Britain’s Yankee Whaling Town

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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.