Whitehaven, the American War of Independence and a question of ‘What if?’

Cleopatra’s Nose Theory argues that chance plays a big role in historical outcomes. The theory goes that had Cleopatra’s nose been bigger Mark Anthony wouldn’t have found her physical charms so irresistible, and the whole course of Western civilisation would have been different. Putting aside the inconvenient fact that Mark Anthony was at least equally attracted to Cleopatra’s intellectual charms, this is the ultimate historical ‘What if?’

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

While it may only merit a bit-part in the annals of history, the small Cumbrian town of Whitehaven is home to a less well known ‘What if?’

Had things been different, George Washington – Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence, one of the Founding Fathers and first President of the United States – might have been raised near Whitehaven and not in Virginia. Washington’s grandmother, Mildred, was from Virginia. When her first husband, Lawrence Washington, died she married George Gale, a tobacco trader from Whitehaven. Mildred moved to England with her new husband, dying in Whitehaven in 1701. She is buried in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in the town centre.

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Had Mildred brought her son, George’s father, Augustine Washington to England with her, the course of Washington’s life and, quite possibly, the course of the American War of Independence might have been different. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory for modern Western civilisation. Mildred died following childbirth, she was buried alongside her baby daughter and a woman called Jane, Mildred’s African slave servant. It was illegal for an African to be buried in a British graveyard at the time; for Jane to be buried in the family plot alongside Mildred speaks volumes about their relationship.

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The connections between this part of England and the United States are many, largely due to trade and emigration. There were particularly strong links with tobacco plantations in Virginia, and Whitehaven became the preeminent centre of imported tobacco. Many of the town’s wonderful Georgian buildings were built from the profits. Its no surprise that Washington’s family lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia, named after the County of Westmoreland, England, close to where Whitehaven is situated. The town of Whitehaven, Maryland, was founded by George Gale, Mildred’s second husband.

Another connection with the American War of Independence is non-other than ‘father of the American navy’, John Paul Jones. Jones was Scottish but moved to Whitehaven as a boy, he began sailing from the port when he was thirteen. He regularly visited Virginia, where his brother had settled, sailing on various trade and slave ships. History has been favourable to Jones, but his reputation as a fighter for American Independence can’t erase his reputation as a violent ship’s captain. He once flogged a man so severely he died, another time he killed one of his crew in an argument.

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jones had serious disputes with the High Command in America and was dispatched to France. Sailing from here, acting more like a pirate than a war commander, in 1778 he attacked and attempted to sack his former home of Whitehaven. He planned to set fire to the ships in the port – over 200 vessels were moored there – and burn the town to the ground. His men came ashore and spiked the main harbour guns, but the attack was bungled from the start. He might still have been successful, but his crew went to a pub and got drunk. The townsfolk were alerted and Jones fled.

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

It’s hard to imagine today, but Whitehaven was a vital British port and a justifiable military target. Although its easy to believe there was something personal in Jones’ attack on the town. I’m glad he failed to burn the town, it would have destroyed some wonderful architecture. Today the attack is commemorated by a sculpture on the harbour. A sailor, defending the town, is firing a cannon towards the ocean where Jones’ ship would have been. The cannons are originals from 1778.

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

For a small town, Whitehaven has seen its share of historical incident. I wandered the streets as the winter sun set and darkness descended, and found myself in a small square where a plaque caught my attention. This recounted a bizarre incident. It transpires that Jonathan Swift, the legendary Irish satirist, lived in the town as an infant. A little more research into this uncovered a genuine mystery. His nurse essentially kidnapped him and came to Whitehaven where Swift lived in her care for three or four years.

Jonathan Swift's house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jonathan Swift’s house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Debate rages about the importance of this experience for Swift, but some biographers believe his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, was influenced by witnessing the activity around Whitehaven harbour. The house Swift lived in still stands, and has exceptional views over the port. I imagine the young boy watching the activity around the port. Seeing ships coming and going to destinations all over the world, and exotic produce being unloaded on the docks, must have left a strong impression.

