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Britain’s Yankee Whaling Town

July 2024
6min read

The curious story of Milford Haven

Milford Haven is the name of both a town and a natural harbor set in the rolling hills of southern Wales some 250 miles west of London. Once famous for its trawling fleet, it is now a major terminal for supertankers bringing crude oil from the Persian Gulf.

Many Americans visit the area to see the mighty Norman castle at nearby Pembroke, the mellow cathedral at St. David’s, and, most of all, the splendor of the rocky coast. But hardly any of those same Americans are aware that in the streets of Milford Haven they are stepping on a chapter of their own history. For the town was actually built and settled by a group of original Yankees who crossed from the New World nearly two centuries ago in search of a fresh life in the old. Today only a few relics in the town’s museum, the names of quiet roads, and a huddle of weathered tombstones in a tangled burial ground testify to this forgotten epic.

It begins, like so many stories, with a wedding. In 1758 Catherine Barlow—”a poor, nervous creature,” according to her mother—married a Mr. William Hamilton. For both families it was a convenient union. Catherine had wealth: she was heiress to rich estates on the harbor of Milford Haven. William had pedigree: he was the grandson of the third Duke of Hamilton.

Sir William (the knighthood came later) was no languid aristocrat. The eighteenth century produced few men more remarkable than this visionary, art collector, diplomat, and entrepreneur: as soon as he clapped eyes on Milford Haven he began laying plans for a brand new port aimed at the expanding trade with Ireland and America. By 1764 he was already promoting a bill in Parliament.

That same summer, however, brought an unexpected problem. Hamilton was appointed ambassador to the Court of Naples. It meant a lengthy absence, and Hamilton persuaded his nephew, Charles Francis Greville, to act as his agent in Milford Haven while he was away.

The relationship between Hamilton and Greville was never simple. A man of wide interests, cultural and scientific, Greville was on intimate terms with all the fashionable painters of the day. It was Greville who, at his London home, employed a “fair tea maker” and artist’s model of twenty-one—Amy Lyon, alias Emma Hart. Her eventual marriage in 1791, after Catherine’s death, to Sir William Hamilton (thirty-five years her senior) and her scandalous affair with Adm. Horatio Nelson need not concern us at this stage—but, as we shall see, the woman who became the second Lady Hamilton was to play a memorable role in the Milford Haven story in later years.

The task that confronted Greville was immense. Under the terms of Hamilton’s Act of Parliament he was charged with “making and providing Quays, Docks, Piers and other erections, and … establishing a market with proper Roads and Avenues thereto” where none had previously existed. The money was available: Catherine’s will of 1782 had left no shortage of finance. But where were the settlers to people the new port?

Greville solved the issue in spectacular style. He decided to import them—not from neighboring England but from the other side of the Atlantic.

On Nantucket Island lived several hundred Quakers with names that were already famous in the seafaring annals of America—Starbuck, Folger, Rotch, and Coffin among them. These were the whalers who provided the spermaceti oil for London’s newfangled street lighting. For this island community the American Revolution—or War of Independence as the British still prefer to call it—came as a fatal blow. American and British blockades severed their trade with London and prevented the establishment of alternative markets on the U.S. mainland. Within months the Quakers’ plight was desperate.

A Boston sympathizer wrote at the time: “Unless the Nantucketers are enabled to pursue their old business their artisans will be drawn by hunger to resort to some other country to find employment. Could the European Nations obtain their dexterity we Americans should for ever lose the most advantageous branch of our Trade.”

That is precisely what happened. In 1785 the leading Nantucket whaler, William Rotch, accompanied by his son Benjamin, visited England and examined various ports, but finally opted for Dunkirk in France. Other Quaker families headed by Samuel Starbuck and Timothy Folger accepted a British invitation to remove their ships to Dartmouth in Nova Scotia. Matters probably would have remained in this unsatisfactory state if not for the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Greville saw it as an opportunity to bring together the refugee whalers at Dartmouth and Dunkirk on his new site at Milford Haven. Accordingly, in 1791, he wrote to Starbuck in Dartmouth offering “new life and new prosperity” to those willing to migrate: “I will wait for you in Wales and will show you on the spot what I can do and what I will do.”

Few Americans who visit the area are aware that in the streets of Milford Haven they are stepping on a chapter of their own history.

