In 1600 Whitehaven was a small coastal village dependent on fishing, farming and salt-making, until the wealthy Lowther family began to capitalise on the rich seams of coal in the area. Whitehaven’s prosperity rose with the building of a pier in the 1600’s; the town began to establish itself as port and a route for trade. Throughout the coming centuries the town’s importance as a port increased with tobacco and coal being traded with Ireland, France, Holland and the American colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Coal seams continued to be exploited and Whitehaven grew into a major coal mining town during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Lowther family invested in this growth within the town and developed it using the grid system you can still find today. The abundance of architecture from the Georgian period has contributed to Whitehaven’s listing as a ‘gem town’, and can still be seen during a wander around the town today.
Whitehaven port’s dominance as a trade route declined as other ports such as Liverpool and Glasgow developed and grew. Coal mining continued as an important industry until the 1930s, followed by gradual closure of the pits. In 1943 the Marchon Chemical Works was built on the site of Ladysmith pit and became a leading producer of detergent powders. Its tall chimneys dominated the Whitehaven skyline for around 50 years until closure in 2005 and demolition two years later.
Without a port or coal seams the nearby town of St Bees developed differently. The name St Bees is a corruption of the Norse name for the village, which can be translated as the “Church town of Bega”. Bega was said to be an Irish princess who fled across the Irish Sea to St Bees to avoid an enforced marriage to a Viking prince; sometime after 850 AD. Carved stones at the Priory show that Irish-Norse Viking influence was felt here in the 10th century.
In 1120 a Benedictine priory was founded by William le Meschin, Lord of Egremont, on the existing religious site. The priory had a great influence on the area. The monks worked the land, fished, and extended the priory buildings.
The priory was closed by Henry VIII at the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, but the nave and transepts of the monastic church have continued in use as the parish church until the present day.
The well-known St Bees School was founded in 1583 and many school buildings are still present throughout the village. The railway line reached the village in 1849 and meant an increase in trade and visitors, with the town developing into a popular seaside destination.