On the 23rd of April, 1778, American revolutionaries took their fight to the western coast of Britain. An audacious move.
It would have been a cold, dark evening when John Paul Jones and thirty of his men rowed into Whitehaven harbour.
Our recent visit couldn’t have been more different, with a summer sunset painting the port in soft watercolours.
Most of Whitehaven’s piers, tongues, and quays were already standing 239 years ago, and their weathered stones give the impression of age and solid steadfastness.
John Paul Jones, ‘Father of the American Navy’ was very familiar with Whitehaven and may well have walked these very routes, since it was his home port for the first season of his sailing career. He knew the fortifications, the pattern of days, and where the watchtowers were.
In 1778, Whitehaven was the third largest port in all of England. Only London and Bristol exceeded it in size and capacity.
There were as many as 400 British merchant ships anchored there on the day American revolutionaries landed.
Their plan was to disable the port’s cannon and, while the tide was low, set fire to the ships, perhaps engulfing the town’s vast warehouses of coal, rum, sugar and tobacco.
The invaders would have shimmed up walls and across decks, feeling the effects of adrenaline, anxiety, hard physical work, and the need to go unnoticed.
Half the sailors, sent for extra fuel for the fires, were distracted by the delights of a pub and stayed for hours. (Fancy that.) And one sailor abandoned his mates, to alert the townspeople because he didn’t want to “destroy poor people’s property.”
In spite of these things, the Americans did manage to burn one large and important ship, the Thompson, a fine new vessel filled with coal.
Jones and his men rowed hastily to their ship, the USS Ranger, while the people of Whitehaven rushed to douse the fire before it spread beyond the Thompson.
Historians speculate that this attack on British soil fanned the fears of the British public and may have contributed to England’s losing the American colonies.
John Paul Jones became an infamous pirate and bogeyman to the British, and a brave American hero to the colonists. Such was the power of media and rumour even then.
Jones was formally pardoned by the Commissioners of the Harbour of Whitehaven on the 27th of June, 1999. Today, you’ll find a variety of pleasure craft and a few fishing vessels sheltering in the harbour.
I’ve yet to meet one American who was taught the story of John Paul Jones’ attack on Whitehaven. I’d never heard it until I moved to Cumbria myself. Curious.
So many lessons to learn from stories like this one. Not least of which is that you shouldn’t stay too long in the pub!