The existence of a harbour or landing place at Whitehaven can be traced back to the early 16th century when quay-dues – otherwise known as wharfage – were recorded in 1517. Also in 1677, a historical description of Whitehaven refers to “a little pier, in shallow water, built with some wooden piles and stones”. So, there was probably a man-made harbour structure at Whitehaven before the Lowthers started to develop the area.
It was the purchase of the manor of St Bees in 1630 by the Lowther family that was the start of the development of Whitehaven harbour primarily to export coal. Sir Christopher Lowther built a stone pier in 1631-34, and it survives albeit very modified and is known as Old Quay.
By the 1660’s the pier was suffering from storm damage and by the 1670’s was considered not to have sufficient capacity for the growing number of vessels wanting to use it. The prospect of a rival pier being built at Parton to the north of Whitehaven, galvanised Sir John Lowther into developing the harbour and by 1679 work was underway. During the late 17th and 18th century the harbour was extended by ballast walls, moles and piers to become one of the most complex pier harbours in Britain. April 1778 saw the harbour as the first site of an American attack on the British Isles during the American Revolutionary War.
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.
- Featured image is a contemporay shot, with a vintage twist.