by John Townson
My interest in Townson ancestors started when I found a small box of papers that had been put together by my grandfather, Major George Harrison Townson, who had died in 1949. Apart from letters, wills and documents relating to his father and other immediate members of the family, there was a card in memory of a Robert Townson who had died at Raven Bank, Staveley in 1873 aged 86. It also mentioned that he was buried at Crosthwaite Church. A quick look at a map showed that these were both places in the former county of Westmorland and a further reading of the letters brought forward a number of references to the Lyth Valley. My father, Jack, and his sister, Faith, had also as children been left an interest in some small farms at Underbarrow which is situated between Crosthwaite and Kendal, but Faith remembered none of this. The Nottingham ancestry of her mother's family, the Birkins, had been of much more interest to her when she was young.
Until the late 19th century when it became a separate parish, Crosthwaite Cum Lyth was a township and chapelry in the extensive parish of Heversham. The registers of the chapelry were published early last century and there were a large number of Townson entries going back to the mid 17th century. It soon became clear that most of these entries related to one family and I was able to put together a rough family tree going back to a Leonard Townson who died in 1667. The Robert Townson, whose memorial card I had, turned out to be my great great grandfather and he had farmed at Low (his farm now called South Low Farm) in Lyth before retiring to Staveley. I visited the area and found his grave in Crosthwaite Churchyard, together with memorials to his wife Mary and two of their children.
The Lyth Valley lies between Kendal and Lake Windermere and runs south from Crosthwaite to the sands of Morecambe Bay. In earlier times a bog, it is now well drained and fertile; nationally known for its damson orchards. From the fell above, there are magnificent views; south across the bay to the Lancashire coast and north to the mountains of the Lake District. Standing up there, I wondered about those early ancestors and whether they appreciated the harsh beauty of the country around them as we do.
I joined the Cumbria Family History Society in the early 1980s and friends there pointed me in the direction of interesting collections to be found at the Cumbria Record Office at Kendal. It was extraordinary how much had survived. The South Low deeds were there going back to the 1650s and there were also a lot of papers relating to the Dickinson family of Dawson Fold, Lyth, a family that the Townsons had married into. With the help also of manorial records at the Cumbria Record Office at Carlisle and wills and inventories at the Lancashire County record Office at Preston, I was able to confirm my initial family tree and also to learn a lot more about the family and their way of life as small farmers in the Lyth Valley. These farmers, known as yeoman or statesman farmers in the Lake District, were fiercely independent and held their farms on an unusual tenure akin to a freehold.
Some 19th century members of our branch of the Townson family seemed to become somewhat forgetful of their true origins once they left Westmorland and did well for themselves. They liked to think they were descended from Robert Townson (1575-1621), the Dean of Westminster who attended Sir Walter Raleigh on the scaffold and was later Bishop of Salisbury. Bishop Townson was born in Cambridge, the son of 'Renold Toulnesonn', and it therefore seems unlikely that he had any connection with the Westmorland Townsons. One small link with the area exists, however, in that when Thomas Tolson built Tolson Hall near Kendal in 1637 he placed Bishop Townson's Arms in a window there.
The above illustrates, if nothing else, the number of ways that a name could be spelt in early times. Townson was also commonly spelt Towanson or Towenson and it is believed that the name was a corruption of the name Tomlinson, originating in the Furness region of Lancashire from the mid 16th century onwards. Tomlinson (son of Thomas) was a common name in that area and it is therefore possible that the name Townson and its variants arose in a number of different places. Looking at early parish registers, there are definite groupings of the name around Hawkshead and Pennington from 1560 onwards and a number of smaller groups elsewhere in Furness, around Cartmel and in the county of Westmorland. There is a Townson Hill at Broughton near Cartmel and a Townson Ground near Coniston. To this day, the name is better known in the southern Lake District than elsewhere in England, where it is comparatively rare.
