Location of Whitehaven, UK

The Whitehaven area of Cumbria was once a major mining centre with numerous coal and metal mines in the surrounding area. The harbour (built by the Lowther family - major local mine owners) was a busy coal port - in addition to being a major centre for ship building and other trades.

The collieries in the Whitehaven area were notorious for the amount of Firedamp (methane) they produced, and the number of fatal explosions which occured. The mines were so dangerous that the area was chosen in 1816, to test Sir Humphrey Davy's new safety lamp "in the severest possible conditions".

Many of the surviving mine remains today are preserved as memorials to the men, women and children who lost their lives in the Whitehaven Collieries.

 

King Pit
Cairn on top of King Pit A short walk along the cliff top from the Haig Colliery (NGR: NX 9670 1760) a small stone cairn marks the site of King Pit.

Sunk in 1750, by Carlisle Spedding the famous Mine Agent for the Lowther family. By 1793 King pit had reached a depth of over 160 fathoms (295 metres), which at that time was the deepest in the world.

An interesting feature of Whitehaven and surrounding areas is that there is a large expanse of grass land along the top of the cliffs, with the houses being set well back. The main reason for this is that at one time all the mines, railways and inclines were along the cliff tops, these have now gone to leave the open space - which is useful as the cliffs seem fairly unstable today!

 

Newcomen engine house and shaft area of Saltom Pit Saltom Pit
(NGR: NX 9642 1732) Sunk in 1729 by Carlisle Spedding, 6m above sea level on a small area of flat land below the cliffs near to Haig Colliery. To reach the pit today, you walk to the cliff edge from the car park at Haig Pit, then follow the cliff path along until it drops down to the sea.

Saltom pit was the first to pump from a depth of 456ft (138m) and the first large scale mine to work coal from under the sea - at the time any coal worked from under the sea was Crown property, but the mine was worked for nearly 150 years before any levy's were paid! During the sinking of this pit Spedding also pioneered the use of gunpowder for breaking rock.

Coal was raised by horse gin to surface at Saltom then trammed through a tunnel to Ravenhill pit for lifting to the cliff top.

Saltom Pit was used as a central pumping station, draining many of the other local mines via a drift driven in the 1790's, and continued in use long after it had ceased to work coal.

Remains include: horse-gin site (between the engine house and the cliffs), stone chimney, Newcomen engine house (with stone bearing blocks) and a strange iron box around the shaft top.

 

Wellington Pit 'Candlestick' chimney Wellington Pit
(NGR: NX 9678 1825) About a ½mile from Haig, heading towards Whitehaven along the cliff tops is Wellington Pit.

It was sunk in 1838 and finally closed in 1932. This was a very 'fiery' pit, and the scene of numerous accidents including a major disaster which claimed 132 lives in May 1910. The most striking feature of this mine is its “Candlestick” chimney which is a landmark for the area, standing on a hill top overlooking the harbour. The chimney is actually an air vent for the workings, rather than a conventional chimney.

The only other feature of the mine to survive is a white crenellated building nearby, which was the entrance lodge for the pit. The ‘castle’ style construction of many of the mining remians in this area was part of Sydney Smirke's ‘medievalization’ of the pits in the 1850’s.

A plaque on the wall below the chimney commemorates all the “Men, Women and Children” of the Whitehaven District Collieries who lost their lives in the local pits.

To visit Wellington Pit: park in the overflow car park of the Beacon Centre (on the harbourside) then walk up the short path to the chimney.

 

Howgill Incline
(NGR: NX 9677 1825) Running down beside Wellington pit, but built in 1813 (replacing an earlier horse drawn tramway) to connect Saltom pit waggonway to the harbour is Howgill Incline. This is 230 yards long, with a vertical drop of 115 feet. It was a self-acting incline, 1 loaded wagon travelling down the incline could raise 3 empties.

The line of the incline is still visible running towards the harbour, past the “Candlestick” chimney of Wellington pit.

 

Fan house at Duke Pit, WhitehavenDuke Pit
(NGR: NX 9695 1810) The most obvious remnant of this pit is the preserved remains of the fan house on the hillside over looking the harbour.

This shaft was sunk in 1749 as a ventilation shaft, it was later used by Wellington Pit when Duke closed in 1844.

The ‘medieval’ style fan house, built in 1836, housed a 36 ft. diameter Guibel fan from 1870 - this is claimed to be one of the few surviving examples of this type of fan house.

The Duke Pit actually had two shafts, the coal shaft was on the harbourside, under what is now the Beacon Centre.

 

The Beacon Centre
(NGR: NX 9694 1823) Opened in 1996, on the South side of Whitehaven harbour, the Centre tells the story of Whitehaven's maritime, industrial and social history - it is open daily and there is an admission charge, but its well worth a visit.

 

Local Characters

Carlisle Spedding
The famous Mine Agent or 'Steward' for the Lowther family, he invented the miners ‘steel mill’ due to the firey nature of the pits of this area. The hand cranked mill basically generated light by holding a piece of flint against a rotating hardened steel disc - it was not totally safe, but considered safer than candles!

Among his other achievements was: the first use of gunpowder for blasting underground, the development of underground ventilation known as Coursing the air, and along with local Scientist William Brownrigg he proposed using methane (from the mines) to light street lamps (nearly 200 years before it happened!).

Sadly he was killed near Whitehaven by a minor pit explosion in 1755.

Dr. William Brownrigg
A trained chemist, Brownrigg was the first to investigate the nature of fire-damp (methane) - as found in mines. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society for this work. He also discovered that the possibility of pit explosions could be predicted by studying barometric pressures (a 'falling glass' increased the chance of explosions). It is now complusory for coal mines to maintain records of barometric pressure. He also conducted a number of important experiments into the production of salt - from sea water and in pouring oil on 'troubled water' (at Derwentwater, Cumbria) with Benjamin Franklin (from the USA).

The Lowther Family
This family was responsible for developing large scale coal mining in the Whitehaven area.

The family owned the Whitehaven estate of the former St.Bees Priory - sized by the Crown in the 1530's following the Dissolution of the Monestries. Industrial development of the estate started with Sir Christopher Lowther in 1630. He started to develop deep coal mines to supply Dublin with the coal it desperately needed. To attract the workforce that he needed he also systematically developed the town of Whitehaven.

Sir Christopher Lowther died in 1640 (aged 33) but successive members of the Lowther family continued his work, resulting in Whitehaven becomming the first post medieval Planned Town in England. The Lowther family finally leased their pits in 1880, ending over 200 years of direct control.

Credits, thanks to:

  • Haig Colliery Preservation Society for help with information.
     
  • I.A.Recordings for use of freeze frames from their video archive for some of these pictures.

Report & pictures: Kelvin Lake