An Introduction

The manor of Whitehaven was one of the many possessions belonging to the priory of St. Bees. In the year 1556, it is said that there were only six houses located there. At the dissolution of monasteries Whitehaven was seized by the Crown, but was subsequently purchased by Sir Christopher Lowther, second son of Sir John Lowther, of Lowther.

The Lowther family began the transformation of the sleepy village by opening large coal mines and building a stone quay (Old Quay) in 1634-one of the oldest remaining coal wharves in England-to ship the coal. Sir John Lowther (1642-1705) designed the layout of Whitehaven, the first post Renaissance planned town in Britain, in a grid pattern with St Nicholas Church sitting in the middle. The Lowthers created straight streets, stone houses with blue slate roofs, and grand public buildings.

In 1642, Whitehaven was a small fishing village of 250 souls huddled around a sheltered creek, just north of St Bees head. 50 years later the population of Whitehaven had risen 10 fold to 2,200. Like many villages that grew into towns during the industrial revolution, Whitehaven's history is a mixture of its small fishing village past and its 17th century rapid growth related to coal and shipping. The early commercial development of the port was closely linked to the discovery of rich deposits of coal and iron-ore whose seams extended for several miles beneath the sea.

The effects of trade industry and enterprise have scarcely ever been so strikingly exemplified as in the rise progress and increasing importance of Whitehaven. From an obscure hamlet, it had become in the course of little more than a century and a half of considerably greater magnitude than many cities and both in extent of buildings and in population.

During this period the Lowther family had developed the harbour and started to exploit the rich coal seams which outcropped along the St Bees valley. Sir John planned the town which grew up behind the harbour on a grid pattern. The 3-storey town houses set along the broad principal streets were built on spacious plots with gardens behind.

In 1849 the squalor is unimaginable as this extract from Robert Rawlinson's report to the Board of Health shows: "That fever and disease generally should be rife in Whitehaven is only a natural consequence of its present condition — dark and damp cellars, confined courts and passages, crowded room tenements, and a general want of sewers and drains with an almost total absence of water and privy accommodation."

The population of Whitehaven remained fairly steady until after First World War, standing at 18,916 in 1851, 19,003 in 1891 and 19,535 in 1921. Town expanded onto higher ground to north (Bransty) and south (Kells) in later 19th/early 20th century, with new housing estates (associated with slum clearance) from 1930s. After decline of coal mining, Whitehaven acquired new industries. Marchon Chemicals, established 1941 (factory at Kells from 1943), initially manufacturing firelighters, soon specialised in soap powders, using local anhydrite and importing rock phosphate from Morocco from 1960s to 1990s; employed 2,250 in late 1970s; factory closed 2005 and demolished. H. Edgard, military uniform manufacturer, moved from London 1940; major employer, employing 580 in late 1970s. Quaker Oats company manufactured cereal at Beacon Mills from 1949 to 1972. The Harbour closed for commercial purposes in 1990s, but developed as thriving marina.

Out of the 40-50 pits sunk in the preceding 200 years only 4 were still working in the 1920s. Of these William pit was almost at sea level at the north end of the town. Access to the harbour was via a wagonway - a system using gravity to lower full wagons from pit-top to ship - efficient brakes were vital to avoid casualties among horses and drivers in the days before steam. The original coal storage was to the east of Tangier St and coal had to be carted to the ships. Later the Bransty Arch, erected in 1803, allowed wagons to discharge directly onto the North Wall. As it created considerable traffic congestion it was demolished in 1927.

Wellington pit on the Howgill Colliery side was a magnificent sight dominating the south end of the harbour. Its graceful candlestick chimney, said to be modelled on one of Lord Lonsdale's in Whitehaven Castle, and it's castellated buildings were the work of Sydney Smirke.

On May 11th 1910 an explosion of gas and subsequent fires caused the death of 136 men and boys — the greatest disaster ever experienced by the town. The William pit disaster of 1947 was to be almost as severe claiming 104 lives. Coal wagons from the Howgill colliery brought their cargo direct to the staith (coal storage area) on the West Strand. The Hurries (coal chutes) had bottoms which opened to discharge directly into the waiting ships. The harbour gradually developed from the original inner harbour with Lime Tongue and Sugar Tongue quays — reminders of Whitehaven's links with the Americas.

On 23rd April 1778, during the War of Independence, John Paul Jones, founder of the American navy, made a daring raid on the town. Jones had been apprenticed to a Whitehaven captain and knew the harbour well. His landing party spiked the guns on the fort on the south side but his lieutenants had little success in setting fire to the 150 or so ships lying in the basin, before the alarm was raised.

The bulk of trade was always coal, mainly exported to Ireland, but tobacco and ship-building were also important. In the 18th century, Whitehaven was considered one of the principal 5 ports of England along with London, Bristol, Newcastle and Liverpool. The difficult land communication with other parts of the county because of the surrounding fells and later the inability of the tidal harbour to accommodate large steam ships, along with the collapse of the building of wooden ships, led to its decline.

By the 1920's the economy was again primarily dependant on coal and now subject to national pressures. In 1923 the miners of Whitehaven went on strike for 17 weeks. The colliery manager, H.Watson 'Bully' Smith presented the men with a new method of working and wanted to abolish cavilling - the system of drawing lots for areas of work. After the breakdown of negotiations the miners gathered outside Somerset house, the colliery office in Duke St, and rioted on the 2nd and 3rd of July. The Whitehaven News, one of 3 local papers at that date, reported "A violent demonstration took place on Monday night during which every window in the Colliery office was shattered. On Tuesday a serious riot occurred during which much damage to property was caused and for nearly 5 hours continuous conflicts between police and public took place".

