A History of Lancashire



This book is about life in the historic county of Lancaster, commonly called Lancashire – at least since the fifteenth century. Its boundaries became established under the Norman kings. These survived with only slight alteration for administrative and census purposes until 1 April 1974. On that date the old county boundaries were swept away by the Local Government Act, 1972, and the new truncated Lancashire emerged as merely the nucleus of the historic county.

In the north, North Lonsdale, including the towns of Ulverston and Barrow-in-Furness and the old Lancashire’s highest point, the 2,631 feet (802 m) high peak of Coniston Old Man, all passed to the new county of Cumbria. In the south-west Liverpool, South­port, St Helens and the area between them became part of the new Merseyside Metropolitan County, while south-east Lancashire, including Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Salford all formed part of the Greater Manchester Metropolitan County. The river Mersey ceased to be the boundary between Lancashire and Cheshire. Warrington and Widnes now became part of the new Cheshire. The new Lancashire, centred on Preston, acquired parts of the former West Riding of Yorkshire, including the Forest of Bowland.

For our purposes, however, Lancashire denotes, as it did for eight centuries, the million or so acres stretching from the north side of Morecambe Bay to the north bank of the Mersey and from the Pennines to the Irish Sea. This area includes Walney Island and the Coniston fells in the extreme north and the Merseyside villages of Hale and Mossley in the extreme south.

The historic or ancient county, with these borders, came into existence in the reign of Henry II. Late in the twelfth century the first sheriff was appointed to collect taxes for the whole county and the first assizes were held at Lancaster. Representatives of the shire were elected to attend Edward I’s Model Parliament in 1296, along with those from the boroughs of Lancaster, Preston, Wigan and Liverpool. The earldom of Lancaster was created in 1266 for Henry III’s youngest son, Edmund Crouchback, who was granted wide powers within the county outside the bounds of his own estates. In 1 351 when Henry, the fourth earl, was given the title of duke, he was granted palatine powers for life by Edward III. This palatine authority gave Henry a position in Lancashire similar to that of the Earl of Chester or Bishop of Durham in their respective shires, namely the right to exercise almost royal powers in the appointment of judges and the holding of special duchy courts at Lancaster and Preston. The king’s overall control was retained in his right to tax the county and to pardon those found guilty in the duke’s courts. These palatine powers were resumed by the crown on Duke Henry’s death in 1361,  but they were also granted to his successor, John of Gaunt, in 1390. When he died in 1399, the duchy was seized by his nephew, Richard II. Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, returned from exile on the continent and wrested both duchy and kingdom from his cousin Richard, and was crowned Henry IV, first of the royal house of Lancaster.

The duchy was never again surrendered by the reigning monarch, and it survives to this day, in the form of crown lands and church patronage administered separately from those of other parts of the kingdom. The duchy council which had been peripatetic under John  of Gaunt became stationary in London in the course of the fifteenth century. The court of the Duchy of Lancaster, headed by its own chancellor, administered the lands of the duchy, heard appeals from the chancery court at Preston and appointed the county’s magistrates. Until 1873 the duchy was responsible for holding assizes in the county. Even today, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, apart from being a government minister, carries out some of his traditional functions in that he appoints the judges and magistrates for Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

The first mention of the ‘county of Lancaster’ was in 1168. Lancaster was both the seat of the honour (or feudal lordship) and the assize town. Later it was at Lancaster that the magistrates of the county met in quarter sessions and where two knights of the shire were elected to attend the House of Commons at Westminster.

Lancaster’s original advantage lay in its strategic position command­ing the Lune Valley, one of the principal routes to Scotland. Its position weakened as the military importance of the castle declined and as the emergence of important centres of population to the south brought about a shift in the county’s centre of gravity. In 1798 the headquarters of county government moved from Lancaster to Preston, and in 1835 additional assize courts were set up at Liverpool, and later at Manchester as well.

