The hamlet of Abbeystead, Lancashire is situated in the north-west of England. Finding Lancaster on the coast, travel a few miles south-east to the edge of the Forest of Bowland. With its narrow lanes and old stone houses and walls, and the river Wyre flowing past to the south, Abbeystead would make the most hardened city-dweller long for the country life.
Abbeystead is one of a group of settlements that make up Over Wyresdale parish. A little over 300 people live in this huge area, much of which is part of the Abbeystead Estate. One of the notable features of the area is Ward’s Stone, the highest point in the Forest.
Older readers may recall the Abbeystead Distaster that happened in 1984. Some residents of nearby St Michaels on the Wyre had become concerned about persistent flooding in their village, and they believed that a new water pumping scheme at Abbeystead was to blame.
In an effort to reassure them, the North West Water Authority offered to show them around the pumping station and explain how it worked. One of the engineers opened up some of the valves to demonstrate, and this somehow triggered a spark that ignited a deadly build up of methane gas.
In the resulting explosion eight died immediately including a twelve-year-old boy and his mother. Eight more would die from their injuries. The remaining members of the party suffered from terrible burns. The scars of that night still linger at St Michael’s and Abbeystead.
But though this event may be the only time you’ve ever heard of Abbeystead, there is actually more to the village than that.
The ‘stead’ part of the name ‘Abbeystead’ is from the Old English word that means ‘place’, and you would think that an abbey would have to have been situated here for a long time for it to be known as ‘Abbey place’. Well, how about ten years?
Theobald Walter was an attendant to Henry II, and so when Henry conquered Ireland in 1171 Theobald accompanied him. He was granted many Irish possessions, and in 1177 he was made Chief Butler of Ireland. This position granted him two tuns of wine for every cargo eighteen tuns or more that was ‘breaking bulk’ (i.e. had to be individually loaded) in Ireland. A tun was about 250 gallons. The Butler family would keep this right until 1810.
Theobald had a lot of land in England and Ireland. In 1192 he founded Wyreside Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey that was daughter-house of Furness Abbey in Cumbria. It’s traditionally believed that the monastery would have been located at the junction of Marshaw Wyre and Tarnbrook Wyre, which is at the north side of where Abbeystead Reservoir is today.
But by the year 1204, Theobald had a change of mind, and he moved the abbey and its monks to Wotheney in Munster, which today is in County Limerick (it also goes by Woney, Owney and Abbington but it’s not on my map so sadly we’re going to miss this place).
As far as I can tell, by 1232 the area was part of the lands of Hubert de Burgh, the first Earl of Kent. Kent is a long way south from Lancashire, but this seems to be perfectly normal land ownership for the time. In 1297 there were twenty or so cow farms in the area, of which ten were occupied by animals belonging to the Earls of Kent.
1360 gives the first solid evidence of a chapel a short distance west of Abbeystead, though it had probably existed long before then. John of Gaunt, one of Edward III’s sons and the first Duke of Lancaster, is recorded as paying £4 a year (£3,700 today) towards the chaplain there.
This tradition continued, and in 1509 and 1515 we see specific records of Henry VIII giving money for the same cause. As of 1914 this stipend of £4 a year was still being paid, though it wouldn’t have been worth as much then as when Henry VIII began paying it. The chaplain would not have been a priest, as evidenced by a 1610 record which names the incumbent as “Mr Cragge, no preacher”.
After the English Civil War, when Charles I had been beheaded and Oliver Cromwell ruled the British Commonwealth, £30 (about £5,000 now) was paid yearly to the chapel out of money confiscated from Royalists. The status of the chaplain appears to have gone up a bit too, as from 1638-58 Thomas Denny BA was “a preaching minister” there.
1607 saw the birth of a man who would shape the history of Abbeystead right up to the present day: William Cawthorne. Probably a local man, in 1639 there is a record that he purchased the four vaccaries (i.e. cow farms) of Abbeystead, Marshaw, Dunkinshaw and Haythornthwaite (say that three times fast!) with two other men acting as trustees. He would also have to pay rent to the king, as these farms were in the Duchy of Lancaster. Later, William bought out the rent so that he didn’t have to pay it any more.
In 1674, he founded William Cawthorne’s Endowed School at Abbeystead to provide free education to the local children. His intention was to found a grammar school, which would have given a more advanced education including Latin, and improved the chances of the students for a better lot in life. His endowment covered the education of up to fifty students – and this still continues today though the school is not a grammar school as he had originally wished. Students are aged from three to eleven, and there are no more than six students in any school year group. This gives the teachers the opportunity to focus on supporting the students in whatever needs they have, while giving them a broad curriculum.
The school also retains a strong non-denominational Christian ethos. Unusually the area has a wide mix of Christian beliefs represented, including Roman Catholics, Quakers, Methodists and Church of England.
William was clerk to the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, from 1661-75, and was buried there in 1683. In his will, he appointed various trustees and governors to the school. He also requested that £8 per year be given towards the chapel minister.
In the following years the school continued to thrive. It was rebuilt in 1857 to accommodate the changing needs of the students and teachers, and in 1883 a house was built for the schoolmaster. Restoration work was also done on the chapel, adding a tower in 1733, then restoring the building in the 1840s and 50s.
In 1771 a new Earldom was created in the peerage of Ireland. This was the position of Earl of Sefton, which was the home manor of the Molyneux family, in Merseyside (now in Liverpool). Even though it was an Irish title, the land held by the Earls specifically referred to their English lands, which included the Abbeystead estate. This is particularly strange when you consider that Ireland was a separate country from Britain at the time.
The Earls used Abbeystead for hunting, so the fourth Earl of Sefton decided to construct a shooting lodge at Abbeystead which is still there today. The main residence is Abbeystead House, and there are two lodges called Lancaster and York – a reference to the Wars of the Roses.
The Earls started a tradition at Abbeystead that continues to this day: on The Glorious Twelfth – the first day of the grouse shooting season – a social event takes place where members of the British upper-class including the royal family show up for a great shoot. In 1915 over 2,900 birds were shot by eight shooters – a record for the biggest grouse bag in one day.
When the last Earl of Sefton died in 1972, his wife arranged for their Liverpool estates to be given to the city, while the Duke of Westminster purchased Abbeystead estate in 1980. The Duke was involved in many areas of society as a property developer and philanthropist, being the president of many charities and on the board of many others. He also helped to manage the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and would have managed the 2000 Olympic Games in Manchester if they had won the bid. He also held the rank of Major General in the British Territorial Army.
The Duke continued to host the shoot when he took over at Abbeystead, but last year he died just three days before it was due to take place. His son Mark – who inherited his title – cancelled the shoot as a sign of respect.
In 1855 work began to construct the Abbeystead reservoir. There were many water mills along the Wyre river, which were much less effective during the dry season. By controlling the water flow from the reservoir this would allow much more consistency year round. It took until 1881 to complete this work. Today, the mills are no longer in action, but the reservoir remains.
Next week we will visit Abbeytown, Cumbria, in a part of the world the Scottish and English often fought over.
Recalling the horror of Abbeystead 30 years on, Lancashire Post, 23 May 2014
Abbeystead, Bowland Walks
Abbeystead, The Guide to Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and the Wirral
‘Townships: Over Wyresdale’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 8, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London, 1914), pp. 76-79. British History Online
‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Wyresdale’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London, 1908), p. 131. British History Online
Cawthorne’s Endowed Abbeystead, Cawthorne’s Endowed School
Cawthorne’s Endowed School – History [PDF – will download to your computer]
Glorious Twelfth cancelled at the new Duke of Westminster’s estate, The Telegraph, 11 August 2016