History of Whitehaven

As with the Senhouse family in Maryport and the Curwens of Workington, Whitehaven's early fortunes were closely linked to that of one family, the Lowthers. 

In a way the Lowthers were indirect beneficiaries of Henry VIII's break with Rome, buying land around Whitehaven which had been confiscated from the priory of St Bees during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.  

It was a century later that the Lowthers began their development of Whitehaven, building a quay to handle the coal being sent to Ireland. The population then was under 300 but within another 100 years this small fishing village had become the busiest harbour in England after London and Bristol. 200 ships were sailing in and out of the port each week.

Much of the town’s wealth was generated by the mining and export of coal to Ireland and the import of tobacco, rum, molasses, hardwoods, coffee, cotton, sugar and spices from either America or the West Indies. 

Whitehaven merchants were also involved in the ‘slave triangle’ - selling cheap manufactured goods to slave traders in west Africa and then transporting slaves across the sea to America and the West Indies. 

The ships then returned home with rum, spices and the like which may well explain why foods such as Cumberland rum butter and Grasmere gingerbread appeared in this part of the world. Cumberland sausage often has a spicy flavour as well. 

Meanwhile the town itself was laid out on a grid-iron pattern of streets (like New York) which Matthias Read’s painting A Bird’s Eye View of Whitehaven in The Beacon Museum clearly shows. 

By the end of the 18th century, however, Whitehaven was in decline. Not only was the town left high and dry by its distance from the industrial heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire but poor communications across the Lake District fells and the difficulties of enlarging Whitehaven’s man-made harbour gave Liverpool and Glasgow the edge.

In a way decline helped preserve Whitehaven's 18th century character. Poorer quality buildings which were put up in Victorian times were eventually knocked down but its Georgian buildings were mostly spared the redevelopment that befell other industrial centres in the 19th century. 

Walk around the harbour and you pick up snippets of information about Whitehaven’s history. ‘1778 Americans, led by John Paul Jones, raid Whitehaven with limited success,’ says an inscription on one of the benches. ‘1782 Daniel Brocklebank sets up Whitehaven shipyard which becomes Cunard in the 19th century,’ reads another. 

It is interesting to note that while Brocklebank’s became part of Cunard, the shipping line’s great rival in the latter part of the 19th century was the White Star Line, founded by Thomas Henry Ismay who was born up the road in Maryport. 

As for John Paul Jones he was born in south west Scotland and apprenticed for a while in Whitehaven. He later became an officer in the American navy and it was as such that during the American War of Independence he decided to raid Whitehaven harbour and set fire to its boats. 

The raid came to little but Jones became a revered figure in America, the ‘Father of the United States navy’. He died in Paris but his remains were taken to America in 1906 and now rest in a marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland.

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