Chapter Four: Industry

The dales to the north and south of Ireleth Road fall on those patches of land between the thinner high soils and the flood-prone low-lying soils of Askam. Most of these dales would have been used under the three field system (the field and place name Hivers/Evers, just off Saves Lane, is of Norse origin and means 'oats'), which Abbey records show was in operation by the fourteenth century.[1] The early period of King Edward the Third's reign (1327-77) was a period of prosperity for Furness; the population then (prior to the Black Death) was probably as high as it was in the time of George III (1760-1820).[2]

As described in chapter one, the monks of Furness Abbey were great merchants and industrialists. Originally established as a Benedictine Order, a twelfth century change by the Abbot of Savigny resulted in the abbey's being devoted to the Cistercian Order. This was to have an important effect on Furness in many ways; the Benedictine Order's chief interest was in teaching and scholarly works, whereas the Cistercians had a strong interest in architecture and agriculture.[3]

The Furness monks brought great husbandry skills with them, and brought large areas of land into cultivation (either for the first time, or reviving lands laid waste after the period of anarchy following the Norman conquest). Many of these reclaimed plots of land were farmed by an inferior class of monks known as 'converts', who acted as labourers under the supervision of the Abbey monks. Some of these plots, or granges, are first mentioned in a Bull of Pope Clement III in 1190, which lists 'Roos, Newton, Killerwick (later Elliscales), Irelyth, and Barrai, and all the Island of Walney'.[4] The process of land reclamation and letting out to converts continued as long as the Abbey was in operation. Other granges mentioned in 1336 include Marsh Grange and Howehom (High Haume). By the time of the Dissolution in the mid sixteenth century:

. . . the only lands held by the monks themselves and worked by their own servants were Hallbeck, Park Farm, Manor Farm, Sowerby, Greenscow and Haume, all arable farms; and Sandscale, Thwaite Flat, Greenhaume, Mousel, Stewnorcote, and Ireleth Cote as sheep farms; the rest of the Manor was let to customary tenants.[5]

The monks of Furness Abbey cannot actually claim responsiblity for creating the farm of Marsh Grange. This farm, known as Stephengarth at the time, is first mentioned in 1252 when it was owned by Alexander of Kirkby.[6] Alexander was in constant dispute with the Abbot of Furness, to whom he was bound to do service. Their arguments continued throughout Alexanderís lifetime, but on his deathbed he thought better of things and, in order to ensure a smooth passage to paradise, bequeathed Stephengarth to the Abbey, after which the monks made it a grange and renamed it Marsh Grange.[7]

In 1338 the Abbot of Furness Abbey received permission to impark the woods of Rampside, Sowerby, Roanhead, Greenscow, Hagg and Millwood, and eventually these parks were made into farms. Some of these new farms are still known by the name Park Farm (Park Farm below Greenscoe, Near and Old Park Farms on the top road).[8]

Life under the influence of the abbey wasnít all progress and development. Although answerable to the king, the abbots effectively ran daily life within the confines of their manors, and Furness was no exception. These monks were also businessmen, and some abbots were more ruthless than others. State papers contain many entries which make it clear that the abbots often engaged in smuggling (such as corn from Ireland, wool to Flanders and, in 1276, food to Welsh rebels[9]), and some abbots rode roughshod over their tenants.

Possibly the most notorious was Abbot Alexander Bankes, a local man who was 'headstrong and reckless, who seems to have embroiled himself in one mess after another'.[10] Typical of Bankes's attitude to the treatment of tenants was the creation of New Park, a large deer park which involved the reclamation of huge areas of arable land and the eviction of villagers from their homes. The residents were evicted to their 'utter undoing'. As far as Ireleth is concerned, Bankes was in dispute with Sir John Pennington over grazing rights on Pennington and Mean Moors, hardly a huge historical drama in itself but indicative of the power the abbot held over village residents.[11]

Auction notice for Ireleth Farm. The notice goes on to say, 'The Property is being offered in Lots to suit purchasers seeking Building ground or Parcel or Accommodation Lands, and as several of the Lots are very adaptable for Building purposes and all are of the highest agricultural value, and within easy distance of the towns of Barrow, Dalton and Ulverston, and of the Askam Railway Station, this Sale offers unusual opportunities to Builders, Capitalists, Farmers, Cow-keepers, and others.'

In more recent times, there has been a gradual pushing out of farm buildings to the outskirts of Ireleth, with all the former farm buildings being converted to residential properties. An example of this appears in the reproduction of a farm auction notice for Ireleth Farm. From the attached plan, this appears to be Brookside. Many old farm buildings, barns and shuppens in the village have similarly been demolished or converted into homes, as a stroll down Saves Lane will show.