The Lakeland peninsulas of Furness and Cartmel, now part of Cumbria, were separated from the rest of Lancashire by the treacherous sands of Morecombe Bay and bordered by the inhospitable terrain of Westmorland and Cumberland. Up until the 19th century, the only way into Furness by land was by one of the packhorse routes over the fells and many people preferred to take the quicker way over the sands; a hazardous route with sudden fogs, changing water courses and quick sands liable to catch the unwary. The area was therefore very isolated and from the early 12th century to 1537 was dominated by the great abbey of Furness, which had been granted most of the lands there and had almost regal powers. Some of the monks there, because they approached Furness from the sea, thought they lived on an island! Apart from infrequent, but devastating, raids by the Scots, the area remained relatively untouched by national events and the abbey was able to develop a prosperous economy, based mainly on sheep farming and exploiting the local iron deposits. This relative tranquillity changed dramatically in the 1530s with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Monks encouraged local men to join the northern revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, which was crushed with characteristic cruelty by Henry Vlll, and shortly afterwards, in April 1537, the monks surrendered Furness Abbey and its lands to the King.
In what could be described as a social and economic earthquake affecting the whole area, the former Furness Abbey estates were granted to new secular owners from elsewhere and this led to a period of upheaval for those who had held tenements and worked the land. Markets, which had been centred on the abbey, had to be developed elsewhere and this led to a more fluid population and the Furness area becoming less isolated. It is probable that the Townsons who came to the Lyth Valley were descended from one of these Furness families.
The earliest proven ancestor was Leonard Townson, who was to be found renting a property in the Westmorland township of Witherslack in the year 1646. That was the year that his daughter, Mary, was buried at the neighbouring chapel of Crosthwaite. Witherslack people had their own small chapel at that time, but had to take their dead to the parish church at Beetham for burial and to pay their dues to that church. Leonard Townson is listed as a sidesman in Beetham churchwardens' accounts for 1646. It was however an arduous journey to get to Beetham from Witherslack, involving crossing the Kent estuary, and this may be why he chose to have his daughter, Mary, buried at Crosthwaite and his daughter, Margaret, baptised there in 1651. Crosthwaite Cum Lyth was also just a chapelry in the parish of Heversham, but they had had permission to bury their dead there since the middle of the 16th century.
At his death in 1667, Leonard had four surviving children apart from Margaret: James, Thomas, Ellen and Jenett, but it has not been possible to find their baptism records; or baptism and marriage records for Leonard himself and his wife, Jenett. There are a few baptism records for Leonard Townsons born in the area c1620, but none of these can be proved to be the right one. For the children, Beetham registers are very sparse from 1642 to 1660 and neighbouring parishes, including Kendal, have large gaps in their registers for the relevant period. The civil war followed by the Commonwealth, when puritans dominated the church and many Anglican clergy were evicted from their parishes, cannot have helped with record keeping.
It is difficult to establish how the civil war would have affected a small farmer like Leonard Townson, but presumably he was able to carry on a fairly normal life. The main action in the area centred on Furness, where there was fighting in 1643 and 1644. Soldiers were quartered in Cartmel where they stabled their horses in the Priory and also around Witherslack, where Thomas Pearson, the constable for 1644, detailed the raising of money for pay, horses and arms for them. And according to one report, the chapel at Witherslack was so damaged during the war so that it had partly fallen down by 1664.
In 1657, Leonard Townson is mentioned as a husbandman of Fell End in Witherslack in his son Thomas's Apprenticeship Indenture and he was still at Fell End in 1665, when he purchased his property at Low (formerly spelt Law) in Lyth. Fell End is at the Southern end of Witherslack under the dramatic limestone ridge of Whitbarrow Scar. Low is a small cluster of houses and buildings about four miles North East on the West side of the Lyth Valley; situated on a rocky outcrop beneath the steep slopes of Lyth Fell and on the edge of the then undrained mosses in the valley bottom. The farm would have been about twenty acres at that time with rights of common on the fells and mosses. Leonard bought Low from the executors of Miles Rowlandson, tanner, for the sum of £294, subject to the payment of the yearly customary rent of eight shillings and four pence to the Lord of the Manor. He was not to enjoy his new property for long as he died two years later in 1667.
