From the Mines to the Mountains: John Dalton’s Descriptive Poem of 1755 and Contemporary Accounts of Cumberland and Westmorland edited and introduced by Christopher Donaldson and Stephen Matthews. Bookcase. £10
In 1752 two young ladies, still in their teens, were escorted through the coal mines at Whitehaven. They entered through the ‘bear-mouth’ and walked down through the long galleries, perhaps a mile or more, until they were deep beneath the sea.
It was a unique experience. No coal mines had been sunk so deeply into the earth and no mines went under the waves. It was an alarming journey to make. The mines were dangerous. At Whitehaven there was a particular danger from the gases in the mine. In 1737 an explosion had cost the lives of 23 men. The mine engineer, Carlisle Spedding, had devised a system of ventilation shafts which help remove the gases from the mine and replace them with fresh air. The escaping gas was burnt at a pipe on the surface. Spedding had even offered to light the town with gas from the mines. Spedding was also responsible for a wheel, which served as a safety light. It consisted of a wheel producing sparks from a flint which gave out sufficient light for the miners to work, but which would not ignite the gas.
The mines also employed impressive steam pumps to constantly pump out the excess water. The whole operation was technologically advanced. It was at the forefront of industrial developments at the time and Whitehaven and the mines were an attraction to the curious tourist of the day, who came to see the extraordinary developments of the town and mines as readily as they would later visit the the mountains and the lakes.
Whitehaven itself was impressive. Within a hundred years or so it had grown from a hamlet of a few fishing huts to be one of the most important ports in England. It had thrived on the coal trade supplying Dublin, which was then the second metropolis of the British Isles, and it had looked across the Atlantic and was a significant importer of tobacco.
The prosperous town with its ordered grid of streets and the mines owed their development to the Lowther family, to Sir James Lowther and his father, Sir John.
The two young ladies were his relations, probably two of the three daughters of Robert and Katherine Lowther of Maulds Meaburn.
Their journey through those labyrinthine tunnels beneath the waters of the Irish Sea is celebrated in a long poem by the Rev. John Dalton, who was born at Dean, near Cockermouth. It is one of the first detailed descriptions of industry in poetry. Dr William Brownrigg, who lived and worked in Whitehaven, provided extensive factual notes on the operation of the mines, on the operation of the Savory’s pumps, the ventilation system and the Spedding wheel.
The poem also celebrates the vast and well managed estate at Lowther and presents a picture of Borrowdale. This was one of the first descriptions of this valley which became so celebrated in later years and an important area for the development of tourism in the Lakes.
Three other contemporary poems are reprinted in this book for the first time in almost two hundred years. Excited by the industrial and commercial developments on the coast of Cumberland, the Irish poet, James Eyre Weeks wrote ‘Poetical Prospects’ of both Whitehaven and Workington. A local clergyman, Thomas Cowper of Loweswater published his own ‘Poetical Prospect of Keswick’.
With its scholarly introduction and extensive notes, this new volume provides a detailed picture of the rich and varied society of Cumberland in the middle of the eighteenth century.