Chapter One: Background and prehistory
The villages of Ireleth and Askam-in-Furness lie on the Duddon Estuary on the west coast of Cumbria, in that part of the Furness peninsula known as Low or Plain Furness. I say villages, but in fact (following post-war housing developments along the A595 and Saves Lane) the two have grown together into one quite large town. In the 1971 census the combined population of Ireleth and Askam was 2,457, with about one third living in Ireleth and two thirds in Askam. By 1991 this had grown to 2,891 and by 1997 2,991. The growth of the Parklands Estate will probably have tipped the figure well over 3,000.[1]

Geologically speaking Ireleth and Askam lie on very different types of rocks and soils; an issue which influenced the development of both villages. Ireleth lies on a fold of Ordivician volcanic and limestone rocks. These rocks extend in a line from Broughton through Coniston to Ambleside and are formed from ‘old lavas and ashes poured out from volcanic vents, over which a layer of impure limestone was deposited about 400 million years ago’.[2] Most of what is now Askam, however, lies on more recent Carboniferous limestone and alluvium, richer soil and smaller rocks deposited at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.

There’s no evidence of ancient man at Ireleth, in fact there’s very little evidence of Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) man in Britain at all, apart from some bone carvings in Derbyshire and the grave of a young man in Dyfed, Wales.[3] It was the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age, 8,300–3,500 BC) before the ice-sheets which covered Britain melted, the British mainland became separated from Europe and Ireland by the rising seas, and Furness was fully uncovered from its layers of ice. There are traces of seasonal Mesolithic visitors in the middens (piles of shells and rubbish) on the northern end of Walney, and ‘stone axes, adzes and hammers in various stages of completion’[4] have been found at High Haume. Opinion is divided over whether these artefacts were made here or the finished articles were brought from the Langdales.[5] Walney’s North End also has traces of bucket-shaped pottery used for cooking shellfish and arrowheads from Neolithic and Bronze Age people.

As I say, there are no records of these peoples in Ireleth and Askam, though many ancient burial sites were discovered by nineteenth century miners in the Furness area. Very few of these were properly recorded, but Walton and Barnes describe the discovery of two battle axes at the Haggs, near Dalton, some time prior to 1805, and two bronze age burial sites at Butts Beck and Goldmire in 1874.[6]

Right: 'Bronze spearhead and sword found at Butts Beck in 1874 . . . Both these weapons are now in the Lancaster Museum.’ (Walton, p. 4)

As Barnes describes in Barrow and District, there were no great invasions of stone, bronze and then iron age peoples. Rather, as people with newer more advanced technologies moved north, the older civilisations were driven onto the higher, more marginal tracts of land, often co-existing with the newer arrivals for some time.[7]

This cultural mix is what the Romans would have found when they arrived in Britain in AD43. The tribes of southern Britain were relatively sophisticated, having traded with the European mainland for many years. In Furness, however, Bronze Age people survived amongst the peasant Iron Age cultures. The people of Lonsdale and Furness were known to the Romans as the Setantii, a tribe subject to the Brigantes who ruled the north of England from Northumbria to Lancashire.[8]

The main Roman road north to Hadrian’s Wall went via Ambleside, Wrynose and Hardknott passes to Ravenglass. For many years it was considered that the oversands route was not strategically important to the Romans, and so Furness remained quiet during the 500 years of their British occupation. However, recent work by archaeologists in and around Great Urswick suggests that not only may there have been a Roman presence in the area, but at a much earlier period than was previously thought.[8b]

The next half millenium, however, was not so peaceful. Successive waves of invaders from Scotland, north-west Europe, Scandinavia and Ireland all left their marks on the area — particularly in its place names. The number of Anglian place names in Furness indicates the strength of their presence here, and the lack of Saxon and Jute names implies that they rarely penetrated this far. Barnes’ analysis of the place names of Furness led him to believe that the Britons and Angles probably lived together peacefully; the Angles (with their heavier ploughs and ability to turn the heavier lowland soils) taking the better, lower land, and the Celts (with their lighter ploughs) relegated to the higher, poorer ground.[9]

