THE "REBUILDING" OF
PARTON PIER, 1695-8
This is not a transcript or, strictly speaking, an abstract of original documents. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Lowther family who controlled and developed Whitehaven actually preferred to live most of the time in London, where they could influence the powerful and make deals. They employed agents and land managers to look after their estates, who would keep them updated with letters every few days. Most of these letters still survive, and the correspondence between 1693 and 1698 has been transcribed and published, as "The correspondence of Sir John Lowther of Whitehaven 1693-1698", edited by D.R. Hainsworth (1983). There are many references to Parton scattered among these letters, as the famous pier was being developed at this time. What I have done to help myself see the flow of events is put all the Parton extracts together, then read through them and turn them into a story in my own words. It's a story without an ending, of course, because 1698 is an arbitrary date to stop, but I hope you'll agree that it is still fascinating.
First though, a word of caution. Another researcher who has extracted information from the letters over a much longer period and published several books and articles about the Lowthers, Prof. J.V. Beckett, has pointed out the main pitfalls of using them as historical evidence; and I shall mention just two that apply particularly to what follows. First, when the Lowthers were in Whitehaven, there was no need to communicate with their local staff by letter, so there are gaps during which some important decisions probably got made. Second, although they had a very good intelligence network, everybody knew that they had a very good intelligence network, so people would sometimes perform misleading actions in order to divert them from what was really going on!
The story so far:
family has been
developing the port
of Whitehaven since the
1630s, particularly for the
export of locally-mined coal
to Ireland, and has responded
in 1678-81 to a scheme which would
develop Parton as a rival, by obtaining
grants of vital rights from the Government,
which give the Lowthers the power to stop port
development at Parton by legal action. There are a
couple of catches. First, many years earlier, Parton had
had a proper harbour, and in theory the ruins could legally
be repaired. Second, the Lowthers want to develop collieries in
the Moresby area themselves, and are in negotiation with William
Fletcher, Lord of the Manor of Moresby, who for various reasons owes
them money. (NB- The Lattera colliery was just to the south of Howgate).
Lowther increased his profile in the Moresby area by buying more collieries around Lattera and developing them on a much larger scale, under his manager John Gale. As Fletcher sank ever further into his debt, hints began to be dropped that Lowther would be quite happy to acquire his rights as Lord of the Manor of Moresby, or at the least to accept them as security for another hefty loan. The Lowthers were gradually acquiring a monopoly of a large chunk of Cumberland, and alarm bells rang in every business office from Whitehaven to Lamplugh. Lamplugh? Yes, there was one serious businessman in Lamplugh, the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Lamplugh. He had collieries in Distington, and was trying to lease more from Fletcher. He knew the value of Parton harbour- if only it could be developed.
Lowther's staff kept him fully informed; his agent William Gilpin reported on Lamplugh's colliery negotiations in June 1693, adding "Fletcher has let his rocks" (i.e. the rocky shoreline of Parton). Still, negotiations continued for Lowther to loan Fletcher £1,500 on mortgage, or even buy Moresby outright, hindered only, it seemed, by a condition of Fletcher's inheritance which prevented him from selling the family estate without an Act of Parliament. In December, Gilpin took a look at some collieries which Lowther could perhaps acquire in Moresby, in anticipation of owning and developing Parton as a coal port himelf. He reported "The chief improvement depends on a steath at Parton, for the charge of leading would otherwise consume the profit" (a steath, now spelled staithe, was a storage area by the dockside where, in this case, coal could be stored in sufficient quantities to fill the ships' holds).
In June 1694, Gilpin found that Lamplugh had established his own staithe at Parton, with the intention of muscling in on the Irish trade, using his own agents to sell his Distington coal in Dublin. By April 1695, this scheme was in full operation, but there was a problem. Demand for coal was low in the summer months, so prices fell, but loading ships at Parton was dangerous in the winter months because there was no proper pier to protect ships. As the roads were also easier in summer, though, Gilpin was advising his boss to make the most of Lamplugh's initiative and work one of his more awkwardly-sited Moresby collieries, storing the coal at Parton and taking advantage of the ships which were coming to trade with Lamplugh.
