Origins Of Name

In nearly all the Histories of Cumberland, the name of Whitehaven has been attributed to the whiteness of the rocks at the east side of the harbour, or to the cognomen of an old fisherman name Whyte, who resided here about the year 1586.

There is a total absence of white cliffs in the vicinity of the harbour, and the fact of the place having been variously designated as Whyttothan, Whitten, Whythophaven, or Wittenhaven, in the register of St. Bees, and other documents in or before 1172, we may dismiss fisherman White's claim. The local coastline is mainly of dark red sandstone, highly noticeable in the St Bees promontory.

A disputing account maintains that the town considerably predates the 16th century, being recorded in the Register of the Priory of St Bees at a much older period as Witofhaven and Quitofhaven. This Register mentions several alternative names for Whitehaven, such as Whitofhavene, Witehavedhafne, Qwytofthavene, Wittofthavene, Witofthaven, Whityhaven, Whithofthaven, Hwithothaven. In all likelihood the various corruptions of the name Whitehaven were recorded by different people according to pronunciation of the name by other residents, locals, or travellers.

The origin of the word ‘haven’ is late Old English haefen, from Old Norse hofn, in turn related to the Dutch haven and German hafen –  harbour. The modern dictionary definition of the word haven is a place of safety or refuge, more usually an inlet providing shelter for ships or boat; a harbour or small port. Thus the description of the latter part of the towns name anyway fits the bill admirably.

Whitehaven was anciently a place of resort for shipping and is mentioned in a collection of remarkable Irish documents, called the Annals of the Four Masters, much of which was written at the Abbey of Monasterboice, in the county of Louth—nearly opposite, on the Irish shore.

In the account of the domestic habits and manufactures of the Irish, it is stated that their coracles, or Wicker Boats, their Noggins, and other domestic utensils, were made of wood called Wythe or Withty, brought from the opposite shore of Barach (i.e. rocky coast) and that a small colony was placed there for the purpose of collecting this wood.

That Baruch mouth, or Barrow mouth, and Barrowmouth wood is the same as that alluded to by the Four Masters, is evident from the legend of St. Bega which places it in the same locality; and that the colony of Celts resided in the neighbourhood of the now Celts, or Kell's Pit, in the same locality also, is manifest from the name.

About the year 930, it appears that one of the Irish princes or chiefs, accompanied an expedition to this place for wood (for that a great portion of the site of the present town and the neighbouring heights were formerly covered with forest trees there can be no doubt) and that the inhabitants who were met at Whitten, or Wittenagemote, fell upon and took the chief and several of the accompanying expedition prisoners from a jealousy of their sanctuary being invaded.

Many of the Irish utensils were imported hither, particularly the noggin, or small "water pail, which was made of closely woven wicker work, and covered inside with skin, having a projecting handle for the purpose of dipping into a river or well. The same article, in its primitive shape, though made of a different material, called a geggin, is still used by some of the farmers in that neighbourhood.

When Adam de Harris gave lands at Bransty Beck to the church of Holm Cultram, he also gave privilege to the monks to cut wood for making geggins or noggins.

From an old history of the county of Durham, Whitehaven appears to have been a resort for shipping in the tenth century, and when the Nevills of Raby were called upon to furnish their quota of men to accompany Henry in his expedition to Ireland in 1172, they were brought to Wythoft-haven, or Witten-haven, and transported thence in ships to the Irish coast. When Edward was advancing against Scotland, in the fourteenth century, he found a ship belonging to this place, in which he sent a cargo of oats, to be ground by the monks of St. Bees. Subsequently, the Irish were overcome by force of arms and Henry was recognised as lord of most of the Irish ‘kings’.

When Adam de Harris gave lands at Bransty Beck to the Church of Holm Cultram, he also gave privilege to the Monks to cut wood for making noggins or geggins. The Wythe or Withey would then appear to have been plentiful, if not the indigenous Willow tree at Whitehaven.

The Irish came for the Wythe or Withey, and naturally called the place Withey, or Wythe-haven, or Witten- haven, and Withey or Wythe gave place to White, a similar and better-known word by assimilation. Thus Chateau Vert became Shotover Hill, Buffetier-beefeater and Wythehaven - Whitehaven.

If the name of Whitehaven came from the Wythe or Withey, Corkickle may have come from what was made on the spot from the trees - Coracles. On the spot - near the Recreation Ground or Meadows, because the Wythe osiers would grow along the beck. The Coracles when made on its banks would be launched and thus taken down to the sea.

Whitehaven, 1840. A Painting By William Bartlett
Whitehaven, 1840

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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