Whitehaven Waggonways

Waggonways consisted of the horses, equipment and tracks used for hauling wagons, which preceded steam-powered railways. The terms plateway, tramway and dramway were used. The advantage of wagonways was that far bigger loads could be transported with the same power. Wagonways improved coal transport by allowing one horse to deliver between 10 to 13 tons  of coal per run - an approximate fourfold increase.

Wagonways were usually designed to carry the fully loaded wagons downhill to a canal or boat dock and then return the empty wagons back to the mine. As steam power gradually replaced horsepower, the term "wagonway" became obsolete and was superseded by the term "railway".

In the early stages of Lowther colliery development, coal transport was entirely by packhorse using the pre-existing road network. By the 1730s wagonways were being developed, linking the coal mines to the harbour. The horse drawn waggons had cast iron wheels running on wooden rails.

The Saltom Wagon way, known locally as the ‘wagon way’, is a graded route on the site of the clifftop railway which shunted coal trucks back and forth between various pits and the harbour. It ran from Ravenhill Pit (rather than from Saltom itself ) and was constructed in 1735. By 1752 the system was complex. The western route ran from the rear of the staithes, along the cliff top and round the west and south sides of the Bowling Green (with a right-angle turn at the corner), then zigzagged very sharply south west to climb onto the plateau.

By 1781 Croft had been connected to the waggonway system; in this year the coal-drawing pits were Duke, King, Kells, and Croft, and all sent coal to the staithe by waggonway. The waggonway system was substantially modernised by John Peile in the 1810s. The wooden rails were replaced with cast iron in 1813. At the same time, the steep waggonway lines down the slope to the staithes were replaced by the Howgill Incline.

The Croft Waggonway followed broadly the course of the surviving Croft Incline, but was gently sinuous . It was the scene of at least one early locomotive trial – a Crowther locomotive was tried out in 1816, with the possibility that a Trevithick-derived locomotive had also been tried in c 1812. The non-incline sections of waggonway continued to be horse-hauled until the 1850s, when they switched to locomotive haulage; the cast-iron rails were replaced with wrought iron at this time.

When Haig colliery was in full production coal was taken to be washed at Ladysmith pit before being taken to the harbour via the inclines. Now tarmac and concrete for much of its length it was more recently used by Marchon for transporting its chemicals to the harbour in road going vehicles.

In 1816, a further, short-lived, railway system was commenced as part of the construction of the West Pier and part of this system survives today. It was intended to connect Ravenhill (or Thwaitefield) Quarry, to the West Pier, and to consist of an incline, from beside the rear of Old Fort to the high ground below the Bowling Green. The project was temporarily abandoned in 1817. By then the arches for the inclined plane were complete except for their parapet walls and this structure still survives. The incline was presumably completed when a resumption of the project was agreed in 1823; actual construction of the Pier began in 1824, and continued until 1830.

Ravenhill track is marked on early maps as the only non wagon way link to Saltom Pit from the nearby hamlet of Arrowthwaite, Its route is still in use today as the main pedestrian access to the coast from the neighbouring residential area and it is lined by stone walls.

Howgill Incline was built in 1813 to replace the earlier horse drawn tramway connecting Saltom pit waggonway to the harbour. It is 230 yards long, with a vertical drop of 115 feet. It was a self-acting incline, with an air brake and a loaded wagon travelling down the incline could raise 3 empties. It was rebuilt in 1822 and remained in use until the 1920s. The line of the incline is clearly visible running towards the harbour, past the "Candlestick" chimney of Wellington pit.

In 1828 most of the Croft Waggonway section, from beside Ravenhill Pit almost to Croft Pit and also serving Kells Pit, was replaced by the Croft Incline. This was also a gravity incline, but differed from the Howgill Incline in being long and gentle rather than short and steep; it therefore had a small engine house to assist in hauling back the empty wagons.

The Bransty Arch itself was a narrow bridge which carried a horse-drawn waggonway from the Whingill Colliery to the harbour over Tangier Street. It was demolished in 1927.

Whitehaven Horse Drawn Coal Waggon
Horse Drawn Coal Waggon


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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