Tour Of Britain, 1748

[Lancaster] seemed very strange to us, after coming out of so rich, populous and fruitful a place, as I have just now described; for here we were, as it were, lock'd in between the hills on one side high as the clouds, and prodigiously higher, and the sea on the other, and the sea itself seemed desolate and wild, for it was a sea without ships, here being no sea port or place of trade, especially for merchants; so that, except colliers passing between Ireland and Whitehaven with coals, the people told us they should not see a ship under sail for many weeks together.

The cape or headland of St. Bees, still preserves its name; as for the lady, like that of St. Tabbs beyond Berwick, the story is become fabulous, viz. about her procuring, by her prayers, a deep snow on Midsummer Day, her taming a wild bull that did great damage in the country; these, and the like tales, I leave where I found them, (viz.) among the rubbish of the old women and the Romish priests.

In the little town, which bears her name there, is a very good free-school, founded by that known and eminent benefactor to, and promoter of pious designs, Archbishop Grindal; it is endowed very well by him, and the charity much increased by the late Dr. Lamplugh, Archbishop of York: The library annexed to this foundation is very valuable, and still increasing by several gifts daily added to it; and they show a list of the benefactors, in which are several persons of honour and distinction. The master is put in by the Provost and Fellows of Queen's College in Oxon.

Under this shore, the navigation being secured by this cape of St. Bees, is 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.

They have of late fallen into some merchandising also, occasioned by the great number of their shipping, and there are now some considerable merchants; but the town is yet but young in trade, and that trade is so far from being ancient, that Mr. Cambden does not so much as name the place, and his continuator says very little of it.

And indeed the Town must be allowed to owe principally its flourishing Condition to two Acts of Parliament, one of the 7th, the other of the 11th, of Queen Anne, by virtue of which the Harbour was so considerably deepened and improved, and such strong and substantial Moles and Bulwarks erected, that Ships, which before were liable to be driven and cast away on the Rocks and Shoals on that Coast, could lie in Safety, and be secure from the Violence of the Sea.

The happy success of these works encouraged the Town to apply to Parliament for Powers still further to improve the good Design, that by enlarging the Moles and Works, and extending them to Low water mark, such depth might be obtained, that the largest Ships belonging to the Town might sail in and out of the Harbour at Neap Tides, and that other Ships frequenting these Seas might sail in at Half-flood. And accordingly an Act provides for this laudable purpose, in the Sess. 1739-40 which will probably effectuate these good Ends, and not only preserve the lives of many Mariners, but still further improve the Trade and Navigation of this already flourishing Town.

The same Act provides likewise for the Repair of the Roads about and leading to Whitehaven, which were become ruinous and bad, by the great use made of them since the Improvements in the Harbour; for before that time they were very narrow, and seldom made use of by Carts and Wheel carriages.

All these, advantages and Increase of Trade have occasioned a new Church to, be lately built at Whitehaven. Here is likewise a good Trade for Salt. Still a little higher to the North is Moresby, where it is supposed to have been a Roman Fort, there appearing a great many Ruins of Fortifications along the Seacoast, and other antiquities.

Daniel Defoe, 1748. 


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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