WICKED Jimmy and the Whitehaven COAL MINES, 1791

This picture is the cover of a pamphlet published in 1791 by the satirist, Peter Pindar (John Wolcot), a copy of which is in the British Museum’s collection. It is the last of several written attacking Sir James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1736-1802) known throughout the nation as ‘Wicked Jimmy’. He owned much of the coastal town of Whitehaven, and the mines that provided much of the town’s employment.

About two o’clock, in the afternoon, whilst a servant was at work in the garden of H. Littledale, Esq. behind his house in Duke Street, the ground suddenly shrunk, and he had only time to escape before a part of it fell in, and the noise of water was heard. Almost at the same instant, two other apertures were discovered, one in a garden behind the house lately occupied as a Dispensary, in Scotch Street, and the other in the burying ground behind the Anabaptists meeting-house in Charles Street; all on the north-east side of the town, and at a short distance from the houses. It was soon evident that these were the remains of an old coal-work. — It will naturally be supposed that this event created much alarm. Several cart loads of timber, basket-rods, turf, furze, &c. were thrown into the different chasms, and every possible exertion was made on the occasion. — About the same time, the water broke in upon some of the present works in the coal-pits, and two men and a woman were unfortunately drowned; five horses were also lost. — It is said that some pits were sunk in that place about fifty years ago, and it is happy that no houses were since built upon the spot. — Mr. Littledale’s house is considerably damaged. (Cumberland Pacquet, 2nd February 1791)

On 11th February, the Cumberland Pacquet reported that 18 houses were affected and between 60 and 80 families had deserted the area for fear of further building collapses.

The damage in houses only is already very great; and the accident has (it is feared) reduced several poor and industrious people to great extremity; common prudence having obliged many such to quit their tenements, without knowing where to find shelter for themselves and their little property; their misfortunes aggravated by the suspension of that labour so necessary to the support of their families. Now where is he, “That hath a hand open as day to melting charity?” The world is ever pregnant with objects on which he may employ it: here is a field that will afford it ample exercise.

The last comment is probably as close as they dared to saying it was about time Lord Lonsdale did something about it; note that mining work was temporarily suspended. This was an age when earls expected their minions and associates to do as they said and keep their mouths shut, but Henry Littledale was no walkover. He took Lord Lonsdale to court, and won, in August, 1791.

Let’s let the pamphlet writer, Peter Pindar, take over the tale. His prose drips with sarcasm.

The NOBLE EARL, as naturally in pursuit of his COAL as a Sportsman of his HARE or FOX, happening in the Coal-chase to undermine a parcel of Houses belonging to Lord-knows-who, of WHITEHAVEN (no Voter perhaps for a Borough or a County), but particularly of a Mr. LITTLEDALE– what does this insolent LITTLEDALE, but complain!–nay, not contented with complaint, he insists upon it that his LORDSHIP has no right to pull down his house about his ears–nay what is still worse, the Fellow brings an Action, absolutely brings an Action against his LORDSHIP–nay, what is still more horrible, the Knave gets a Verdict in his favour–and, what is more atrocious still, the Villains of the town and neighbourhood illuminate their houses, as if for the Birth-nights of our Beloved KING and QUEEN, and exhibit equal symptoms of joy.–notwithstanding this saucy opposition of their GREAT SUPERIOR; notwithstanding the wicked Action; notwithstanding the vile and unnatural Verdict; notwithstanding the triumphant Illumination and brazen-faced Delight on the occasions; how sublimely his LORDSHIP behaves! Though he most spiritedly suspends his Coal-works for a time, to shew the power of his vengeance; lo; he promiseth to open them again, on condition he has full liberty to undermine any houses that may impudently stand in the way of his Coal for the future–What an act of Humanity!–partly for the benefit of Himself, a poor Individual; but principally for the advantage of the Town and Neighbourhood of WHITEHAVEN! Who, besides his LORDSHIP, would have done this? It is too humane–it is too great–for as it has been observed by some celebrated DIVINES that a man may be over-righteous, so verily may a GREAT PEER be over-forgiving.–

Yes, the man heretofore known as Lord Lonsdale – but let’s call him Wicked – responded to the court case by closing the mines. He said he would open them again if the townspeople promised not to hold him responsible for any deaths or damage arising from his mines. In September, 135 leading townspeople, seeing ‘the melancholy situation which we… are at present in’ and fearing ‘dreadful calamities and distresses’ offered to indemnify him against further damage and actions, and pay his court costs to date.

To the Right Hon. The EARL of LONSDALE

The humble Representation of the Merchants and Inhabitants of the Town of WHITEHAVEN

THAT by the unfortunate accidence which lately happened to your Lordship’s coal-mines near this town, by the shrinking of the earth, dwelling house and offices of Henry Littledale together with divers other houses, having injured; and Mr. Littledale having commenced an action at law, and obtained a verdict against your Lordship to recover damages in respect thereof–we are induced to offer, and we do so by engage and promise, to answer and par your Lordship, on behalf of ourselves and the town at large, such costs as your Lordship has been put to on account of the said action, or may expend in getting the same verdict annulled and set aside; as also, all such damages and costs as may be occasioned to your Lordship thereby, or in any future prosecution respecting any houses that have been injured; or to have things put into such a state, as if no such accident had happened, nor any prosecution had been commenced on account thereof. And we humbly hope your Lordshop will be pleased to take into consideration the melancholy situation which we and the other inhabitants of Whitehaven at present are in, from the apprehensions of the dreadful consequences which which will attend the putting a stop to, or any suspension of, your Lordship’s works; as the same will cause the entire ruin and destruction of the whole town. We therefore most earnestly solicit and implore, your Lordship will, in your greatness, accept this offer and engagement, avert the dreadful calamities and distresses that must otherwise most certainly befall us.

