plan of action. He had to choose his location with care, as each area was quite distinctive. Some markets preferred the 'strong Virginia'; others preferred the 'light dry Maryland'.

Investors at Whitehaven established merchants diversifying their commercial activities, especially on facing competition from Scottish merchants in their profitable tobacco trade with Virginia. This happened initially after the Act of Union in 1707 which opened up Irish and Scottish markets to Scottish tobacco imports and again in the late 1740s when Whitehaven merchants faced renewed competition in their French and Dutch markets.

Merchants sent ships laden with manufactures and foodstuffs for the plantations in the West Indies and mainland America to be exchanged for slave-produced crops. The cornerstone of Whitehaven's colonial trade was with the tobacco planters of Virginia and Maryland, making it one of the leading tobacco ports between 1700 – 1750, but it's merchants also developed a trade with the West Indies.

Vessels would take on goods in Ireland to help compensate for geographical isolation. The weight of Lancaster's colonial trade, meanwhile, was with the sugar islands where its merchants formed extensive trading connections. This trade flourished from the 1750s to the extent that by 1780 Lancaster ranked as England's fourth colonial port albeit in a different league to London, Liverpool and Bristol.

During the early years the ships were used as a mobile store. Gradually stores were built to house the goods. When tobacco deteriorated or was damaged in transit, was washed ashore after a wreck or was confiscated from smugglers, it had to be destroyed in accordance with an Act of Parliament of 1726.

Unless destroyed, damaged tobacco was still subject to heavy duties, so importers were content to see un-saleable material disposed of in this way. All ports trading in tobacco were required to have a suitable furnace for the purpose.

Bransty Tobacco Pipes
Bransty Tobacco Pipes
The first furnace at Whitehaven was built in the yard at the rear of the Customs House on the harbour front. The smoke and fumes became a serious nuisance to the townspeople, and in 1744 a petition to the Collector of Customs demanded its removal. Peter How, a leading tobacco importer established the towns "Tobacco Pipes" at Bransty. They remained redundant for many years; they were finally demolished in 1923.

African slaves were central to the production of sugar, tobacco and other tropical crops on British plantations in the West Indies and mainland North America during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Closer still to the institution of slavery were the plantation owners. Possession came about through direct purchase or when planters defaulted on mortgage payments making their property over to their creditors. Probate records for Lancaster bear witness to those merchants, including the town's successful Rawlinson family, who became legal owners of slaves working the plantations.

Possession encompassed many of the British islands, especially those acquired through 18th century wars, such as Grenada and Dominica. Ownership of plantation slaves can just as readily be associated with those living in and around Whitehaven. Prominent amongst them were the Lowther and Senhouse families who bought plantations in Barbados and the Jefferson family whose rum supplies were enhanced through purchasing a plantation in Antigua. Many would receive compensation after slavery's abolition in the British Caribbean between 1834 and 1838.

The promised riches of this commercial enterprise were not lost on those living in Northwest England given the region's favourable position for transatlantic trade. Liverpool's role in the slave trade is well known to many. Indeed, it became Britain's foremost slave-trading port. Less familiar but no less fascinating, however, is the discovery that further north the smaller ports of Lancaster and Whitehaven also participated in the trade albeit on a much more modest scale.

Whitehaven’s last contribution to the tobacco trade was made by the firm of George Jackson & Co., Tangier Street, who marketed various ‘cuts’ of tobacco and cigarettes under the name of 'Sea Dog'. The tobacco they used was not imported directly. Production appears to have terminated around the end of the First World War.

Whitehaven Tobacco  -Sea Dog Mixture
Whitehaven Tobacco  - Sea Dog Mixture


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

Total Views: