Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The coal wagons were brought right up to the quay’s edge. The coal was tipped down a chute with all the dust and noise into the hold of the boat. The coaster was moored at the Queen’s Dock directly in front of the very imposing Queen’s Hotel, and then, with billowing clouds of dirty smoke, it steamed out of Whitehaven and across the Irish Sea to Ireland.
For three hundred years, Whitehaven was a working town, full of the hustle and bustle of industry. The well-planned Georgian town, with its elegant streets, was built on the coal trade. For a time it was the third port on the west coast. The last thirty years have witnessed Whitehaven in the process of re-inventing itself.
“Gone are the traditional industries of chemical, coal and iron ore mining, iron making, pottery, ship building, shipping and tobacco. In their stead are a couple of excellent museums, fully restored quays, a new sea lock and a number of marinas.” The town is well on its way to transforming itself into a tourist centre, a well-sited town at the heart of an attractive coast. That is the dream. Allan Routledge’s book, which places colour photographs of the new Whitehaven alongside sepia prints of the old, shows just how this change is coming about.
Today, the colliers and the phosphate boats and the Marchon silos are long gone. Yachts and pleasure craft are moored alongside the quay. People promenade where once the coal wagons rumbled.
The Lime Tongue was built in 1685 when Sir John Lowther gave £25 to build a sheltered landing for the fishing boats. A photograph from 1890 shows two Whitehaven boats moored in the harbour with boys dangling their legs over the quay wall and piles of netting lying alongside them. This was the quay where, every day, a special barge, The Redness Point, would collect the domestic ashes and “night-soil” from the town and steam out of the harbour to dump all the waste in the Irish Sea.
Today, a symbolic wave runs the length of the Lime Quay. At the seaward end is “a new work of art, The Crow’s Nest, rising almost 45 metres into the sky. The building that was the Seamen’s Mission is now empty, awaiting a new usage. The Tongue is “a good place to walk and take in some sea air”.
The Fish Sellers used to set up their stalls in the Strand. They can be seen, one sitting on the handle of his barrow full of fish, whilst the others sort out their wares for the day into wicker baskets. These were hardy people in their flat caps and heavy aprons preparing for a day’s work. The place where they sold their catch is now a public arena for open-air theatre, art and other displays.
In the 1930s the market in James Street was crowded with shoppers every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The old Refuge School in the Market Place, which offered sanctuary for the town’s waifs and strays is now a gym, computer spares shop, café and hairdresser’s.
Times change. Whitehaven was full of industry – the Haig and William Pits, the Lonsdale Ironworks, the Marchon Chemical Works, and the workaday harbour itself – and the streets were busy with people. Today’s streets are cleaner and brighter. The dirt and the smoke have gone. The yachts are moored where the tramp steamers waited for the coal to be tipped into their holds. The quays are no longer filled with the clutter of nets. The noise and the smells and the activity have been replaced by art works and promenades.
This is a book of old photographs that not only shows us something of Whitehaven’s past, but poses some interesting questions about the town’s future.