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King Street - geograph.org.uk - 470948.jpg
King Street
Grid reference: NX974181
Location: 54°32’53"N, 3°35’8"W
Population: 25,032  (2001)
Post town: Whitehaven
Postcode: CA28
Dialling code: 01946
Local Government
Council: Cumberland

Whitehaven is a small town and decayed port on the coast of Cumberland. The west coast of Cumberland is outside the Lake District National Park, its towns the product of the Industrial Revolution, and Whitehaven is no exception. Its former wealth came from serving as a port for the transatlantic trade, but few ships come today and the town is plagued with unemployment and social problems.

A planned town at first, Whitehaven is the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe and recently it has been pursuing growth through tourism. Due to Whitehaven's planned layout with streets in a right-angled grid, some historians believe that Whitehaven was the blueprint for the New York City street grid system.

A number of former villages such as Woodhouse, Kells, Mirehouse and Hensingham have been swallowed into the town. The major industry is the nearby Sellafield nuclear complex, which provides employment for a large proportion of the employed population.

Whitehaven is on the A595 road which links the coastal towns and has a railway station served by the coastal line up to Carlisle.


There is no evidence of any Roman settlement closer than the fort at Parton, a little over 2 miles to the north.

West Cumberland was settled by Irish-Norse Vikings in the tenth century.[1] The area name of Copeland, which includes Whitehaven, suggests that the land was purchased from the Kingdom of Strathclyde, possibly with loot from Ireland.[2]

The village of Whitehaven belonged to the Priory of St Bees the dissolution of the monasteries by until Henry VIII in 1539. Before 1715 the parish of St Bees included Whitehaven.

The town of Whitehaven was largely the creation of the Lowther family in the 17th century. In 1630 Sir Christopher Lowther bought the estate and used Whitehaven as a port for exporting coal from the Cumberland Coalfield, particularly to Ireland. In 1634 he built a stone pier where ships could load and unload cargoes. Whitehaven grew into a major coal mining town during the 18th and 19th centuries and also became a substantial commercial port on the back of this trade. Daniel Defoe visited Whitehaven in the 1720s and wrote:

... grown up from a small place to be very considerable by the coal trade, that it is now the most eminent port in England for shipping off of coals, except Newcastle and Sunderland and even beyond the last. They have of late fallen into some merchandising also, occasioned by the strange great number of their shipping, and there are now some considerable merchants; but the town is yet but young in trade.[3]

In 1778 during the American War of Independence, the British-born American sea captain John Paul Jones led a naval raid upon the town. His sailors were sent to burn the town but got drunk and failed to do any more than petty damage. This was the last invasion of England by some definitions.

The town has links to notable writers: Jonathan Swift claimed that an over-fond nurse kidnapped him and brought him to Whitehaven for three years in his infancy, and William Wordsworth often came into town to visit his family.


Whitehaven Harbour

The town's fortunes grew with its new harbour but waned rapidly when ports with much larger shipping capacity, such as Bristol and Liverpool, took its main trade. The peak of Whitehaven's 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.

As with most mining communities the inter-war depression was severe; this was exacerbated for Cumberland 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 refocussing the town on a renovated harbour. The key to the masterplan was the impounding of the inner basins to create a large leisure and fishing harbour.

The harbour has seen much other renovation due to millennium developments; 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.[4] The Harbour rejuvenation has cost an estimated £11.3 million[5] and has enabled 100 more moorings within the marina. Further investment of an additional £5.5 million has seen the development of a 130-foot-high crows nest and a wave light feature that changes colour dependent upon the tide, plus the Rum Story on Lowther Street, voted small visitor attraction of the year 2007 by the local tourist board.[6] In June 2008 The Queen visited Whitehaven as part of the 300th Anniversary Celebrations.[7] The Queen and Prince Philip then officially opened the refurbished Beacon, a museum set on the harbour. 10,000 people attended the event.

Mines and pits

Haigh Mining Museum

The earliest reference to coal mining in the Whitehaven area is in the time of Prior Langton (1256–82) of St Bees Priory, concerning the coal mines at Arrowthwaite. St Bees Priory was dissolved in 1539, and the lands and mineral rights passed to secular owners. In 1560 Sir Thomas Chaloner granted bases of land for digging coal, and in 1586 he granted St Bees School liberty "to take 40 loads of coal at his coal pits in the parish of St Bees for the use of the School".[8] In 1670, the manor of St Bees was bought by Sir John Lowther who then began to develop the coal trade due to the ever increasing demand from Ireland. Lowther invested in the best available technology to help monopolise the coal trade. By the 1730s Whitehaven had the deepest mines due to the necessity to drive ever deeper shafts to reach new seams of coal.