By the time they returned to work in September many of the miners had been forced to apply for poor relief from the The Poor Law Union headquarters, who's headquarters were at Union Hall in Scotch Street - an imposing building on the corner of Lowther St.

The area around the north end of the harbour continued to be used for industrial purposes. The Beacon Mills were built on the site of the shipyard and flour was transported by rail from nearby Bransty Station.

Smith Brothers (Whitehaven) Ltd had moved its printing business from an old brewery building in Scotch Street - occupied by the tannery in 1923, to North Shore. With 22 boats registered, fishing continued to supply local demand from the Fish Market near the Fish Quay.

Other early public buildings include the old church, later St Nicholas, fronting on Lowther Street and the Georgian splendour of St James on High Street dominating the vista up the hill from Queen St. The Presbyterian meeting house in James St was also a very early landmark owing to the Lowther family's toleration of dissenters.

The Market Hall housed the butter market and a thriving market crowded the streets outside twice a week. Nearby in Howgill St were 2 important buildings, the former Assembly Rooms - by now home of the Whitehaven Scientific Association - and the Infirmary. The latter replacing a dispensary in Queen St, opened as early as 1783, dates from 1830. Modernisation made slow progress with the opening of an operating theatre in the early 1900s and the addition of verandahs and attractive gardens to the rear - important aids to recuperation. The fever hospital, where infectious diseases such as scarlet fever could lead to a stay of up to 6 months, was built on the higher ground at Bransty where the fresh sea-breezes are ever present. Mount Pleasant, built about 1790 on the hillside above the West Strand by Mr Hogarth for his linen weaver, was the first out-of-town development.

Between about 1820 and 1900 about 500 houses had been built outside the town centre, some on the rising ground at Kells and some at Solway View and beyond, but by the 1920s Bransty, the first suburb of any size, was taking shape, although the nearest school was still on the opposite side of the New Road - built to replace the old turnpike up Wellington Row. There were also schools by now at Crosthwaite on Rosemary Lane and Irish St, a Roman Catholic Infant School at Quarry St, site of the earliest chapel used by a largely Irish community, and the County Secondary School on Catherine St built in 1908 opposite the Carnegie library, an elegant building of about the same date.

The townscape of Lowther St, the main thoroughfare, looked much as Sir John Lowther had envisaged it in 1700 - providing a vista from The Flatt - later Whitehaven Castle - towards the harbour and the lighthouse on the old quay. The more recent banks, decorated with intricate wrought-iron balconies, were scarcely outnumbered by the public houses and inns which are liberally scattered throughout the town, as befits a port.

On the south side between King St, the main shopping street, and Chapel St, its archway leading to bonds for rum and other spirits, stood the business of Robert & Henry Jefferson, one of the earliest wine merchants in the country.

The old burial ground around St Nicholas church on the north side had been landscaped in 1920 in memory of Mr W. Walker of Oaklea. Unfortunately this displaced the tombstone of Mildred Gale, George Washington's grandmother, who is buried there.

The main open space to the east of the town is Castle Park, originally part of the gardens of Whitehaven Castle based on a Robert Adam design. In 1924 it would be sold by the Lowther family to an anonymous buyer, later revealed to be Mr Henry W. Walker who donated it to the town for a new hospital.

Under the park runs the tunnel linking Bransty and Corkickle stations, completed in 1852. Previously freight traffic only could pass from the Whitehaven junction to the Whitehaven & Furness system by using the mineral line which ran down New Town to the West Strand and then along the harbour front.

For entertainment, in 1923, there were live reviews at the Theatre Royal in Roper St and films at The Empire, the 'cosy' Palace in the Market Place and the recently opened Gaiety Cinema in Tangier Street.

The Grand Hotel had been built by the Earl of Lonsdale, at great expense, in 1843. At that date it was the most magnificent hotel in the north and, over the years, was the scene of countless banquets and celebrations - ship launches, elections, annual dinners and the like. For the convenience of railway passengers it was joined to Bransty Station via a covered bridge. Also handy for rail travellers was the Waverley Temperance Hotel, formerly Tangier House, built by sea captain Humphrey Senhouse.

The public baths in Duke Street were an amenity particularly appreciated by the miners, in a town where many houses still had no bathroom. Erected in 1884 they were designed by T.L. Banks who was also the architect of the Congregational Church in Scotch St and the Wesleyan Methodist Church next door. This was one of three methodist chapels in the town. The one at Richmond Terrace was celebrating its centenary in 1923. Also in Scotch St is the Town hall originally built as 'The Cupola' by William Ferys in about 1715 and acquired in 1815 by the Town and Harbour Trustees. The first elected Town Council in 1894 chose the Earl of Lonsdale as their first mayor - proof that Whitehaven was still very much a Lowthertown.

  • In 1748, Daniel Defoe said of Whitehaven, "the town of Whitehaven, grown up from a small place to be very considerable by the coal trade, which is increased so considerably of late, that it is now the most eminent port in England for shipping off coals, except Newcastle and Sunderland, and even beyond the last, for they wholly supply the city of Dublin, and all the towns of Ireland on that coast; and 'tis frequent in time of war, or upon the ordinary occasion of cross winds, to have two hundred sail of ships at a time go from this place for Dublin, loaden with coals."

Whitehaven, 1933
The Town Of Whitehaven


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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