The town is situated on a creek of the Irish Sea, and has several spacious well-built streets, intersecting each other at right angles, and paved with pebbles. It is lighted with gas; supplied with water partly from wells, and partly by means of carts, in which it is brought into the town; and watched under the superintendence of police. The ground, on three approaches to it, rises abruptly and precipitously; the entrance from the north is under a fine arch of red-sandstone, with a rich entablature, bearing the arms of the Lowther family. On the south-east is the castle of the Earl of Lonsdale, a quadrangular building, with square projections at the angles, and a circular bastion in the centre, having fine meadow land to the south, and commanding an extensive prospect of the harbour. In Roper-street is a theatre, erected in 1769, a handsome and commodious structure; and races are occasionally held in the neighbourhood. The subscription library, formed in 1797, occupies a neat building erected by the Earl of Lonsdale, in Catherinestreet, and contains about 3000 volumes: the subscription newsroom is well supplied with newspapers. A mechanics' institute and library, in Lowther-street, was established in 1825; and cold, warm, and shower saltwater baths are fitted up in a building near the old platform.
The harbour has always been an object of importance with those interested in the trade of the town, and many great improvements have been effected in it. Several stone piers extend, some in a diverging and some in a parallel direction, into the harbour; and another bends in an angular manner towards the north-west, on which is a battery. A watchhouse and a lighthouse have been built on the pier called the Old Quay, which was constructed in the time of Charles II., or previously, affording protection to the shipping in the harbour, which is capable of sheltering several hundred sail of vessels. Formerly the harbour was dry at low water, to remedy which, a new west pier, 20 yards in thickness, was constructed to the north-west; it was commenced in 1854, on a plan by Mr. John Rennie, and the estimated expense was £80,000, but this sum being found insufficient, the trustees were empowered to borrow £180,000 to complete the undertaking. The harbour was once defended by four batteries, mounting together nearly 100 guns; but since the termination of the late war, many of the guns have been removed. At the entrance of the harbour are two lighthouses, that already mentioned, and another on the New Quay, which has a revolving light.
Whitehaven is a place of very considerable trade, of which coal forms the chief article: in addition to this, it exports lime, freestone, alabaster, and grain; and the imports mainly consist of American, Baltic, and West India produce, linen and flax from Ireland, fruit from the Levant, and wine from Spain and Portugal. The most important manufactures are of linen, linen-yarn, sailcloth, checks, ginghams, cordage, earthenware, copperas, colours, anchors, and nails; soap and candles are also made, for the West India market and for home consumption. The coal-mines, which are of a magnitude only inferior to those of Newcastle and Sunderland, furnish the principal employment of the inhabitants; some have been sunk to a depth of more than 150 fathoms, and extend a considerable distance under the sea. They are worked by means of shafts formed at great expense, and to some are entrances called Bear Mouths, which, opening at the bottom of a hill, lead through passages, by a steep descent to the bottom of the pit. The coal, when raised, is carried to the harbour in wagons on tramways, aided by the declivity of the ground, and is shipped by means of an inclined plane and wooden spouts called hurries, placed sloping over the quays. A quantity of a very rich iron-ore is sent from the mines here to the iron-works in South Wales. The herring-fishery was formerly carried on to a great extent, but now very few of the inhabitants are employed in it. There are several ship-builders' yards, the ships of Whitehaven being distinguished for their durability, and for drawing little water. A patent-slip was erected in 1821 by the Earl of Lonsdale, which will admit vessels of 700 tons, and, with great convenience, four vessels of 150 tons' burthen each, and by which a few men can draw a large vessel into the yard to be repaired. A communication with Liverpool, Dublin, the Isle of Man, Dumfries, Annan, and Garliestown, is maintained by steam-boats, which sail regularly for those places. The number of vessels of above 50 tons registered at the port is 341, and their aggregate burthen, 55,501 tons. The custom-house was erected in 1811. An act was passed in 1844 for a railway hence to Maryport; it was completed in 1847, and is 12 miles in length. In 1845 an act was obtained for a railway to Furness, in Lancashire, 32 miles long: this has also been completed. There are three markets, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, that on Thursday being the principal, and they are all well supplied with provisions: a fair, held on the 12th of August, has nearly fallen into disuse. The market-place is a handsome area, containing a neat market-house, designed by Smirke, in 1813, for the sale of poultry, eggs, and dairy produce: there is another building, erected in 1809 at the expense of the Earl of Lonsdale, for fish, of which the supply is good; also shambles, called the Low and George's markets, for butchers.
The regulation of the town and harbour is, under acts of parliament passed in the 7th and 11th of Queen Anne, and confirmed by subsequent acts, vested in 21 trustees, of whom seven are chosen by the lord of the manor (himself being one), and the remaining fourteen elected triennially by ballot. Such of the inhabitants as pay harbour-dues, or possess one-sixteenth share of a vessel belonging to the port, and the masters of vessels, form the electors. The constables of the town are nominated by the trustees, and appointed by the justices of the peace, who meet at the public office in Lowther-street, on Thursday and Saturday, for the despatch of business. By the act 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, the town was constituted a borough, with the privilege of sending a member to parliament: the right of election is vested in the £10 householders; the borough comprises an area of 1778 acres, and the returning officer is appointed by the sheriff. The powers of the county debt-court of Whitehaven, established in 1847, extend over the registration-districts of Whitehaven and Bootle.
Whitehaven contains three chapels, to which districts have been assigned, and of which the livings are perpetual curacies, in the patronage of the Earl of Lonsdale, who is also impropriator. St. James', on an eminence at the eastern extremity of the town, was rebuilt in 1753, and is a neat structure with a square tower surmounted with pinnacles: net income, £200. St. Nicholas' was erected in 1693, and is a plain building of good proportions with a square tower; the interior is decorated with paintings of the Last Supper, and of Moses and Aaron, by Matthias Reed, an artist of some merit, who came from Holland in the fleet with the Prince of Orange, and settled in this town: net income, £188. The chapel of the Holy Trinity, situated near the southern extremity of the town, at the head of Roperstreet, is a plain edifice with a lofty tower; net income, £250. A church-district named Mount-Pleasant was endowed in 1845 by the Ecclesiastical Commission: its church, dedicated to Christ, was consecrated in September 1847. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Crown and the Bishop of the diocese, alternately; income, £150. There are places of worship for Presbyterians, Particular Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, and Roman Catholics. Near St. James's chapel is the Marine school, endowed by Matthew Piper, Esq., with the interest of £2000; the site was given, and the building erected, by the Lowther family. The interest of £1000 was bequeathed by Mr. Piper, for the purchase of soup to be distributed during winter among the poor; and about the commencement of the year 1830, a spacious mansion in Howgill-street was purchased, and fitted up for the purposes of an infirmary, a dispensary, and house of recovery. A savings' bank was instituted in 1818, and from the accumulation of interest beyond what was paid to the depositors, a new and elegant edifice has been erected in Lowther-street. The poor-law union of Whitehaven contains a population of 29,971. The late Mr. Justice Littledale, one of the judges of the queen's bench, was a native of the place. Dean Swift, when a child, resided with his attendant in a house in Roper-street, during the disturbance in Ireland about the time of the Revolution; and Dr. Brownrigs, who by his publications first attracted the notice of strangers to the beauties of Keswick and the surrounding scenery, for many years practised as a physician in the town.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.