St. Nicholas Church

The first place of worship in Whitehaven was known to exist in 1642. This was a small building with three windows, and measured forty five feet long by twenty one feet wide, and was classed as a chapel of ease. It was used by the fishermen and their families who lived in and around the town, and was served by the Vicar of the Priory Church at St. Bees. As the population grew, so did the congregation, so a bigger church was deemed necessary. The chapel had been built on Lowther Street near Chapel Street, so when the new church was built the chapel was demolished.

The site for this was a piece of land consisting of sand dunes which were close to Sandhills Lane. The hard white stone used for the building was quarried from Tom Herds Rock at a cost of £70. When completed, the new Church was consecrated by the Rt Rev. Dr Nicholas Stratford, Lord Bishop of Chester on the 16th July 1693. The Church was not originally dedicated to any saint- the later dedication to St Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Sailors and Children is obscure. The cost of the building was One Thousand Four Hundred and Twelve pounds Three shillings and Twopence Halfpenny. This Church served the needs of the community for almost two hundred years and the stone doorway dating from 1693 has been preserved and is at the inner entrance of the present building. Until June 1867 this Church remained as a Chapel of Ease to St. Bees. On 4th June 1867 St. James, Holy Trinity and St. Nicholas all became Parishes in their own right.

First St Nicholas Church, built in 1693
First St Nicholas Church, built in 1693
The new St. Nicholas church was constructed of red sandstone from the Beggarhill Quarry, Egremont, about five miles south of Whitehaven. This was a magnificent building which consisted of Nave, Chancel, Side Chapel, Clerestory, Tower and an Organ Chamber that housed one of the finest church organs in the country, and had a seating capacity of 600 but could accommodate up to 1000 when the need arose. It was consecrated on the 31st of August 1883. The ceremony was performed by the Rt  Rev. Harvey Goodwin, Bishop of Carlisle. The building was a gift to the town by Miss Margaret Gibson, in memory of her parents, and stood as a magnificent addition to the town until it was practically destroyed by fire 93 years later almost to the day.

Fire destroyed the Nave and Sanctuary on the afternoon of August 31st 1971. The High Altar, a fine example of Renaissance carving  was lost in the fire and the Altar piece which had been brought from the earlier church was also lost. This depicted the Last Supper and was painted by Matthias Read. His paintings of Moses and Aaron were both saved, and after they were cleaned and restored, now hang in St James' Church on the Gallery. Rebuilding the Church was considered, but in April 1973 the Diocesan Pastoral Committee decided against this, so the Congregation united with Christ Church to form the Parish Church of Christ Church / St Nicholas in 1974. 

St Nicholas Church, Whitehaven. 1845
St Nicholas Church, 1845
Ultimately they both united with St James Church to form the Parish of Whitehaven. The St Nicholas Tower was fitted out as an auxiliary chapel for services, and regular coffee mornings were held there. A plan was submitted to, and approved by the Parochial Church Council to make more use of the Tower by providing more facilities that would be of benefit to the community.

An appeal was launched by the Mayor and the development went ahead, and became a Centre for Worship, Social activities and Tourism. Just one year later the centre was opened by the Mayor, and was dedicated by the Bishop of Carlisle. Since then it has become a welcoming focal point in the town centre for locals and visitors alike.

St Nicholas Church Whitehaven - Fire, 1971
St Nicholas Church Fire, 1971

Many important local families have been associated with St Nicholas. Although the graveyard was redesigned as a garden which now forms one of the features of Lowther St, some of the older headstones to be found at the Duke St end of the grounds provide a number of reminders of Whitehaven’s maritime past.

Inside the tower is a plaque to the memory of Mildred Warner Gale, the grandmother of George Washington. She was buried in the grounds, 30th January 1700. Her husband, George Gale, was buried on his plantation, called ‘Tusculum’, in Somerset County, just outside of Princess Anne, Maryland, USA. Visitors may climb a narrow spiral stair in the Clock Tower, to see the workings of the clock, and to see a small display relating to the Gale family.

In 1880, a anonymous poem in the local tongue was written about the second St Nicholas Church in Whitehaven being demolished to make way for a bigger and better church. The church opened in 1883. It appears that bells weren't added to the new church following construction, so a public subscription took place to incorporate them. The poem reads:

In t’year Eighteen Eighty, its truth at I tell,

Sum men nock t’old church doon, and tuk out the bell;

But wat they did wid it neahbody duz no –

Nor any yan cares owt about it ato.

There now is rejoicing all ower the town,

Sen thev gitant church bilt, an t’fynest around;

’Twill please o the fyne fwoak as weel as oursells,

When it is fit up wid a fine peel ov bells.

There’s many esquires an’ lwords o around,

’Ats leevan in t’suburbs of Whitehaven town,

Who cud aid if they choos, as t’newspapers tells,

In gitten for t’new church a fine peel ov bells.

Many tradesfwokes rejoycin’ as weel as our sells,

As the gents will replace it wid a new peel ov bells;

And just hung up t’old un, for a short time you no,

Till the new peel arrives – then doon it mun go.

There was sum church vestments presented also,

An’ o weel accepted as far as they go;

An’ one man gav a clock, the time for to tell,

An’ t’other bequests was o good ov there sells.

Greet numbers of toonsmen ats wanting the chime,

Didn’t no at ther cumin’ sud tuk sek a time;

If wee’d thout they’d hev slairde as many one tells,

We’d meade a subscription an’ got them oursells.

There will be a grand gala day o around,

When t’new peel of bells duz arrive in the toon;

Then we will neah meare be annoyed wid its knell – It was sik a nuisance, was the old kirk bell.


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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