Jenett Townson died first and was buried at Crosthwaite on July 26th 1667 and Leonard followed her seven weeks later, being buried on September 16th. They would have been of no great age and it is possible that they died of plague or smallpox, as 1667 is known to have been a year when there were a large number of deaths in the Crosthwaite and Lyth area. In his will dated September 13th 1667, Leonard describes himself as "infirm and diseased in my mortal body", and goes on to ask that he should be buried as near to his wife as possible. The will itself, typical of its time but sadly without an inventory, is shown here (click on blue underlined text). He leaves his property at Row (formerly spelt Raw) in Lyth to his elder son, James, and the property at Low to his younger son, Thomas, together with items of furniture and all his "husbandry gear" between them. He also makes provision for his daughters, stipulating that his daughter Margaret should have the use of a bedroom at Low for as long as she should need it. It is not known when he purchased the farm at Row, but James Townson lived there until his death in 1689 after which it was left to his elder son, Leonard. To have bought two properties shows that Leonard had acquired some small wealth by the time of his death; perhaps by marriage or inheritance, or by pursuing another trade as well as farming.
The yeoman farmers of the Lake District, known as statesman farmers as they held their own estate, held their land of the Lord of the Manor by customary tenure and in earlier times, as well as the customary rent, had obligations to military service on the border. It was a convenient way to ensure that there was always a standing army in case of a sudden attack from the Scots. By the early 17th century, that threat had ceased with King James I inheriting the crown of England as well as that of Scotland. He saw an opportunity to take his Westmorland and Cumberland customary estates into direct ownership and encouraged other Lords of Manors to do the same arguing that, as the necessity for border service was no longer needed, the tenure had ceased also. The fiercely independent statesmen were not going to give up property and land, which they and their ancestors had held for centuries, without a fight and a long struggle ensued. It was only resolved at about the time that James l died, when judges surprisingly confirmed the customary estates to the statesman farmers.
The tenure had almost the security of a freehold with the statesman being able to sell or leave their properties to whoever they chose, subject only to the payment of a fine to the Lord of the Manor and a token of fealty sometimes known as a God's Penny. A small customary rent was payable, a fixed annual sum that did not change over centuries, and the tenants were subject to the manor courts which dealt with admissions and the management of the fells and mosses, which were held in common. One unusual feature was that the widow of a tenant had all the benefits of the property for her lifetime, unless she remarried, and the heir had to wait for his inheritance. This can be seen happening at Low, with one or two generations of the Townson family.
The Manor of Crosthwaite and Lyth was part of the Richmond Fee of the Barony of Kendal and was held by Queen Catherine, wife of Charles ll, at the time that Leonard Townson purchased Low and later passed to the Lowther family. The Townsons and the families they married into feature in the manor records from the mid 17th century to the 19th century when the records peter out with more and more of the farms becoming freehold; and therefore not subject to the manor courts.
Leonard Townson's elder son, James and his wife Jane had six children, only two of whom Leonard, born in 1672, and James, born in 1683, survived until adulthood. It is assumed that he lived the typical life of a small farmer and there are only passing references to him in documents of the time. It is known where he and his wife sat in the chapel at Crosthwaite, as, in a strange survival, there exists a seating plan dated 1669. Men and women sat separately, the position dictated by which property they owned or occupied. Thomas Townson of Low is also shown. James paid tax for one hearth in 1669; and he is mentioned in the Manor of Crosthwaite and Lyth court records. He served on the jury a number of times, was fined in 1671 for not keeping up his fences and served as burleyman (minor official appointed to settle manor disputes) in 1689, the year of his death. He had two properties at Row, the one which he left to his elder son Leonard and another which he left to his younger son James.