Lamplugh, meanwhile, was working on a solution to the seasons problem. He didn't immediately make a pier, but in August 1695 Gilpin reported that many men and carts were being employed, digging out the rocks to create a basin by the staithe (where at that time some 1200 tons of coal were waiting under cover) with a channel to the open sea. Construction of a stone pier was under way by September, and estate manager John Gale, suspecting that this was the beginning of a scheme to rival Whitehaven, urged him to act against Lamplugh under the terms of the 1678 permit, "though you may be unwilling to differ with Mr Fletcher att present, as hopping to gaine a purchase". William Gilpin soon found that the new work was nothing to do with the 1680 attempt, but was a rebuilding of the old pier which had been destroyed around 1630 "an ancient heap of stones that was thrown up to secure the fishing barks"- too short to be much use for the sort of large ships which now traded with Whitehaven. Still, Gilpin decided to let Mr Lamplugh know that Lowther was considering an injunction against him.
Gale chipped in a few days later with more pointed comments that Lamplugh was supported by "several of the chief in towne, who make but an ill returne for your civillity to them". A week later he was in a state close to panic, as work was proceeding at a "hardly credible" pace, and if an injunction were granted it would have to involve the demolition of the substantial work already completed- which would really hurt Lowther's reputation. He suggested putting the frighteners on the workmen, but Gilpin was working on the big fish- specifically William Fletcher. The latter protested that he was quite within his rights to make his leases to Lamplugh, and that what Lamplugh did was his own business (and he dropped more hints about the juicy mortgage deal Sir John was hoping for); Gilpin recommended working on him more to encourage him towards the outright sale option.
At the end of September, Gale raised a further worrying point. He and Gilpin were having trouble tracking down the lawyers who had acted for them in 1680, but had heard rumours that at that time Lowther had conceded to Fletcher the right to repair the old pier if he wished. The following week, still a bit unsure of their legal position, they tried Gale's suggestion and read out at Parton a decree from Lowther ordering Lamplugh's contractors to stop work or face legal action, which they then formally delivered to Lamplugh himself. One interesting thing Gilpin had found was that Fletcher had been a bit economical with the truth about his relationship with Lamplugh; he had "absolutely covenanted" that his leases to Lamplugh would be protected by the Act of Parliament if his estates were sold, and had assured him that he would support him if Lowther should resort to legal action against the harbour.
Meanwhile, Thomas Lamplugh was developing an interest in politics. In October, he announced that he would like to be a candidate as MP for Cockermouth in the upcoming election, but instead settled for the promise that he would be seriously considered next time if he helped the chosen candidate, Goodwin Wharton, win this one. Being a generous man, he had many friends in the area, particularly among the religious non-conformists who formed the backbone of the business community (until not long before, they had had no other choice but to run their own businesses, as only members of the Church of England could hold public office). The non-conformists of Whitehaven (with the obvious exception of Mr & Mrs Gale, who, though non-conformists themselves, used Sunday services as an opportunity for spying on Lowther's behalf) supported his efforts at Parton, and those in Cockermouth supported his candidate for the election.
On 13 November, Gilpin wrote to inform Sir John that the pier was effectively complete, and that some ships had already used it for loading. Although Lamplugh had been quite careful to "confine himself to the old foundation", the cutting of the basin and channel had turned a harbour for small boats into "a great one fit for the reception of considerable ships". Gale's suggestion, a few days later, was to use the 1678 foreshore permit to insist on restoration of the area damaged by the digging of the channel- i.e. filling it in. It was certainly time to bring up the heavy legal artillery, and documents were sent to the Court of Exchequer, containing sworn witness statements about what was happening (for example, Gilpin's servant Richard Gibson, who had been present when he read the decree ordering work on the pier to cease, testified that the workmen, John Moses, William McDonald, Thomas Jackson, Anthony Johnson and a Mr Smith, had continued working). On 23 November 1695, the Court granted Lowther a new injunction ordering work to cease, but of course, it was a bit late for that- or was it?
Winter was approaching, and the weather would really test the construction of the "rebuilt" pier. If they were legally prevented from working on it, how could Thomas Lamplugh's men save it if storms started to rip it apart? Lowther bided his time, and didn't immediately deliver the injunction to Lamplugh, who in the meantime took himself and family off to London. At the beginning of December, bad weather left huge quantities of sand in the new basin, which had no natural means of clearing sediment. By early January, the purpose of Thomas's trip to London became more clear, when a document was delivered to Whitehaven for signing by all interested parties to testify that the new harbour at Parton would not damage trade through Whitehaven harbour. Unusually, Gilpin took up the challenge of persuading the local non-conformists (who probably had no great fondness for Gale, despite his compatible religious beliefs) not to sign the certificate, while at the same time reassuring them about plans then afoot to separate Whitehaven from the ancient parish of St Bees. He was rather upset to find, a couple of weeks later, that many who had told him they would not sign had eventually gone ahead.
