Whitehaven Harbour

The existence of a harbour or landing place at Whitehaven can be traced back to the early 16th century when quay-dues – otherwise known as wharfage – were recorded in 1517. It was the purchase of the manor of St Bees in 1630 by the Lowther family that was the start of the development of Whitehaven harbour primarily to export coal.

Sir Christopher Lowther initially had the first pier built in 1633 to facilitate the export of salt from saltpans which he owned. Following Sir Christopher's death in 1644, the Whitehaven estate was left to his son, John. Sir John was aged two at the time so the estate was controlled by trustees. In 1655 Sir John began in earnest to develop the coal industry.

By the 1660s the pier was suffering from storm damage and by the 1670s was considered not to have sufficient capacity for the growing number of vessels wanting to use it. The demand for coal in Dublin had increased substantially, so to meet the requirements Sir John had the pier lengthened. It was completed in 1665. In 1677 a description refers to "a little pier, in shallow water, built with some wooden piles and stones".

The prospect of a rival pier being built at Parton to the north of Whitehaven, galvanised Sir John Lowther into developing the harbour and by 1679 further work was underway. During the late 17th and 18th century the harbour was extended by ballast walls, moles and piers to become one of the most complex pier harbours in Britain. The Bulwark' was built in 1710, in 1804 the Bulwark was moved to its present position, then in 1872 it was incorporated as part of the Queens Dock.

In 1739 it was decided to build a mole behind the Old Quay for the reception of large ships when fully laden. This became known as the Old New Quay. During 1726 twenty yards off Wharf was built on the seaward side of the Old Quay. In 1735 a second Bulwark was built, it is known as the Old Tongue or Sugar Tongue.

In 1754 a new tongue was built out from Marlborough Street, it became known as the Lime Tongue or New Tongue. Following discussions held in 1766 the North Wall was started, more work was carried out on it following another resolution in 1780 and again in 1785 it was decided to add a return to the North Wall, this being the straight part of the Devils Elbow, the final section was added in 1804.

In 1823 plans were submitted by Sir John Rennie about extending the limits of the harbour. This work resulted in the West Pier being constructed, it was completed in 1838. It extended 340 yards from the Old New Quay. In 1832 Rennie was consulted about sand deposits, he recommended the building of a pier extending seaward 1,100 feet, canting to the west and terminating with a round head. The work began in 1833, but was suspended due to talks about the design of the pier. In 1836 modified designs were submitted, work was completed on the pier in 1838.

As the North Pier was unfinished the harbour trustees requested Mr Ebeneezer Stiven to provide a design. Mr Stiven recommended that the jetty be taken down and the pier canted south west with a rounded head. This work was completed in 1841. In 1869 Mr Stiven was again asked to provide a design for the harbour. this time the trustees asked for a wet dock. the plan was accepted by the trustees. Following the Dock and Harbour Act in 1871 work commenced on the construction. It was completed in 1876 and named the Queens Dock in honour of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately serious problems were encountered with Queens Dock, there was severe shrinkage and cracking, said to be due to moving foundations. In 1880 the Dock was closed to enable necessary repairs to be carried out. In 1882 the Dock re-opened. In the middle of the 18th Century Whitehaven had become one of the most important ports in the Kingdom.

Unfortunately at the start of the 19th Century Whitehaven's importance was declining. The shallow waters of the Solway severely limited the size of ships which could enter the port. As the displacement of merchant vessels steadily increased, the deep water ports such as Liverpool and Glasgow prospered at the expense of Whitehaven.

Its peak of prosperity was in the 19th century when West Cumberland experienced a brief boom because haematite found locally was one of the few iron ores that could be used to produce steel by the original Bessemer process. Improvements to the Bessemer process and the development of the open hearth process removed this advantage. In the 20th century, as with most mining communities the inter-war depression was severe; this was exacerbated for West Cumbria by Irish independence which suddenly placed tariff barriers on the principal export market.

The harbour lost its last commercial cargo handling operation in 1992 when Marchon ceased their phosphate rock import operations. A new masterplan for the harbour was prepared by Drivers Jonas and marine consulting engineers Beckett Rankine with the objective of refocusing the town on a renovated harbour. The key to the masterplan was the impounding of the inner basins to create a large marina and fishing harbour.

The harbour has seen much other renovation due to millennium developments, and the rejuvenation project cost an estimated £11.3 million which has enabled the provision of 100 more moorings within the marina. Further investment of an additional £5.5 million has seen the development of a 40m high crows nest and a wave light feature that changes colour dependent upon the tide.

A picture of the harbour was used on the front page of the Tate Modern's promotional material for an exhibition of Millennium Projects in 2003. In June 2008, Queen Elizabeth II visited Whitehaven as part of the 300th Anniversary Celebrations. The Queen and Prince Philip then officially reopened the refurbished Beacon museum at the harbour. 10,000 people attended the event.
  • The first quay was the Old Quay, built in 1633. This was for the export of salt and coal. All of the quays within the harbour are set on a foundation of squared oak.
  • In 1700, 80% of all Ireland’s coal was imported from Whitehaven. By the 18th century, Whitehaven was importing tobacco from Virginia and Maryland in exchange for manufactured goods. Imports at this time from the West Indies included sugar, spirits and slaves.
  • A Pier Master, forerunner to the Harbour Master, was first employed in 1709.
  • The second quay was the Bulwark Quay, built to the south end of the harbour. It was later demolished and rebuilt in 1711.
  • By 1730 Whitehaven had the deepest coalmines in the world, some running beneath the sea.
  • Over 1,000 ships from 150 to 3000 tonnes are documented as being built in Whitehaven.
  • The West Pier Lighthouse and outer harbour were built in 1832 for £150,000, a fraction of the cost today.
  • By the late 19th century, almost all of the harbour had a rail network, even to the tip of the West Pier. Locomotives were introduced in 1848, with the last disposed of in 1986. The coal chutes or hurries in the harbour walls can still be seen in the North Harbour.
  • By 1860 over 400 wagons per day were using the Sugar Tongue to load and off load.
  • In 1876 the Queen’s Dock was built. This was a wet dock with one set of dock gates to hold the water in as the tide ebbed. The original wooden gates were replaced with steel in 1938 and can still be seen today.
  • 72,000 tonnes of silt were dredged from the outer harbour in 1900.
  • Access was greatly improved to the port by the installation of a £6.7 million sea lock in 1998. The sea lock’s main purpose is to protect the town of Whitehaven from tidal flooding as this was a regular occurrence prior to installation.
Whitehaven Harbour
Whitehaven Harbour


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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