An example of the Lowthers' interest in technology could be seen at Stone Pitt when one of the world's earliest steam engines, Newcomen's Engine No. 5 was installed in 1715, to help in drainage and haulage. William Brownrigg, Whitehaven's most eminent scientist, was the first to investigate the explosive mine gas fire damp.[9]

The Lowthers' technological advances continued when their chief steward, Carlisle Spedding sunk Saltom Pit in 1729. Saltom Pit was the first pit to be sunk beneath the sea. At Saltom pit, Carlisle Spedding pioneered the use of explosives in sinking shafts. He also invented the first form of 'Safety Lamp', it was called the Spedding Wheel or Steel Mill. On occasions the Spedding Wheel caused explosions or fires but it was a major improvement over the naked flame.

Saltom Pit was constructed around 6m above sea level, on land below the cliffs near to Haig Colliery. The pit workings went down to a depth of 456 feet. Saltom Pit ceased working coal in 1848, but today it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SM 27801)[10] and is the best known surviving example of an eighteenth century colliery layout. Evidence of the shaft, horse gin, stable, winding engine house, boiler house and chimney, cottages, cartroads and retaining walls, survives where they stood.

Coal excavated from Saltom Pit was raised by horse gin to surface, then transported by tram through a tunnel to Ravenhill pit for lifting to the cliff top. Saltom Pit was used as a central pumping station, draining many of the other local mines via a drift driven in the 1790s, and continued in use long after it had ceased to work coal.

In 2007 after an online campaign by myWhitehaven.net[11] the National Trust and local council reopened Saltom Pit in 2007 as a historic monument. The pit buildings have been repaired and are now part of the 'Whitehaven Coast' project - a scheme to regenerate the coastal area of Whitehaven.

The last working coal mine in the area was the Haign Pit. In 1983, a major fault was encountered at Haig when its future of the pit was already in doubt. The workforce attempted to open a new face, but a decision had been taken to close, and after two years of recovery work, Haig finally ceased mining on 31 March 1986. Today no mining is carried out in Whitehaven.

Maritime festival

Whitehaven has also played host to a Maritime Festival, which started in 1999 and was held every two years untl the last in 2007.[12]

Attractions included tall ships, air displays and various modern and old planes, street entertainment, and firework displays. At the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Festivals the local Sea Cadets were very much in evidence, conducting the traditional Evening Colours ceremony each evening aboard one of the visiting tall ships, and also taking part in the Festival's official closing ceremony during the late Sunday afternoon each year.

The Maritime Festivals were organised by the Whitehaven Festival Company, made up of board of volunteers, who have since launched new events in the town. They also organised the Queen's visit to Whitehaven in June 2008 and several other events around the year.


  1. Wainwright, F. T. Scandinavian England: Collected Papers, Chichester: Phillimore (1975)
  2. Winchester, Angus J. L. "The Multiple Estate: A Framework for the Evolution of Settlement in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Cumbria" in Baldwin, John R. and Whyte, Ian D. (eds), The Scandinavians in Cumbria, Edinburgh: The Scottish Society for Northern Studies (1985) pp. 89-101
  3. Daniel Defoe: A tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
  4. http://www.whitehaven-harbour.co.uk/news.htm whitehaven.co.uk
  5. http://www.mywhitehaven.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=45:history-articles&id=60:whitehaven-harbour&Itemid=73 mywhitehaven.net
  6. http://www.rumstory.co.uk/
  7. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/08/uk_enl_1212672516/html/1.stm news.bbc.co.uk
  8. Hay, Daniel (1979). Whitehaven: an illustrated history. Whitehaven: Michael Moon. ISBN 0-904131-21-1. 
  9. Dixon, Joshua (1801). The literary life of William Brownrigg. London: Longman & Rees. 
  10. "Scheduled Ancient monument". http://www.mywhitehaven.net/saltom-pit-scheduled-ancient-monument.html. Retrieved 2008-12-09. 
  11. myWhitehaven.net
  12. Whitehaven International Festival Company

Outside links