Britain’s Yankee Whaling Town

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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.