One biographer has even claimed that Swift was born in this house…another Cleopatra’s Nose Theory, perhaps?

Rum and the slave trade: Whitehaven’s ‘Dark Spirit’

Whitehaven, a small town on England’s north west coast, feels a bit down-at-heel. In rival towns people refer to those from Whitehaven as Jam Eaters, supposedly because they can’t afford meat in their sandwiches. Yet, walking around the town centre, it’s clear that there is something extraordinary about Whitehaven. Here, in this unlikely spot, is the largest collection of Georgian-era buildings outside of London. Ignore the cars and modern shop frontages, and the town is like a Georgian theme park.

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

The story of Whitehaven is the story of a powerful aristocratic family, the expansion of global trade throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, followed by stagnation and decline in the 20th Century. It is also the story of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the role of British trade in shipping millions of Africans into slavery in the Americas. Whitehaven grew rich from trade that depended upon slavery: tobacco from Virginia and, most famously, rum and sugar from slave plantations in the Caribbean. The Rum Story, a museum telling this history, was my destination after walking from St. Bees.

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven was owned by the Lowther family – Earls of Westmoreland and the county’s wealthiest aristocratic dynasty. It was built on a grid system designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and has been described as the first ‘company town’ of the Industrial Revolution. The Lowther family made a fortune from exporting the region’s huge coal reserves to Ireland. This trade made Whitehaven wealthy, and released a vast amount of money for ship building and trade with the New World.

Jefferson's 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Jefferson’s 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

One of the most important ports in the country, Whitehaven had extensive trade with the colonies in the United States and the Caribbean, and was a major departure point for emigrating Scots and Northern English. The major port for tobacco from Virginia in the 17th Century, it is a town with intimate links to the slave trade. In the 18th Century, rum distilled from molasses on slave plantations in the Caribbean would become synonymous with Whitehaven.

Rum and sugar became Whitehaven’s driving force, it’s ‘dark spirit’. Ships sailed from Whitehaven loaded with manufactured products, including rum, to be traded for African slaves; they were shipped in appalling conditions to the Caribbean and traded for sugar and rum; which were shipped to Whitehaven. One of the region’s most famous products, Kendal Mint Cake, was the result of Caribbean sugar arriving in Whitehaven. Yet, the town became a centre for opposition to the slave trade and ended its role in the ‘human trade’ around 1770.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story museum explores Whitehaven’s rum and slave connections by tracing the story of local wine merchants, the Jefferson family. Rum was first discovered by slaves working in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Despite having a reputation as being “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”, rum soon became popular, especially on the boats which plied the trade between Europe, Africa and the New World. The Jefferson’s owned a slave plantation in Antigua, which produced sugar, molasses and Jefferson brand rum.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum is fascinating, it does a good job of explaining the brutality and brutal economics of the slave trade, and the terrible working conditions slaves faced in the Caribbean. It also shines a light on little known aspects of Whitehaven’s history. One of the least ethnically diverse places in the country today, in the 1770s and 1780s there were a large number of free slaves arriving in Whitehaven. Some were servants of families returning to England during the War of American Independence; others were slaves freed because they fought for the British and emigrated to England after the war.

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum benefits from being housed in the original Jefferson buildings. You walk through the 18th Century Bonded Warehouse, the original cellars and even the office as it would have looked in the 19th Century. There are exhibitions on the traditional use of rum in the navy – which paints a terrifying picture of general drunkenness; a section on the island of Antigua; and a section dedicated to rum and prohibition. Perhaps best of all, they offer you a taster shot of rum as you leave.

