The Rum Story, Whitehaven

Until June 1998 Jefferson’s Wine Merchants in Whitehaven was the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchants in the country. Founded by Robert Jefferson in 1785 the family business traded in wines from Spain and Portugal and rum, sugar and molasses from the West Indies. A large proportion of the sugar imported into Whitehaven was from the Jefferson-owned estate in Antigua and it was from there they also imported their famous rum, with all the imports being carried by their own ships.
The wine merchants business operated from the same Whitehaven premises for over 200 years, then after the last two Jeffersons decided to wind things down and close the shop in 1998 plans were put in place to convert the premises into a tourist attraction which explores Whitehaven’s links with the rum trade. Housed within the original 1785 shop, courtyard, cellars and bonded warehouses of the Jefferson family the Rum Story opened its doors to the public in September 2000 and is the world’s first Story of Rum exhibition.
Authentically designed to show the different aspects of the rum trade from its very early days through to more modern times the museum doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the past – crime, drunkenness and slavery, all fuelled by rum, are clearly depicted and information panels tell of the links between rum and the navy, rum and the Titanic, and how Nelson was pickled in a barrel of his favourite brandy after his death.
An archway between what is now the gift shop and the premises next door led to a light and attractive covered courtyard where I found the kinetic clock which performs every half hour and depicts the way rum is made, from the harvesting of the sugar cane to the bottling of the rum itself; it was seeing a picture of this clock in my ‘111 Places’ book which inspired me to visit the museum.
Rum story courtyard
Behind the clock was the original Jefferson’s clerk’s office, substantially unchanged since the turn of the 19th/20th century. With its high desks and stools, items of office equipment, old safe and hand written records on display it had been the hub of the Jefferson empire for many many years. Although it was free to look inside the office there was an entrance fee (currently Β£9.95 for adults) for the main museum where double doors took me into an Antiguan rainforest complete with accompanying sounds and humidity.
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One of the busiest ports in the country during the 18th century, Whitehaven had an extensive trade with Africa, America and the Caribbean, and rum and sugar became the town’s driving force. Ships sailed from Whitehaven loaded with manufactured products to be traded for African slaves who were then shipped in appalling conditions to the Caribbean, where they were traded for sugar and rum which were then shipped back to Whitehaven. One of Cumbria’s most famous products, Kendal Mint Cake first produced in 1869, was made with Caribbean sugar imported into the town.
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African village

Slavery chains and shackles

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Rum cellar
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The cooper’s workshop where young men would learn the art of barrel making
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The giant ‘Jefferson Barrel’ could hold 1,720 gallons of rum (7,819 litres) and filled with Jefferson’s Rum today the contents would be worth nearly Β£40,000 at the current prices. The story of Horatio Nelson’s life and naval career, told on pictorial information panels, was extremely interesting and I learned more about him there than I ever did at school. Starting his naval career at just 12 years old he rose rapidly through the ranks and became a captain at the age of 21, in charge of 200 men in the West Indies. He was respected and loved by all who served under him and after his death at Trafalgar in 1805 his body was brought back to England preserved in a barrel which, although reputed to have been full of rum, was more likely to have been his favourite brandy.
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Many of The Rum Story’s settings are so authentic that they are used for scenes in television dramas and period films, and to see these sets for myself I could understand why as they are so realistic. With three floors of well set out displays and shed loads of information the museum was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been in, though I couldn’t possibly photograph everything there was to see as there was so much of it. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the clock performing as I just missed it both going in and coming out and with only two free hours in Tesco’s car park I didn’t want to linger, however there’s a cafe in the courtyard so I may very well go back another time for a coffee and to see the clock in action.

23 thoughts on “The Rum Story, Whitehaven

    1. No there wasn’t BC, however several Tripadvisor reviews have mentioned it but that was in 2019 and pre-pandemic so it’s probably been stopped as a precautionary measure. I did get a voucher for Β£5 off a bottle if I bought some but I don’t drink, nor do I know anyone who drinks rum. The information about the slave trade was certainly an eye opener – in these modern times when we take so much for granted it really makes you stop and think.

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  1. That is an interesting place to visit and as soon as I started reading I thought about the slave trade, truly awful wasn’t it and those shackles! I didn’t know about Nelson being pickled in a barrel either. It’s true what you say, we learn more about history as adults than we ever did at school.

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    1. If I hadn’t read about this place in my book I probably would never have known about it. I didn’t know what to expect so I was very pleasantly surprised that the displays are so authentic and realistic – whoever designed them and put them together has an excellent eye for detail, and utilising the various original areas and features of the old buildings really gave the place that ‘step back in time’ feeling. If only history at school could have been so interesting πŸ™‚

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        1. 111 Places In The Lake District You Mustn’t Miss. A very interesting book which features a lot of places you wouldn’t know about or think of going to

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        2. RRP Β£12.99 – have a look on ebay, several new copies with free postage, I don’t know what Blackwells prices are like but you might save a couple of quid

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        3. Β£11.25 from Blackwell’s, free postage,
          I try to avoid Amazon whenever possible. It’s a personal thing. Blackwell’s are still independent and pay their taxes in the UK.
          Always have had good service.

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  2. A very well regarded place which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves, glad you found it such an enjoyable visit even if some of the information is hard.

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    1. I never thought history could be so interesting Jayne, I learned a lot. I really enjoyed this place and if time hadn’t been an issue I would have gone round it again. And a certain friend calls me a heathen for not wanting to know about things?? – you’ll know who I mean πŸ™‚ And I’ll bet SHE doesn’t know about Nelson being pickled in a barrel! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

      It’s a shame it’s not in a more prominent place as it would be easy to miss, but to house it elsewhere would destroy its authenticity. Using the old original buildings in this way is brilliant and certainly gives a genuine and real atmosphere to the displays.

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  3. I went to Whitehaven for the first time a couple of years ago, the town centre is nothing to write home about but I really liked it along by the harbour and up round the Candlestick. I didn’t know about this museum then but I’m glad I found out about it as it’s such an interesting place.

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  4. It was a very unique and interesting place, I wish I could have photographed everything but there was just so much of it. I was just wondering – are you sober yet? πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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  5. That looks pretty hard-hitting – and quite right, too. Excellent review. Whitehaven is a fascinating place that, at least the last time I went, had seen better days; I need to return!

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    1. You would probably be of the same opinion Mike as the town centre is nothing to shout about, nor are some of the nearby properties though the harbour side is nice. If you do ever go back there then this museum is certainly worth a look – there’s far more to it than I could ever hope to photograph in one visit, and all the information provided gives you a history lesson without you realising it πŸ™‚

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  6. An interesting visit.
    The poem on the clock doesn’t mention who used the knife to cut the cane. But at least the museum display acknowledges them.

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  7. I’m surprised anyone can actually read it, I couldn’t make it any larger. It was a very enlightening visit which I really enjoyed so I may very well go back another time.

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    1. The museum is far more interesting than I expected it to be, educational too without you realising you’re being educated. As for the mint cake, I could never understand why climbers and such like take it on expeditions. I know it’s supposed to provide energy as it’s full of sugar but it would take a bucketful of the stuff to give someone a boost – one small slab wont’ do much.

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