This wasn’t quite enough grovelling for Wicked, who replied as follows:

Lowther, Sept 16th 1791

I have received the representation signed by you; and must say that you merit the thanks of every person interested in the welfare of the town and the harbour of Whitehaven, and of the well-wishers of the prosperity of the county at large. I am sorry to say, it appears to me, that some of those persons who have not signed the paper, seem to be waiting an opportunity to take unfair advantage, and by the determination of some future Jury, to ruin you, myself, and the town, and detriment the country–In my present situation, it is most necessary for me to act, as the verdict of the Jury of Carlisle has expressed it, with caution; and you can easily judge, in the present circumstances, how cautious I ought to act; and that it is absolutely requisite, for the safety of my own property and yours, and for the restoration of trade, hereafter to suspend the working of my colleries except every person concerned will guarantee his own property. Accidents, happening from wilful or malicous conduct, and not necessary for the working of the mines, I do not include in the exception.–I cannot think of involving you in the calamity that might be brought upon me either by the malice or artifice of my enemies.

I acknowledge your just idea of the verdict, in thinking that I ought not to have been liable to the damage; and permit me to say, that I am as much impressed with a due sense of your kindness in the offer of entering into engagements to pay all costs and damages which I have or may sustain by Littledale’s action, or that I may expend or be put to by this of any future prosecution, as if I accepted of it; and though my sentiments and feelings will not allow me to receive if from your hands, this proffer you make will ever be retained in my memory as long as my life shall last. I am happy in being able to acquaint you, that new actions will be brought, for the purpose of again trying this affair, which is of such great magniturde to the public; and I trust, and hope, that they will be conducted as to have a fair and speeding determination; by which means, only a temporary stoppage will be put to the works, and a termination of the guarantee. I am, Sir, LONSDALE (my underlining)

As a result, the melancholy people of Whitehaven were forced to cave and grovel en masse, or starve. A letter signed by 2,560 residents was sent to Wicked, and he re-opened the mine. In a barbed remark consistent with his personality, he makes clear that he feels aggrieved that the 2,560 people did not include every single inhabitant, just nearly every single inhabitant.

It affords us the highest satisfaction to inform the public, that the RIGHT HONOURABLE the EARL of LONSDALE, notwithstanding the difficulties his Lordship has lately met with in carrying on this extensive COAL WORKS at this place, has determined to continue them. This welcome news was announced to the town by a LETTER received from his Lordship on Saturday morning, of which the following is a copy: 

Lowther, Sept. 21st, 1791

Gentlemen,

I yesterday received the ADDRESS, signed by 2, 560 people, who have guaranteed to keep me harmless form any accident that may happen to their property, by the working of the Mines at and ner Whitehaven: except damage should be done wilfully and maliciously.

It is not for me to stop the working of the Mines, on account of the few persons who have kept back from the signing of an Indemnification to me. The insignificancy of their property, compared with that of the great number of individuals who have signed it, (notwithstanding they may have private reasons, to my detriment) shall not have any influence with me to delay my exertions for the benefit of trade of the town, and emolument of the country.

I shall therefore persevere in the working of the Mines; and, as speedily as affairs will permit, put matters upon such a footing as to increase the exports in such a manner as, I hope, will meet the extend of the wishes of every person concerned.

I desire that you, Gentlemen, will be so kind as to take the trouble to communicate these my sentiments; and you may be assured that I shall ever be ready to adopt any proposal that may tend to the prosperity of the Town and County. (Cumberland Pacquet, 27th September 1791)

I was rather amused to see that the entry on the current Lowther family website mentions all sorts of stories and transgressions, but not this one. How curious.

© Diane McIlmoyle 03.07.13

Please note that all spellings, punctuation, capitalisation and other idiosyncracies are the 18th century originals.

Further reading

A huge list of newspaper transcriptions relating to Whitehaven Colliery on the Durham Mining Museum website.

Lowther’s entry on James, 1st Earl of Lonsdale

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6 thoughts on “WICKED Jimmy and the Whitehaven COAL MINES, 1791

  1. The worrying thing is I live off Duke Street and a small hole has just appeared in the back yard. Let’s hope it doesn’t get any bigger! Super article – the Lowthers continue to provide good copy!

    • …just not quite so blatantly in this day and age, one would hope! Wicked Jimmy was ‘wicked’ for all sorts of reasons, including fiddling with parliamentary democracy.

      Thanks for coming over, as ever 🙂

  2. Hi Diane, I’m just curious about your notation that the “Satan” print covered a pamphlet published by Wolcot. Have you seen it? The print was published and copyrighted 8 May 1792 as a single print by Hannah Humphrey, so could not have ‘fronted’ the satire Wolcot printed in 1791 and for which Lonsdale filed an information. It could have fronted his 1792 piece, after the information was withdrawn from Privy Council. Thanks for the entry – very useful to my tracking.

    • Hi there James – thanks for coming over. The pamphlet image and details came from the British Museum’s collection and website. Unfortunately I haven’t got the link to the entry on hand any more, but you should be able to find it via a search on their site; I recall they had a number of different pamphlets on the incident.

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