Unlike neighbouring Whitehaven and Maryport, Workington was not originally a coastal settlement. The old town developed on high ground near Workington Hall and expanded to the south and west as a result of industrial exploitation of the local coal and iron ore deposits. During the 18th and 19th centuries, rows of terraced houses were built to accommodate the influx of workers and the commercial hub of Workington moved from Portland Square to the flat coastal plain.
When James I ascended to the English throne in 1603, uniting the crowns of Scotland and England, he clamped down hard on the notorious reivers of the border region. Many of the ringleaders and their families were brought to Workington to await transportation by boat to the ‘wastes' of Ireland. The Curwens assisted the king by imprisoning families in the dungeon at Workington Hall; a cramped space of just 5 square metres that accommodated over 100 men, women and children in highly insanitary conditions. What happened to them has never been documented!
Under the guiding influence of the Curwens, Workington quickly expanded into a major port and town. The first dock operated in the 1760s, exporting coal to Ireland. By 1800 there were no less than 37 pits around Workington. In 1837 disaster struck when the roof of Chapel Bank Pit collapsed and 27 miners and 28 horses drowned as sea water inundated the mine. The Curwens suffered heavy financial losses as a result of this incident and made renewed attempts to find fresh sources of coal by sinking Jane Pit in 1843 followed by Annie Pit in 1864.
The expansion of the mines aided exports, prompting the Curwens to build Lonsdale Dock in 1865 to take ships up to 2000 tons. A major shipbuilding industry developed in the wake of the new dock, providing collier brigs for coal exports along with the complementary trades of sail and rope making. In 1927, the dock was enlarged again, this time to take 10,000-ton ships, and re-named the Prince of Wales dock.
The ready availability of coal, iron ore and limestone gave rise to several iron and steel works on the coast. The low phosphorus content of the iron ore was highly suitable for use in the Bessemer converter - a means of producing a higher grade of steel by blasting air through molten pig iron to drive off any impurities. By the 1870s, most of Workington's ironworks had converted to this process.
The mines, ironworks and docks were linked by a network of railways that transported the coal and steel to other parts of the country and overseas via the West Coast ports.
With the decline of the coal and steel industries in the 1950s, Workington diversified into light industries. The old iron ore workings and slag heaps were flattened and sites re-landscaped for modern industrial estates and out-of-town shopping centres. Instead of tall chimneys and iron furnaces, Workington's skyline is now dominated by the white twirling blades of wind turbines, providing an alternative and clean source of electricity for over 20,000 homes.