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

A few hours spent in Whitehaven was enlightening, I discovered a history that I never imagined existed before. A history involving an American President, his mother-in-law and an American War of Independence hero…

Above the roaring ocean on Cumbria’s Heritage Coast

Leaving the tumultuous crashing waves of the Irish Sea behind, and narrowly avoiding ‘a furious devout drench’*, I headed north over the three hundred foot-high red sandstone cliffs of St. Bees Head. This is the first (or last) segment of the 192 mile-long Coast to Coast walk, which after a few miles turns inland towards England’s East Coast. One day I’ll do the whole route, but this time my ambitions were more local. I was on my way to the Georgian-era town of Whitehaven, six and a half miles from St. Bees.

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

The giant fissured red sandstone cliffs make this a dramatic segment of coast. They also make it one of the most important, and largest, seabird colonies in North West England. Much of the area is an RSPB Nature reserve: cormorants, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, white throat herring gulls, fulmars, rock pipits, whitethroats, linnets and stonechats all live here. I mention this array of our feathered friends because, as you walk along the cliff tops, there are times when the smell of fishy excrement is almost overpowering.

Reaching the top of St. Bees Head, you are greeted by breathtaking views north across the cliffs and south along the beaches of St. Bees. On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man and both the Scottish and Irish coasts. From this vantage point, its easy to understand why this is the only section of the English coast between Wales and Scotland to be designated as a Heritage Coast. It is truly beautiful. The pounding waves below adding a suitably melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the visual treat stretching ahead.

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

From St. Bees Head you can clearly see the St. Bees Lighthouse, a speck of brilliant white surrounded by green fields on top of another cliff top hill. This is North Head, which has the distinction of being the most westerly point in Northern England. Following the path downwards, the route passes through farmland before reaching a natural gap between the two headlands.

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

This is Fleswick Bay, where its possible to walk down to a sandy beach nestling underneath the towering cliffs. At least, its possible when the tide is out. When I was there, an unusually high tide was most definitely ‘in’, waves thundering into the bay. Clambering back up the other side, I was soon in front of the lighthouse. There has been a lighthouse here since 1718, but the original one burnt down in 1822 – until then, it was the only surviving coal-powered lighthouse in the country. The current lighthouse replaced it. Today, electrified and automated, its beam of light can be seen 21 nautical miles away.

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Walking around the headland of North Head, you soon see the town of Whitehaven in the distance. There were still three miles of walking left to do, but at least I could see my destination. The sun was illuminating the two small lighthouses at the entrance to Whitehaven harbour and the Candlestick Chimney, a former ventilation shaft built in 1850 for one of the region’s many coal mines.

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

At the point where the Coast to Coast route heads east, the path to Whitehaven starts a long, gradual descent back to the sea. The route is mainly farmland, but it does pass a sandstone quarry still quarrying the rock which has been used for building in this area for centuries. Eventually the route reaches the historic port of Whitehaven, the main part of which dates from the 17th Century when Whitehaven was one of the most important ports in England…

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

* A line from Philip Larkin’s poem Water

Fact or fiction? An ancient Irish Princess on the Cumbrian Heritage Coast

Stepping off the tiny, two carriage train in the picturesque village of St. Bees, the roar of the ocean is audible long before you see it. At least today, a day of high winds and high tides, the noise of the Irish Sea crashing into the mighty sandstone cliffs of the West Cumbrian Coast, easily carries the half mile inland to the train station. Even at this distance I can tell that the sea is rough, and my planned walk along the Cumbria Heritage Coast might be wetter than expected.

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

West Cumbria is often overlooked by visitors to the region, overshadowed by the nearby Lake District National Park. It has been a long time since I visited and, although the weather can be terrible, this is an area full of natural beauty with a history as surprising as it is fascinating.

