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The history of Whitehaven's Bielby goblet
Belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special features producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

The Bielby goblet
The Bielby goblet was stolen in 1994

In many ways the Bielby goblet has led a fairly quiet life or at least it did until about 20 years ago!

It was made in 1763 to commemorate the launch of the King George, one of only two ships built in Whitehaven specifically for the slave trade.

The goblet carries the words "Success to the African Trade of Whitehaven" and a picture of the ship.

The town was involved in the trade in a small way for about 10 years in the 18th century.

A sip of rum

The other ship was the "Black Prince". It is thought the goblet would have been passed round all those at the launch ceremony to take a sip of rum to mark the occasion.

Harry Fancy, the former curator of Whitehaven Museum, says this was very unusual. It was more normal in Cumbria to pass a bowl of rum butter round for people to spread on crackers to celebrate the launch.

The Beacon and Whitehaven Harbour
The Bielby goblet is now kept in the Beacon Museum at Whitehaven

The other thing which makes the goblet remarkable is that it was made by one of the finest English glassmakers of all time, William Bielby. He was based in the North East and his glassware is now held in the best museums and collections around the world.

Not much is known about the goblet after 1763. But the current curator at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, Charlotte Stead, says it then appeared in an auction catalogue in London in 1985. It was put up for sale by an unnamed family who'd had it since the early 19th Century.

Lost the goblet

Harry Fancy was desperate to secure it for Whitehaven. He got promises of funding for £40,000. But the bidding soon went above that, pushed higher by a private bidder on the phone from South America and the Corning Glass Museum in New York.

Birds Eye View of Whitehaven in Cumbria
The streets of Whitehaven were laid out in a grid pattern

The American museum eventually had the highest bid at £59,000 and it looked as though Whitehaven had lost the goblet. But under an English law to stop important artworks leaving the country Harry was given nine months to match the glass museum's bid.

He eventually managed to raise the money including a donation from the late Queen Mother! The goblet was lent to the Corning Museum shortly afterwards for an exhibition.

Smash and grab

In 1994 the goblet was stolen. A smash and grab raid at the museum's temporary home in Whitehaven Civic Hall at four in the morning.

Charlotte Stead at the Beacon Museum

For months nothing was heard about the goblet's fate. Then the police were contacted by an informer who said he had information about its whereabouts.

It was eventually agreed that in return for a £10,000 "reward" from the goblet's insurers that it would be given back to the museum "no questions asked." Harry Fancy was at the handover in a car park as the unmarked notes were handed over to the informer and the goblet was handed back.

Slave trade

The goblet now sits in its cabinet in the Beacon Museum behind unbreakable glass. It is an object with a mixed message.

Charlotte Stead says it is an important reminder of the slave trade which shouldn't be forgotten. But Ave Dawson, a vistor host at the museum says it is also a celebration of the craftsmanship of the Bielbys and of the men who built the "King George".


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