The History of Cumbria after 1066

Economic and Social Developments

BY THE END of the 12th century Cumbria had been apportioned among several temporal and ecclesiastic feudal landlords. The monasteries established granges (abbey farms) and started large-scale upland sheep pasturage. The monks also initiated iron mining and smelting (using bloom furnaces) in Furness with the resulting large-scale de-foresta­tion necessary for the production of charcoal. King Henry III ordered the deforestation of all woodland other than the royal demesne (without a great deal of success). The border was rather troubled; Carlisle was besieged by the Scots in 1173 and 1174, while the region was overwhelmed in 1215 by an incursion in strength and-depth.

Throughout the 13th century the population increased steadily and land development continued. (Husaker Tarn was drained and the reclaimed land called Newlands.) Although the castles, larger churches and abbeys were built of stone, other buildings were of wood, or wattle-and-daub, with ling, rushes or heather for roofing.

After the death of Edward I the resumption of Scottish border raids devastated the lowland areas several times, depleting the livestock and human populations. Pele towers were built as a simple defence against short-duration sieges characteristic of border raids. Similarly, some villages were diked (as at the entrance to the Westmorland Borrowdale), and some churches were fortified with strong stone towers and narrow doors. Warning beacons were built on promin­ent hills.

By the early 1500s large areas of Cumbria had been enclosed by the major landowners as sheep runs or deer parks and smaller areas were enclosed by tenant farmers. After the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1540), the monastic estates passed into private hands and trade which previously had been reserved to the monks was released to the market towns. The economy of Cumbria was based on sheep farm­ing, woollen cloth manufacture, mining and smelting, forestry and allied woodland products. There was also some small-scale pearl fishing (around the mouth of the Irt) and some char potting.

Medieval Social Developments
Medieval Social Developments

It has been suggested that the Dissolution caused economic hardship in the dales. This view, has been countered by the argument that the sheep would still need shepherds and the iron bloomeries still need both men and raw materials (iron ore and charcoal), no matter who actually leased the land. Bearing in mind the subsequent rise in prosperity in the market towns, it is probably reasonable to assume that any hardship was localised and of fairly short duration.

Other than sheep the dale farms were limited to oats, barley and bean crops by the acidic soil, high rainfall and short growing season. Sickles were used for reaping, thus leaving a long stubble suitable for thatching and grazing. The lack of a root crop for winter feeding led to an annual autumnal slaughter of all livestock other than sheep, milk cattle and draught oxen. Transport was by pack-horse, solid wheeled carts, and (in rough. country) sleds. The heavy, iron-shod ploughs were drawn by oxen or horses. Legend has it that the present-day Herdwick sheep are descended from animals washed ashore from a wrecked ship that belonged to the Spanish Armada but there is no evidence to support this claim. Wool was spun and woven into cloth at the farms (hence the spinning galleries on farmhouses of this date), and then cleaned and thickened at the fulling mills which, by the 16th century, were water p0owereld. The exploitation of fell becks in this way enabled sufficient production to sup­port a large woollen cloth industry centred on Kendal. The industry declined with the century from foreign competition and the effects of the plague, and many fulling mills were converted to (woodland) industrial uses – paper mills, bark mills, bobbin mills.

In 1564 the Mines Royal Company was founded by Eliza­beth I and the Savoy company. Some 50 German miners were imported by Daniel Hechstetter of the Augsberg busi­ness house of Haug, Langnauer and Company. The main mining areas were the Newlands valley, the Cauldbeck fells and (after 1600) Coniston, and the main minerals were lead, copper and small amounts of silver. The ores were smelted at Brigham, near Keswick, where the furnace bellows and ore stamp houses were powered by the Greta. The indus­try declined in the 17th century (the Mines Royal Company was dissolved by the Commonwealth) and the Keswick area mines finally closed in 1715.

