Businesses in Whitehaven Towns and Villages of Cumbria


(See also The Haig Colliery Mining Museum , The Beacon , The Rum Story)

“I remember being struck for the first time by
the town and port of Whitehaven, and the
white waves breaking against its quays and piers. . . . ”
William Wordsworth

Whitehaven Beacon and Harbour By Pam GrantWhitehaven, located three miles north of St Bee's Head on Cumbria's west coast, has a past, and it celebrates it with a number of interesting tourist attractions.

The Beacon, overlooking the harbour, tells the history of the town and its harbour, its industries, the influential Lowther family, and the geology and archaeology of the area. A weather gallery, open to the public, is on the top floor. Town trails-called the QUEST-are a good place to begin a tour of Whitehaven's many attractions.

Whitehaven by Pam GrantLike many Lakeland villages that grew into towns during the industrial revolution, Whitehaven's history is a mixture of its small fishing village past and its 17th century burgeoning growth related to coal and shipping. Coal mining on a minor scale dated back to the time of St Bee's Abbey, when the monks opened the Arrowthwaite mines. They also used Whitehaven's harbour to ship stone for the building of St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

However, it was the Lowther family that began the transformation of the sleepy village by opening large coal mines and building a stone quay (Old Quay) in 1634-one of the oldest remaining coal wharves in England-to ship the coal.

St Nicholas Church Whitehaven by Tom RichardsonSir John Lowther (1642-1705) designed the layout of Whitehaven, the first post Renaissance planned town in Britain, in a grid pattern with St Nicholas Church sitting in the middle. The Lowthers created straight streets, stone houses with blue slate roofs, and grand public buildings. Although some of the town centre was rebuilt in the 1900's, many 17th and 18th century buildings remain. There are 250 listed buildings in Whitehaven-the best historic homes are found in the Scotch Street/Roper Street area.

Whitehaven houses by Barbara BallardBy the mid 1700's, markets were held three times a week. The Market Hall, fallen into decay, was restored and now houses the Tourist Information Centre and a restaurant. In 1814 salt water baths were opened for beach and sea enjoyment. At the time of its building in 1846 by the Earl of Lonsdale, the Londsdale Hotel was considered one of the finest hotels in the northern part of the country. In the late 1800's Whitehaven had 134 public houses. The Anchor Vaults, Queens Arms, Royal Oak and Golden Fleece are considered to be the oldest. However, a plaque outside the Packhorse on Lowther street, claims it is the oldest, having been built in 1692 by Thomas Borrowdale. The pub was originally called the Globe.

Whitehaven Castle By Pam GrantWhitehaven Castle was the result of a 1675 rebuilding of a mansion by Sir John Lowther, and later added to by the first Earl of Lonsdale, James Lowther, in 1769. There were two Roman altars at the entrance. Unfortunately, over the years the mansion passed through numerous hands and ended up as a hospital, then, vacated and decayed, passed into a developer's hands.

Whitehaven Maritime Festival by Harold PottsThe Lowthers continued to put their money into the town by developing a number of piers that provided the means to ship coal from the surrounding hillsides to Ireland. The famous architect, Sir John Rennie, who designed London Bridge, built Whitehaven's West Pier, home to a 19th century lighthouse that echoes the former importance of shipping in the harbour.

Whitehaven harbour pier cover by Barbara BallardBy 1755 the town was thriving. Shipbuilding was a natural industry to follow on the heels of the port activity. Daniel Brocklebank, (1742-1801) a well known Whitehaven shipbuilder, founded the world's oldest registered shipping line, later taken over by the Cunard Line. He built 27 ships at Whitehaven. Ropes, sails, soap, candles, and other necessities of life were among the many manufactured items. The use of steam engines in the mines (for drainage purposes) led to another Whitehaven industry, the making of mining equipment and team engines.

St Nicholas Church gardens by Stanley WalkerBefore the late 1600's a small chapel with a bell turret served as a place of worship. It was Sir John Lowther who paid for St Nicholas Church in Lowther St. The bishop of Chester consecrated the parish church in 1693, but the church was rebuilt in 1883 of red sandstone in a mix of the Decorated and Perpendicular styles. Destroyed by fire in the 1970's, only the ruins and the clock tower remain. A narrow spiral staircase leads up the tower, open to visitors, to a 150-year-old manually wound clock.

St Begh's Church by Billy KingSt Begh's Church, designed by E.W. Pugin and built in the 1860's, has unusual white sandstone walls dressed with red. In 1715 Sir James Lowther funded the building of Holy Trinity Church. An altar painting, stained glass windows, and a marble monument to Sir James grace the interior.

St James Church by John LordAnother church, St James, built in 1752-53 with a high tower, is Georgian in its interior. Once considered one of the best Cumbrian churches of its period with original interiors that included an Italian designed ceiling and a memorial chapel, it has been modernized in some of its details. It has a ring of 12 bells and an organ said to be one of the best in northern England.

