Selected chronology :
Whitehaven was a fishing village until the 17th century and was originally owned by the Priory of St. Bees, until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539.
In 1630, Sir Christopher Lowther (Earl of Lonsdale) purchased the estate and Whitehaven was interestingly the last town in England to be privately owned. Sir Christopher used Whitehaven as a port for exporting coal to Ireland and in 1634 he had a stone pier built for ships to load and offload cargoes, in fact the harbour was built by the Lowther family who were the local mine as well as land owners
In 1660 the town was granted a Market Charter
The collieries in the Whitehaven area were notorious for the amount of methane they produced, sometimes with disastrous consequences
Many of the surviving mine remains today are preserved as memorials to the men, women and children who lost their lives in the Whitehaven collieries
The most striking feature of the Wellington Pit (1825) is its Candlestick chimney which overlooks the harbour. It was the original chimney for the boiler house which stood next to the old winder.
The only other feature of the Wellington Pit to survive is the castle style building nearby, which was the entrance lodge for the coal mine
The Lowther family ran the pits for about 200 years, finally leasing them off in 1880
Their legacy is preserved in the form of Whitehaven Castle, which was constructed about 1769 by Sir John Lowther, pictured below, as his private residence.
In 1924 the family sold the Castle to Herbert Wilson Walker, a local industrialist, who generously donated the building to the people of West Cumberland along with £20,000 to convert it into a new hospital and it survived as such until 1964 when the West Cumberland Hospital was opened by the Queen Mother. The former Castle hospital became a facility for the elderly and was subsequently converted into residential apartments administered by Home Housing on a shared ownership basis. This fine building building is Grade 11 listed
The Port of Whitehaven grew rapidly and the Lowther family were instrumental in building a fine Georgian town, built on a grid system like New York.
From the 1670s tobacco was imported from Virginia and the main export was coal.
During the 18th century the port was booming.
Sugar Tongue Quay was built in 1735 to handle cargoes of sugar from the West Indies.
Lime Quay, from which lime was exported was built in 1754.
The town also had a thriving shipbuilding industry
The American War of Independence finally put an end to the tobacco trade, but large quantities of rum were imported from the West Indies.
In 1778 during this war, an American ship captained by John Paul Jones briefly attacked the port of Whitehaven.
The Scottish born skipper knew the town well, as he had been apprenticed as a seaman in the port. A pub near to the entrance of the marina is named after him, but it is due for demolition in the autumn of 2023.
An interesting feature of the Whitehaven area is that there is a large expanse of grass land along the top of the cliffs, with houses set well back. The main reason for this is that at one time all the mines and railways were along the cliff tops, but these are long gone and the open space is useful as some of the cliffs are fairly unstable
St. James parish church in Whitehaven is listed in Simon Jenkins’ excellent book England’s Thousand Best Churches. It was designed by Lord Lowther’s agent Carlisle Spedding and the first Vicar of the church was one Thomas Spedding, who died at the age of 61 in 1783
Behind the altar table at the top of the church is a magnificent oil painting of the Transfiguration by Giulio Cesare Porcaccini, which was presented to the church by William, Third Earl of Lonsdale
POLLUTION IN WHITEHAVEN HARBOUR
On 14th November 2022 the Environment Agency was notified of an unusual occurrence. Bright ochre coloured water began pouring into the Queens Dock from the Bransty Beck via a water culvert in the harbour wall. This culvert is located above the water level near the top left hand corner of the harbour in the photo below. This Queens Dock is the original deep water dock in Whitehaven Harbour, as before the new lock gates were installed, all the rest of the harbour apart from the QD used to dry out at low tide. But because this old disused lock system forms a bottle neck in the Queens Dock, it effectively retains a lot of the pollution, as it does not wash away easily when the new lock gates are open.
The source of the pollution would appear to be from old mine workings and Network Rail reports that there is polluted water getting into the nearby railway tunnel above the Bransty Beck, from which the tunnel drainage goes into the Bransty Beck culvert, then on into the harbour. Network Rail estimate that their investigations, using a specialist firm, will take up to 3 months to complete. This old railway tunnel which dates back to the mid 1800s was relined over a period of 10 years from 1948, with gangs working nightshift so that train services were not disrupted.
One possible short term solution, suggested by Professor Harvey Wood of the Clean Rivers Trust, to abruptly stop pollution going into the harbour is for the Bransty Beck to be diverted into the local sewage system where it could be safely processed in the nearby waste water treatment works at Parton. Professor Wood says that a permanent solution could be quite complex and that there may be no quick fix. He also says that an alternative temporary measure would be to pipe the water from the offending culvert into the sea north of the north pier. The Bransty Beck originally went into the sea in this location, bypassing the harbour, many years ago, as confirmed on old maps. However, permission would have to be obtained to allow this polluted water to go into the sea.
However, just a mile north of Whitehaven on the stony beach at Parton there is a similar long term discharge of ochre coloured minewater into the sea, coming out of a culvert set in a concrete bunker with a National Coal Board sign on it and it doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.
The Clean Rivers Trust, founded in 1990, is a registered charity. Harvey Wood is a leading authority on minewater pollution and has published a book on the subject.
In September 2023, two contractors were carrying out non-invasive investigative works in the vicinity of the Whitehaven railway tunnel on behalf of Network Rail in an effort to determine the source of the minewater pollution that is reported to be entering the tunnel. The firms carrying out this underground survey work for Network Rail are Story and Geosync and a report is due by about October 2023
A similar occurrence of polluted minewater occurred in October 1979 from the former Dalquharran coal mine in South Ayrshire and the effect was spectacular as about 16km of the River Girvan from the discharge point into the sea at the Firth of Clyde was stained bright orange.