The woodland industries had been established long before the 16th century, but they deve4oped fully in step with the rest of the economy after the Dissolution. Large-scale char­coal manufacture was required for gunpowder and as fuel for the iron bloomeries. During the heyday of the Mines Royal the bloomeries were suppressed because the Brigham ore furnaces required all the available charcoal, but as the mines declined the bloomeries revived. Other woodland industries included the manufacture of coarse matting, bark, barrels, hoops and pack saddles.

The general economic development of the 1 6th century allowed the building of chapels in several remote valleys (Borrowdale, Ennerdale, Wythburn, Cartrnel, Wasdale Head) and the endowment of several grammar schools (Penrith, Blenow, Keswick, Urswick, St Bees, Dean and Hawkshead).

Farmhouses in the 16th century were construicted round a wooden skeleton similar in shape to a rib, cage. The initial length would be set by raising the requisite pairs of wooden ribs on low stone walls, and pinning each pair at the top. The walls were then built up outside the ribs, the ends blocked off gable style and a steep rootf fitted onto the upper slopes of the rib framework. The roofs would be either thatch or slate tile. This style of house lent itself to lateral extension along the main axis.

During the 17th century a rural middle class of yeoman farmers, termed “Statesmen,” emerged. They were tenant or freehold farmers midway between the landowning gentry and the hired labourers. By the second half of the century the statesmen’s houses were built in local roughcast stone with whitewashed external walls. The horuseplan was typically oblong with the outbuilding extending along the main axis and beneath the main roof. Hugh Walpole describes such a house in his novel Rogue Herries. (See appendix).

Difficulties of troop movements during the 1745 rebellion initiated much road construction or improvement,  so, that by 1757 a carrier waggon service operated between Kendal and London. In 1763 the Kendal/Carlisle carriage service took six hours and in 1781 a cross-sands diligence ran between Ulverston and Lancaster. Penrith, Cockermouth, Ulverston, Kendal and Keswick became coaching stages. Within the Cumbrian dome pack-horse transport remained the rule.

The industrial revolution that was taking over the national economy reached Cumbria in the late 18th Cen­tury. Iron and coal mines spawned on the West Cumbrian coast, causing such a demand for timber that large-scale afforestation schemes (mainly larch with some oak) were started. The increasing prices of food and wool, caused by the migration from the land into industry and the con­sequences of the Napoleonic wars, caused large quantities of fell enclosure (50,000 acres of Cumbrian fell were enclosed between 1763 and 1800) by means of dry-stone walls.

The tall ruthlessly straight, well-built walls of this era, so different from the ancient, rambling, boulder-built walls near the villages, speak eloquently of the Georgian squirearchy who carried through these schemes, armoured and confident in their triple bronze of political influence, legalism and ruling ability.

Edmund Hodge, Enjoying the Lakes

Borrowdale graphite (mined desultorily since the mid 16th century) was developed rapidly to meet demands from the munitions industry, as a sheep-marker, a glaze, a dye-fixer, and for use in lead pencils. These “wad” mines (and the attendant smuggling) were operated until 1833. One of the most illustrious smuggling routes was the “Moses Sledgate” track that originated above Honister, traversed Brandreth and the Ennerdale face of Great Gable and thence (via Wasdale Head) to the coast. The trade was two-way, exports of graphite and imports of wine, brandy, tobacco and silks. It is not certain when the smuggling ceased. Slate quarrying (Kirkby-in-Furness, Coniston, Honister) ex­panded into a major industry. Lead was mined at Green-side and Thornthwaite.

The water routes were used extensively for transport and at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries the Ulverston canal (1795) and the Preston-Lancaster-Kendal canal (1819) were constructed to expand the capacity for trade. The north-south rail route was needed to complete the west coast London-Glasgow connection. The east-west connections brought the high quality coking coal from Durham and Yorkshire to the Furness and West Cumberland ironworks.

The existing main market towns of the central area Cockermouth, Penrith, Keswick and Kendal —all expanded considerably during the period 1800-1850. Cockermouth remained essentially a market town for the north-western dales, gaining precedence over its nearby rival Egremont by its position on the main east-west mineral route to the burgeoning industrial West coast. Penrith was already an important staging point for the horse-powered mail and general carriage traffic when the development of the rail­way network enhanced its position. In addition to its road and rail importance, Penrith was the market centre for the north eastern dales and the mid-Eden valley.