James Townson's widow, Jane, died in 1696 and that is about the time that Leonard married Alice, who had a small farm at Espford, Crosthwaite. This is where they lived until his death in 1705. They had two daughters, Jane, born in 1698 and who died a year after her father in 1706, and Alice, born in 1701. In 1708, Leonard Townson's widow Alice married Rowland Taylor and he was admitted to the Espford property at the manor court. Under Leonard Townson's will, his Row property was to be sold to provide for his daughters.
The younger son, James Townson, was only six when his father died. He was apprenticed to John Hadwin, mercer of Kendal, in 1698 and probably made this his way of life as he sells his property at Row, the inheritance from his father, to William Dickinson in 1705. Nothing more is known of him, or any family he may have had.
It is likely that Thomas, the younger son of Leonard and Jenett Townson, was 14 years old when he was apprenticed and this means that he was born around the year 1643. The Apprenticeship Indenture is dated 14th June 1657 and Thomas was bound to Thomas Bowes, glover of Beckhead, Witherslack, on payment of 40 shillings by Leonard Townson. Thomas Bowes undertakes to maintain Thomas Townson for seven years and to teach him the trade of a glover or dresser of skins. In return, Thomas promises to serve his master well and not to marry, fornicate, gamble, frequent alehouses or indulge in other bad behaviour.
It would appear that Thomas completed his apprenticeship satisfactorily as in later documents he is referred to as a fellmonger, which in the Lake District usually refers to a dealer and dresser of sheep skins. He was in his twenties when he inherited Low from his father in 1667 and he then combined farming with his trade as a fellmonger. The following year he got into trouble when he had an illegitimate ('spurious' in the parish register) daughter, Thomasin, by Anne Cartmell. He obviously acknowledges her as, when she marries William Benson in 1691, she is referred to as Thomasin Townson alias Cartmell.
In 1671, Thomas is in trouble again when he is fined five shillings at the manor court for 'disturbing' the bracken mowers of Thomas Kendall. Thomas Kendall is fined only two shillings for the same offence, so obviously Thomas Townson was more at fault! The bracken on the fells was a valuable resource, being used for animal bedding and for burning in kilns to obtain potash. Kendal and the townships around it were a centre of the cloth trade and potash was needed to make soap for the local fulling mills.
Thomas married Agnes Garnett on the 17th August 1672 at Crosthwaite. This was a good marriage as the Garnetts were a prominent local family and Agnes's father, William Garnett of Rusmickle nearby, was well off by local standards. When he died in 1684, apart from his real property, he left £250 in cash and loans as well as a substantial inventory of goods and chattels. Thomas, Agnes and their children receive bequests in William's will. They had two surviving children, Agnes baptised on the 7th February 1672 (old calendar) less than nine months after the marriage and William, baptised the 11th October 1676.
It was around this time that the Low farm house took the form that can be discerned today under later alterations. Thomas paid tax on two hearths in 1670 and on three hearths when a new survey was done in 1674-5. This was the time known as 'the great rebuilding', when the statesman farmers replaced their humbler dwellings with the strong stone houses that are such a feature of the Lake District today. After all the upheavals of the 16th and earlier 17th centuries, farming began to go through a prosperous and stable period. Local markets were good; Lyth farmers supplying Kendal with meat, dairy products, damsons, apples and even peat for fires. The strong cloth trade around Kendal needed all the fleeces that could be produced, and these were worth about five times what they had been a hundred years before. And many of the small statesman farmers like Thomas carried on another trade as well as farming. Most of the houses in the valley, however, still only had one or two hearths, so the Townson house at Low would have been seen as more substantial than a lot of its neighbours.
