Whitehaven is a Georgian town situated on the west coast of Cumbria. It was one of the first post-Renaissance planned towns in England. At the end of the 16th Century, Whitehaven consisted of less than a dozen thatched cottages. By the end of the 17th Century, it had a population of 3000 and was the second largest port on England’s western coastline.
The Lowther family were behind Whitehaven’s steady growth and success. The Lowthers were later the Earls of Lonsdale. It was was their vision for the village turned town turned busy port that turned Whitehaven into a port for shipbuilding and the exportation of Cumberland coal.
Sir John Lowther, 2nd Baronet “(9 November 1642 – 17 January 1706) was born at Whitehaven, St Bees, Cumberland, the son of Sir Christopher Lowther, lst Baronet, and his wife, Frances Lancaster, daughter of Christopher Lancaster of Stockbridge, Westmoreland. He was educated at Ilkley, Yorkshire and Balliol College, Oxford (matriculated 1657) Lowther owned large coal estates near Whitehaven, and worked to develop the mines and the port. He spent over £11,000 in expanding Lowther holdings in the Whitehaven area, concentrating on the acquisition of coal-bearing land, of land which would allow his pits unhampered access to Whitehaven harbour, and land which would hinder the working of others’ pits. This, in turn, allowed him to improve the drainage of his pits, unworried by the thought that he was also draining his neighbours’. He secured the grant of the right to hold a market and a fair to Whitehaven, and its recognition as a separate customs ‘member-port’ (under the ‘head-port’ of Carlisle) responsible for the Solway coast from Ravenglass to Ellenfoot (later Maryport). He also secured (against a rival grant to the Earl of Carlingford), recognition of his title to the foreshore (land between low-water and high-water) of the manor of St. Bees, containing ‘houses lands staythes & salt pans at Whitehaven’ valued at £400 a year. He oversaw the rise of Whitehaven from a small fishing village (at his birth it consisted of some fifty houses and a population of about 250) to a planned town three times the size of Carlisle. At his death the ‘port of Whitehaven’ had 77 registered vessels, totaling about four thousand tons, and was exporting over 35,000 tons of coal a year.”
Sir John was inspired by Christopher Wren’s designs for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Wren came up with a plan that laid out the London streets on a grid, rather than have them turn in upon themselves. He also specified the types of houses to be built so that the buildings would not feed each other as they had done in the Great Fire. Many historians believe that New York’s street system is inspired by Whitehaven’s grid system.
“On Flatt Walks, looking down Lowther Street is Sir John Lowther’s former home, known as “The Castle”since the beginning of the 18th Century. The building became Whitehaven Hospital in 1926, and is now housing. It was designed by Robert Adam, the most fashionable architect of his period.
“The port development was linked to the exploitation of rich local deposits of coal and iron ore. Some coal mines extended for several miles beneath the sea bed. The first undersea mine in England was constructed in Whitehaven in 1729. By 1931 it was the deepest undersea mine anywhere at the time.
“On 17th June 2005 a sculpture was unveiled near the Beacon, as a memorial to the town’s mining history. By Colin Telfer, it is a unique mix of coal, slate and casting resin, and features a pillar of coal with four figures – a deputy overman, representing mine management; a mines rescue man, representing safety and rescue work; a coal face worker, showing manpower; and a screenlass, to illustrate hardship and poverty.
“Whitehaven was the last place in Britain to be attacked by American naval forces. On 23rd April 1778 during the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones arrived in Britain with the intention of setting the whole merchant fleet on fire. The alarm was raised, and he retreated forthwith. Another American link is that Mildred Warner Gale, the grandmother of the American president George Washington, came from Whitehaven. She was buried in the grounds of St Nicholas’ Church, on 30th January 1700/1. Visitors may climb a narrow spiral stair in the Clock Tower, to see the workings of the clock, and to see a small display relating to the Gale family.” (Visit Cumbria)
According to Christopher Winn in I Never Knew That About the English, 1729 saw the extension of the Saltom Coal Pit, which is south of Whitehaven out beneath the sea. It was the first coal pit in the world to hold that distinction. Winn goes on to provide us other tidbits of information. For example John Paul Jones, the American privateer during the American War of Independence, had once served as an apprentice in Whitehaven (1749). The Brocklebank Shipping Lines, founded by Daniel Brocklebank in 1782, was the world’s first shipping lines in Whitehaven. 1798 saw the opening of Jefferson’s Wine Merchants on Lowther Street. The business stood for over 200 years in the same shop. Finally, Mildred Gale, who was George Washington’s paternal grandmother, is buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas. Before Mildred was married to George Gale, a sea merchant, she was married to Lawrence Washington, by whom she had three children.