Whitehaven is one of the most spectacular harbours in England, and was built in the eighteenth century partly for shipping coal from mines along the Cumbrian coast, but also for the use of traders to America who imported tobacco and sugar. Whitehaven lay in the ancient parish of St Bees, which extended 18 miles inland to Eskdale, and had a population in 1851 of nearly 24,000, of whom two thirds lived in Whitehaven. In 1634 Sir Christopher Lowther (1611-40) built the Old Quay, the nucleus of the harbour, and established coal-fired salt pans at nearby Bransty. Sir John Lowther (1642-1706) augmented his family’s estate with a royal grant of the lands of the former Benedictine priory of St Bees. He extended the quay in 1665 and 1687, and laid out the grid of streets upon which Whitehaven developed. By 1700 the town had a population of about 2,000, and its coal export trade was thriving. Sir James Lowther (1673-1755) in 1709 entrusted to trustees the government of ‘the port harbour and town of Whitehaven’ and James Lowther 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1736-1802) undertook further developments. A new pier built in 1733-35 named the Sugar Quay reflected growing transatlantic trade and a sugar refinery was directed in 1754 by a migrant from Hamburg. In the 1740s Whitehaven was second only to London in its volume of tobacco imports, and the port handled most of the rum distilled in Antigua.
Carlisle Spedding (1695-1755), coal viewer on the Lowthers’ estates, was a pioneer in the use of gunpowder in mining, and invented the ‘steel mill’, a means of illumination underground that, if not safe, was less hazardous than candles. His principal achievement was the sinking in 1729-31 of the Saltom pit from a natural platform below the cliffs south of Whitehaven. It reached a depth of 140 m, from which it extended under the sea, the first substantial colliery so to do. Spedding’s weather-battered Newcomen engine house remains on the shore. To the north is the cap of the King Pit sunk by Spedding in 1750, which by 1793 reached a depth of 296 m, then the deepest coal mine in Britain.
The harbour is lined by crenellated monuments. The Candlestick on the southern side was a chimney designed by Sydney Smirke in 1850 as part of the ventilation system of the notoriously gassy Wellington Pit, sunk in 1838. The nearby crenellated building stands above a shaft of the Duke Colliery that ceased production in 1844. It was taken over by the King Colliery, and from 1870 housed a Guibal fan. The ‘Lime Quay’ was built in 1754, and in the 1820s a Lime Office was part of the Lowther estate’s headquarters. Lime was despatched to the ports of Galloway, distantly visible across the Solway Firth. Several potteries flourished in Whitehaven from the eighteenth century, and a factory-based flax industry grew up in the town. The Barracks Mill, an iron-framed building of 1809, has been adapted as housing. There are displays relating to local history in the purpose-built museum and gallery called The Beacon Museum, which opened in 1996.
Along the cliffs to the south of the harbour the Haig Colliery Mining Museum was located in the surface buildings of a colliery which closed in 1986; the museum closed in 2016. The headstock still stands together with the winding engine house in which are two Bever Dorling steam engines.