A History of Whitehaven

By Tim Lambert

Whitehaven in the 17th century

Whitehaven was a fishing village until the 17th century. The Priory of St Bees owned the village until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539.

In 1630 Sir Christopher Lowther purchased the estate. He decided to use Whitehaven as a port for exporting coal from the Cumbrian coalfield. In 1634 he built a stone pier where ships could load and unload cargoes. He then began to export coal to Ireland. In 1630 Whitehaven had a population of around 250 and by the standards of the time, it was a large village.

Whitehaven soon began to grow. The original settlement was around the marketplace. Chapel Street and King Street were built in the 1640s. Roper Street was also built around that time. It was given its name because ropers made rope there. At the end of the 17th century rope making moved to Brackenthwaite.

In 1660 the lord of the manor gained the right to hold a market and a fair in Whitehaven. A fair was like a market but was held only once a year for a few days. Buyers and sellers would come from all over Cumbria to attend the Whitehaven fair.

The port of Whitehaven grew rapidly. Until 1685 it was officially part of the port of Carlisle but in that year it was made independent. (Officially the port of Whitehaven included all harbors between the rivers Ellen and Duddon).

By 1685 Whitehaven had a population of over 1,000. It continued to grow rapidly. By 1700 the population was around 3,000. By the standards of the time, Whitehaven was a fair-sized town and it continued to grow.

Whitehaven was laid out in a grid pattern. Church Street was built in the 1660s. In the 1680s Queen Street, Lowther Street, Strand Street, New Street, Duke Street, James Street, and College Street were built. Irish Street was built at the beginning of the 18th century.

In 1693 the Church of St Nicholas was built in Whitehaven to replace an existing chapel.

The fleet of ships based in the port of Whitehaven (which included the coast from the Ellen to the Duddon) also grew. In 1676 there were 32 ships. By 1685 there were 46 and in 1689 there were 55. From the 1670s tobacco from Virginia was imported and by the 1740s only London imported more tobacco than Whitehaven. The main export from Whitehaven was coal.

In the 1720s Daniel Defoe wrote that Whitehaven had grown up from a small place to be very considerable by the coal trade which has increased so considerably of late, that it is now the most eminent port in England for shipping of coals except Newcastle and Sunderland. Large quantities of rum and sugar were also imported into Whitehaven.

Whitehaven in the 18th century

Whitehaven continued to grow rapidly in the 18th century. In 1762 a survey showed Whitehaven had a population of 9,063 which made it a large and important town.

In the middle of the 18th century, several new streets were built including Charles Street, Scotch Street, Catherine Street, George Street, and New Town. Furthermore, by the late 18th century Whitehaven was the 6th largest port in England. It had a fleet of 448 ships.

Meanwhile, conditions in the town improved. In 1708 the Town and Harbour Board of Trustees was formed. They ran Whitehaven from day to day. Then in 1743, a scavenger was appointed to clean the streets and from 1781 the streets of Whitehaven were lit with oil lamps.

St James’s Church in Queen Street was built in 1753 and Whitehaven Castle was built in 1769. In 1783 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines.

During the 18th century, the port boomed. Sugar Tongue Quay was built in 1735 to unload cargoes of sugar from the West Indies. Lime Quay (from which limes were exported) was built in 1754. In the town shipbuilding was a flourishing industry. (Timber was imported from the Baltic). There were also related industries in Whitehaven such as rope making and sail making. Meanwhile, coal mining boomed in the Whitehaven area. Ever-increasing quantities were exported from Whitehaven.

However, in the later 18th century the merchants of Glasgow took away the tobacco trade from Whitehaven. The American War of Independence finally ended the trade, as obviously, the Americans stopped selling their tobacco to the British. However, rum was still imported into Whitehaven in large quantities.

Meanwhile in 1778 during the American War of Independence, a ship captained by John Paul Jones attacked the port of Whitehaven. Jones was born in Scotland but apprenticed as a seaman in Whitehaven. Despite the attack, Whitehaven continued to flourish.

Whitehaven in the 19th century

During the 19th century amenities in Whitehaven improved. From 1830 the streets of Whitehaven were lit by gas and in 1830 an infirmary was built. After 1893 the streets were lit by electricity. Meanwhile, the railway reached Whitehaven in 1847.