What he and Sir William Hamilton would “do” was considerable: “We will give easy accommodation, protection and preference to the Friends. We will grant exemption from all ground rents for two years. We will decline all offers for the ground until you have pointed out the most eligible spot for your habitations.” There would also be free berthing for ships, cheap stone and timber, and a plentiful supply of local labor.

Starbuck was impressed. It was an offer he could hardly refuse. Thus, in the summer of 1793 thirteen whaling vessels carrying some fifty Quakers belonging to seven families, plus 182 seamen, crept past the rocky jaw of St. Ann’s Head on the Welsh coast and into the safety of Milford Haven.

This, then, was to be their newfound home—a gentle hillside sloping down to the sheltered sea, with only a few white stone farmhouses to relieve the emptiness. It was up to the Americans to put the unborn town on the map of Britain.

Of two families in particular we have detailed evidence: the Starbucks and the Folgers. Of the others little is known, but contemporary records mention the names of Barney, Basset, Coffin, Gayer, Tibbetts, and Vaughan. Benjamin Rotch joined the Milford Haven settlement from Dunkirk slightly later.

During the early months, Greville housed the Quakers in the neighboring mansions of the gentry. He had already envisaged what he called “a fix’t plan” for Milford Haven comprising three main terraces linked by intersections at right angles. Some experts attribute the gridiron street plan to Greville’s architect, a French, naval designer named Jean-Louis Barrallier. Others credit the plan to the Quakers themselves, who had seen New York and approved its street planning.

On one point, however, there can be no dispute: the houses built by the Quakers for their own use are essentially New England in style. Staring boldly out to sea, they have the same austere lines—and, in some cases, the same shingled walls—that are found in the New England whaling ports of Salem, Mystic, and New Bedford. Nowhere in Britain is the atmosphere of early America so strong and so persistent. Visitors from New England often experience a ghostly sense of “home”—even when they are unaware of the American roots of the place.

The year 1802 saw the greatest event in the town’s history. People still talk about it. The occasion was a visit to Milford Haven by the living legend himself, Horatio Nelson, together with his mistress, the delectable second Lady Hamilton. In attendance, as always, was the ever-forgiving and pliant Sir William. Samuel Starbuck, though hardly approving of such a notorious triangle, was nevertheless sufficiently awed to report the fact that he had seen the famous Lady Hamilton sitting in the window of the inn (now the Lord Nelson Hotel) gazing out to sea “enraptured.”

At a public dinner, Nelson praised the Americans in particular, noting that “they have been enabled to send eight ships to the South Seas and thus establish the whaling industry in Milford Haven.” To crown it all, he pronounced the Haven and Trincomalee in Ceylon as the finest harbors he had ever seen. They were flattering words—and still proudly quoted whenever Milford Haven is seeking new industrial investment.

By now the Quakers were spreading their commercial wings. Some went in for brewing and milling. Others opened yards for ship repairs and construction. Benjamin Rotch started a bank, dealt in real estate, and bought himself a mansion. When Abigail Starbuck died in 1801, the Friends acquired a burial ground and eventually built a meetinghouse on the site. It is still there, surrounded by the final resting places of the families who left America in search of the Promised Land in Wales. This is the most evocative and poignant section of modern Milford Haven. The simple granite slabs carry only the plain initials of the Quakers, but they are touching reminders of their courage and devotion to adventure, as are the names of the nearby streets —Nan tucket Avenue, Dartmouth Gardens, and Starbuck Road.

Was that the end of Milford Haven’s American connection?

Not quite. The arrival of the railroad inspired new thoughts of glory in the town. They reached a peak of optimism when an American merchant proposed to build a fleet of fast ships to carry passengers and freight across the Atlantic in record time. They were to ply between New York and Milford Haven, thus avoiding the dangerous passage through the Irish Sea to Liverpool.

Only one liner actually made the trip. In 1889 the City of Rome arrived at Milford Haven carrying Barnum’s circus. The 134 passengers had to be transferred by tender because the anchorage was too shallow, and despite euphoric noises from the local business community the experiment was never repeated. The London Financial News said unkindly: “Milford has been the port of the future for so long that it is surely time that the future took account of the limitations of the present.”

In the 1960s, oil—crude rather than whale—again came to the rescue. Scores of giant storage tanks are located near Milford Haven, and major American and British oil companies provide much of the region’s employment. They intrude upon, but in no way spoil, the soft beauty of the landscape.

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