Agricultural land was also lost to mining interests and housing development, gradually eroding Irelethís traditional role as a farming community. Many of the old dales are still visible, particularly those on the south side of the village close to Askam woods. Those on the north side running off Low Lane have all but disappeared as dales, though many of the old field boundaries remain.

Of the many iron-bearing minerals, the richest ores are magnetite and hematite. It is this latter ore which is found in Furness. The mining of this ore and the production of iron and steel had a huge impact on the Furness landscape, even over the many centuries prior to Schneiderís discovery of the huge and rich deposit at the Park Mines. Barnes states that:

'Oregrave', mentioned in Domesday Book and meaning 'ore diggings', proves pre-Conquest mining; while the Coucher Book of Furness Abbey bears witness that the monks extracted ore at Oregrave (presumably near Tytup Hall), Elliscales and Marton. These mines are referred to as the 'ditch of the iron mine', and 'the trench where the iron is dug', proving that surface deposits were exploited by open-cast working. [12]

In medieval times the ore was dug from open cut trenches and processed in crude bloomeries. Once the surface ore had been exhausted 'bell' pits were used to excavate the deeper seams. A bell pit was about five feet wide at the top, twelve feet wide at the bottom, and fifteen to twenty feet deep, with the miners and ore raised and lowered in barrels by a horse gin.[13] By about 1780 this surface ore was used up, and shafts and levels with primitive pumps were developed. Barnes states that, 'Furness ore, usually quite soft, did not need gunpowder and was worked with pick, spade, and gad or wedge'; turn-of-the-century maps of Askam show magazine depots, though these may have been for the extraction of limestone at Greenscoe.

The processing of the ore in the old bloomeries was a slow and wasteful process. The ore was crushed and mixed with lime (which acted as a flux to remove impurities) and surrounded by charcoal on a hearth.[14] This was then ignited and a constant draught provided by bellows until a lump of soft, pasty, impure iron was created. This lump had to be re-heated and hammered over and over again to remove the impurities.

The finished iron was of a very high standard, but the process was hugely wasteful; Barnes states that , 'Five tons of wood made one ton of charcoal, and 11 cwts. of charcoal would produce about 3 cwts. of iron from half a ton of ore'. Lots of the original ore was lost in the slag, and so much charcoal was used that it became cheaper to carry the ore to the wood source rather than the other way around. By the time of the Dissolution of Furness Abbey, Low Furness had been almost totally deforested and the ore was being carted and shipped up to bloomeries in High Furness.[15]

The blast furnace was discovered in southern England in the fifteenth century, but - probably because of costs - the old bloomeries were only superseded by a blast furnace in Furness in 1711. This blast furnace was built at Backbarrow by local ironmasters who faced competition from their Cheshire counterparts, who in their turn faced charcoal shortages. Eventually both the local and Cheshire teams joined forces to become the Backbarrow Company, which went on to become one of the largest producers of steel in the country. The company even owned its own mines, one of which - Heaning Wood, acquired in 1716 - became known as the Whitriggs Mine, famed for the amount and purity of its ore.[16] This mine was described by Father West (a Jesuit priest and historian who lived at Tytup Hall in the 1770s, author of the 1775 publication Antiquities of Furness) as 'the Peru of Furness', which gives some idea of the scale of production.[17]

Mining and steel production always has been (and still is) a dangerous job, and in the days when the pits were primitive and safety issues were in the hands of the mine owners, many lost their lives. Walton reproduces several extracts from the diary of William Fisher, a Furness yeoman farmer, two of which directly concern Ireleth folk:

Nov. 25, 1828 James Benson of Ireleth & John Brockbank of Dalton wear sufacated by the foul air at Crossgates Iron Ore pit there was two others in at the same time which escaped with difficulty be accending the shaft in the bucket both the unfortunate men have left widdows and small famileys to bewail there loss.
Nove. 28 1848 a boy lost his Life at Orgrave Mill Iron works by his close getting entangled in the Masenery he was drown in and Killd Instantinely aged 15 years.

Left: 'A Neilson 0-4-0T at one of the iron ore mines worked by Furness Mining Co., possibly Park in 1880.' Kirkman & van Zeller, p. 54.

It was not until 1850 that the Park iron ore deposit was discovered. This discovery is credited to Henry William Schneider, though another source states that the main discovery was made by unknown miners working a week without pay after Schneider had decided to abandon the search for ore.[19] It was after this time that ore production in the Ireleth area became heavily industrialised. Under the old system loads of ore were dragged by packhorse and rough carts to the shore for shipment, where it was dumped for collection by small coasting vessels for delivery to the High Furness furnaces. The shore at Ireleth Marsh (Askam) had long been a dumping ground for ore from the Crossgates Mine bound for the Duddon Bridge Furnace. With the new system, Cornish pumping engineers (my own great-great-grandfather among them) were employed keeping the mines drained and the Furness Railway was used to cart the ore to the steel works at Barrow.