The river bed became coated with insoluble ferric hydroxide and all the fish and most of the invertebrate life was killed and even the sea was stained where the river washed into it. Work to remedy the problem was completed in late 1983.
Outpouring of polluted minewater in the former Cumberland Coalfield (which stretches from Whitehaven up to Maryport and Aspatria, is not unique to Whitehaven harbour. There are minewater treatment works, run by the Coal Authority, in Great Clifton and in Maryport and there has been an outpouring of ochre coloured minewater from an old National Coal Board outflow onto the stony beach at Parton for at least the last 40 years. As the crow flies, this outflow is just a couple of miles up the coast from Whitehaven.
In July 2023 the Coal Authority, a government body which looks after minewater pollution, stated that the Whitehaven pollution problem was now in the hands of Copeland Council – but it would appear that no one had told them that this council was abolished on 31st March 2023, being replaced by the new Cumberland Council.
Professor Harvey Wood of the Clean Rivers Trust is visiting Whitehaven for the third time this year on 12th December 2023 for a couple of days for meetings with several interested parties regarding action required to urgently prevent minewater pollution from entering the harbour. Harvey tells me that he has worked out a treatment scheme that could capture the pollution before it enters the marina and he has been in recent talks with Severn Trent, who are the contracting agency that is employed to install minewater treatment plants on the behalf of the Coal Authority. Professor Wood has given generously of his time and effort since about March of 2023 when he was first alerted to this serious ongoing pollution. His charitable trust stands to make no financial gain from this.
The situation regarding this pollution at December 2023 is that polluted water continues to pour into the Whitehaven Railway tunnel and a recent video on the Network Rail website shows quite deep flooding in part of this tunnel on this important Cumbrian Coast line. This railway line was never considered for closure by Dr. Beeching or by subsequent government because there needs to be rail access to Sellafield reprocessing facility from all the other nuclear sites, with nuclear waste being transported in armoured flasks by rail. Any prolonged closure of the Whitehaven Railway Tunnel would be a major inconvenience, but it may well have to be closed temporarily because of an increasing amount of polluted water coming into it causing damage to the infrastructure and causing potentially dangerous flooding on the track. The drainage system into the harbour will need possible attention because of blockage by this ochre coloured pollution. Add to that the urgent need to curtail or divert polluted tunnel water from getting into the harbour and it is a right royal mess with no cheap solution.
POTENTIAL GREEN ENERGY IN WHITEHAVEN
On a lighter note, Professor Wood is reported as saying that there is enormous potential for cheap clean energy in the Whitehaven area, courtesy of extremely warm water in the disused mines deep underground and out under the Irish Sea and there is there is also the possibility of using methane gas which continues to be emitted from old mines and currently goes into the atmosphere.
WHITEHAVEN HARBOUR COMMISSIONERS
‘The Board of Trustees of the Town and Harbour of Whitehaven’ was set in 1709. This board, under the considerable influence of the Lowther family administered both the harbour and the town, dealing with water supply, street lighting, as well as levying duties and making improvements to the harbour.
However in 1894 the Board was split into two bodies.
The new Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners comprised comprised 4 members nominated by Lord Lonsdale, 4 members nominated by Whitehaven Town Council, 3 members elected by traders and ship owners and 4 members elected by the bondholders.
Though Whitehaven Harbour is no longer a busy commercial port, the Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners continue to develop and promote the harbour as a focus for regeneration of the town.
Whitehaven Marina is leased out by the WHC and is managed and operated by a privately owned company, Whitehaven Marina Limited, incorporated in 2008, with a registered office in Poole, Dorset. The marina is extremely well managed and it incorporates a busy boat yard where maintenance of craft is carried out.
Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners is a not for profit organisation, which ‘maintains Whitehaven Harbour and its environs for the benefit of all’. In June 2023 Deanne Shallcross, pictured here, was appointed as the new Chief Executive Officer, replacing John Baker.
An exciting new development being overseen by the Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners is The Edge, which is a new coastal activities facility being constructed in modern design and is currently being erected on land next to Wellington Inn car park, within the harbour. Once complete this 3 story building will contain meeting rooms, a cafe, changing facilities and the top two floors will contain en-suite overnight accommodation. A new slipway onto the outer harbour beach has been constructed.
This new accommodation facility will no doubt be popular with cyclists using the UK’s most popular challenge cycle route the C2C, which is an abbreviation of Sea to Sea, between the Irish Sea and the North Sea. The C2C challenge can start from either Whitehaven or Workington and has two possible endpoints on the North Sea coast at Tynemouth or Sunderland.
In July 2023 The Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners provided an update on completion of The Edge (architect’s impression pictured above). A spokesperson said ‘There have been unforeseen delays to the project due to circumstances outside our control. However, the works are due to get back on track shortly with no firm date for completion, although it will be sometime in 2024’. The Edge is modelled on a pebble washed up on the beach.
Surprisingly, for a small town of its size, Whitehaven has an excellent privately owned, old established department store. Dixons Department Store is located at 10 Lowther Street and I believe that its elderly gentleman owner looks in regularly to keep a sharp eye on things. A bit like that famous television series Are You Being Served ? The staff are friendly and the range of goods throughout this extensive store is excellent.
There is a sister store in Workington.
Well worth a visit as clearly their buyers are tip top.
‘You’ve all done very well !’