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Lancaster Castle

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.

Central 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.

Execution CornerLocal 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.

Martyrs Memorial by Williamson ParkThe 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.

Priory CarvingNext 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 monastery.

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 century.

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 and Williamsons. 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 heyday.

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.

Roman Lancaster
Part of a larger Roman Britain web site.

Heysham History

Lancaster Castle
Excellent site covering all aspects of the castle and its past

Lancaster Priory
Full details of St. Mary's

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.

County Record Office
If you are looking for old documents relating to the area, start here. Lancaster records are also held here.

Old Lancaster
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.

Links and photos welcome: contact

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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