The discovery of the ore at Ireleth and the development of the township which became known as Askam is a story in itself, and this is told in full by Alan Harris.[20] In short, the 1851 census shows that ore mining was already happening in and around Ireleth prior to the opening up of the large Park seam. Fifteen Ireleth residents - heads of households - described themselves as iron ore miners, quite a significant number in a village of 2-300 people. By the time of the census miners' cottages had sprung up at Park and Thwaite Flat.[21]

A steelworks was built in 1870 and was described in the 1882 Directory of Furness thus: 'There are four blast furnaces, of which three are in operation. Two of the furnaces are on the largest scale used in this country, being 75 feet high and 23 feet in diameter at the boshes; the charging bell has a diameter of 14 feet. The chimney is 325 feet high, and can be seen for many miles around.'[22]

'The end view of one blast furnace and the disproportionate chimney of Askham [sic] iron works at the turn of the century, with Black Combe shadowy in the background. The iron works closed during the depression of the 1920s.' Garbutt & Marsh, p. 153.

By 1870 output had reached 350,000 tons per year[23], and by the end of its life nine million tons of haemetite had been dug out.[24] The peak year for iron ore production was 1882, when 1,408,693 tons of ore were raised, but there was a gradual decline after that time.[25] By 1918 the steelworks was closed, and it was demolished in 1933. As an indication of the short life span of the Park deposit, by the end of its operation the Askam steelworks (like the ones at Barrow, Ulverston and Carnforth) had to use ore imported from Spain and Ireland to keep operating.[26]

Slate, and other types of mining
The other major mining or quarrying activities in the area include slate, limestone and clay. Remains of slate quarries are scattered throughout the low moors above Ireleth, mainly around Moor Farm and Standish Cote. None of these slate quarries are active any more, neither is the Greenscoe limestone quarry.

Other industries
Askam brickworks has operated for many years at its site on Dalton Road, just below Greenscoe Quarry. There has been very little else in the way of manufacturing in Askam or Ireleth, with most people having commuted to Dalton and Barrow to work. The major exception was the K-Shoe footware factory, which had a large factory on Duddon Road for many years prior to its closure in the 1990s. The Leeds School of Town Planning carried out a study, Askam-in-Furness: A socio-economic survey and analysis of the community, published in June 1967 (copy in the CRO, Barrow). This study, in spite of criticising Askamís housing as being 'in bad repair and . . . dull and monotonous', was optimistic about Askamís future as an industrial centre in a rural setting. Askam also receives several mentions in K Shoes: The First 150 Years 1842-1992, written by Spencer Crookenden and published by K Shoes in 1992.

1 Inquisition at Dalton on the death of Sir John de Harrington shows that the three-field system was in operation in Furness in 1347, a relatively early date, a sign of the influence of the monks
2 Barnes pp.34-5
3 Barnes p.25
4 Barnes p.30
5 Barnes p.30
6 Melville and Hobbs, 'Marsh Grange', September 1963, p.1
7 ibid
8 Barnes pp.34-5
9 Barnes p.33
10 Barnes p.39
11 Barnes p.40
12 Barnes p.72
13 Barnes p.79
14 Until technical refinements in the eighteenth century, coal couldnít be used because of its high sulphur content, Barnes, p.74
15 Barnes p.72. Barnes also mentions that during the Battle of Lindal Moor, during the English Civil War, the fields were still open and hedgeless, indicating that Furness had still not recovered one hundred years later.
16 Barnes p.74-5
17 Barnes p.79
18 Walton p.59
19 Compare Barnes, p96 with Kirkman and van Zelder, p.53. Aidan Jones, Area Archivist, corrected my original date of 1851 in the printed version and pointed out that discovery of the Park deposit was reported in the Ulverston Advertiser of 29 October 1850. In an email of 21 September 2000, Mr Jones said, 'The story of his men working for nothing was later often recounted by Schneider himself (quoted by A. G. Banks in his book H. W. Schneider of Barrow and Bowness): possibly he had merely considered abandoning the search rather than having actually decided to do so'.
20 Askam Iron: The development of Askam-in-Furness, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, pp.381-407.
21 Harris p.386
22 Directory of Furness 1882, p.187
23 Barnes p.96
24 Kirkman and van Zeller p.53
25 Barnes p.94
26 Barnes p.95