The next wave of invaders were the Norsemen. Barnes and Walton believe that the Norsemen who came to Furness were not the coastal raiders so famous in history books, but came from the Isle of Man. A group of Norsemen had settled there and attempted to establish a breakaway kingdom, independent of King Harald of Norway, in 895. Harald sent out a punitive party but many of the Manx Norsemen fled to the Furness coast. This theory is supported by the mix of Anglian and Norse names in Furness which, as in earlier times, implies a gradual absorption of a new culture, rather than invasion and imposition of a new language and culture.[10] It is this group which may have given Ireleth its name. Arthur Evans, writing in the Evening Mail, put his theory thus:

‘Ire’ is considered to be a personal name of a Norseman who came over to Furness from Ireland during the time of the Norse or Viking invasion of this part of the country.
His craft would come up the Duddon Estuary and he would land in the marsh. Very soon he would make his way further inland on the side of the hill, where he would make his home. ‘Leth’ is Norse for a ‘Slope’ and as his home was on the slope of the hill, it was called ‘Ireleth’.

The idea that Ireleth may have been an especially Norse enclave within the broader migration to Furness is supported by the number of Norse words that have survived, principally in place names. The 'seaves' (rushes) of the northern dales gave Saves Lane its name, the 'gatt' (road) of Hollowgate Road, and Hivers on Saves Lane all bear testament to a particularly strong Norse presence.

However, the name Ireleth, in anything like its present form, does not appear in any records until 1190.[12] Askam’s name is also open to interpretation. The modern town is named after Askam Woods, which still cover an area of land to the east of Dalton Road, but which extended almost to the sands as late as the 1850s. Melville and Hobbs proposed two possible origins for the name thus: ‘Ekwall — by the ash trees; or personal name Aski (Old Norse). Second element either “ham”, enclosure, or “holmr”, here meaning low land liable to innundation by flooding’ (as in Dunnerholme).[13]

There is the tenuous possibility that Ireleth’s recorded history begins in 1086 with a reference to a ‘Gerleuuorde’ in William the Conqueror’s infamous Domesday Book. Caution should be used with Domesday placenames as Furness was effectively under Scottish control in 1092 and the whole area was at the north-western-most tip of Domesday’s coverage. Although the Furness area has traditionally looked south-eastwards for its administration (even when under Scots control) it was still in an area which may have provided less than reliable returns data. The area of Furness place names requires a great deal of further research before firm claims one way or the other can be made. Even the location of the manor of Hougun, of which Gerleuuorde was a part, is disputed. Barnes thought that it might be at High Haume; there is evidence of an ancient settlement and a beacon there (the stone axes mentioned above). However, in his book The Beacon on the Bay, Steve Dickinson offers a comprehensive demolition of this theory.[8b]

The Hougun Manor had belonged to the Earls of Northumbria since the time of King Canute, and at 1060 was in the possession of Earl Tostig. Barnes says, ‘Under Tostig three thanes held each six carucates[14] in Furness — Duvan at Kirkby Ireleth, Turulf at Ulverston and Ernulf at Aldingham. In 1065 Earl Tostig was expelled for bad government, being replaced by Morcar, in 1066 Tostig returned to fall with Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge’.[15] After William’s victory Hougun was forfeited to the Crown along with the rest of Tostig’s lands until 1092, when William Rufus (the Conqueror’s son) granted it to Roger Poictou. However, Roger took part in a rebellion in 1102 and he in turn was stripped of his lands, so once again Hougun returned to the Crown.

This period of uncertainty and change was reflected in the whole of the north of England for the twenty years following 1066. William ruthlessly put down the northern rebellions which took place after Hastings. His ‘Harrying of the North’ resulted in famine and death on a huge scale; up to 60% of the land in Furness went out of production during this time. Many ancient places, such as Hougun, disappeared altogether, surviving only as field or place names.[16]

The Domesday survey is known to everyone, though, as mentioned above, interpretating it requires care. The place called Gerleuuorde/Ireleth, lying between the moor and the marshes to the north-west of Hougun/High Haume, would have been nothing like our remotest imaginings of an ancient village. Villages of the time were small, often no more than a few family groups, and were regularly abandoned after a few generations once the surrounding land was exhausted. It was only after the Norman Conquest that modern English villages became more permanent and took on their recognisable forms. So, while a place which equates to the site of modern-day Ireleth may indeed be listed in Domesday, there's little evidence for a permanent, continuous village called Ireleth.

