Robert Ayton travels from St.Bees to Whitehaven


'Vile alleys, filthy cottages and respectable streets'

It was on a ramble taken a day or two after our survey of St. Bees Head that these observations were made. On leaving that promontory we proceeded by a road a short distance from the cliffs till we came, quite by surprise, in full view of Whitehaven, lying immediately and at a great depth below us, in a valley opening into a fine harbour, crowded with shipping and bounded on two sides by vast green hills, which rise very abruptly from the streets and give the town an extraordinary and very romantic appearance of seclusion.

The situation has a pleasing strangeness and novelty about it, and the effect of it was heightened to us by the sudden and unexpected manner in which we discovered the place.

“Subterranean city”
On descending from St. Bees Head we had hills before us, but so gradual in their risings that they were scarcely distinguishable as hills, the country having the appearance only of an elevated plain, varied by gentle undulations but not divided b any deep or abrupt valleys. We perceived no suburbs, no smoke, no indication of a town and walked on not guessing from whence we were to see it, or what concealed it from us, till the whole of it burst upon us at once, every street and roof seen at ‘a single glance, and lying sunk beneath us like a subterranean city.

Nor were we less struck by the bustle and ratlle of the place, than with its singular aspect. We had lately been strangers to crowds and their din, and coming from the solitude of rocks and mountains, were well prepared to be surprised by the sudden sight of this large town, with its general show of motion and bustle and its compound of noises, made up by the hammers of shipwrights, the shouts of the seamen, the rattling of coal waggons, and throngs of people moving amidst smoke, and dust and dirt, in all quarters and directions.

Charm dispelled
On descending into the town, the charm under which it was first represented to us was speedily dispelled, and we perceived that the greater half of it was mean and abominably dirty, hut as we walked about there was still something very pleasing and singular in the frequent glimpses we caught of the green hills through the openings of the streets.

Let me not in any way give an unfajr description of the town, nor forget to state that though it is disfigured by many vile alleys, and rows of shabby and filthy cottages, it has two or three very respectable streets, one of them dignified at one end by a large castellated mansion, the residence of Lord Lonsdale. Most of the houses are built of the red stone procured from St. Bees Head, but the fashion of the county is not dispensed with here, a n d t h e y are generally c o v e r e d with whitewash, which speedily acquires a dingy hue, and shows that it is a colour of all others the worst suited to the black business of the place. A little variation has been practised in the application of this favourite colour to the tower of one of the churches, the four sides being alternately red and white, and this conceit has been submitted to as a tasteful mode of decoration.

Smothered in smoke
With certain winds, and in calm weather, Whitehaven, from its inclosed situation, is smothered with smoke, which is supplied in immoderate quantities by the furnaces of various works, and the large fires which the cheapness of coal here enable’s even the poorest inhabitants to indulge in.

On ascending to the summit of the west hill, on a calm morning, I was much struck with the gloomy aspect of the valley. I was breathing a perfectly pure air, with a fine blue sky over my head, while beneath me a pitchy cloud of smoke hung over the town, which was rather heard than seen; here and there a roof or a chimney being distinguishable through the darkness. There was something strangely grand in the effect, which was that of a town concealing within It the groundwork of some vast fire, about speedily to burst into flame.

Lovely prospect
From the same eminence from whence I looked down into this murky gulf, I had a bright and lovely prospect over a great expanse of calm blue sea, a spacious bay, inclosed by the winding coast of Cumberland as far as the Solway Firth, and by a long extent of the southern coast of Scotland, stretching to the westward in a continued series of hills apparently rising from the sea, their summits broken into separate masses of various elevations, and exhibiting a beautiful variety of forms.

Whitehaven owes its rise entirely to the Lowther family, who, by the extensive scale on which they have worked their valuable mines of coal, had advanced it, within 120 years, from an obscure hamlet to its present size and consequence. It now contains about 15,000 inhabitants, and the number is continually increasing. It has hitherto engaged in a few manufactures, but some are now on the point of being introduced. A sugar house, a glass-house, a pottery, and a vitriol manufactory were in a state of forwardness when we were on the spot, and indicate a still improving place.

Spacious harbour
Shipbuilding is carried on here to a considerable extent, and on a system that has acquired for the artificers a high reputation. Strength is the great desideratum in vessels employed in the coal trade, and the shipwrights here have the art of giving t h e m great solidity, and firmness without clumsiness, so that they are said not only to be more durable but to sail faster than vessels of the same description from any other port in the kingdom. Ships of 500 tons are frequently built here, and a few have been built of considerably greater burthen.

There is a spacious and secure harbour at Whitehaven, situated in a small bay, and guarded by two strong stone piers, with a breakwater attached to one of them, which defends the entrance against the swell of the sea. Three quays project from the town into the bason, on each side of which vessels lie and receive their lading, as well as along the whole length of the two piers. The north pier is a vast work, of an angular figure, 450 yards in length, and 28 feet in height, the whole paved, and faced with a fine white stone. The last bend, which continues to the head, is 66 feet in breadth, forming a delightful promenade, where you have all the pleasure and none of the annoyances of being at sea; and where, as you turn and turn, you are amused with a variety of moving picture of life and bustle - on one side the harbour with all its shipping, the town with all its smoke, and the high majestic hills which tower above it; and on the other, the open sea, covered with vessels, some sunk nearly to the water’s edge, some light and’ buoyant, and meeting and crossing one another as they sail to or from the harbour.

