The Third St Bridget’s Lecture
Thomas Denton's "Perambulation of Cumberland"

A former Cockermouth schoolboy, Professor Angus Winchester now directing a Cumbrian research project as a Professor, provided a conducted tour of our local area as it was in 1688 when he gave the third St Bridget's Lecture in church on June 7th 2013. This lecture used Thomas Denton's "Perambulation of Cumberland" to recapture the landscape of the Cockermouth area 325 years ago.

Professor Winchester is Professor of Local and Landscape History at Lancaster University and dates his fascination for Cumbrian history to his schooldays in Cockermouth and Lorton in the 1950s and 60s. After reading Geography at Durham University he developed his research interests while studying for a doctorate examining West Cumberland in the Middle Ages.

As well as his university duties, Professor Winchester directs the Victoria County History Cumbria Project, which is encouraging local amateur historians to develop histories of every village and town in the county.

As material for his lecture, he used documents produced by Thomas Denton, who lived from 1637 to 1698, and lived at Warnell, near Caldbeck. He was a gentleman lawyer, and was appointed recorder of Carlisle. He was commissioned by his patron Sir John Lowther to write a detailed description of Cumberland in 1688. It was surmised that the reasoning behind this commission would have been in order that Sir John could examine potential business opportunities, which he might not otherwise have been aware of.

The manuscript that Denton produced runs to 188 pages on vellum, and is kept in the Carlisle archives having previously been hidden away. It was published for the first time in 2003, is a remarkable work of topography, providing a vivid snapshot of Cumberland, its soils, farming and mineral wealth, and its historical heritage.

The theme which became evident from a study of these documents, is that this was a time of change, sometimes referred to as the 'Glorious Revolution'. This was the bloodless overthrow of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland) by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch William of Orange. William's successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascending of the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England. This revolution finally put an end to any possibility of Catholicism being re-established in Britain.

After this revolution, The 'Great Rebuilding' was said to have taken place, and was a period in which a heightened level of building work, or rebuilding occurred, particularly in rural areas.

This happened because there was a great deal of new wealth around due to great improvements in agriculture such as field enclosure, allowing crops to be grown without animals having access. Everywhere great improvements were taking place. The careful observer will note that many of the carved dates above old house doors are in the range 1650 to 1690, this being during the 'Great Rebuilding', and would have been due to the pride of the owners in their smart new houses.

There is mention in the documentation of 'rich countryside around Bridekirk', and what it was worth. Tallentire was described as 'a large village well built'. Broughton was said to be famous for bleaching, and Harrington was famous for its saltpans. There was mention of the massive augmentation of Whitehaven and its increased importance of a port until it became one the most important in Britain. Dovenby received mention of its school, and the endowment of the hospital for six poor widows. It was at this time considered the duty of the gentry to support the poor. Isel Hall was described as a 'rich gentry seat', being a very valuable estate from the point of view of its possibility for income from the estate. Bassenthwaite received mention for its fulling mills producing 'Skiddaw Grey Cloth', and the production of slate for roofing the many improved buildings.

The mention of Pardshaw is interesting in that it describes the 'ignorance and sloth' of the Quakers there, with this description really meaning that they did not go to the established church. At this time Broughton became a hotbed of non-conformity, and a Quaker meeting was also established there.

In response to a question from the floor, Professor Winchester described how all mention of wealth, income and value refers entirely to the landowning classes, with ordinary working people not being worthy of any mention in the perambulation document simply because they had no value except as labour to maintain the estates of the wealthy.