Richard Ayton describes Workington circa 1815


Richard Ayton, continues his description of life along the West Cumberland coast in the year 1813-14. This extract describes the town of Workington and its major problem, the violence and disorder between local coal miners and the Irish labourers who were employed at low wages and worked alongside them in the Curwen pits.

'A spirit of discontent and riot among Mr Curwen's miners'

On descending from this hill I was surprised at the sight of two coal pits, with their steam engines, at the brink of the sea. They are very conveniently situated for the conveyance of the coals to the harbour of Workington, but it was a bold experiment to sink them on a shore so exposed to the inroads of the sea. One of them is protected by a wall, though very imperfectly, for the sea is working its way round it, and on the occurrence of one of t h o s e overwhelming tides which occasionally commit such ravages on the coast, nothing could save the pit from inundation.


Dreary waste

A few hundred yards north of these pits, the River Derwent discharges itself into the sea, forming a spacious and secure harbour at its mouth, but, like most barbours at the mouths of rivers, rendered difficult of access by shifting sands. A dreary waste of swampy land surrounds the harbour, but about half a mile up it contracts into a pretty green valley, bounded by steep wooded banks, and watered by the river which winds from side to side, sparkling and murmuring over a pebbly bed. On the south bank stands the town of Workington set off at one extremity by Workington Hall, the seat of Mr Curwen, a handsome castellated mansion, screened by a fine grove, above which appear the blue surmmits of distant mountains.

I found the town in a state of extreme bustle and agitation, in consequence of the late arrival of a troop of soldiers, whose presence was thought necessary to quell a spirit of discontent and riot that had for some time shown itself among Mr Curwen’s miners, and lately broken out into some acts of violence. The dispute was amongst themselves solely, and originated, it was said, in the turbulance of a party of Irish labourers, though from all I could collect, I am inclined to believe that this turbulance was excited by the insolence and domineering disposition of the English party in the mines.


Cheap labour

Mr Curwen employs a great number of Irish, much to the dissatisfaction of his English workmen who protest against them generally as foreigners and papists, and are particularly irritated against them for sneakingly submitting to receive such wages as they can procure.

The unfortunate Irish thus offending are subject to a system of petty persecution, and taunted and reviled till they can bear no more, and rise against their oppressors according to the custom of their country with clubs in their hands - a scuffle ensures, and some heads are broken when it is thought prudent to send for it is thought prudent to send for soldiers, who overawe them at once, and terrify them into order.

But it is not soldiers who can effectually pacify these poor people, for it is not the sword that can enlighten their minds, soften their manners, and redress their wrongs. These limited squabbles result from the same causes that spread discontent and confusion all over Ireland. In their own country, the Irish are the wildest and most disorderly people of civilised Europe, and amongst whatever strangers they settle there is an end of all quietness and subordination - nor can it be expected to be otherwise till something is done towards the amelioration of their condition and the assimilation of their laws and rights to these of the parent country.


Uncultivated savages

They come over here a race of uncultivated savages, prepared for riot by the natural heat of their tempers, and a just sense of their injuries abject and poverty stricken in their appearance, they find themselves exposed to contemptuous usage wherever they go; treated like dogs by a people to whom by right of a community in laws and government they feel they ought to be equal - and can it he wondered at, if thus insulted and exasperated, they become desperate and ferocious?

Soldiers may check their excesses and beat them down, but if we wish to see them tamed, we must have recourse to more conciliating modes of discipline - educate them, redeem them from oppression - subject them to an efficient and impartial magistracy, and give them an interest and a pride in supporting a constiution which repects their welfare and happiness.


Incompact town

Workington is a long, straggling, incompact town dirty enough, I could not help thinking, but clean, it is said, for a coal town. It contains b e t w e e n 13,000 and 14,000 inhabitants.

During half an hour’s ramble, I saw every thing in it that could possibIy be thought worth seeing, and nothing that it is worth while to talk about here. The quantity of coal shipped at this place is not much less than at Whitehaven. Two hundred vessels, of 27,899 tons burthen, belong to the port, all colliers, excepting a few employed in the North American and Baltic trades.

Somewhat less than a mile above its mouth, the Derwent is crossed by a handsome stone bridge of three arches, from whence the town, or a part of it, is seen to the best advantage, crowning a bold eminence, with a fertile valley beneath it. The valley has apparently been at some period the bed of a stream of water, having a surface as flat as a bowling green, and winding between high, steep banks, like a river. Probably the sea flowed into it till blocked out by depositions of sand brought down by the Derwent. This conjecture is rendered plausible by the appearance of the coast to the northward of the river, from whence the seas has evidently retired considerably at no very remote period, though now again advancing. A flat sandy tract extends for two or three miles along the shore, covered generally with heath or sea bent, but naked in parts, and discovering beds of pebbles and shells. It is flanked in its whole length by a high precipitous bank, distant now more than half a mile from the sea, though once obviously its boundary. The flat is not susceptible of cultivation, but is valuable as a rabbit-warren.


Sabbath release

On leaving Workington, my way was enlivened by the crowds of people whom I met, the Sabbath having given to the miners a day of respite from their dismal imprisonment underground, and permitting them, with light hearts and clean faces to enjoy the common benefits of nature -the sunshine and the pure air.

An old miner, with whom I entered into conversation, informed me, that he felt himself on a Sunday a being quite of a distinct nature from the creature that he was reduced to on work-days, and I could readily believe him, seeing that it was on a Sunday only that half his senses were not useless and inert, and the rest exercised only to be pained and disgusted. How fortunate it is for the proprietors of m i n e s and the consumers of coals, that men can be found willing to submit to any sacrifice and mortifications for little more than they could earn by ordinary labour - giving up in the pursuit of gain every comfort that should constitute its reward, and denying themselves enjoyments that are open to all and more delightful than any that money can purchase.


Pleasures poisoned

Two thirds of mankind must labour with no benefit but the bare support of life; but thousands, like these poor miners, are content to live by means that poison all the pleasures of life, and cut short half of its duration.
I had little satisfaction in my day’s walk but what I derived in common with the miners from the beauty and cheerfulness of a fine summer’s day, the coast presenting nothing to gratify attention.

To the northward of the Derwent, the country became less elevated, a n d being distributed into inclosures and diversified by hedge-rows, had a more agreeable aspect that the broad, bare hills that my eyes had so long rested upon, though still exhibiting nothing but tame and common-place scenery. A border of flat lands continues along the shore as far as Maryport, where a branch from the range of hills juts out nearly into the sea, terminating with a very bold and abrupt declivity.