Past and present: Lancaster

An interesting Victorian observation of the northern English city of Lancaster during the 1830s which first appeared in issue No. 225 – The Penny Magazine – Oct. 17, 1835.

LANCASTER, the county town of Lancashire, is situated on the western coast of England, upon the southern bank of the river Lune, at the distance of eight miles from the sea. It is distant 239 miles north-west from London by the road, but the direct distance does not exceed 206 miles. Lancaster is a very old town. There are doubts as to the name by which it was known to the Romans, by whom it is supposed to have been built; but there is no question that it formed the station of a Roman legion. It seems indeed to have been considered a station of considerable importance, not only as a check upon the natives of the north, but also as a point of defence against the Irish, who, in the decline of the Roman power, subjected that part of the country to great annoyance and distress by their piracies and marauding incursions.

Domestic, sepulchral, religious, and other Roman antiquities have been often found in and near Lancaster. The termination ceastre or caster would alone indicate that the Romans had a fortress here, it being a corruption of the Latin castrum, applied by the Saxons to places which they found fortified.

The name Lun-ceastre, corrupted to Lancaster, therefore signifies a fortress on the river Lune. The history of all towns with important castles is intimately connected with that of the castle. In such cases the castle is usually the parent of the town, which for a long time depends upon it and shares in all its good and evil, until the town acquires maturity and strength, and comes to have resources independent of the castle, which is destroyed by violence, or gradually perishes through age and neglect, or else is preserved for purposes very different from its original destination. This is illustrated in the history of Lancaster.

It seems that, when the Romans left the island, the Picts and Scots, exasperated by the repulse and resistance which they had always experienced at this place, attacked the town and demolished the fortifications. The excellent and commanding situation of the spot early attracted the notice of the Saxons, who, soon after their arrival, appear to have restored some of the dwellings, and to have rebuilt at least some parts of the castle. We know little of the history of Lancaster under the Saxons, but that it was considered the most important place of the district is evinced by its being constituted in the seventh century the chief and designating town in the county. It probably owed this distinction to the castle; for, as a town, it could not have acquired much importance under the Saxons, or if so, the Danes, in their incursions, must have destroyed all traces of it; for when the Domesday Survey was taken, soon after the Conquest, “Lon-castre” and “Chercha-Loncastre” are registered as two vills among the twenty-two which composed the manor of Halton, belonging to the crown. Lancaster, however, had the good fortune to attract the notice of Roger de Poitou, a neighbouring proprietor, as offering a more eligible site for a baronial castle than his own domain afforded; and he obtained a grant of the property from the crown. As early as 1094 we find this person making a grant to the abbey of St. Martin de Sees, in Normandy, of the church of St. Mary, then newly erected by him.

The Castle appears to have been built about the same time, the foundations of the old structure, and some other parts that could be made available, being probably retained. At a subsequent period the castle received some improvements from the Earl of Morton and Lancaster, afterwards King John, who, subsequently to his accession to the crown, gave audience here to the French ambassadors, and received the homage of Alexander, King of Scotland. But the castle, and therefore the town, owed its chief importance to Edward III., and his son John of Gaunt. When John was created Duke of Lancaster, his dukedom was made a county palatine, and the duke was endowed with powers and privileges which rendered the palatine a petty kingdom, of which the town of Lancaster became the capital. It appears that in consequence of this the castle was considerably enlarged, and that a household was established here suitable to the dignity of the proprietor and the customs of the times. It is easy to perceive how these circumstances would operate in increasing the population and prosperity of the town; and how the town must have been dependent in those times on its connexion with the castle. Its loyalty, however, to the House of Lancaster exposed the town to so much calamity during the war of the Roses, that it is said to have been nearly depopulated.

Its subsequent revival was not rapid. Even in Camden’s time the town was chiefly occupied by husbandmen; but on the confirmation of the town-charter, with the addition of new privileges by Charles II., Lancaster again began to revive; and it afterwards went on progressively augmenting its commerce, its local trade, and its buildings. The first incorporation of the town by charter was in the reign of Richard I.; and the charter has been confirmed and modified by several subsequent monarchs.