County government became less important to many Lancastrians in the late nineteenth century when a large number of towns achieved independence in the form of county borough status. Nevertheless Preston remained the seat of government for the smaller towns and the rural areas. In 1 888 an elected county council replaced the general meeting of county magistrates which had previously governed the north-west. The system by which the county council governed rural areas and supervised some services to non-county boroughs survived until the reorganization in 1974. In that year the former county boroughs were incorporated in the new counties of Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

The origins of Lancashire lie in the remote past. About 500 million years ago, in what geologists call Ordovician times, the oldest rocks in the north-west, the Skiddaw Slates, were laid down. These were originally mudstones lying in various depths of water in a shallow sea off a large northern continent. In time the sea-bed became the scene of much volcanic activity which thrust up the main peaks of the Lake District, known as the Borrowdale Volcanic Series. The land was subject to a period of alternating sinkage and volcanic activity, giving rise to the Coniston limestone, grits and flags, which are the oldest rocks in north Lancashire. As the sea deepened a vast series of mudstones and silts, known as the Stockdale Series, accum­ulated.

For the development of Lancashire the most important period of rock formation took place about 350 million years ago when the sea once more covered the north-west and the Carboniferous limestone beds were laid down. It was this Carboniferous period which was largely responsible both for the structure of the landscape and the evolution of the regional economy. Limestone of this age may be seen near Clitheroe and Whalley. This sea-floor covering of limestone thickened with the years but, in turn, was subject to river deposits of sand and silt, which later hardened into the Millstone Grit Series from which has been quarried much of the stone for building Lancaster and the Pennine villages. As these river deposits spread, the water became so shallow in places that swamp vegetation grew up, giving rise to the thin coal measures found occasionally in the Lancashire millstone grits, particularly in the form of moorland outcrops. In time, additional layers of sand and mud caused alternation of coal measures with strata of sandstones, grits and shales. In the nine­teenth century the latter were exploited for brick-making, producing among other varieties, the famous bright red ‘Accrington bloods’.

About 270 million years ago, in late Coal Measure times, the Carboniferous limestone underwent much folding. Such folds, with their axes running east-west, may be seen along the Pennine chain at various points. Folding was followed by erosion which wore away the summits of the limestone masses of Bowland and Rossendale.

The tectonic depression caused by the folding limestone attracted a variety of desert and inland-sea deposits in the Mesozoic period over 200 million years ago. This basin was filled up with a variety of Keuper marls (containing important salt deposits) and Bunter sandstones and conglomerates which now form the underlying Permo-Triassic rocks of the Lancashire plain. In south-west Lancashire they come close to the surface as a result of up-folding.

Much of this pre-glacial landscape was entirely altered by the Ice Age two million years ago. The ice sheet spread a thick layer of boulder clay and sand in the deeper valleys, diverting many streams from their original courses and coating the valley sides up to a height of 1,00 feet (450 m). Two levels of boulder clay have suggested two glacial advances. As the glaciers retreated, lakes were formed whose outlets later formed important means of communication between different valleys. An example is the Cliviger Gorge between Burnley and Todmorden. At Blackpool the boulder clay forms cliffs between 40 (12 m) and 70 feet (21 m) high. Where the drift has been eroded by streams on the edge of Rossendale, the coal outcrops have been exposed, as at Haigh and Blackrod.

The last two major geological developments were the alluvial deposits made by the rivers and the evolution of peatmosses. Flood gravels have allowed urban development in otherwise low-lying valley bottoms. Tidal action has formed the alluvial deposits into low coastal flats in the Fylde and west Lancashire. The fine sand of the Shirdley Hill variety has proved invaluable in the development of the glass industry at St Helens. The peatmosses, exploited for fuel long before coal, became established in various places, particularly along large stretches of the coast, on the north bank of the Mersey and in south-west Lancashire. Most of these areas have been drained in the last two or three hundred years.