From Domesday onwards good records are available for Furness, often because of the administration of the area by the monks of Furness Abbey. The Abbey was established in 1127 during the reign of King Stephen, and was dedicated to St Mary (there was a ‘cult’ of Mary during the medieval period).

The Abbey has its own complex history, which is well recorded in other local histories. In brief, the abbey was originally created under the Benedictine order after King Stephen (a Norman) granted a block of land at Tulketh, near Preston, to the Abbey of Savigny in Normandy. These lands were exchanged in 1127 for land in Furness, and the Abbey of St Mary was founded. In 1148 the Abbot of Savigny changed from the Benedictine to the Cistercian order, and commanded Furness to follow suit. Peter of York, the fourth Abbot of Furness, refused, and the dispute was referred by the Pope to a commission. Peter lost the dispute, and the monks were ordered to join the Cistercian Order or be excommunicated.

This episode in the Abbey’s history is not told as an ancient religious dispute; the change from the Benedictine to the Cistercian Order was to have great implications for Furness in general, and villages such as Ireleth in particular. While the Benedictines were known for their teaching and academic traits, the Cistercians were a more industrious order; most of the records which survive relate to their agricultural, mercantile and industrial efforts.

At first sight Furness seems an unlikely place for an Abbey; in a wild location, on the fringe of Scots control and difficult to get to. However, most travel at this time and in this area was undertaken by sea, and from this perspective Furness was ideally located for trade with the lands of the Celtic fringe and beyond. Alistair Moffat, in his book The Sea Kingdoms, describes the sea along Britain's west coast as a thriving trade route from Celtic Cornwall to Viking Norway. The Isle of Man was known as Midway Island, an important navigational point halfway between Land's End and John O' Groats.[17] With its historic ties to Man, Ireleth and the Furness coast would have been well placed for the establishment of an enterprise such as Furness Abbey. The Cistercians brought with them a tradition as agriculturalists and merchants, and under their hand large areas of Furness once again became extremely productive (see chapter four).

As well as owning large areas of land the monks created or took over new farms which were worked by a lower order of monk known as ‘converts’. These farms were called granges, and the earliest mentions of Ireleth in Abbey records (in a Bull of Clement III in 1190) is as a grange. This implies that the loose group of huts which may have comprised Gerleuuorde had already consolidated into the beginnings of Ireleth village.

But now Ireleth’s recorded history has begun, and now it is time to move to different aspects of Ireleth and Askam’s history. The first subject chapter discusses a topic which is touched on above — the development of house and home in Ireleth and Askam.

1 1971 census, 1991 census, 1997 Cumbria County Council local profile.
2 Barnes, F., Barrow and District, p.2
3 Daniell, Christopher, A Traveller’s History of England, p.5
4 Walton, J., A history of Dalton-in-Furness, p.1
5 ibid
6 Walton p.3
7 Barnes, p.7
8 Walton, p.11
8b Steve Dickinson, The Beacon on the Bay, 2002. See also the footnotes on page 53 for a demolition of Barnes's theory of Gerleuuorde as being Ireleth.
9 Barnes, p.13
10 Barnes, p.16, Walton, p.6
11 Evans, Evening Mail, July 6 1973. Evans probably based this on notes by Melville and Hobbs.
12 Evans, 6/7/73. Other recorded spellings include: Gerleuuorde (1086), Irelyth (1190), Irlythe (1336), Yerleythe (no date) and Yerleth (1509).
13 Melville & Hobbs, Brief notes on Ireleth, p.3
14 Barnes defines a ‘carucate’ as being ‘as much arable [land] as could be managed by one plough and team in one year, plus meadow pasture and houses for men and beasts; in area anything from 60 to 120 acres’, p.18
15 Barnes, pp.18–19
16 Barnes, p. 22
17. Moffot, Alistair, The Sea Kingdoms, pp. 44-5.