History of Hawkshead

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Hawkshead’s Parish church, St Michael’s & All Angels, dates mainly from the 15th Century; it replaced an early 12th Century chapel. Dominating the village, it was lime washed until 1875. The flagged floor was completed in the late 18th Century when ‘intramural burials’ ceased; prior to that, the earthen floor was strewn with rushes. The flamboyant biblical texts painted on the walls (1680 & 1711), and the external slate bench known as ‘Church End’ are particularly noteworthy.

William the Conqueror’s grandson, later the last Norman king, Stephen I, included Hawkshead and its environs in his 1137 endowment of Furness Abbey. The Cistercian monks built one of their ‘granges’ just north of the village, where part of their ‘hall’, its ‘Courthouse’ above an arched entrance, and the mill pond for the corn mill are still to be seen. The monks were great entrepreneurs. They ran extensive flocks of sheep on the fells; these ‘sheep walks’ were known by the Old Norse term ‘herd-vik’ (now the name of the local breed, Herdwick); the shepherds were the descendants of the Norse settlers. For 400 years the monks developed and ran Hawkshead as a market centre for both raw wool, yarn and the coarse homespun undyed cloth, known as ‘hodden grey’, worn by the labouring poor throughout much of northern Europe.

In 1585, Edwin Sandys of Graythwaite, who had risen to Archbishop of York under Elizabeth I, founded Hawkshead Grammar School and endowed it with enough land and property for the education to be free. Included in the endowment was the plot of land next to the church where the school now stands, as it was common for early schools to be held in church and for ministers to be schoolmasters. The current building was erected in 1675 by Daniel Rawlinson, of Grizedale and London, remained a school until 1909, and is now a museum.

The small ‘tarn’ at the north end of Esthwaite Water was probably the monks’ fish pond or ‘stew’. It is still called ‘Priest Pot’. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Furness Abbey in 1537, local merchants took over Hawkshead’s wool trade. The village gained its Market Charter in 1608. Flax and hemp were cultivated by the monks, and later by landowners, these raw materials being necessary for sails, clothing, ropes, cords, halters etc. Raw flax and linen yarn was supplied to Kendal for its linsey-woollen trade.

There are no less than thirty eight buildings of architectural or historic interest in Hawkshead, many dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Local oak forms the overhanging ‘pentices’ (upper storeys’ of the 17th century timber-framed houses on Flag Street and Main Street. Pentices were essential to balance the weight of slate roofs and heavy furniture on the upper floors, but also provided convenient places to display fleeces, yarn, cloth and other produce, to potential buyers.

Note the cutaway rounded corners to allow passage for laden pack-ponies or wagons, and the picturesque Brathay flag porches and flights of outside stone steps and stairs.

Flag Street gets its name from the Brathay flagstones which span the beck, where fleeces, yarn and cloth were washed. The Spout House on Fountain Street provided pure water for brewing and domestic use. The cobbled ‘Leather, Rag and Putty Street’ was once busy with cobblers, cloggers, saddlers, harness makers and clockmakers.

Hawkshead has a Methodist Chapel (converted from a private house), opened on 20th November 1862. Across the valley the Friends (or ‘Quakers’) established a burial ground – known today as a ‘Sepulchre Corner’ – in 1658, at Colthouse. The remains of slate benches built into the walls show where meetings were held here, outdoors, in the years before the austere Friends Meeting House nearby was built in in 1688. Many of the properties in Colthouse belonged to Quaker families.

Both the parish church and Sepulchre Corner overlook the field still known as Gibbet Moss, where the corpses of malefactors were hung as an example. Hawkshead also had a gallows, erected on the drumlin still known as Gallowbarrow.

Hawkshead’s Market House was built about 1650. It consisted of an upper storey with an open-arched ‘shambles’ beneath, in which five butchers carried out their trade. It was given a more ‘polite’ facade in around 1800, and extended at either end to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.