The town is very advantageously situated upon a gentle ascent, the summit of which is crowned with the castle and the church, so that the whole, in a general view, has a commanding appearance. The river Lune makes nearly an acute angle on the north side of the town, whence several regular streets proceed to the south, leaving these two principal public buildings somewhat detached. A handsome stone bridge, with five elliptical arches, which was built at an expense of 12,000l., connects the town with the township of Skerton on the other side of the river. The streets in Lancaster are commonly narrow, though there are some of considerable width; but the houses are generally good, with a due proportion of superior mansions in the town and of elegant villas in the pleasant environs. The houses are generally bilt with freestone, which is found in the neighbourhood, and are covered with slate. Considerable improvements in the general appearance of the place have been made within the last fifty years. It is altogether a superior town for its size, possessing some advantages which are not always found in towns of still greater population. There is a theatre, assembly-rooms, convenient public baths, a book-society, a mechanics’ institute, and a well-supported society for the promotion of the fine arts.

At present, as in former times, the castle forms the crowning glory of Lancaster. The commanding situation and massive character of this spacious castle must have rendered it in former times not only a formidable fortress, but an object of great grandeur in the local scenery; and even now, although, in adapting it to its present uses as a prison and court-house, it has been necessary to sacrifice much of its ancient aspect and character, it has still a most imposing appearance. The extensive additions and alterations have been, so far as practicable, adapted to the original style, with much good taste and judgment; so that the whole now forms not only the grandest and most complete county-jail in England, but is still entitled to be considered as one of the finest castellated structures in the empire. The importance and extensive scale of the additions which have been made may in some degree be estimated by the cost, which has amounted to not less than 140,000l.

The encircling walls embrace an area of 380 feet from east to west by 350 feet from north to south, which space comprehends an extensive court with smaller courts, and several towers of different form and dates of erection. The finest of these towers is the gateway-tower, which forms the chief entrance. It consists of two large semi-octangular projections or towers, connected by a curtain and the gates. The whole of the summit has a bold, overhanging battlement, and each of the projecting towers is surmounted by two small turrets or watch-towers. This gateway is 66 feet high, and is commonly, and with good reason, attributed to John of Gaunt. This gateway conducts to the great court, which is enclosed with embattled walls and strengthened with towers. Nearly facing the entrance, at the opposite side of the court, is the large square tower (70 feet diameter) which formed the keep or citadel of the ancient castle, and is supposed by some antiquaries to be of Saxon architecture; but the upper part was rebuilt in 1585, at the time of the threatened invasion of the Spanish Armada, when all the forts and castles in the kingdom underwent a thorough repair. The difference between this and the more ancient building is still very perceptible. The height of this tower is 78 fee, and it is surmounted by a turret (commonly called “John of Gaunt’s Chair”) which is 10 feet higher, and from which views of great extent and diversity are commanded. The walls of this keep are of amazing thickness and strength, and the apartments are of very grand dimensions: one of them, “about 63 feet long, having only four plain walls, and making nearly the proportion of a double cube,” is particularly referred to by Mr. Duppa, in his ‘Life of Michael Angelo,’ as calculated to produce a great effect by simplicity of form and grandeur of dimensions. The three other old towers are respectively known as the Dungeon Tower, the Well Tower, and Adrian’s Tower, though the latter is more popularly known as John of Gaunt’s Oven. All these are commonly attributed to the Romans; but, although some antiquaries are disposed to allow that the lower part of the last may have been Roman, it is doubtful whether the other two were even Saxon, and we see no necessity for giving them an earlier date than the buildings by Roger de Poitou. “Adrian’s Tower” is circular, and it is used as a repository for rolls, records, and other documents relating to the official business of the county.

A minute description of the new buildings, forming the court-houses and prisons, would carry us beyond our present intention. It may suffice to state that the pile of buildings containing the shire-hall, courts, and grand-jury room, form, in a ground plan, an irregular semicircle to the north of the great court. The shire-hall itself is a beautiful apartment, consisting of a semi-polygonal area, with an aisle going round it, and has a groined roof supported by six quadruple clustered columns. The seats of the judges are in the chord of the arc under elegant pinnacled canopies. The doors, windows, panels, seat, &c.;, are all finished in a style corresponding to the enriched ecclesiastical buildings of the fourteenth century.