With blacksmiths, millers, shoemakers, tailors, etc, the Crosthwaite and Lyth area was more or less self sufficient at this time with only a few items of food being imported from outside and some luxuries for the more affluent in the community. The food was adequate if a little monotonous, being based on oatmeal and a lot of dried beef and mutton, sometimes flavoured with spices obtained from the travelling packmen. There would have been foraging for hedgerow fruits, mushrooms and herbs at appropriate times of the year, herb pudding in the spring being considered a great delicacy. The girdle and brandreth mentioned in Thomas Townson's inventory below were used to make that staple of Lakeland diet, clapbread, which kept for a long time and was not unlike the present day oatcake. This and a heavy loaf made from barley, known as bigg in the area, which also kept for some weeks were kept in special oak bread cupboards. Very few vegetables were eaten and diaries of the time mention a lot of digestive problems. Most of the everyday clothes that the families wore will have been made from wool and leather from animals raised by the farmers themselves; the coats and waistcoats tending to be what was called 'hodden grey' to avoid the expense of dyeing.
In 1689, Thomas Townson leased a neighbouring small farm at Low, known as Christopher Parnters Tenement, for six years at a rent of £8-10-00 a year. The agreement is interesting in that it is very similar in spirit to modern tenancy agreements with the same provisions to ensure good husbandry and care of the fruit trees, etc. One local provision is that, as tenant, he was only allowed to sell as much peat from the mosses each year as could be carried to Kendal on two horses. Peat continued to be cut in the Lyth Valley until the 1950s, the last farmers to do so being the Park family of South Low Farm.
Thomas Townson died in 1700 and was buried at Crosthwaite on the 29th October. Agnes continued to live at Low, dying fifteen years later and being buried on the 12th April 1715. To get his son William started, Thomas had passed a small part of the farm over to him in 1697 and Agnes passed her widow's interest in the farm over to him in 1705 'for the natural love and affection' that she had for him. She retained the use of certain rooms in the farmhouse and three small fields to ensure sufficient income to enable her to make a series of small bequests in her will. Thomas, in his will, had left sums of money to his son William and daughter Agnes, his interest in Low and some furniture to William and his personal possessions to his wife and daughter.
A number of wills connected with the Townson family survive and some of these have detailed inventories attached of the goods and chattels of the deceased. These were required by the probate courts and were meant to be prepared by reputable assessors. In effect they were usually done by neighbours who undervalued the property quite recklessly. The early ones are very detailed and give us an idea of the possessions of a Westmorland farming family at that date. As they sometimes specify the rooms in which furniture and chattels are to be found, they can give an idea of the size and layout of houses at that time. By the middle of the 18th century, the inventories become less detailed and eventually peter out. Two are shown (click here, opens in a new page) those for Thomas Townson and his wife Agnes, and the spelling has been updated where the meaning is obvious.
Other items mentioned in the Townson inventories include cart wheels and plough gear; packhorse harness; swine and bees; and a clock in the house. The silver spoon, mentioned in Thomas Townson's inventory and later bequeathed by Agnes Townson to her grandson Thomas, is one of the few items that go beyond the functional. In general the Lyth Valley farmhouses were furnished plainly, but some pieces of the oak furniture were elaborately carved.
Only 24 when his father died, William Townson farmed at Low all his life. He seems to have been a conscientious member of the community as he served on the manor jury a number of times, took his turn as chapel warden and was one of the overseers of the poor in 1712. Otherwise not a lot is known about him and the inventory included with his will is fairly sketchy, telling one little except that he owned 21 beasts, 4 work horses and some sheep at the time of his death.
William married Margaret Barrow of Broadoak in Crosthwaite on the 24th May 1709. His sister Agnes had married a James Barrow, widower of Broadoak, in 1697 and it is conceivable that Margaret was James's daughter by the first marriage. They had ten children between 1709 and 1730 of whom seven were still living at the time of William's death, the eldest James having died at the age of 25 and two more having died as infants. Margaret died in childbirth in 1730 and was buried the 2nd May at Crosthwaite, the same day her last child Robert was baptised.
William died fifteen years later and was buried at Crosthwaite on the 1st July 1745. In his will he left his property at Low and his personal estate to his son Thomas, subject to the payment of £50 legacies to his sons William, Leonard and Robert and £40 legacies to his daughters Agnes, Mary and Margaret. Leonard was to receive his legacy when he finished his apprenticeship and Robert was to receive his when he was 21. The three girls are still unmarried at this time and one or more of them had presumably been running the household for William since his wife died.