From Parton itself, there was slightly more cheerful news for the Lowthers in mid-January. Two small ships got into trouble entering the new harbour- one struck the rocks but scraped in, the other grounded on the "great ridge" through which the channel had been cut. Her boat set out with an anchor, but it overturned, drowning two boys and a man, and leaving the ship "in great distress amongst the breakers". And in the last week of January, the situation really developed; storms did destroy part of the pier, leaving the ship which had struggled into harbour "in great distress", needing eight mooring cables to stop it from being smashed against the shore (while the stranded one, abandoned, was grinding around on the highest part of the ridge). Gilpin's spies watched Lamplugh's contractors, led by a Mr Jenkinson, and were rewarded with material for more signed statements that forbidden work was going on.
Lamplugh could use legal testimony too, of course, and his lawyers were gathering statements to prove that he was simply restoring the old pier, which Lowther had indeed permitted back in 1680. Even so, if Lowther, who was himself in London, could send up an "attachment" under the terms of the new injunction to halt all work immediately while the legal arguments were debated, the pier would in all likelihood soon disintegrate. In the meantime, Gilpin was having warning messages read out on site "every tide to terrifie all people from assisting Jenkinson". He had also spotted an interesting thing about Lamplugh's legal statements- some people seemed to be getting confused between the old pier and Fletcher's 1680 attempt, which rendered their evidence invalid.
But all this time, negotiations were still dragging on for the sale or mortgage of William Fletcher's estate in Moresby, and Lowther, in the best traditions of his family business, was playing a long game, so he allowed the pier to be repaired (after the storms, the stranded ship was repaired too, and by the beginning of March it was ready for re-launch). The legal arguments were still continuing, of course, and Gilpin was hunting around for all relevant documents. In Carlisle, he found a copy of Fletcher's lease to Lamplugh, which included wonderfully vague clauses about the right to make things like salt-pans, and "conveniencies" for the collieries, which Lamplugh could happily interpret as including port facilities. Gilpin was pretty convinced that it did not give Lamplugh any right to undertake some of his more audacious projects- like making a channel for the Moresby Beck (now Lowca Beck) all the way along the shore to the harbour, so that its flow would naturally wash out the silt. Clauses which did seeem to be in Fletcher and Lamplugh's favour, in legal terms, prohibited the levying of anchorage charges (which would pay for the upkeep of a public port) and ordering that Lamplugh could only take his own coal to be shipped from Parton; in other words, there was a plausible defence against actions under the 1681 "port of Carlisle" document which had ruled out Parton as a general trading port. Further checking of the documents relating to this issue suggested that coal freight could not be prohibited.
By mid-May 1696, the pier had been repaired and strengthened, and was again being used by a variety of ships. Local rumour (probably true- this may well be one of the important decisions Lowther made while in Whitehaven) was that the injunction had been "dissolved". Thomas Lamplugh returned from his winter in London, not a moment too soon as his business was in trouble. His coal had a reputation in Dublin for poor quality, and several of his pack-horses had died over the winter, making it difficult to get the coal down to the port from the mines. At the begining of June, the ever-astute Gilpin summed up the situation, that Lamplugh's attempts to rival Lowther's coal and port developemnts "do prejudice you a little- and himself more". Still, he was not a bad businessman, and had many other enterprises on the go. One, as mentioned in his lease from Fletcher, was a salt-pan at Parton, apparently one of several in the area, some of which shipped in raw rock-salt from Cheshire and refined it for local consumption (Captain Senhouse, the tenant of Lowther's Whitehaven salt-pans quit at the beginning of October, and the potential replacement was driving a hard bargain).
Another illustration of Thomas's business sense appeared in November, when it was found that he had entered into a contract with two ship's captains to make regular runs between Parton and Dublin delivering his coal at a very competitive price. Paradoxically, as winter was approaching, Lowther wanted to raise the price of his coal. This worried John Gale, as it would benefit both Lamplugh and Mr Curwen of Workington, who was planning major improvements to his harbour there. He confirmed that Lamplugh had eight horses being fed "hardmeat" (a high-quality cereal feed) ready for expanded winter trade. In December, Thomas started another scheme to improve the harbour, removing more rock from the basin area and putting it on the outside of the pier, thus getting both a deeper dock and a more effective breakwater. Surprisingly, he was still charging more for his coal than Lowther, but it was expected that he would still have a good winter.