This region has suffered significant economic decline, with communities gutted as industries closed. For years this was one Britain’s most depressed and deprived areas; a status seemingly at odds with the beauty of the landscape. The transport infrastructure doesn’t help. The train route meanders along the coast, cutting inland around bays and estuaries. It’s a beautiful route, but even the relatively short journey to St. Bees takes over two and a half hours. A day-trip on public transport is an endurance test.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

From the early 17th Century onwards, shipping, mining and trade with the Americas and Caribbean were the drivers of the economy. A predominantly rural region, West Cumbria was remarkably industrialised, connected to far flung corners of the globe through trade. This has left an industrial and cultural legacy that is only just beginning to be exploited for tourism.

There are many small towns and villages worth a visit, but one that already attracts thousands of visitors annually is St. Bees. This pleasant village is the start/end point of the 192 mile Coast to Coast walk, popularised by Alfred Wainwright. Its proximity to the beautiful and rugged coastline, and the beach which sits beneath the cliffs, draws visitors; but it is the former Benedictine Priory of St. Bees, and the legend of St. Bega, that sparks the imagination.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

The name St. Bees is a corruption of St. Bega. Reputed to have been a beautiful and virtuous Irish Princess, St. Bega fled Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage. She lived the life of a hermit, in isolation and poverty in St. Bees. Fearful that Vikings, who were pillaging along this coast, would rape her, she fled to Northumbria leaving behind her one worldly possession, a bracelet. Naturally, St. Bega, and her bracelet, became the focus of worship at the Norman-era Priory built in St. Bees in the 12th Century.

There was a thriving cult dedicated to St. Bega by the time the Benedictine Priory was built around 1120. The cult was still going strong in the early 16th Century, when records show a large amount of money being donated to ‘the bracelet of St. Bega’. She is credited with several ‘miracles’ and in Bassenthwaite, only a short distance away in the Lake District, there is a church dedicated to St. Bega. This is fine, but there’s evidence to suggest that St. Bega didn’t exist.

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

It’s argued that St. Bega is a Christian invention based on pre-existing pagan beliefs. This is why her bracelet is important. The local word for bracelet is ‘beag’ and there may have been a sacred pagan bracelet that took human, and Christian, form as St. Bega. In a world where Christianity was encroaching on pagan beliefs, apparently this isn’t improbably. An alternative theory is that chroniclers confused her with an entirely different person. There seem to have been quite a few Irish women living as hermits who later got canonised. These and other theories are explained here.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Whether she existed or not, in 2000 the local council decided to commission a sculpture of her. Not everyone is a fan. The woman I asked for directions said, “She’s supposed to be an Irish Princess, but she looks like a chubby fisherwoman.” To be fair, the sculptor didn’t have any pictures to work from. The sculpture depicts her arriving in a small boat. I’m no expert, but if she sailed that boat across the Irish Sea she deserves her own cult. Then again, since she’s probably fictional, I’m not sure it matters.

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved stones found at the Priory of St. Bees indicate that Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers lived in this area in the 10th Century. This community probably lived in relative isolation until the arrival of the conquering Normans in 1092. It was William le Meschin, a Norman Baron, who extended the existing religious site into the Benedictine Priory. The Priory functioned as a religious institution – a wealthy one at that – until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. It continues to be used as the parish church, but many of the original buildings have disappeared.

The Priory has seen much history and has many secrets. In 1981, during excavations of a 14th Century burial site, a mystery was unearthed – a coffin containing a six hundred year-old male body. Known as St Bees Man, remarkably his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. The body has been identified as either Anthony de Lucy, a knight who died in the Teutonic Crusades in 1368, or Robert of Harrington, buried here in 1297. It’s all a bit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the carved Norman doorway and coffin lids inside the church add to that feeling.

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Walking away from the Priory towards the start of the coastal path, I could hear the ocean getting louder. Suddenly, the headland and ocean came into view – giant waves were pounding into the cliffs and onto the beach with a ferocity I’ve rarely seen. Above the ocean I could see the track that would take me over St. Bees Head and onto the beautiful route that follows the cliffs to Whitehaven. The wind was blowing hard at my back and the sun had decided to shine for the first time in weeks. Onwards and upwards…

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England