Life began in the sea, which then covered most of Lancashire, about 450 million years ago. Fossil shells have been found in pro­fusion in the Coniston Limestone Series, while remains . of various fishes have been found in the coal measures dating back 300400 million years. Mammals of late Pleistocene times, two or three million years ago, have been found at the mouths of the Ribble and the Mersey. In the late nineteenth century the skull of a brown bear was found at Bootle, and a variety of deer antlers were dredged from the Ribble during the excavation of Preston docks.

After the last Ice Age the climate became warmer and all but the highest ground in the county became covered with oak and birch forests. Into these forests, migrating northwards across the peat-mosses of the Mersey valley, came Lancashire’s first human settlers. Penetration of the north-west seems to have occurred quite late, probably not before Mesolithic times (about 5,000 B.C.). The first men to reach Lancashire kept to the Pennine uplands where the forest was less thick, and so hunting and snaring were easier than in the wetter, deeper forest of the plain. Mesolithic man lived by fishing and hunting red deer, hares and wild boar, helped by his dogs. He ate the fish and meat, clothed himself in the hides and furs and used the deer antlers as tools which he later supplemented with stone or flint blades. Examples of such tools have come from near Bolton, Radcliffe and Anglezarke Moor near Rivington.

The Neolithic revolution brought agriculture to Europe. Neolithic man sowed seeds, cut grass with stone sickles and kept herds of cattle, sheep and goats. He began to clear the upland forest for him­self and his animals. He made pottery, and his womenfolk wove cloth. In the north-west, Neolithic man continued to inhabit the moorland caves occupied by his predecessors, and Neolithic burial chambers have been found, like the one on Anglezarke Moor. But he also made a start on building dwellings of mud or wood, and some of the sites which he occupied were very low-lying, like Walney Island and Williamson’s Moss. During Neolithic times a thriving trade in flints and stone axes developed. Flint-knapping sites have been found as far dispersed as Chorlton-on-Medlock, Clitheroe and Grange-over-Sands, while the stone axe ‘factories’ which supplied the north-west and markets further afield were scattered through the Furness area and north Wales. There is also evidence of contact with Ireland, the Isle of Man and Yorkshire at this time.

Many of the practices of Neolithic man were unaltered by the coming of the Bronze Age. Some, however, changed. The Bronze Age coincided with a period of drier weather in the north-west, so substantial and waterproof dwellings were less essential. This at least is one explanation for the scarcity of known sites for this period. Stone circles of the Bronze Age may be seen at Bleasdale and on Turton Heights, while collared urn burials have been found at various places, including Whitelow near Bury. In 1973 a canoe burial of this period was uncovered by contractors near Jubilee Tower, Hare Appletree Fell near Lancaster. A hoard found at Portfield near Whalley revealed a number of bronze implements including two axes, a knife and a gouge, as well as some gold jewellery. This gold is likely to have been Irish in origin. About the same time the Ribble valley seems to have become an artery for the trade of flat bronze axes sent from Ireland to eastern England and even Scandinavia.

The Iron Age brought much wetter weather, and remains of this period are more substantial. A total of seven hill-forts have been traced in the county: at Camp Hill near Liverpool, Caster Cliff near Nelson, Portfield near Whalley, Castlestede near Lancaster, Warton Crag, Castlehead near Lindale and Skelmore Heads near Ulverston. There is a noticeable concentration of these hill-forts in Lonsdale, and to the four in this area might be added Ingleborough in the Lune valley, perhaps a regional capital of the Brigantes, the tribe which dominated the north immediately before the Roman con­quest. The largest of• the Lancashire forts is Warton Crag, which extends over 15 acres (6 ha). The rest were small. Hut settlements too have been found. Using stone foundations, Iron Age man built circular huts roofed with branches covered with skins or thatch. Each settlement was probably for one extended family. At Urswick the hut circles measure over 20 feet (6 m) in diameter and are surrounded by rectangular cattle paddocks. Elsewhere, terracing shows the sites of Celtic fields.