Find out about Whitehaven's fantastic history!
Originally settled by Irish-Norse Vikings in the 10th century Whitehaven’s historic town was mainly created by the Lowther family in the 17th century. In 1630 Sir Christopher Lowther purchased the estate and used Whitehaven as a port for exporting coal from the Cumberland Coalfield, in particular to Ireland. In 1634 he built a stone pier where ships could load and unload cargoes. This pier still stands here today.
In 1778 during the American War of Independence John Paul Jones led a naval raid upon our town. Some theorists state this was the last invasion of England. The town has links to many distinguished people including Jonathan Swift, George Washington, Mildred Gale and William Wordsworth.
Just a few hundred metres outside of the centre of the town lays Whitehaven Castle which was built in 1769. The Castle as is now replaces an earlier building which was destroyed by fire. The Castle was sold in 1924 by the Earl of Lonsdale to a Mr. H Walker who later donated the building to the people, along with monies to convert the building into a hospital replacing the Victorian Whitehaven Hospital. A new hospital (West Cumberland Hospital) was opened in 1964 just over 1 mile from the Castle leaving the Whitehaven Castle Hospital as a geriatric unit. The Castle Hospital was forced to close in 1986 due to fire regulations. It is now stately private housing and is a treasure to the residents that drive past it daily
The coalfields of Whitehaven extend from out to sea, over 400m below ground and under the ocean. They still cover an area of 200km2.
Whitehaven’s riches soon declined especially as busier and bigger ports with larger capacities took over. Bristol and Liverpool began to take over the custom and trade as they were much more capable financially of doing so. The 19th century saw a short boom in affluence and wealth with the finding of haematite (also spelt hematite). It is a beautiful, iron based gemstone that varies in colour from shiny black to silvery grey. It is also found in a brown to deep, red brown and it is from this variety that it receives its name from the Greek word “haima” for ‘blood’. This product was one of the few iron-ores that could be used to produce steel by the original Bessemer process. This steel-making process, (now largely superseded), in which carbon, silicon, and other impurities are removed from molten pig iron by oxidation in a blast of air in a special tilting retort (a Bessemer converter). Improvements to the process and development of an open hearth process removed the advantage.
1729 saw the sinking of Saltom Pit by Mr. Carlisle Spedding (The Lowthers Chief Stewerd). It was the second pit to be sunk at beneath the sea 456 ft (138m). Mr. Carlisle Spedding pioneered the use of explosives in sinking the shafts, he was also the inventor of the ‘Safety Lamp’. It was called the Spedding Wheel (or Steel Mill) and on occasions it caused explosions and fires but was a major improvement over use of the naked flame. By the 1730’s Whitehaven had the deepest coal mines. Saltom Pit was approximately 20ft above the seas level and is still visible (closed in 1848) below the cliffs behind Haig Colliery, Kells. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SM27801). The shaft, horse gin, winding engine house, stable, boiler house chimney, cottages, cartroads and retaining walls is all still visible.
On Monday 8th December 2007 after falling into a state of disrepair Saltom Pit was re-opened as a historic monument. The pit buildings were repaired and are part of the ‘Whitehaven Coast’ project which is a scheme for regeneration of our beautiful coastal area in Whitehaven.
Since the early 17th Century over seventy pits were sunk in the Whitehaven and outlying areas. There have been many hundreds of people killed in local pit disasters and mining incidents and currently names are being recorded and registered in a mark of remembrance. In Whitehaven the biggest disaster was in 1910 at the Wellington Pit where 136 miners lost their lives, some young and some old, followed by a further disaster where 104 miners lives were taken too soon. There was 4 explosions at separate times over a 9 year period at the Haig Pit at Kells where 83 miners were killed. Haig Pit was the last pit to operate in Whitehaven and a major fault was found around 1983. It was no coincidence that the miners strike of 1984-1985 contributed to the problems faced for the pits future. Haig Pit ceased mining on 31st March 1986.
There was great pride from many locals that they were able to once provide a valued resource to the rest of the United Kingdom. This has given way to the possibility of a new mining culture re-starting in the area. Still currently under consultation, it may be that our area sees Coal Mining once again South of Whitehaven and North of St Bees. The company base their local offices at Sneckyeat Industrial Estate and is currently investing in exploratory work in order to create a coking coal mine. The coking coal off our coast is of the highest quality however further tests and method analysis of the extraction still needs to be determined.
Following the London Blitz the 1940s saw a re-start to the Marchon operation in Whitehaven. Lord Frank Schon and Fred Marzillier registered Marchon Products Ltd just a few years previous in an occupied office in London. The production of chemicals in the form of firelighters (manufactured from sawdust, naphthalene and coal distillation remainders). The premises was at first from Mr. Schons garage in Hensingham which later moved to a premises on Swingpump Lane with a warehouse named the Guinea Warehouse, Newtown. Just a couple of years later all operations moved to seven acres’ site at Kells. The plant has seen many processes take place from toiletries, phosphates, phosphoric acid, sulphuric acid / cement, Fatty Alcohol, and detergents. Marchon was the largest single-site producer of Sulphuric Acid in Europe and the largest single-site producer of Sodium Tripolyphosphate in the world. In 1968 Marchon Products became Albright & Wilsons Marchon Division and by 1972 Whitehaven became the company’s headquarters. In 1976 Marchon Works became the largest single-site producer of this material in the world. In 1999 Rhodia (French Company) took over Albright & Wilson (Marchon Works) and Whitehavens phosphate activities were eventually closed. The site was virtually closed by 2005. The Marchon site area was 133acres (54 hectares). Maximum number of employees was approximately 2,500 excluding contractors. The knock on effect from the closure of the plant saw a reduced use and requirement for cargo handling at the port.
THE HARBOUR & SHIPPING
In order to survive the reduced use of industry, imports and exports from the port the harbour needed a new masterplan. Drivers Jonas and marine consultancy engineers Beckett Rankine were given an objective of re-focusing the town on a touristic and renovated harbour. The plan was to focus less on the coal and plant industry and more on tourism, leisure and fishing. Since the millennium the harbour has been invested in and rejuvenated some may say beyond recognition to the towers that used to dominate the landscape. An estimated 11.3million has enabled 100 more moorings within the marina and a further investment of 5.5 million sees the development of a 40ft high crow’s nest, light up wave and a tourist attraction and visitor center on Lowther Street called the Rum Story. The Rum Story was voted Cumbria Tourisms small visitor attraction of the year in 2007. In 2008 the Queen and Prince Philip came to Whitehaven as part of the 300th Anniversary Celebrations and officially re-opened the refurbished Beacon Museum which still stands today as Whitehaven’s Beacon Museum.
In 1847 Whitehaven finally had railway, steam powered transport. An agreement between the Earl of Lonsdale and George Stephenson saw the realisation of the Whitehaven Junction Railway. Whitehaven used to be a terminus of the Furness Railway and still has two existing railway stations, Whitehaven (Bransty) and Corkickle. The Cumbrian Coast Line runs from Carlisle in the North to Barrow in the south of Cumbria.
The Whitehaven harbour was once amass with railway lines, with steam trucks filled to the brim with coal, iron, gypsum and many other cargoes. Ships would then wait to transport around the world.