Whitehaven Fort

The old fort on Whitehaven Harbour once had a gunpowder magazine, a guardroom and ten 18-pound cannon pointing out to sea. In the 18th century it was an important part of the town's fortifications against invaders. There's not much to see nowadays.

The Fort was constructed to protect the approaches to what during the 18th century was one of the country's two principal ports (the other being London). The structure, which dates from pre-Napoleonic times housed several cannon and, together with the Half-moon Battery, near Tom Hurd Rock, formed part of Whitehaven's fortifications against her enemies. Its construction began in 1741 and when complete it comprised a gun platform surrounded by a perimeter wall with a guardroom and powder magazine.

Ten 18-pound guns stood in a line within the fort and projected over a low wall from where they commanded a clear view out to sea. Sods were placed along the top of the wall leaving embrasures for the guns. The ordnance at the Old Fort changed frequently, the original guns being removed to Carlisle in 1745 to assist against the Jacobite Rebellion with replacements being sent to Whitehaven the following year.

Recommendations by the Board of Ordnance for improvements to Whitehaven's defences during the 1760s were only partially carried out and this failure to provide adequate protection resulted in an attack on the town and harbour by the American vessel 'Ranger', commanded by John Paul Jones, in April 1778 during the American War of Independence. Immediate improvements were then undertaken and by June of the same year repairs and new construction meant that Whitehaven was now defended by six strong batteries.

Throughout the Napoleonic War documentary sources record activity on the harbour defences including the carrying out of repairs, remounting of guns and inspection of stores. Although never permanently manned the Old Fort was the headquarters of the local and county militia, while militia regiments from other areas were periodically garrisoned there. In 1819 the Old Fort is recorded as containing eight guns mounted on iron carriages. These were last fired in 1824 during celebrations to mark the laying of foundation stones for the West Pier. In the same year a lime kiln was constructed in the fort's north west corner using much of the fort's original stonework. Gunpowder continued to be stored at the Old Fort at least until 1840. During the 1870s many of the guns were removed and those that remained were probably buried by a landslip which covered the site in 1872.

The guardhouse survived as a standing structure at least until 1880. Whitehaven Old Fort was subjected to limited excavation in the late 1970s; that part of the fort located to the north of the modern road has been consolidated as a harbourside feature whilst that part of the fort to the south of the road has been reburied. A plan of the Old Fort produced by John Spedding in about 1756 shows a proposed extension to be constructed on the eastern side. Features in this extension included another powder magazine, a two-storey building being a storeroom on the lower floor and a guardroom on the upper floor, a guardroom for officers and a small backyard. The area of this proposed extension was not excavated thus it is not presently known if it was ever constructed.

The southern part of the fort was drastically affected by the development of Wellington pit which was sunk in 1840 and operated for almost 100 years. The powder magazine was used as a pit cabin and the southern part was eventually buried in 1972 during the Wellington Pit reclamation scheme.

The site of the Old Fort in Whitehaven is a listed monument. The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of Whitehaven Old Fort, an 18th and 19th century coastal battery which defended the entrance to Whitehaven harbour, together with upstanding remains of a 19th century lime kiln built into the fort's north west corner. It is located 80m west of the southern end of Old Quay and is situated north of, south of and beneath a modern road leading to South Beach Recreation Area.

The northern part of the Old Fort includes a sandstone perimeter wall up to 1.3m high. At intervals the walls are cut by semi-circular drains at ground level which appear externally above a prominent sandstone cordon. Also visible are the remains of iron 'handles' leading into the internal face of the fort's western wall which are interpreted as the remains of the recoil-check system for the guns. There is a doorway in the fort's north wall and immediately adjacent there are the substantial remains of a lime kiln which slightly overlaps the fort's door. The lime kiln is about 2.8m high with the stoke-hole facing the harbour.

Limited excavation of the northern part of the Old Fort found that it was originally floored with rectangular sandstone blocks identical to those which formed the fort's walls. Other features revealed during the excavation of the northern part of the fort include a rough trackway considered to be contemporary with the lime kiln, which led from the fort's doorway to a small pit, and the remains of a sandstone wall butting onto the internal face of the fort's east wall which is the remains of a blacksmith's shop shown by harbour plans to have been built between 1827-33. A group of post-medieval pottery, datable to between c. 1740-1770, was found sealed beneath the sandstone block flooring of the fort.

Limited excavation of the southern part of the Old Fort revealed that the walls of the guardhouse and powder magazine, although razed to ground level, are an integral part of the fort, being bonded into the southern and eastern walls. The guardhouse measures about 6m by 4m internally and is floored with rectangular slabs of siltstone while the powder magazine measures about 4m by 2m internally.

Outside these buildings the floor of the fort was virtually identical to that found in the northern part. At various places drainage channels had been cut into the floor after laying and a large semi-circular drain in the south west corner cutting almost vertically down through the wall is interpreted as a urinal leading directly to the sea.

Considerable demolition and disturbance took place within the Old Fort including use of the powder magazine as a pit `cabin'. The southern part of the fort was eventually buried in 1972 during the Wellington Pit Reclamation Scheme.

Whitehaven Old Fort is a Listed Building Grade II. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these include a modern roadside wall, a modern wall butting the lime kiln and a stone plinth in front of the lime kiln; the surface of the modern road, the modern paved and brick flooring together with an anchor and the display plinth on which it stands in the northern part of the fort, all steps and an iron handrail, the surface of an access track on the north west side of the fort, the paved surface on the north side of the fort, gate posts and a fence on the north east side of the fort, and a modern wall on the south east side of the fort together with a winding wheel from Wellington Pit and the plinth upon which it stands. However, the ground beneath all these features is included.

Site Of The Old Whitehaven Fort
Site Of The Old Whitehaven Fort


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.

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