by Alan Postlethwaite after a visit by the CIHS on 10th July 2010 led by Philip Ashworth – excerpts from whose notes have been added to the main text in italics.
The settlement of Harrington grew around a creek where the River Wyre entered the Irish Sea and provided the opportunity for a modest anchorage. Here a private harbour called Bella Port was established by Henry Curwen of Workington Hall whose lands included the Manor of Harrington. Several coal measures underlay this part of the Curwen estate and were already being exploited before the artificial harbour existed. Around 1770 the pier and harbour structures were completed and its principal trade was coal from the Curwen pits to Ireland plus agricultural lime brought by the ‘Lime Road’ from Barfs Quarry near Distington. Shortly after the completion of the improvements to the harbour a wooden wagonway was constructed to convey the coal from the pits on high ground a little over a mile south-east of the village. The wagonway was believed to have been of about 3 ft gauge and coal was carried in horse-drawn chaldron wagons. The final approach to the harbour involved a 500 yard descent at a gradient of 1 in 17 over what later came to be known as the Rose Hill incline. Four pits were then in production, together raising 30 tons of coal daily. The estimated annual cost of operating the waggonway and hurries is recorded as being £426.
Chronologically the second industry to emerge at Harrington was shipbuilding. As early as 1776 a ropery existed on the north side of the harbour where shipwrights Askew, Ellwood & Co. were in business from 1784 to 1810. South of the harbour a firm of Piele operated but the principal yard here was that of Williamson & Son who began building in 1838. Facilities seem to have been fairly rudimentary with boats being built on the open foreshore and launched by digging a channel to draw the craft to high water. Later Williamsons took over the patent slip at the south-west corner of the harbour to enable vessels to be hauled out for repairs. Operations at the shipyard after 1857 came to be impeded by the activities of the Harrington Ironworks which was set up a short distance to the south of the harbour. Finally in 1879 James Bain, owner of the ironworks, bought out the Williamson yard beside the harbour and their shipbuilding operation transferred to Workington.
A report in the Cumberland Pacquet for 13 October 1892 was probably the pinnacle of shipments from Harrington. The traffic was nearly all coastwise – some vessels berthed two or three times in a week. Incoming shipments were mainly iron ore from County Antrim and from Duddon, with a limited amount of coke and coal from South Wales. Outgoing cargoes were coal, pig iron, steel rails, tin plate bars and finished iron. At this date steamships had in the main replaced sail.
A constant problem was silting, and a dredger/tug was kept at the harbour to maintain a sufficient depth of water to enable the larger vessels to enter and leave. The problem was made all the worse by the action of the sea depositing slag from the ironworks in front of the shipyard and patent slip. The harbour closed to commercial traffic in 1928.
Another early industrial venture was a copperas works at what became known as Copperas Hill on the cliff top south of the harbour. This went into production in 1798 and was owned by a Joseph Dutton of Liverpool. Iron pyrites was the chief raw material and this was mined with coal from the neighbouring pits and delivered by the wagonway. After weathering in the open the pyrites was boiled with rusty iron to produce vitriol (sulphuric acid) and various by-products such as Prussian blue, Epsom salts, nitric acid and muriatic (hydrochloric) acid. Records show that products from the works were exported through the harbour. The works operated until 1834 when the then owner, Joseph Theodore Dutton, went bankrupt. In 1837 the lease on the site was taken over by a firm of Littledale & Co. but by 1844 they were in trouble. A Peter Ward assumed the lease in 1853 but sold the works by auction in 1855 and filed for bankruptcy. Techniques for commercial production of sulphuric acid had by the moved on.
Transport technology was also developing rapidly. Harrington was reached by it’s first public railway in 1846 when the Whitehaven Junction Railway extended the pioneer Maryport & Carlisle line south from Maryport through Workington. By 1847 the line was continued to Whitehaven. Originally single-track, by 1861 the line had been doubled and the wooden viaduct at the head of Harrington harbour had been replaced by a permanent iron girder structure which survived until the present decking and supports were installed in 2004. From 1866 the WJR became part of the LNWR.
Rail transport was both enabled by and contributed to the development of iron manufacture. Hematite smelting on an industrial scale in West Cumberland began at Cleator Moor in 1841 followed at Oldside in Workington in 1856. Harrington Ironworks began producing iron in 1857 but the initial venture was short-lived. In 1863 the single furnace was purchased by Scottish interests associated with William Baird & Co. of Gartsherrie and trading as Blair & Paterson, later Blair, Bain & Paterson. The ambition was to operate four furnaces. The company bought property near the harbour to house workers and erected some new housing including two terraces of cottages at Copperas Hill. From 1874 the ironworks became Bain & Co. The enterprise by now managed the harbour, worked the local coal pits, operated several hematite mines in the vicinity, had a brickworks at Micklam, a limestone quarry at Distington, sandpits and a fireclay pit. An extensive private standard-gauge tramway linked the work and harbour and reused the trackbed of the earlier waggonway.
Even during periods of recession in the iron industry the works seems to have been reasonably successful, and kept at least some of their furnaces in blast even when at other locations they had been blown out. Their main product was pig iron, they never produced steel, but there is evidence that they rolled iron plates in the early years at least. Scotland and South Wales were large markets for their iron which was shipped from the harbour. Production of iron ceased in 1921.
West Cumberland iron interests promoted the Cleator & Workington Junction Railway in 1876. Opened for traffic in 1879 this line running from Cleator to Workington was designed expressly to free the ironmasters from the stranglehold of the existing railway operators. The line passed through High Harrington from where a branch line struck off to meet the ironworks tramway near Copperas Hill. This later became the Lowca Light Railway over which a passenger service operated between 1912 and 1926 and workmen’s trains until 1929. The line remained in use in connection with the Moss Bay Works at Workington until 1973.
Harrington’s final claim to industrial fame was its Magnesite Works. Built under conditions of wartime secrecy the Harrington Shore Works was built in 1940 on the south side of the harbour. Because of the need to replace the supplies of imported magnesite that were cut off by enemy action, the plant was to be used to produce magnesia by reacting calcined dolomite with sea water. The now disused harbour was enclosed to form a sea water reservoir. Calcined dolomite came by rail from Coxhoe in Co Durham and limestone from Flusco near Penrith. The product of the works was a magnesia slurry which was despatched in rail tank wagons to Clifton Junction near Manchester for conversion into metallic magnesium required for use in aircraft production and munitions. At the end of hostilities the plant was mothballed but had a brief revival during the Korean War. In the 1960s the works and most of the adjoining residential property were cleared leaving the large grassed area that now lies to the south of the harbour. Click here for more information and photos on Russell Barnes’ website.
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