Whitehaven in West Cumbria is my town of birth. I still live a stone’s throw away. It’s a lovely place, and not overrun with tourists. I would place the harbour on a par with many across the world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, it is one of the best.
The modern growth of Whitehaven started with the purchase by Sir Christopher Lowther of the estate in 1630 and the subsequent development of the port and the mines. In 1634 he built a stone pier providing shelter and access for shipping enabling the export of coal from the Cumberland Coalfield, particularly to Ireland, which was a key event in the growth of the town. It rapidly grew from a small fishing village to an industrial port.
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. Also in 1677 an historical description of Whitehaven refers to “a little pier, in shallow water, built with some wooden piles and stones”. So, there was probably a man-made harbour structure at Whitehaven before the Lowthers started to develop the area.
Whitehaven was, with Falmouth, the first post medieval foundation in England. It is the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe and recently has been pursuing growth through tourism. Whitehaven’s planned layout was with streets in a right-angled grid. James Robinson is officially credited as the original architect but some contest the claim.
Although Sir Christopher Lowther initially purchased Whitehaven it was his son, Sir John Lowther, who was responsible for its growth and development. Sir John acquired the market charter in 1660 but the urban growth did not start until the 1680s when he laid out a spacious rectangular grid of streets to the north east of the existing tiny hamlet.
Most of the streets were relatively narrow, about ten yards, but the principal thoroughfare, Lowther Street, which ran through the town centre from the Lowther family residence to the waterfront, was laid out on the more generous width of 16 yards. The old chapel of Whitehaven was demolished to make way for Lowther Street, and its materials used in the building of a new school for the town.
Whitehaven Castle was built in 1769, replacing an earlier building destroyed by fire. In 1924, the Earl of Lonsdale sold Whitehaven Castle to Mr H.W. Walker, a local industrialist. Walker donated the building to the people of West Cumberland, along with £20,000 to convert it into a hospital to replace the old Whitehaven Infirmary at Howgill Street, which was established in 1830. With the opening of the West Cumberland Hospital in 1964, the castle became a geriatric unit until forced to close in 1986, owing to fire regulations. It has now been converted to private housing.
Whitehaven’s prosperity during the 18th and 19th centuries was based on tobacco and coal. By 1685, there were ships plying between the town and the British colonies in America of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. By the early 18th century about 10% of England’s tobacco imports passed through Whitehaven, and by the middle of the century it was the second or third port for tobacco, according to H.M. Customs records of the time. The tobacco would then be re-exported to Ireland, France, Holland and other regions.
By the end of the 18th century, Whitehaven was exporting its coal mainly to Ireland; to replace the tobacco trade Whitehaven turned to importing sugar from Barbados, cotton wool from Antigua and coffee and cocoa from St Lucia. There is little evidence to suggest that Whitehaven was involved in the slave trade. Due to the coal trade Whitehaven was, after London, the second port of England in terms of tonnage of shipping from 1750 to 1772. Even by 1835 Whitehaven was still the fifth placed port, with 443 ships registered, but by the end of the 19th century only 68 vessels were registered.
During the 19th century the port of Whitehaven was overtaken by Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, as they had better deep water dock facilities, and were closer to large centres of population and industry. The huge development of a national railway network had also reduced Whitehaven’s 18th century competitive advantage of having coal extracted very close to a harbour for shipment.