Whitehaven

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Whitehaven is a small town and port on the coast of Cumbria, England, which lies equidistant between the county’s two largest settlements, Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness, and is served by the Cumbrian Coast Line and the A595 road. It is the administrative centre of the Borough of Copeland, and an unparished area.

Although there was a Roman fort at Parton, around 1.2 miles (1.9 km) to the north and part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site, there is no evidence of a Roman settlement on the site of the present town of Whitehaven.

Located on the west coast of the county, outside the Lake District National Park, Whitehaven includes a number of former villages, estates and suburbs, such as Woodhouse, Kells, Mirehouse and Hensingham.

The major industry is the nearby Sellafield nuclear complex, with which a large proportion of the population has links.

The area was settled by Irish-Norse Vikings in the tenth century. The area name of Copeland, which includes Whitehaven, indicates that the land was purchased from the Kingdom of Strathclyde, possibly with loot from Ireland.

The Priory of St Bees owned the village of Whitehaven until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539. Before 1715 the parish of St. Bees included Whitehaven. The town was largely the creation of 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, particularly to Ireland. In 1634 he built a stone pier where ships could load and unload cargoes.

Whitehaven grew into a major coal mining town during the 18th and 19th centuries and also became a substantial commercial port on the back of this trade. Daniel Defoe visited Whitehaven in the 1720s and wrote:

… grown up from a small place to be very considerable by the coal trade, that it is now the most eminent port in England for shipping off of coals, except Newcastle and Sunderland and even beyond the last. They have of late fallen into some merchandising also, occasioned by the strange great number of their shipping, and there are now some considerable merchants; but the town is yet but young in trade.

John Paul Jones led a naval raid upon the town in 1778 during the American War of Independence; it was the last invasion of England by some definitions.

The town has links to many notable people: Jonathan Swift, who claimed that an over-fond nurse kidnapped him and brought him to Whitehaven for three years in his infancy; Mildred Gale, grandmother of George Washington; and William Wordsworth, who often came into town to visit his family.

Whitehaven is the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe and recently has been pursuing growth through tourism. Due to Whitehaven’s planned layout with streets in a right-angled grid, many historians believe that Whitehaven was the blueprint for the New York City street grid system. James Robinson is officially credited as the original architect but some (most notably Alex James) contest the claim.

Whitehaven Castle was built in 1769, replacing an earlier building destroyed by fire. In 1924, the Earl of Lonsdale sold Whitehaven Castle to Mr H. Walker, who then donated the building to the people of Cumbria, along with monies to convert it into a hospital to replace the Victorian Whitehaven Hospital. With the opening of the new West Cumberland Hospital in 1964, the Castle became a geriatric unit until forced to close in 1986, owing to fire regulations. It has now been converted to private housing.

The town’s fortunes as a port waned rapidly when ports with much larger shipping capacity, such as Bristol and Liverpool, began to take over its main trade. Its peak of prosperity was in the 19th century when West Cumberland experienced a brief boom because haematite found locally was one of the few iron ores that could be used to produce steel by the original Bessemer process. Improvements to the Bessemer process and the development of the open hearth process removed this advantage. As with most mining communities the inter-war depression was severe; this was exacerbated for West Cumbria by Irish independence which suddenly placed tariff barriers on the principal export market.

The Harbour lost its last commercial cargo handling operation in 1992 when Marchon ceased their phosphate rock import operations. A new masterplan for the harbour was prepared by Drivers Jonas and marine consulting engineers Beckett Rankine with the objective of refocussing the town on a renovated harbour. The key to the masterplan was the impounding of the inner basins to create a large leisure and fishing harbour.

The harbour has seen much other renovation due to millennium developments; a picture of the harbour was used on the front page of the Tate Modern’s promotional material for an exhibition of Millennium Projects in 2003. The Harbour rejuvenation has cost an estimated £11.3 million and has enabled 100 more moorings within the marina. Further investment of an additional £5.5 million has seen the development of a 40m high crows nest and a wave light feature that changes colour dependant upon the tide, together with the Rum Story on Lowther Street, voted Cumbria Tourism’s small visitor attraction of the year 2007. In June 2008, the Queen visited Whitehaven as part of the 300th Anniversary Celebrations. The Queen and Prince Philip then officially opened the refurbished Beacon, a museum set on the harbour. 10,000 people attended the event.

Whitehaven has a rich railway history. It used to be a terminus of the Furness Railway, and still has two railway stations, Whitehaven (Bransty) and Corkickle, both on the Cumbrian Coast Line, which runs from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness.

The harbour was once riddled with railway lines, when steam engines would shunt trucks full of coal, iron, gypsum and many other cargoes onto the quays for ships to take elsewhere in the world.

The railway reached Whitehaven in 1847 – steam powered engines finally reached the town following an agreement between the Earl of Lonsdale and George Stephenson. Stephenson was the engineer placed in charge of the construction of the new railway line. The railway became known as the Whitehaven Junction Railway. Even before this line was built, the nearby Lowca engineering works began to produce locomotives. Over the life of the works, some 260 were produced – mainly for industrial lines.

The earliest reference to coal mining in the Whitehaven area is in the time of Prior Langton (1256–82) of St Bees Priory, concerning the coal mines at Arrowthwaite. St Bees Priory was dissolved in 1539, and the lands and mineral rights passed to secular owners. In 1560 Sir Thomas Chaloner granted bases of land for digging coal, and in 1586 he granted St Bees School liberty “to take 40 loads of coal at his coal pits in the parish of St Bees for the use of the School”. In 1670, the manor of St. Bees was bought by Sir John Lowther – he then began to develop the coal trade due to the ever increasing demand from Ireland. Lowther invested in the best available technology to help monopolise the coal trade. By the 1730s Whitehaven had the deepest mines due to the necessity to drive ever deeper shafts to reach new seams of coal.

