The major industry is the nearby Sellafield nuclear power complex, with which a large proportion of the population has links.
Although there had been a Roman fort at Parton, about 2km to the north, Whitehaven was largely the creation of the Lowther family in the 17th century. It grew into a major coal mining town during the 18th and 19th centuries and also became a substantial commercial port on the back of this trade.
The town has links to many notable people: Jonathan Swift, who claimed that an over-fond nurse kidnapped him and brought him to Whitehaven for three years in his infancy; Mildred Gale, grandmother of George Washington; and William Wordsworth, who often came into town to visit his family.
Whitehaven is the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe and recently has been pursuing growth through tourism. Due to Whitehaven's planned layout with streets in a right-angled grid, many historians believe that Whitehaven was the blueprint for the New York City street grid system.
The harbour was once riddled with railway lines, when steam engines would shunt trucks full of coal, iron, gypsum and many other cargoes onto the quays for ships to take elsewhere in the world.
The railway reached Whitehaven in 1847 - steam powered engines finally reached the town following an agreement between the Earl of Lonsdale and George Stephenson. Stephenson was the engineer placed in charge of the construction of the new railway line. The railway became known as the Whitehaven Junction Railway. Even before this line was built, the nearby Lowca engineering works began to produce locomotives. Over the life of the works, some 260 were produced - mainly for industrial lines.
The Whitehaven coal mines were the first to extend under the sea. This was achieved when Saltom pit was sunk in 1729. Saltom pit was also the first pit thought to have used explosives to assist in the sinking of shafts. By the 1730s Whitehaven had the deepest mines due to the necessity to drive ever deeper shafts to reach new seams of coal.
One of the earliest steam engines, built by Thomas Newcomen, was installed at Stone pit in Whitehaven to help in drainage and haulage. William Brownrigg, Whitehaven's most eminent scientist, was the first to investigate the explosive mine gas fire damp.
In 300 years over 70 pits were sunk in the Whitehaven and district area. During this period some 500+ people were killed in pit disasters and Mining accidents. The largest local disaster was in 1910, at Wellington pit where 136 miners lost their lives. In 1947, at William pit there was another disaster of similar proportions where 104 men were killed. Today there is no mining carried out in Whitehaven. The last pit to operate in Whitehaven was, Haig.
In 1983, a major fault was encountered at Haig - with this, the future of the pit was in doubt. This, combined with the political situation, and the UK miners' strike (1984-1985), contributed to problems at the colliery. The workforce attempted to open a new face, but a decision had been taken to close, and after two years of recovery work, Haig finally ceased mining in Whitehaven on March 31st 1986.
During 2007, Copeland Council declared that it could no longer afford to maintain Saltom Pit, and decided to allow the pit to fall to the mercy of the Irish Sea. Following an online campaign by myWhitehaven.net , Copeland Council had a change of heart and decided to reverse this decision. They teamed up with the National Trust in an endeavour to save Saltom Pit, and obtained the necessary funding from various sources, including a 50% grant from the European Union.
In October, 2008, work began on Site Clearance (by Irving Construction) in the Saltom Pit area, with the aim of enhancing and preserving Saltom Pit. A sloping pathway will also be constructed to allow safe access to the Pit area and to the Whitehaven coastal pathway. This work, will result in Saltom Pit being saved for future generations, and will allow the pit to become a integral part of regeneration work in Whitehaven.
In 1941, Fred Marzillier and Frank Schon moved their Marchon Chemical Company to Whitehaven to avoid German bombing. Marchon started producing some of the first detergents in the world. The new detergents were a big success as soap was in short supply due to the war. The company continued producing their own detergents as well as bulk detergent ingredients for other companies after the war. It was taken over by Albright and Wilson, often referred to as 'all bright and shiny', in 1955. The Marchon works became the town's largest employer when the mines closed down. However, it too was closed in 2005.
Whitehaven is a rugby league stronghold, its team Whitehaven RLFC play in National League one. Their mascot is a lion called "Pride". There are also several Whitehaven-based teams playing in the amateur Cumberland League. Whitehaven's female amateur R.U.F.C is named the "Wildcats".
Whitehaven also plays host to a maritime festival which started in 1999 and is held every two years (although building development in the harbour area is making it difficult to find space to hold the festival, and its future is in doubt).
The festival includes tall ships, air displays which include the Red Arrows, and various modern and old planes, street entertainment, and firework displays.
At the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Festivals the local Sea Cadets were very much in evidence, conducting the traditional Evening Colours ceremony each evening aboard one of the visiting tall ships, and also taking part in the Festival's official closing ceremony during the late Sunday afternoon each year.
The 2005 festival also marked the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in which Whitehaven had been designated Cumbria’s Official commemoration celebration.
Up to 1,000 veterans and ex-service personnel took part in the parade from the towns Castle Park to the harbour side, led by members of three military bands. Services were held on the harbour side and aircraft from the Royal Airforce provided a tribute display above the harbour.
The switchover in the Whitehaven area wasn't entirely successful. In nearby Eskdale, poor signal quality left viewers with blank television screens.
The main towns neighbouring Whitehaven are Workington to the north, Cleator Moor to the East and Egremont to the south. Villages close by which are not suburbs include St Bees and Beckermet to the south and Distington to the north.