The tower of St Nicholas Church stands in the busy centre of Georgian Whitehaven. St Nicholas’ Centre and Chapel stand as a unmistakable landmark amongst the busy commercial and retail life of the town. It is a focus for a whole variety of activities – café, meeting place, chapel for worship and private prayer and contemplation.
In 1642, the first place of worship is known to existed in Whitehaven, although the discovery of a medieval Piscina in the church ground point to a place of worship from around the 12th Century. The chapel of 1642 was a small building with five windows and measured forty five feet long by twenty one feet wide. It was classed as a chapel of ease. The chapel was used by the fishermen and their families who lived in and around the town, and was served by the Vicar of the Priory Church at St. Bees.
As the population grew, so did the congregation, so a bigger church was deemed necessary. A chapel had been built on Lowther Street near Chapel Street, so when the new church was started the old chapel was demolished.
The second place of worship was consecrated by the Rt Rev. Dr Nicholas Stratford, Lord Bishop of Chester on the 16th July 1693. Hard white stone was used for the building, and was quarried from Tom Herds Rock. This stone is alleged to have given Whitehaven it’s name. The Church was not originally dedicated to any saint- the later dedication to St Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Sailors and Children is obscure. This Church served the needs of the community for almost two hundred years and the stone doorway dating from 1693 has been preserved and is at the inner entrance of the present building.
The third place of worship was constructed of red sandstone. This was a magnificent building which consisted of Nave, Chancel, Side Chapel, Clerestory, Tower and an Organ Chamber that housed one of the finest church organs in the country, and had a seating capacity of 600 but could accommodate up to 1000 when the need arose. It was consecrated on the 31st of August 1883. The building was a gift to the town by Miss Margaret Gibson, in memory of her parents, and stood as a magnificent addition to the town until it was practically destroyed by fire 93 years later almost to the day.
In 1955 a plaque was placed in the church by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in memory of Mildred Gale, nee Warner, the grandmother of General George Washington, the first president of the United States of America. In the graveyard at St. Nicholas Church Mildred Gale is buried, the exact location of her grave though is unknown.
Fire destroyed the Nave and Sanctuary on the afternoon of August 31st 1971. The High Altar, a fine example of Renaissance carving was lost in the fire and the Altar piece which had been brought from the earlier church was also lost. This depicted the Last Supper and was painted by Matthias Read. His paintings of Moses and Aaron were both saved, and after they were cleaned and restored, now hang in St James’ Church on the Gallery. Rebuilding the Church was considered, but in April 1973 the Diocesan Pastoral Committee decided against this.
The St Nicholas Tower was fitted out as an auxiliary chapel for services, and regular coffee mornings were held there. A plan was submitted to, and approved by the Parochial Church Council to make more use of the Tower by providing more facilities that would be of benefit to the community. An appeal was launched, and the development went ahead, and became a Centre for Worship, Social activities and Tourism.