Extract from Life in Old Loweswater
A SEQUESTERED LAND
William Hutchinson, a Durham man, wrote a guide to the Lake District and published it in 1794, to help visitors who were for the first time coming to this remote area of Britain. He quotes a slightly earlier traveller, Housman, who makes life in Loweswater seem idyllic.
I found, [Housman says], ‘a number [of inhabitants] who … had seldom travelled beyond their sheepheafs, had seen no people but their neighbours and no country but their vales and surrounding mountains – their ideas are simple and their notions confined to narrow rules of nature: yet honesty, integrity and heart-felt happiness are no strangers to this sequestered land. The people live in harmony and they express contentment.
Life was not idyllic of course. It could be hard and short. It is possible, however, by combining Hutchinson’s incomparably detailed account with church registers and newspaper snippets to put together a vivid and balanced picture of that life was like in the parish in the second half of the 18th century.
Physically, the valley must have looked much as it does today. Hutchinson describes it thus: ‘On the sides and skirts of [the] fells grow several trees and much brushwood which affords great ornament to the landscape … The fences are chiefly of brushwood and earth mounds, wherein many trees grow of different kinds. The inclosures are pretty regular and buildings are uncommonly good upon the whole.’ The soil he describes as ‘light and gravelly’.
The fields, he says, produced much oats and potatoes, a little barley and some wheat. He was surprised that few farmers grew turnips ‘although the soil seems proper’. Much butter and cheese was produced in the parish.
In the matter of livestock, Hutchinson estimates that there were about 5,700 sheep in the parish; six of their fleeces weighed a stone, he says, and sold for 7s.6d. Horses were 14½ hands high and the local black cattle weighed 10 stone a quarter.
A study of the figures Hutchinson gives for the value of land in Loweswater and surrounding parishes gives a slightly less favourable picture of agriculture in the valley. Hutchinson says that there were two or three estates in the parish worth about £100 a year but most were worth about £20-£40. The average rent per acre of land in the parish was fourteen shillings. This compares with an average in Lorton of sixteen shillings (but less in Buttermere). Land near Keswick was valued at forty to fifty shillings an acre and even the poorer land in Crosthwaite parish was valued at twenty shillings. Bassenthwaite parish had some very poor land worth only five shillings, but most of the parish was worth twenty shillings an acre. This clearly makes Loweswater the poorest parish in the area.
This was reflected in the curate’s wages. According to Hutchinson, the Curate was supposed to receive a yearly salary of about £30 a year, again low compared with surrounding parishes. This salary was paid by the local inhabitants and the curate from 1742-1795, Thomas Cowper, only a year after he arrived, complained that he did not receive all the money he was entitled to ‘by reason of ye Quakers, who refuse to pay or be distrained upon for ye accustomed annual interest’ He estimated that there were twenty Quaker families in the parish, out of a total [my estimation] of 75-80 families (approximately 370-400 people). Fortunately, the other inhabitants rallied round to make up the deficit.
Cowper was described by Hutchinson as ‘a very respectable character, to whom Goldsmith’s description of the village Curate is very applicable’. (‘A man he was to all the country dear/ and passing rich with £40 a year’/ Remote from towns he ran his godly race,/ Nor e’er had changed, and wished to change his place.’) He married four years after his arrival in the valley and he and his wife, Faith (born Faith Sumpson of Lorton) had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1770, his content must have been shattered by the death of his son, John, at the age of 19. The son’s tombstone bears the only Latin inscription in Loweswater churchyard and incidentally illuminates his own teaching. John was, says his father, ‘a sober and religious youth and well-versed in the Latin and Greek languages and also philosophy.
The same subjects might well have been taught by Cowper to the sons of the better-off inhabitants of his parish; Loweswater might have been ‘sequestered’ but its people were not ignorant. As Housman admits: ‘Many of the natives are people of property, of course have received a tolerable education and have been somewhat from home.’ John Hudson of Kirkgate, Joseph Skelton of Foulsyke, and John Fisher of Cold Keld were all well-off men who considered themselves gentlemen.
Cowper, in his meticulously kept registers, gives an idea of the range of occupations in the parish. A casual glance reveals five weavers at High Park and several elsewhere, three shoemakers, four carpenters, two tailors, two blacksmiths (one at Mockerkin and one at Gillerthwaite – a pattern which endured for several centuries), one tanner and, rather enigmatically, a collier – Jacob Robinson at Red Howe. These activities were probably combined in most cases with some farming. Despite the fact that Loweswater was a comparatively poor parish, these people between them found the money to reroof the nave of the church in 1751 and the chancel in 1753 ‘at which time also a great part of the church was plastered’. In 1778, the church was flagged and paved (most churches and chapels of the time had earth floors) and a new reading desk made. It was a pious age.
More money had to be laid out, perhaps reluctantly, for the poor of the parish, like Jane Mirehouse of Pottergill who died in 1741. Jane had been born Jennet Iredell of Latterhead in 1666, was married at the age of 15 and widowed twice by the time she was 40) and Robert Pearson of Fangs ‘a poor man maintained by ye Parish’. William Woodvil, a native of the parish who had moved to Carlisle, and left £50 to be distributed to the poor of the parish yearly on St Thomas’s Day, and Mary Mirehouse of Mockerkin in 1782 endowed a school on Howe Common so that ten poor children could be educated. The number of pupils usually exceeded ten.
One thing Cowper’s registers show clearly is how hard and short life could be. He records a high proportion of deaths in infancy and in childbirth and considerable numbers of people dying in their late teens and early twenties. The Cumberland Pacquet also details several early deaths. For instance, in an August edition of the paper from 1775: ‘died the 7th inst. of a short and severe illness, Mr Jacob Hudson of Loweswater, a young man of great genius and much respected by his acquaintance’. He was 19. In the April 11th edition of 1776, the Pacquet recorded: ‘died a few days ago at Mockerkin, Miss Mirehouse, in the 25th year of her age, the only daughter of Mr John Mirehouse of that place’. In the registers, only a month after his son’s death, Cowper was recording, what what must have been a very heavy heart, the death of Sarah Hudson of Kirkgate, the daughter of his parish clerk. ‘She and the said John Cowper,’ wrote Thomas of Sarah and his son, ‘were pleasant and lovely in the
ir lives and in their deaths they were not divided; their graves being contiguous at the south west corner’. Sarah was 20 years old.
Elsewhere Cowper recorded the death of Thomas Griffin in 1747, ‘drowned at Park Bridge’, and young Anne, daughter of John Hunter of Low Park who was drowned there in 1766. In 1757, he notes that Ann Bank of Low Park, ‘a charming singer of psalms’ had died aged 23, and devotes to her a verse of his own composing the first two lines of which run: ‘Sweet Harmonist, who died in youthful days/thy life was one continued hymn of praise’. He took comfort in his own daughter, Faith, who married Thomas Towerson of Kinniside, Ennerdalem and brought all of her children back to Loweswater for her father to baptise. (The custom was for the wife to take the first child only back to the parish of her birth.) Cowper’s pride shines through in every grandchild he records.
Cowper himself lived to old age, dying just a year after Hutchinson’s compliment to him was published. No one could have known better the joys and sorrows, the advantages and disadvantages of living in what Hutchinson describes as ‘as beautiful and romantic retirements as any part of Cumberland or the north of England’.
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