In 1633 Whitehaven on the coast of the Irish Sea in north west England was a small isolated fishing village. By the mid 18th Century it was the third largest trading port in the UK after London and Bristol. What led the this dramatic rise in Whitehaven’s importance? The short answer was coal ! Whitehaven and the surrounding areas had the deepest coalmines in the world and exports of the ‘black diamond’ from its harbour took place on a colossal scale during its heyday with Ireland receiving the bulk of the trade. Whitehaven also imported large quantities of sugar and spirits from the West Indies and tobacco from Virginia and Maryland. It had large dockyards which built over 1000 ships during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Its importance was such that during the American War of Independence John Paul Jones the American commander mounted a daring raid on the harbour hoping to burn and destroy the scores of ships sheltering there. Fortunately for Great Britain he was largely unsuccessful although this raid did alert the Government as to the vulnerability of ports such as Whitehaven to invasion.
To the north of Whitehaven is Workington which also exported coal although not on the same scale as Whitehaven. The main trustee of the harbour during the late 18th and early 19th Century was John Christian Curwen MP(1756-1828) cousin of Fletcher Christian, a mutineer on the Bounty. The Christians were a Manx family who emigrated to the mainland in late 17th Century and proceeded to accumulate land and develop coalmines. I have a fascinating list of the Rules for the operating of Workington Harbour dated 1791. As might be expected the turnover of ships both importing cargo ( mainly live cattle) and exporting coal could have led to complete confusion if the rules were not enforced. Reading these it is obvious that Workington built ships and ships loading coal from Curwen’s mines had precedence whereas other ‘stranger’ ships had to wait their turn. Also there were penalties if ships refused a load of coal or became ‘neaped’ that is they took on so much coal that they did not float off when high tide returned and other ships had to load coal over them.
Both of these harbours gradually became less important during the 19th and 20th Centuries as trade gradually shifted to major industrial areas such as Liverpool and the Ports of the Clyde serving Glasgow. Today these towns are part of a mainly rural landscape situated to the west of the Lake District National Park.