An example of the Lowthers’ interest in technology could be seen at Stone Pitt when one of the world’s earliest steam engines, Engine No. 5 built by Thomas Newcomen and John Calley in 1715 was installed, to help in drainage and haulage. William Brownrigg, Whitehaven’s most eminent scientist, was the first to investigate the explosive mine gas fire damp.

The Lowthers’ technological advances continued when their chief steward, Carlisle Spedding sunk Saltom Pit in 1729. Saltom Pit was the first pit to be sunk beneath the sea. At Saltom pit, Carlisle Spedding pioneered the use of explosives in sinking shafts. He also invented the first form of ‘Safety Lamp’, it was called the Spedding Wheel or Steel Mill. On occasions the Spedding Wheel caused explosions or fires but it was a major improvement over the naked flame.

Saltom Pit was constructed around 6m above sea level, on land below the cliffs near to Haig Colliery. The pit workings went down to a depth of 456 ft (138m). Saltom Pit ceased working coal in 1848, but today it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is the best known surviving example of an eighteenth century colliery layout. Evidence of the shaft, horse gin, stable, winding engine house, boiler house and chimney, cottages, cartroads and retaining walls, all survives in situ.

Coal excavated from Saltom Pit was raised by horse gin to surface, then transported by tram through a tunnel to Ravenhill pit for lifting to the cliff top. Saltom Pit was used as a central pumping station, draining many of the other local mines via a drift driven in the 1790s, and continued in use long after it had ceased to work coal.

During 2007, Copeland Council declared that it could no longer afford to maintain the remaining Saltom Pit buildings, and decided to allow the pit to fall to the mercy of the Irish Sea. Following an online campaign by myWhitehaven.net, Copeland Council had a change of heart and decided to reverse this decision. They teamed up with the National Trust in an endeavour to save Saltom Pit, and obtained the necessary funding from various sources, including a 50% grant from the European Union. On Monday 8 December 2007, Saltom Pit was reopened as an historic monument. The pit buildings have been repaired and are now part of the ‘Whitehaven Coast’ project – a scheme to regenerate the coastal area of Whitehaven.

In three hundred years over seventy pits were sunk in the Whitehaven and district area. During this period some five hundred or more people were killed in pit disasters and mining accidents. The largest local disaster was in 1910 at Wellington pit where 136 miners lost their lives. In 1947 at William pit there was another disaster of similar proportions when 104 men were killed. Four separate explosions over the period 1922–1931 at Haig Pit together killed 83. Haig was to become the last pit to operate in Whitehaven.

In 1983, a major fault was encountered at Haig – with this, the future of the pit was in doubt. This, combined with the political situation, and the miners’ strike in 1984–1985, contributed to problems at the colliery. The workforce attempted to open a new face, but a decision had been taken to close, and after two years of recovery work, Haig finally ceased mining on 31 March 1986. Today there is no mining carried out in Whitehaven.

In 1941, Fred Marzillier and Frank Schon moved their Marchon Chemical Company to Whitehaven to avoid German bombing. Marchon started producing some of the first detergents in the world. The new detergents were a big success as soap was in short supply due to the war. The company continued producing their own detergents as well as bulk detergent ingredients for other companies after the war. It was taken over by Albright and Wilson, often referred to as ‘all bright and shiny’, in 1955. The Marchon works became the town’s largest employer when the mines closed down. However, it too was closed in 2005.

Whitehaven is a rugby league stronghold, its team Whitehaven RLFC play in National League one. Their mascot is a lion called “Pride”. There are also several Whitehaven-based teams playing in the amateur Cumberland League. Whitehaven’s female amateur R.L.F.C is named the “Wildcats”.

The term “jam eater” is often used to refer to people from Whitehaven, or more generally to people from West Cumbria. When the Financial Times ran a lighthearted article on famous feuds in September 2008, featuring this, the local Whitehaven News published its own complementary feature, reporting that: “The common view is that the term is insulting because it implies people could not afford to buy meat for their sandwiches, so they had to eat jam instead.”

The original article had summed up the situation in terms of the long-term rivalry between Whitehaven and nearby Workington: “Legend has it that one town’s miners had jam on their sandwiches and the other did not, but no one agrees on which town it was or whether they did it because they were snobs or peasants.” A reader from Maryport, a few miles further up the Cumbria coast (which, as occasionally mentioned in discussions on the topic, used to have a jam factory) reported that he had understood the term originally referred to people from Whitehaven, and this was echoed in the comments on the Whitehaven News article, suggesting that a former distinction between the Whitehaven “jam eaters” and Workington “high siders” had gradually been lost in the trading of insults across the Rugby pitch. The controversy was featured in the television series John Bishop’s Britain in September 2011.

On 2 June 2010, Whitehaven became a focus for the international media in relation to gun law in the United Kingdom, following the killings of people in the west of the county. Taxi driver Derrick Bird travelled from his home in Rowrah, killing and maiming people on his journey to Whitehaven. Once in Whitehaven, Bird continued his attacks by shooting fellow taxi drivers, along with other members of the public. From there, Bird used his knowledge of county roads to continue his attacks. In total, there were 30 crime scenes investigated as a result of the shootings by Bird. 12 people were killed and 11 people were injured during his three hours of terror, before he finally turned one of his two guns onto himself in the village of Boot, thus ending one of the worst mass killings in British history.

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