Topography of GB, 1802

The sea-port town of Whitehaven, in the year 1566, is said to have had only six houses; but encouraged and supported by the Lowther family, it has become very considerable by the coal trade, which is so much increased of late, that is the most eminent port in England for that article next to Newcastle. Camden does not so much as name the place, and his continuator says very little of it; at present it is a regular well-built town, about one third larger than the city of Carlisle, but containing three times the number of inhabitants. It is greatly indebted for its flourishing condition to two acts of parliament, passed in the reign 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 were before liable to be driven on the rocks and shoals on this coast, can now lie in perfect safety, and frequently, in consequence of being detained by contrary winds, there are upwards of 200 sail of ships at a time go from this place to Dublin, laden with coals.

—Here are three churches; St. James’s, Trinity, and Hold Church, also meetings for Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians; a Dispensary, Charity School, &c. Besides the extensive coal mines in the neighbourhood, there are several copperas works. — On the old quay is erected a lighthouse; and the entrance of the harbour is defended by a fort and half-moon battery. This port has likewise a custom-house; with regular officers attached to it. It has a plentiful market on Tuesdays. This town contains 2117 inhabited houses, and 2438 inhabitants. The new canal between Carlisle and Solway Firth has been navigable above half its length for some time

The uniformity of the streets adds greatly to their beauty. Two of the principal ones stretch down the declivity of the hill in right lines towards the haven, and are crossed by others at right angles. Here are two excellent butcher’s markets, well supplied with meat, poultry, eggs, and butter, and almost every species of fish. Coaches and carriers go to various parts from Whitehaven almost daily. The government packet from Whitehaven to Douglas sails once a week. The post is daily in the evening, Tuesdays excepted, to and from London and all towns on the road. This town is well lighted, and has a handsome theatre on the model of that at Bath. A market-house for persons selling butter, eggs, and other country commodities, erected here, was designed by Mr. Smirke. The news-room and library handsomely fitted up at the expense of the Earl of Lonsdale, were by him presented to the town. To some good mathematical schools here, a marine-school has been erected by the same nobleman, and endowed with 100l. a year by Matthew Piper, Esq. Hensingham Chapel has also been re-opened and endowed with 150l. a year by the Earl of Lonsdale.

As a protection to the property of the inhabitants, and for the preservation of the public peace, a nightly watch and police officers have been appointed.

The approach to Whitehaven from the eastward has been much improved by the alterations in the road down Bransty Row. From this new line St. James's Chapel and the adjacent buildings are seen to advantage. The whole of the streets, lanes, and outlets, being newly paved and well lighted, have rendered the avenues to Whitehaven equal in their accommodations to those of any other town in the north of England—A new road has also been made between Corkickle and Hensingham, by which Corkickle Brow is avoided, and the entrance from the south enlivened by a view of the houses in Lonsdale Place.

The Trustees of Whitehaven harbour, lately resolved that the plan by Messrs. Whidby and Rennie for the extension and improvement of that harbour should be adopted; this includes the extension of the great western pier, which will cost 67,000l.

In March, 1793, this town suffered by a storm, when the tide rose six feet above its usual height; and in the American war Paul Jones landed here, spiked the guns, and set fire to two ships in the docks; but; by the vigilance of the inhabitants, there was but little damage done, and he was forced to retreat.

The coal mines near Whitehaven are perhaps the most extraordinary of any in the known world.