The wool and dye industries of Kendal and the Kent valley generally were revived by the opening of the canal link to central Lancashire. Water power was the main energy source – the first industrial steam engine was not installed until 1851 – and water mills can still be found. The woollen trade in Keswick declined with the 19th cen­tury from competition with the West Riding, but during the period 1800-1830 the mineral industries in and around the town expanded. It has been suggested that the narrow courts and alley-ways of these towns date from this time, when instant housing was needed by the influx of industrial workers. It has also been suggested that the design of narrow doored courts (vide the numerous “gates” of Ken­dal) rose from the exigencies of 14th century border war­fare; it would be easier to bar and defend one narrow alley­way than a long frontage. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive – the design could have become tradi­tional over five centuries.

There was another brief resurgence in mineral working around Keswick during the second half of the 19th century. Copper and then barytes were extracted from the Cauldbeck Fell mines between 1855 and 1877, while the lead mines to the south-west of Derwentwater were re-opened in mid-century, when steam pumps overcame flooding, but the revival soon faded. The last spasm occurred during the 1880-1900 period when galena and zinc were mined near Threlkeld.

The gradual decline within the central area in industrial activity after the mid-century was compensated by an economic revival as the railway network fed a new class of holiday-maker into the region. The development of the rail and steamer services opened up the southern half of the region more than the north. The combination of ser­vices made one-day round trips (Fleetwood to Barrow by ferry, Barrow to Lakeside by rail, Lakeside to Ambleside by lake steamer, Ambleside to Coniston by coach, Coniston to Barrow by rail, and back to Fleetwood by ferry) very popular during the late 19th century, and contributed to the considerable tourist orientation of the southern lakes that makes Bowness-on-Windermere resemble Blackpool in miniature.

The industrial development of the west coast grew direc­tly out of, and remained dependent on, the juxtaposition of the haematite beds and coal measures, supported by the rail and water transport systems. Barrow-in-Furness was an artificial creation, a 19th century new town development. It rose out of the unique coincidence of deep water access, the shelter of Walney Island, and a booming iron, steel, coal and communications complex. Barrow quickly grew to dominate the Furness peninsula, but remained specifi­cally a heavy engineering / shipyard town.

The west coast prosperity continued through the Vic­torian and Edwardian days, but was effectively terminated by the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s. The exigencies of the 1939-1945 war revived the region temporarily, but since the 1950s the old industrial structure has been steadily diminishing. During the 1930s, and since the 1950s, the Cumberland local authorities have made strenuous efforts to attract new industry to the region, with some notable successes, but on the whole the west coast region remains an economic backwater:

“… a landscape of almost Miltonic horror. There are old coke-ovens grown over with weed, columns of slag left stacked in the sea like strange Hebridean rocks, run-ways and mineral railways jutting out into the air like the prongs of broken forks. There are the old buildings of pits and workings – enormous sandstone halls, roofless and windowless, standing like ruined abbeys. And beside them are the miners’ houses, many of them derelict, too – whole blocks caved in on themselves. They crouch against the cliff with the rocks hanging over them like a thundercloud and the air in a perpetual drizzle of soot. The children paddle in the rock-pools, wiping the coal-dust off their feet as they dry them, and the boys play cricket on sandy pitches between the railway line and the slag.

This is not the Lake District as anyone thinks of it. Yet this is where the rocks of the fells bare their teeth for the last time, and two thousand years of mountain industry contemplate their squalid aftermath. It is not only ironic, but historically and economically appropriate that Borrowdale, Derwentwater, Bassen­thwaite, Thirimere (what Manchester doesnt want of it), Buttermere, Cruinmock, Loweswater and the Lorton Valley should all empty their wateiis into the coal-blackened mud of Working­ton Harbour.”

– Norman Nicholson Portrait of the Lakes