About the harbour


About the harbour

  • The first quay to be built was the Old Quay in 1634. This was for the export of salt and coal.
  • All of the quays within the harbour are set on a foundation of squared oak.
  • In 1700, 80% of all Ireland’s coal was imported from Whitehaven.
  • By the beginning of the 18th century Whitehaven was importing large quantities of tobacco from Virginia and Maryland in exchange for manufactured goods.
  • Imports at this time from the West Indies included sugar, spirits and very occasionally slaves! (See the ‘Rum Story’, Lowther Street for the story of this trade).
  • A Pier Master, forerunner to the Harbour Master, was first employed in 1709 as the port became busier.
  • The second quay to be built was the Bulwark Quay. This quay was first built to the south end of the harbour, demolished and rebuilt in its present position in 1711.
  • By 1730 Whitehaven had the deepest coalmines in the world, some running beneath the sea.
  • Over 1,000 ships are documented as being built in the port of Whitehaven, ranging between 150 & 3000 tons.
  • The West Pier Lighthouse, West Pier and North Pier surrounding the Outer harbour started to be built in 1832
  • The West Pier Lighthouse was built in 1832 at a cost of £150,000, a fraction of the cost today. Almost unbelievably the Harbour Commissioners at the time were reluctant to build it. Only the shipmaster’s constant demands finally changed their minds. Both piers took 25 years to build.
  • By the late 19th century, almost all of the harbour had a rail network, even to the tip of the West Pier. Locomotives were  first introduced in 1848, the last locomotive being disposed of in 1986. The coal chutes or hurries, in the harbour walls can still be seen by the South Harbour.
  • By 1860 over 400 wagons per day were using the Sugar Tongue to load and off load produce.
  • In 1876 the Queen’s Dock was built. This was a wet dock with one set of dock gates to hold the water in as the tide ebbed. The original wooden gates were replaced with steel gates in 1938. These gates can still be seen today.
  • 72,000 tons of silt were dredged from the outer harbour in 1900.
  • Access was greatly improved to the port by the installation of a £8.5 million Sea lock in 1998. One of the Sea lock’s main purpose is to protect the town of Whitehaven from tidal flooding, this having been a common occurrence prior to the installation.
Since 1990, £20 million of grant funding has been invested in and around the harbour. This has greatly improved the public access to the harbour and has also provided new employment opportunities with the construction of a state of the art boat repair shed. In recent years Whitehaven has hosted magnificent maritime festivals, bringing many people to the harbour.

These notes only skim the surface of a fascinating history between town and harbour.  All of the topics can be explored in greater detail, in and around the town or at one of the attractions.

With a colourful 400-year-old history, the recent improvements to the harbour infrastructure and continuing developments are sure to become yet another chapter in its long and illustrious life.