Thomas was not to enjoy his inheritance for long as he died only four years later unmarried and was buried on the 1st June 1749. He left Low and his personal estate to his brother Leonard, subject to the payment of his father's remaining legacies and a further £20 each to his brothers and sisters. One wonders why he did not leave Low to William who was six years older than Leonard, but perhaps William had moved away by this time. The farms in the valley were small and not capable of supporting more than the immediate family, or of offering constant employment for labourers. Younger sons had to seek employment elsewhere and this is what we assume William and his brother Robert did, as there is no further mention of them in the Crosthwaite parish registers or in any other family document.
Travelling north up the Lyth Valley nowadays on the A5074, the driver probably only registers Low as a hamlet on a slightly awkward double bend. There is a white bungalow prominent on the left hand side of the road, South Low Farm lies on the bend on the right hand side and Low Farm is just round the corner also on the right hand side. After some farm buildings on the left hand side, the road passes on to Dawson Fold which is also sited on a bend. It is difficult to imagine the days before the 19th century when this road, then known as Lyth Lane, was a narrow track running from farm to farm along the west side of the valley.
It is possible that at one time there were three small farms and farmhouses at Low; the one now known as South Low Farm occupied by the Townson family from 1665 to c1865, Low Farm occupied by the Wilson family from c1675 to 1840 and another formerly known as Christopher Parnters Tenement and later as Dorothy Atkinsons. There is some documentary evidence for this third farm and it seems to have been taken over by the Wilsons in the mid 18th century. It is not known where the farmhouse might have been, but a possible site might be where there are farm buildings opposite Low Farm, a piece of land formerly known as Old Barn Orchard.
The farmers of Lyth seemed to be always buying, selling or swapping fields so it is difficult to assess accurately how much land the Low farmers had at any one time, but it was probably about 20 to 30 acres plus the rights of common on the fells and mosses. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Wilsons at Low Farm had about twice the land that the Townsons had at South Low. The fields were not ring fenced in one unit as they might be nowadays, but dotted about the local area causing problems of access and fencing. There are many documents in the archives recording disputes between farmers. The houses and buildings of the two surviving farms at Low are situated close to each other with only a little orchard between them. Neither is a working farm now.
Low Farm is the more conventional statesman plan farmhouse of the middle size, with two chimneys and a large barn and shippon (cowshed) attached at one end. It may have been altered internally, but externally it probably looks much as it did when it was built except for the rendering and the fact that there was at one time more of a garden in front.
Even though there is more documentary evidence available for South Low in the form of wills and inventories that mention rooms, it is not yet clear what the layout might have been in Thomas and then William Townson's time. There have been additions and alterations over the years, but the restoration being carried out by the present owners may give a clearer picture. Thomas's inventory in 1700 mentions the following rooms: the bodystead or main living room, kitchen and buttery, maid's chamber and chamber adjoining, great loft, kitchen loft and a roof loft. Forty five years later, William's inventory gives these rooms: the bodystead, parlour, the kitchen end, buttery, great loft, parlour loft, buttery loft and a house loft. Sometimes in Lakeland farmhouses, some of the smaller rooms are partitioned out of the kitchen and this may be the case here as, in the deed of 1705, Agnes Townson reserves to herself the use of:-
"the kitchen and two chambers in that apartment and the loft over them".
The main front of the house faces eastwards, although this is where windows have been blocked up and there is now a small addition coming forward from the southern end. The main door leads into the original passageway, known as the hallan in earlier times, and this leads to a staircase at the end. Being a medium sized statesman's house, there are living rooms with hearths on either side of the hallan; that on the right was probably the main living room, or bodystead as it is called in the inventories, and that on the left the kitchen as it has a hood near the fire for hanging meat. Behind the kitchen is another room, the modern kitchen, which was perhaps the buttery with a store room off it. What were referred to as lofts were presumably the rooms which are now bedrooms.