Life in 19th century Whitehaven gradually improved. In 1851 a mansion was converted into a Town Hall and after 1852 Whitehaven had a piped water supply. In the 1860s sewers were built in Whitehaven. Then in 1880, a new market hall was built. The first public library in Whitehaven opened in 1888. Then in 1894 the old Board of Town and Harbour Trustees was abolished and replaced by a modern town council.

Meanwhile, in the 19th century coal mining in the Whitehaven area continued to boom. However, in the late 19th century shipbuilding declined in Whitehaven, and shipbuilders were forced to close. In the 19th century, there was a pottery industry in Whitehaven but it closed at the time of the First World War.

The port of Whitehaven continued to prosper largely because of exports of coal. West Pier was built in 1838. North Pier followed in 1841. Queens Dock was built in 1876.

Whitehaven in the 20th century

In 1901 Whitehaven had a population of about 19,000.

In the 1920s and 1930s Whitehaven Council built its first council houses. Many more were built after 1945, principally the Mirehouse estate which was built in the early 1950s.

In 1926 Whitehaven Castle was converted into a hospital. West Cumberland Hospital was built between 1957 and 1964.

In the 20th century, industries in Whitehaven included silk manufacture and chemicals and the port continued to be busy. However, coal mining in the area ended in the 1980s.

At the end of the 20th century, Whitehaven underwent a revival. In 1993 a company was formed to refurbish the harbor and parts of the town. Old buildings on Sugar Tongue were demolished. A 40-metre tower called the Crows Nest with a viewing platform was built. In 1998 a sea lock was built enclosing the harbor. A 100-berth marina was built in 1997.

The whole harbor was lighted. On Lime Tongue, a light sculpture called The Wave was built. This device is reflected in the sea. It is green on one side of the tongue and blue on the other. An area called the Hub was built with a tented structure.

Meanwhile, The Beacon Museum opened in 1996. Haig Colliery closed in 1986 but in 1997 it was converted into a mining museum. A new museum called Rum Story was built in 2000. To coincide with this a Rum Festival was held.

Whitehaven in the 21st century

Tourism is now a major industry in Whitehaven and the Whitehaven Maritime Festival began in 1999. In recent years fishing has become an important industry. In 2024 Whitehaven had a population of 24,000.

A view of Whitehaven

A Timeline of Whitehaven

1630 Sir Christopher Lowther purchases an estate at Whitehaven and decides to use the place for exporting coal from the Cumbrian coalfield

1634 He builds a stone pier where ships can load and unload cargoe

1640s Chapel Street and King Street are built

1660 The Lord of the Manor grants the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair in Whitehaven. The community flourishes and grows rapidly.

1670s Tobacco from Virginia is imported into Whitehaven

1685 Until this year Whitehaven is officially part of the port of Carlisle. It now becomes independent.

1693 The Church of St Nicholas is built in Whitehaven

1700 The population of Whitehaven is now about 3,000, making it a fair-sized town

c. 1730 Large amounts of rum and sugar are imported into Whitehaven

1735 Sugar Tongue Quay in Whitehaven

1743 A scavenger is appointed to clean the streets of Whitehaven

1753 St James’s Church is built on Queen Street

1754 Lime Quay is built

1762 A survey shows Whitehaven has a population of 9,063, making it a large and important town

1778 The Americans attack Whitehaven

1781 Whitehaven is the 6th most important port in England. The streets are lit with oil lamps.

1830 The streets of Whitehaven are lit with gas

1838 West Pier is built

1841 North Pier is built

1847 The railway arrives in Whitehaven

1852 A piped water supply is created

1876 Queens Dock is built

1880 A new Market Hall is built

1888 The first public library in Whitehaven opens

1893 The streets of Whitehaven are lit with electricity

1901 The population of Whitehaven is about 19,000

1957-64 West Cumberland Hospital is built

1993 A company is formed to refurbish Whitehaven Harbour

1996 The Beacon opens

1999 The first Maritime Festival is held.

2000 Rum Story opens

2001 Whitehaven has a population of 24,500