Winding Machine Haig Pit Museum by Mick GarrattThe Haig Colliery Mining Museum, on the site of Cumbria's last operating deep pit mine (closed in 1986) high above Whitehaven, gives a vivid picture of the town's coal mining industry, little of which remains except the winding engine house and headgear. In their heyday, the coal mines extended far under Solway Firth and were extremely dangerous due to the amount of gasses and faults.

Wellington Pit by David Rogers The Wellington Pit was located above the harbour and built in the shape of a castle. The 1910 mine disaster on the site was Cumbria's worst. 136 men were killed in an explosion and fire. A survival of the coal mining industry, the ventilation shaft named Candlestick Chimney, is part of a colliery engine house built in 1850. Nearby Duke Pit once housed a 36 ft ventilation fan. Many abandoned pit villages and coal workings dot the area.

Rum story slave trade By Ann BowkerWhitehaven grew to become the third most important port in England. Iron ore headed for the furnaces of Wales was shipped from the harbour. Imports included rum, sugar, and other goods from the West Indies and tobacco from Virginia. One of the town's less salubrious imports was that of slaves from Africa. This trade was boasted about in the 10 inch high “Beilby Slavery Goblet”, one of the best examples of English glass making. Made in 1763 in Newcastle, it is engraved with the words, “Success to the African Trade of Whitehaven” along with a painting of a sailing ship on one side, and, on the other side is King George III's coat of arms.

Rum Story Warehouse By Ann BowkerThe story of one of the imports, rum, is told in “The Rum Story, the Dark Spirit of Whitehaven”. The site housing the original shop, courtyards, cellars, and warehouses of the Jefferson family's rum business is the setting for the rum story that begins in a Caribbean rainforest and includes elements of the slave trade, American prohibition, and the history and processing of rum. Stone barrel vaults-part of the warehouses-are on view along with historic documents charting one of the rum trade ships. Lord Byron said of rum: “There's nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion”.

Union Hall 1880 WhitehavenIn addition to imports of tobacco from Virginia, Whitehaven has other American connections. The roots of the first president of the United States, George Washington, go back to Whitehaven where his grandmother, Mildred Gale, lived for a very short time. A plaque to her memory is in St Nicholas's Church tower. The Gale family's involvement in Whitehaven's history began when John Gale, an Irish nonconformist, moved there in 1663 and became a leading merchant in the tobacco trade. One of his grandsons, on a visit to Virginia, married Mildred Washington, who was a widow with three young children. She died in Whitehaven after only a year of marriage, and a dispute over her will resulted in the return of her children to America. One, Augustine, was the father of George Washington. Another interesting connection is the use of 1500 Whitehaven flagstones to pave a piazza at Mt Vernon, George Washington's home.

Another famous resident of the town was the author of Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift. Although he only lived here as a small child, he visited later as an adult.

Whitehaven Gardens by Pam GrantOne of the most interesting events connected with Whitehaven's history is the attempt of John Paul Jones (an American naval officer and former resident of Whitehaven) to fire the shipping in the harbour. On the morning of the April 23rd 1778, his ship, an American privateer named the Ranger, nosed into the harbour near the site of the 1730 lighthouse. The ship was equipped with 18 six-pound guns and 6 swivel guns. He and his crew set fire to three ships. Although hoping for more destruction, the town's inhabitants were alerted and stopped him from destroying 200 other ships. The sailors escaped from the town and, landing in Galloway, raided the Earl of Selkirk's home. This event led to Whitehaven building up its harbour defences to 98 guns. The town survived another assault in 1915 from a German submarine.

Whitehaven Blooming by Pam GrantWhitehaven was subject to problems with high tides and mine subsidence in the late 1700's. From the time when large iron steamships were in use, Whitehaven's port lost its importance. It was too shallow. Another blow was dealt to the town during the late Victorian period, with the decline of the coal and iron industry and the development of the port of Liverpool.

Sliding into decay, the town in the 21st century is undergoing a revitalization of its historic buildings and sites. Today the town's walled harbour, with its piers and promenades, is a conservation area used by pleasure craft and fishing vessels.

Whitehaven Sailors by Pam GrantOutdoor enthusiasts will note the start of the 140-mile long C2C cycle route from Whitehaven's harbour to Sunderland. Nearby is the start of the Coast to Coast Walk. A walk and nature trail above the town is located at Tom Hurd Rock.

Named one of 50 “Gem Towns” in England, Whitehaven is a “Cumbria in Bloom” award winner with a fascinating history well told.

Photos by Barbara Ballard and courtesy of Pam Grant , Ann Bowker and Tom Richardson, Harold Potts, Stanley Walker, Billy King, John Lord, Mick Garratt, David Rogers The Geograph Britain and Ireland project

Whitehaven is located off the A595 on Cumbria's west coast. A maritime festival takes place in late June.

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