The principal entrance into these mines for men and horses, is by an opening at the bottom of a hill, through a long passage hewn in the rock, which, by a steep descent, leads down to the lowest vein of coal. The greatest part of this descent is through spacious galleries, which continually intersect other galleries; all the coal being cut away, except large pillars, which, in deep parts of the mine, are three yards high, and about twelve yards square at the base, such great strength being there required to support the ponderous roof. The mines are sunk to the depth of 130 fathoms, and are extended under the sea to places where is, above them, sufficient depth of water for ships of large burden. These are the deepest coal mines that have hitherto been wrought; and perhaps the mines have not in any other part of the globe penetrated to so great a depth below the surface of the sea; the very deep mines in Hungary, Peru, and elsewhere, being situated in the mountainous countries, where the surface of the earth is elevated to a great Height above the level of the ocean. There are here three strata of coal, which lie at a considerable distance one above another, and there, is a communication by pits between one of these parallel strata and another. But the vein of coal is not always regularly continued in the same inclined plane; but instead thereof, the miners meet with hard rock, which interrupts their further progress in a straight line. At such places there seem to have been breaks in the earth, from the surface downward: one part of the earth appearing to have sunk down, while the part adjoining has remained in its ancient situation. Those who have the direction of these deep and extensive works, are obliged, with great art and care, to keep them continually ventilated with perpetual currents of fresh air, which afford the miners a constant supply of that vital fluid, and expel out of the mines damps and other noxious exhalations, together with such other burnt and foul air, as is become poisonous and unfit for respiration. In some works, which are not ventilated with perpetual currents of fresh air, large quantities of these damps are frequently collected; and, in such works, they often remain for a long time without doing any mischief; but when, by some accident, they are set on fire, they then produce dreadful explosions, very destructive to the miners; and, bursting out of the pits with great impetuosity, like the fiery eruptions from burning mountains, force along with them ponderous bodies to a great height in the air. The coal in these mines has several times been set on fire by the fulminating damp, and has continued burning for many months, until large streams of water were conducted into the mines, and suffered to fill those parts where the coal was on fire. By such fires several collieries have been entirely destroyed; of which there are instances near Newcastle, and in other parts of England, and in the shire of Fife in Scotland; in some of which places the fire has continued burning for ages. In order to prevent as much as possible the collieries from being filled with those pernicious damps, it has been found necessary carefully to search for those crevices in the coal from whence they issue; and at those places to confine them within a narrow square, and from those narrow spaces in which they are confined, to conduct them through long pipes into the open air, where, being set on fire, they consume in perpetual flames as they continually arise out of the earth. The late Mr. Spedding, who was the great engineer of these works, having observed, that the fulminating damp could only be kindled by flame, and that it was not liable to be set on fire by red-hot iron, nor by the sparks produced by the collision of flint and steel, invented a machine, in which, while a steel wheel is turned round with a very rapid motion, and flints being applied thereto, great plenty of fire sparks are emitted, which afford the miners such a light as enables them to carry on their works in a close place, where the flame of a candle, or a lamp, would occasion dreadful explosions. Without some invention of this sort, the working of these mines, so greatly annoyed with these inflammable damps, would long ago have been impracticable. This invention has, however, been since proved not to be an effectual preservative, and the ingenious inventor lost his life, about fifty years ago, by the explosion of one of those damps, whose destructive effects he had so sedulously attempted to prevent. But fewer mines have been ruined by fire, than by inundations; and here that noble invention the fire-engine displays its beneficial effects. It appears, from pretty exact calculations, that it would require about 550 men, or a power equal to that of 110 horses, to work the pumps of one of the largest fire-engines now in use (the diameter of whose cylinder is 70 inches), and thrice that number of men to keep an engine of this size constantly at work. There are four fire engines belonging to this colliery, which, when all at work, discharge from it about 1228 gallons every minute, at 13 strokes, and after the same rate 1,768,820 gallons every 24 hours.

The honour of raising this town to its present high importance, must be given to the Lowther family, by one of whom, Sir John Lowther, Knight, the lands of the dissolved monastery of St. Bees, were purchased for his second son, Sir Christopher, about the commencement of the reign of Charles the First. At this period the use of coals first became general; and it seems that Sir Christopher conceived the idea of making his possessions productive, by opening some collieries; but no considerable progress was made till after the Restoration, when Sir John Lowther, who had succeeded to the estates, formed a place for working the mines on a very extensive scale; and that all opposition to his intended series of operations might be prevented, he procured a grant of all the ungranted lands within the district. This was in the year 1666. Two years afterwards he obtained a further accession of property, by the gift of the whole sea-coast for two miles northward, between high and low water mark. Sir John now directed his attention to the port, which was neither large nor convenient, and, by his judicious schemes, laid the foundation of the present haven. It has since been greatly improved; particularly when an act was obtained to perfect, and keep it in repair, by a tonnage on shipping.

This haven is protected by several piers or moles of stone-work; three of them project in parallel lines from the land; a fourth, bending in the form of a crescent, has a watch-house and battery, and at its extremity a light-house. At low water the port is dry, and the shipping within the moles lie as in dry docks. The coal staith, or magazine, adjoins the harbour on the west side of the town: here, on an under floor, sufficiently extensive to contain about 3000 waggon loads, the coals are deposited when there are no ships ready to receive them. The method of delivering the coals into the vessels is singular: the greatest part of the road from the pits is on a gentle descent, along which rail ways are laid, which communicate with covered galleries terminating in large flues, or hurries, placed sloping over the quay. When the waggons are loaded, they run by their own weight on the railway, from the pit to the staith, where the waggon bottoms striking out, the coals fall into the hurries, whence they are discharged into the holds of the ships, rattling down with a noise like thunder. Each waggon is guided from the pits by one man; and where the descent is so steep that the motion becomes too rapid, he retards it by pressing down one of the wheels with a piece of wood, called the convoy, which is fixed to the waggon for that purpose. When the waggons are emptied they are carried round by a turn frame, and drawn back to the pits by a single horse, along another road. Eight or ten vessels, from an hundred to one hundred and twenty tons burthen each, are commonly loaded at one tide, and on extraordinary occasions, twelve: the expense of loading is ten shillings per vessel. Most of the coal exported from this haven is conveyed to Ireland: the quantity raised annually, on the average of twenty years, is about 90,000 chaldrons.