The external or eastern wall of the keep, being prolonged to upwards of 200 feet, forms the chord of another semicircular arrangement of buildings for felons, whose apartments extend around the arc, while the area is divided into four courts which unite at the turnkey’s lodge, which commands a view of the whole. Since these apartments have been erected fetters have not been used, except for refractory prisoners, as there is no danger of escape; the walls, inside and without, and the floors and roofs, being all finished with hewn stone. The apartments for crown prisoners, for debtors, and for females, form distinct piles of building on different sides of the great central court; and besides these great divisions, more minute classification is effected throughout. The jail contains seventeen divisions for this purpose. There are seventy-three work-rooms, thirty-two day-rooms, and twelve airing-yards. The great central area, which contains about 2800 square yards, is allowed for the exclusive use of the debtors, where they can enjoy the air and take exercise. The prisoners are variously employed, and a considerable part of their earnings is paid to them, part in weekly portions during their detention, and the rest on their discharge. Such of them as have learned no trade are taught something there which may enable them to earn an honest living, if so inclined, when again thrown upon the world.

Lancaster contains one parish-church and two chapels in connexion with the establishment. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, is on the same eminence with the castle, and is contiguous to it on the east. It was originally, as we have seen, founded by Roger de Poitou, who gave it with some lands to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin de Sagio, or Sees, in Normandy. A prior and five monks came over and took possession, forming a religious, or monastery, subordinate to the above abbey. On the suppression of alien priories it was annexed to the abbey of Sion in Middlesex, and so remained until the general dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII. In those times the church was one of those which enjoyed the mischievous privilege of sanctuary. The existing church is a large Gothic structure, consisting of a nave, two side aisles, and a handsome tower at the west end. It has few remains of antiquity, except some fine specimens of screen-work and carvings in oak. The church accommodates 3500 persons, and the living forms a vicarage, with the net income of 1709l. per annum. Most of the various denominations of dissenters have chapels in the town.

The manufactures of Lancaster are not considerable, and consist chiefly in the making of mahogany furniture, cordage, and sail-cloth, with the spinning of cotton and worsted yarn, and the manufacture of cotton goods, for which several factories have been established within these few years.

Ships of considerable burden were formerly built here; but now only boats. The channel of the Lune being much impeded by accumulations of sand, vessels of considerable burden cannot come up to the town, but discharge their cargoes at the dock which was formed, in 1787, at Glasson, about five miles below Lancaster, from whence the goods are carried up to the quay of the town in lighters. The quay is not accessible to vessels exceeding 200 or 250 tons burden. This, co-operating with the want of extensive canal communications and the absorbing predominance of Liverpool, at one time operated badly on the trade of Lancaster. The Boundary Commissioners say, “The appearance and condition of the town of Lancaster is that of a decaying town: the whole of its West India trade has left it, and what remains of the other branches seems to afford but a scanty employment for a few sloops. At the same time that everything else appears to languish about the place, the public buildings exhibit no appearance of dilapidation.” This was in 1832; things have since improved, for the Municipal Report, in 1835, says:–“In general the town may be stated to be in a very thriving condition. It was formerly an important port for the West India trade, but its prosperity declined as it was abandoned for Liverpool.

Latterly, however, the port has been much used for the American, Russian, and coasting trades. A few years back there were numerous large warehouses unemployed; at present such can scarcely be found.” The borough of Lancaster contained 2038 houses in 1831, when the population amounted to 12,613, of whom 7142 were females. In 1821 the population was 10,144. The increase is attributed to the establishment of cotton-factories.

The Lancaster canal opens a communication between this place and the mining districts, and supplies the neighbourhood with coal and other necessaries. About one mile north-east of the town is a grand aqueduct bridge, which conveys this canal over the river Lune. This great work was executed by Mr. John Rennie, the engineer, who acquired great reputation by it. At the spot where it has been built, the soft muddy bottom of the river rendered it necessary to lay a foundation at the depth of 20 feet below the surface of the water. This consists of a flooring of timber, supported by piles 30 feet long. This foundation alone is said to have cost 15,000l., and the whole was not completed for less than 48,000l., although the stone was obtained in the neighbourhood.

The bridge consists of five circular arches, springing from rusticated piers with Gothic ends. Each arch is 90 feet span, and rises 39 feet above the surface of the water. The total height from the surface of the river to that of the canal is 51 feet; and barges of sixty tons pass over it.