204 vessels
There are 204 vessels belonging to this port, carrying 27,989 tons. Out of this number 62 vessels are employed in foreign commerce, seven of them directly between the West Indies and this port, and the others between the West Indies, North America and the Baltic, and various ports of Great Britain. Occasionally some of them bring home to this place cargoes of flax, hemp, timber, etc. The remainder of the vessels, their number 142 and their burthen 15,122 tons, are engaged entirely in the exportation of coals; nor do they include the whole number employed in this business here, for many colliers belonging to Workington and Maryport constantly receive their cargoes at Whitehaven. The quantity of coals annually exported amounts on an average to 400,000 tons, which are taken principally to the east coast of Ireland, and the south of Scotland. The quantity seems prodigious, but I believe I have not over-rated it. By the custom house books it appears that 42,000 waggon loads, or 101,000 tons, were shipped in the quarter ending on October 5, 1814.

The whole of this Immense business, almost the sole concern of a large and populous town, is supported by a single individual, Lord Lonsdale who, by the employment of a vast capital, has given the utmost facility to all the operatlons required in working the coals, and transporting them to the vessels. His lordship has a large iron foundry of his own at Whitehaven, which is kept in constant exercise in order to supply iron ore for the railroads and six or seven steam engines and a variety of machinery used in the service of the mines.

One may form some idea, of the enormous expense of this single material when he hears that there are 20 miles of iron railway underground.

Coal transport
Some of the pits lie at a considerable distance from the town, and the coals are conveyed from them to the vessels in waggons containing 45 cwt. each and running upon railroads. It would appear no easy matter on a first sight to conduct these heavy loads with safety down the steep faces of the hills which flanked the town, but it is managed without any kind of difficult or danger. The waggons descend down the east hill by a road cut in traverses, each under the direction of one man, who mounts up behind, and pressing occasionally upon one of the wheels with a wooden bar, fearlessly rattles down the steep, and regulates his speed at pleasure.

Having never seen anything of the kind before, I was very much entertained with thee various contrivances employed in the business of this place, and particularly with these self-impelled waggons rushing down the hill with an impetuosity that might have alarmed one a little had it not been for the cool and careless faces of the helmsmen, some smoking their pipes, and others accompanying the rough music of the wheels with a song.

On arriving at the south pier, the waggons are pushed along it by men to any vessel receiving her freight, and are emptied with the utmost ease and expedition. Wooden stages are constructed at intervals along the pier, projecting over its side, with holes through them communicating with shutes beneath, which reach down nearly to the vessel’s holds. The waggons are thrust out upon these stages, and having movable bottoms which drop at the word of command, their whole contents are discharged in an instant. These machines are emphatically called hurries.

Brake power
The descent of the waggons down the western hill has been simplified by a contrivance which saved , the labour of 40 men and as many horses. From the point where the declivity of the hill commences a regularly inclined plane has been cut, down which three wagons in a string roll at a time. The loaded waggons pull up three empty ones in their descent, but this counterpoise does not sufficiently reduce their speed, and they are therefore made to give motion to some machinery which requires considerable power working a huge pair of bellows that force air through a valve into a receiver.
As the receiver fills, more power is necessary for the depression of the bellows, and the waggons are thus duly checked as they acquire force in their descent. They are permitted, however, to roll down with considerable speed, and have a somewhat formidable look to a person meeting them, who is precluded by a bank on each side from getting more than a yard out of their way.

A nervous man I can conceive might, in the agitation of his useless precautions to avoid them, become entangled with them; but as they are confined to a certain tract by a railroad, they could not possibly, even were the rope to break, get out of their way to run over him.

Runaway waggons
A gentleman of the place told me that he once met them when they were running down with tremendous velocity, the people having forgotten to attach the rope to them; the sight, he said, was quite terrible, and a man not at all nervous might have trembled a little when he felt the ground shake as thundered past him. A bulwark erected at the bottom prevented their doing any mischief beyond their own destruction; but when they struck against it, they were dashed to atoms, and the coals in them scattered away like dust.

The inclined plane terminates in a precipice over the harbour, with a series of brick arches at the base, supporting a large storehouse for coal, and above this a long wooden gallery from whence, at an elevation of more than forty feet, the coals are precipitated down the hurries into vessels, 45 cwt at a time. There are five hurries along this side of the harbour, immense, uncouth machines, which are very striking to the eye of a stranger, and impress themselves not less forcibly upon the ears. On passing under one of them for the first time, I was startled by the sudden descent of a load of coals, with a deafening crash over my head, which in the first moment of surprise, made me imagine that there could be little hope left for me.

Profits reduced
It is in contemplation to make an incline plane like that already described, with a similar termination, on the opposite hill, and when it is completed, the town will possess every possible convenience in its business that art can supply or money purchase. A waggon load of coals containing 45 cwt is lodged in a vessel’s hold for 18s 6d including the cost of the material; a very moderate sum it would appear, when we advert to the labour and expense of working the mines and transporting the coals to the harbour; but the masters of vessels complain that the charge is too great, reducing their profits, after the deduction of their own expenses, to a sum very inadequate to the value of their services.

One cannot on a cursory view of the case assent to the reasonableness of their complaints, for they usually make a profit of seventeen or eighteen shillings upon every ton of coals that they sell.