Attached to the northern end of the house is a building, formerly a cart shed and storehouse with a granary over. The main barn of Lakeland type, with the shippon underneath, is situated further north behind Low Farm. It is thought that this was rebuilt in the 19th century on the site of an older barn. A couple of other small stone built sheds complete the buildings at South Low and make a typical grouping for a small Lakeland farm.
There is not a lot more information available about Leonard Townson than his father. He was baptised the 24th April 1727, one of the younger children of William and Margaret; apprenticed to someone presumably in Crosthwaite and Lyth as this is mentioned in his father's will; and he inherited Low from his brother Thomas in 1749. He served on the manor court juries from time to time and is shown as paying window tax on the house at Low in 1777, a year for which returns have survived. Interestingly this is probably the reason that some of the windows on the main front have been deliberately blocked up, obviously done to avoid tax, and these were not opened up again until the 20th century. Leonard also took his turn as one of the overseers of the poor and chapel warden.
There is a battered book in the Kendal Record Office which records the accounts of a horse and cow 'doctor' Thomas Harrison of Crosthwaite. He treated animals up and down the valley and in 1769, Leonard Townson is shown paying two shillings and eight pence for calf drinks, horse drinks, turpentine, oil and other medicines. Many animal remedies consisted of these various drinks and a drenching device, usually a large cow's horn, was kept ready. Thomas Harrison supplemented his income in many ways; occasionally supplying provisions such as fish or butter on a commission basis, dealing in a few animals, and even supplying the 'victuals' after Thomas Townson's funeral in 1793.
Leonard Townson married Mary Dickinson by license at Cartmel Priory some ten miles away on the 19th November 1749. Nothing is known of her family, but it is unlikely, judging from her later behaviour, that she was closely related to the Dickinsons of Dawson Fold. They were a prominent Lyth family who their son, Thomas, would marry into some thirty years later. Leonard and Mary had seven children between 1752 and 1773, six of whom survived into adulthood. For some reason the family lived at Crosthwaite Green until the late 1760s and it may be that Low was let until then, possibly until Leonard had paid off the onerous legacies left to his brothers and sisters. Only the youngest of the children, Mally, was actually born at Low.
Leonard died at the age of 63 and was buried on the 27th May 1790 at Crosthwaite. He must have died quite suddenly as he did not leave a will, which led to problems during the widowhood of his wife Mary. Apart from his elder son Thomas, he had an unmarried son and daughter still living at home, William and Mally, and three married daughters; Agnes married to Robert Turner, Ellen married to James Bland and Elizabeth married to Thomas Newton. The Turners were an old Lyth family living at Row and Robert and his descendants were to acquire a lot of land in the valley, allowing them to become substantial farmers and land agents.
Leonard and Mary Townson's eldest son, Thomas, was baptised at Crosthwaite on the 24th April 1758. Presumably he farmed with his father at Low as he is not shown as having any other occupation and describes himself as a yeoman in his will. At the age of 27, he married Elizabeth Dickinson (known as Betty) at Heversham, the parish church, on the 23rd February 1785. They had two children in quick succession, Robert born on the 7th February 1786 and Ellen (sometimes known as Elinor) born on the 23rd December 1786. The family lived at Row, a hamlet just up the road from Low.
It seems that Thomas was a member of the militia as a Barnabas Bolton is mentioned as being paid to substitute for him after his death. Taken more seriously during the Napoleonic wars, there had been militia units for each county since 1757 and, as there were not enough volunteers, able bodied men were balloted for conscription from each parish. Men had to serve for five years during the 1790s and it was an unpopular system, as the unit might be sent for a time to other parts of England. It is not known whether Thomas was conscripted or a volunteer.
