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Hanging Around in the Past
by Stuart Bowden
Ghoulish goings-on invariably excite popular interest,
and Lancaster's past is certainly not short of horrible happenings to
whet the more sensationally inclined appetite. Tales of public hangings,
witchcraft, the slave trade and other unpleasant aspects of the city's
less salubrious side echo down the ages.
to most of these stories is the castle, still a working court and prison,
and scene of some celebrated instances of judicial aberration.
Take the notorious case of the Pendle
Witches, for example.
In 1612, puritanical religious fervour and anti-Catholic hysteria were
rife. Officially backed Witchfinders roamed the countryside with the
aim of arresting anyone failing to observe Protestant doctrine, on charges
of communing with the devil. The King at the time, James I, was obsessed
with witchcraft, and decreed it a capital crime. Inevitably, superstitious
country folk often pointed the finger at people who were not quite like
all the rest, and such was the case in the villages around Pendle Hill,
to the south east of Lancaster itself.
officials rounded up members of two local families, and brought them
to Lancaster for 'trial'. The main witness for the prosecution was a
nine-year-old girl, herself daughter to one of the accused. Nine of
the Pendle 'witches', plus another woman from Yorkshire, ultimately
hanged on August 20th that year in one of the worst excesses of a time
noted for lack of tolerance, forever linking Lancaster with one of the
nastier periods of English history. See the Lancashire
Witches section of this site for more details.
To dwell on this single unpleasant aspect of the city's
past, though, is to risk placing things out of context. True, the court
at the Castle was responsible for handing out more death sentences over
the years than any other in the country.
Lancaster deserved its nickname of 'Hanging Town'. More than 5,000 people
would turn out to watch the frequent executions, which from the early
19th century took place outside the castle walls.
Prior to that time, the crowds (and the doomed 'stars'
of the show) had to make their way to what is now Williamson Park, on
the other side of the city centre. More than 3,000 souls were condemned
to transportation to the penal colonies at Lancaster, too, but there
is far more to its story than this.
history of Lancaster goes back a long way before it gained its reputation
for handing out tough justice. The Romans established a settlement nearly
2,000 years ago—remains of one of their buildings are still visible
on Castle Hill close to the Priory.
came the Anglo-Saxons, whose fortifications on the same site formed
the foundations of the present Norman castle, begun in the 11th century.
At the same time, the Priory was founded, initially as a cell of a Benedictine
Nearby at the coastal village of Heysham are the ruins
of a much earlier church, St. Patrick's Chapel, one of the oldest surviving
Christian buildings in north west England. It dates from the eighth
Lancaster gained its first charter as a market town and
borough in 1193, but it was not until King George VI's coronation in
1937 that it finally gained the status of a city. The Duchy of Lancaster,
still held by the reigning monarch, who owns the castle through that
office, came into being in 1351. One of the best known names associated
with historic Lancaster is that of John O'Gaunt, the second Duke, whose
son became King Henry IV in 1399.
Over the years, Lancaster figured in a number of conflicts.
The Scots sacked it twice during the 1300s, and it was of course associated
with the House of Lancaster during the bitter Wars of the Roses in the
latter half of the 15th century. A hundred or so years later, the Castle
was three times besieged by Royalist forces during the English Civil
Wars, and in 1745 it was the turn of the Scots again, when Bonnie Prince
Charlie briefly occupied the town during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.
Things gradually calmed down towards the end of the 18th
century, though, and Lancaster embarked on what was to become its finest
hour. Although lying several miles inland from Morecambe Bay and the
Lune Estuary, the city was accessible to ocean-going vessels of the
time by way of the deep river. There had been some maritime trade, primarily
with Ireland and France, for centuries before this, but things took
off in a big way during the 1800s.
Many fine buildings in the city centre and along elegant
St. George's Quay date from this period, when tobacco, slaves, timber,
coffee, and other staples of the expanding British Empire generated
much of the town's prosperity. Most notable among these are the former
Town Hall in Market Square, now the City Museum, and the fine Palladian-style
Custom House of 1764, which now serves as the Maritime Museum.
As well as the wealth created by Lancaster's Georgian
status as third busiest port in England after London and Bristol, other
industries made their mark, too. Cabinet-making, exemplified by the
famous Lancaster firm of Gillow's, became another important string in
the town's bow. The company exported its products all over the world.
Shipbuilding also developed as an important industry,
although there are few if any signs of this activity remaining today.
Fishing, too, is no longer in evidence, despite the River Lune once
harbouring fine sturgeon, and the lasting reputation of Morecambe Bay
shrimps. During this short period of prosperity, which lasted only about
100 years in total, the town was one of England's richest.
Sadly, though, the river began to silt up, and by early
Victorian times Lancaster began to look elsewhere for sources of income.
These included textile manufacture, dominated by two major firms, Storeys
The latter exported linoleum all over the world.
The Victorians were also responsible for the advent of
the seaside resort, and Morecambe benefited greatly from this, developing
into the holiday spot we know today, as leisure began to take its place
in the lives of the working population.
Nowadays Lancaster is known as an important educational
centre. The University
was founded in the mid-1960s, while technical and artistic subjects
are taught at the Storey Institute. Heysham has grown into an important
Irish Sea port in its own right, while the extensive rural areas inland
from the city itself are significant for their agriculture.
The story goes on, but in Lancaster still, there are reminders
of the more gruesome aspects of its past—as well as its Georgian
Some good historical Lancaster links:
• The Lancashire County Archæological Service
Maintains the Lancashire Historic Environment Record, an index to over 30,000 known archæological sites, ranging from medieval castle sites to textile mills and workers cottages, and from findspots of prehistoric tools to the earthworks of a deserted village and WWII pillboxes. Historic landscape, townscape and buildings information is also held as well as aerial photographs and many reports on archæological fieldwork and buidling recording.
Also keeps Lancaster's Urban Archæological Database (UAD) contains information on all the known pre-1800 archaeological material found within the city centre. It makes use of a wide variety of sources such as historic maps, photographs and paintings, aerial photographs, museum collections and oral evidence.
In addition, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data was used to create detailed ground surface models.
•The Royal Albert Hospital: Unlocking the Past.
A project based upon the oral histories and photos of
former residents and staff of this large Victorian long stay institution for people with learning difficulties, which closed its doors in 1996.
Elsinore Publications. Old directories on CD which list the occupations and names of townspeople. Also available are old books and photographs about the area on the CDs – compiled for people researching their family history.
• Carnforth Railway Station This local station has recently been refurbished and is proving a mjaor tourist attraction because of its links to the classic film Brief Encounter
• The Greatcoat goes by train A fond tip of the hat to rail travel in 1963 from The Really Heavy Greatcoat, with the help of local rail enthusiasts (who are not responsible for the inaccuracy of any incorrect engines featured, the artist was warned he had to be careful...)
Although claiming no Lancastrian connections,
and despite currently being based in Norway, Stuart Bowden is a regular
visitor to the city, both through his work as a freelance travel journalist,
and just because he likes it.
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