Cue storms, major damage etc.- but Lamplugh was well-prepared, and quickly had repairs made. Several of the small colllieries around Moresby were now exporting their coal through Parton, and Gale wondered loudly whether it might be time for Lowther to join them. He was already selling coal from the Lattera pit through agents at Parton (about 30 tons a week through a Mr Allison, 40 through Mr Pyper). The problem remained that all transport had to be on pack-horse, and most of Lowther's horses were needed around Whitehaven. A more long-term problem of the success of Parton was that "This little prospect of trade there serves to raise the vallew of all the adjacent collieryes soe that now a coal owner in Moresby is hardly to be spoke with"- Gale could only suggest expansion of the existing (and deeply unprofitable) Lattera colliery as a way round this. Gilpin, going through the accounts at the begining of January, was also happy to see coal being sold at Parton. He expanded on this later in the month, asking why Moresby coal should be taken to Whitehaven for 14d when it could go to Parton for 10d. Although Lamplugh's contract for regular shipments meant that Lowther coal could not be loaded at Parton in the sort of quantities they would like, if they could exploit some of their coal rights in the low-quality seams between Lattera and Parton, they could get the coal to harbour very cheaply indeed. A week later he was still muttering about the same topic, complaining that he could not get enough coal from existing pits to supply the ships which were visiting Parton (for some years, the strategy under Gale's management had been to drive at Lattera until the rich, good-quality High Band coal was reached, but it was currently estimated that this would take another two years). Also, he still couldn't find a tenant for the Whitehaven salt-pans, and Lamplugh was proposing to rebuild his Parton pans (which at the time were presumably working with Solway brine) to cash in on the rock salt trade.
Gale was grumbling too. He had been monitoring ship movements round Whitehaven, and found that ships always called in at Whitehaven first, to see if coal was available for immediate loading; if not, they headed straight for Parton. It was all a matter of tides. Fully-loaded ships needed the high water of a Spring tide, which happens only every four weeks, to get safely out of harbour. Miss that tide by a couple of days and they were stuck; set out without a full load and their profits would be non-existent. Although vessels had to be towed through the narrow channel into Parton harbour unless the wind was just right, and there was only room there for two or three smallish ships (up to about 60 tons, with a draught of perhaps 9 feet) besides Lamplugh's contractors, the growing willingness of local colliers to staithe their coal there ready for loading meant it was always worth a go. Once one had left, another would set out from Whitehaven.
Spring 1697 was rather lovely in Ireland- so coal prices plummeted. Simple calculation suggested that when the price fell below 18 shilings a ton, which was the level at the beginning of April, Thomas Lamplugh would be making a loss on every guaranteed regular cargo shipped by his contractors. At the same time, Parton harbour was starting to silt up again, and unless he did something about it his contractors wouldn't be able to dock anyway. Of course, if they couldn't dock, they couldn't load their guaranteed regular loss-making cargos of coal- but surely nobody could be that cynical and unscrupulous, could they? Well, Thomas did remedy the silting problem; he just didn't make it an urgent priority, and started work in mid-June. He cut a new channel for the Beck through the great sand-bed to the north of the harbour, adding walls on both sides to stop it from being engulfed by sand again, and created a second basin, which was intended to be fitted with sluice-gates so that it could be filled by the incoming tide, then the water would be penned until low tide and released in a surge to clear away the tail of the great sand-bank, which constantly threatened the harbour. He also made improvements to the hazardous entrance channel with the help of an explosives expert (or maybe not; Gilpin wrote on 23 June "yestarday his ingineer had like to have blown up himself").
The first storm of the autumn, in early October, had the usual effect, but Thomas's workmen were brought in quickly. Gale observed the continuing bustle a couple of weeks later and reflected that he had no idea how much Lamplugh must be spending- and Lamplugh probably didn't either. Attempts had been made to speed up the progress towards the High Band at Lattera, which Gale was confident would "set us in ballance with all other coal sellers there, and utterly alter the face of all Mr Lamplugh's proceedings", but they seemed to be getting nowhere, and normal earth movement was starting to weaken the older workings, while the coal being produced was "very small and wett". In a mood of fatalism, Gilpin went so far as to lease the awkwardly-sited Birketts colliery (on the border between Moresby and Distington) to Lamplugh! Gale admitted in January that Lattera coal was now so bad he couldn't even get rid of it by mixing it with better-quality coal; and he had been unable to obtain land in Parton to set up a staithe, as Fletcher (who had by now pretty much given up all hope of a big loan from Lowther) was in league with the rival colliers.
And that's where the references in the published letters end. I have studied some of the later letters on microfilm at the Whitehaven Record Office, and others such as Prof. Beckett have written their own summaries of important events over the next generation or so, but I'll bet that anyone with the patience to go through all the available documents will find some astonishing things about the development of Parton.