When the bands of coal near Whitehaven were first begun to be worked, a level was driven from the bottom of the valley which reaches from this town to St. Bees, till it intersected the seam, now called by the workmen, the Bannock-band, where it drained a very considerable bed, or field of coal, which has been drawn out by pits from twenty to fifty yards deep. Another level was then driven more towards the south than the former; and by continuing it to the westward, the seam, called the Mam Band, was intersected, and a large bed of coal effectually drained. The coals at this period are drawn out of the pits by men with windlasses, and were carried to the ships, in packs, each measuring about three Winchester bushels, upon the backs of galloways, or small horses. A subsequent attempt to obtain coal was made lower down the valley, at a place now called Gins, from the machines worked by horses, and employed here to raise both coals and water. Near these gins a few houses were erected, and have since been increased by additional buildings to a consider able village. This mode of raising the water by horses, having been found greatly to diminish the profits of the colliery, the late Sir James Lowther erected a steam engine, the materials of which he is said to have purchased in London, where it had been used for raising water for the service of the city. As the number and depth of the pits increased, the difficulty of freeing them from water augmented: and another and more powerful engine was erected. By these two engines several considerable bands of coals were drained, from which the markets were wholly supplied for some years. Afterwards a pit was sunk about half a mile from the Staith, and called the Parker-pit, and from this the first railed waggon-way was laid in this county.

The next working for coals was made at Saltom, about one mile south-west of the town; this was very expensive undertaking: a steam-engine, with a forty-inch cylinder, was erected; and within a few years afterwards, a second of the same dimensions; the united powers of these machines discharged the water from a number of new pits, and the collieries became very flourishing.

The subterranean passages by which men and horses descend to the coal works, are locally termed Bear-mouths: where these have not been made, no horses can be employed under ground, and the workmen are let down the shaft by the windlass. In the Howgill colliery, south-west of the town, the King-pit is 160 fathoms deep, and has five valuable seams of coal, besides several that are smaller, and of little consequence: this colliery abounds with dykes. In those places where the coal is drawn from under the sea, which it is in various parts, to the extent of eight or nine hundred yards, the pillars left to support the roof are about eighteen yards square. Here nearly one-third only of the coal is removed, the rest being left to sustain the incumbent weight. Those works which are at the greatest depth below the level of the sea, produce the largest quantity of fire-damps; in the works above the level, the damps are but trifling. It is observed, that the best coals are invariably the lightest: the seams are always found at equal distances from each other; and all dip to the west about one yard in ten.

There is a tradition, that mines are frequented by a dwarf species of gnomes, or elves, who wander through the drifts and chambers of the works, as little old men, dressed like miners, and seem perpetually employed in blasting the ore, flinging it into the vessels that convey it to the surface, turning the windlass, &c. yet never do any thing. Mr. Pennant observes, in his description of these collieries, that the immense caverns that lay between the pillars, exhibited such a gloomy appearance, that he could not help inquiring after the imaginary inhabitant, the creation of the labourer’s fancy,

The swart Fairy of the mine: and was seriously answered by a black fellow at his elbow, that he really had never met with any; but that his grandfather had found the little implements and tools belonging to this diminutive race of subterranean spirits.

The situation of Whitehaven is remarkable: it occupies the northern extremity of a narrow vale, which extends to the village of St. Bees, about five miles, distant; and, from the general appearance of the soil, and the discovery of an anchor at a considerable depth in the ground, about halfway up the vale, seems to have been formerly covered by the sea. Indeed, the hilly ground between this vale and the ocean is in ancient deeds called Preston Isle; and the opinion that it was an arm of the sea, is corroborated by the inclination of the ground, which, though apparently level, has actually a descent each way: this is evinced by the small rivulet, Poe, or Poe-beck, which on one side running northward, flows in a very easy current from about the middle of the valley, to the sea at Whitehaven, and on the other, directing its course southward from nearly the same spot, falls into the ocean at St. Bees.

The Poe, on the Whitehaven side, empties itself into the creek which forms the harbour, between two promontories; one called Tom Hurd Rock; the other, Jack-a-Dandy Hill. The colour of the former, a greyish white, has by some writers been supposed to have given name to the town, but tradition, with at least an equal degree of plausibility, affirms, that its appellation was derived from a fisherman named White, who was the first person that frequented the bay, and who, to shelter himself from the weather, built a cottage, which still remains in that part now called the Old Town. As a confirmation that this circumstance gave name to Whitehaven, it should be remarked, that many old people in the neighbourhood commonly denominate it Whitton, or White’s Town.

The creek on which Whitehaven is built is so deeply seated, that the adjacent lands overlook it on every side. The approach from the north is singular, as the heights are so much above the town, that only the slated roofs of the houses can be seen, till the traveller is nearly at the entrance, which on this point is by a fine portico of red free-stone, with a rich entablature, ornamented with the arms of the Lowther family. From the south, the prospect is more open; the eye commands the whole town and haven: the castle also, the elegant mansion of the Earl of Lonsdale, is on this side comprehended in the view, and forms a very noble and prominent feature. The town itself is one of the most handsome in all the northern counties; the streets being regular and spacious, and crossing each other at right angles. Many of the buildings are very neat, and the trades-mens shops exhibit a degree of elegance seldom seen in the north.

Topography of Great Britain, 1802.


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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