Three years after his father died, Thomas also died aged only 35 and was buried at Crosthwaite on the 2nd May 1793. By a strange chance the bill for his funeral survives amongst the Dickinson papers and this gives us some insight into the feasting associated with a burial, events planned it seems more to solace the survivors than to mourn the deceased. There were around 120 people at Thomas's funeral, representatives invited from all the farms in the valley, and they were given dinner at a cost of £8. Ale during and after dinner came to 26 shillings and the guests were also given 'arvel' bread, small wheat buns symbolising a gift from the departed, to take home with them. This cost 14 shillings and there was also a 9 pence bill for a pipe and tobacco for Thomas's sister, Mally Townson. With the cost of the shroud, coffin and the minister and clerks fees, the total for the funeral came to over £12.
Thomas made a comprehensive will just before he died, the executors and trustees being his father-in-law, Robert Dickinson, and his brother-in-law, Robert Turner. He directs that an agreement he made with his sisters be honoured; that sums of money be paid to them in lieu of what they might have expected from their father's will. All his farm stock and personal estate is to be sold and any rents collected to provide an income for the maintenance of his children and a small annuity for his wife Elizabeth. He leaves £120 to his daughter Ellen, to be paid when her brother Robert comes into his inheritance at Low. Robert is to have the farm at Low when he is 21 and any capital remaining from his personal estate. Should both children die before they were 21, and with no offspring, Thomas's brother William was to inherit Low.
As indicated earlier, customary law meant that Thomas's mother, Mary, still held Low, and any lands that were owned by her husband, for her lifetime. She obviously started plotting with her son-in-law, Robert Turner, to deprive her small grandchildren of their inheritance in order to benefit other members of the Townson family, principally William one imagines. We know all this through a marvellous series of letters written at this time by Betty Townson's brother, the Revd Robert Dickinson, to his family at Dawson Fold. In one written to his brother Daniel on the 28th December 1794, he refers to Mary Townson thus:-
"Pray how does that old wretch M.Townson at Row go on this very hard winter? Upon her departure I should think your affairs will immediately grow better: and in the common care of nature she cannot be supposed capable of continuing her reign of ill nature and malignity a long time upon earth."
How terrible to be remembered for posterity by that one paragraph! In the event, the hard winter was to leave Mary Townson unscathed, but carried off Robert Dickinson's brother Daniel and father Robert in less than two months. This meant that the only trustee left was the doubtful Robert Turner, but the Dickinson family fought hard on Betty's behalf. The dispute was still not resolved when Mary Townson died in March 1797 and the matter may have had to go to lawyers or the manor court before being resolved in Betty's favour later that year. Robert Dickinson writes exultantly to his brother John:-
"And I am heartily pleased that my sister Betty is so successful in gaining possession of the two estates at Low and Green for her son Robert. The Townson family and the Turners have outwitted themselves completely and their former behaviour was so unkind and malicious, that they deserve no pity. Everyone that knows them, and is not biased to their side, will consider them as rightly served. I have no doubt that they would have been glad to have made Betty a beggar for life, if it had been in their power. Surely against such people it is right to enforce every claim of justice, and I wish that craft and malice may always punish themselves in the same manner."
It would appear from this paragraph that the rest of the Townson family had lost more in starting this dispute than if they had supported Betty and her children. In an earlier letter, Robert Dickinson had referred to the possibility that Thomas Townson had agreed to his brother William having the property at Crosthwaite Green, at the same time as he agreed the sums of money to his sisters. This did not happen and William had, in any case, left the Lyth Valley in order to start a new life as an excise officer. In 1796 he is serving in the Settle and Skipton areas of West Yorkshire and in 1799, when he died, he is serving in Liverpool. He married Mary Atkinson, the daughter of a Wharfedale farmer, on the 31st July 1796 at Addingham near Skipton. They had two children, Thomas born in 1797 who probably didn't survive and William born after his father's death in 1799. Mary moved back to Wharfedale with the young baby after William's death and the next few generations of the family farmed in that area. Although they had only the one surviving child, William and Mary Townson have a great number of descendants living today, many still bearing the name Townson.
Betty Townson's family, the Dickinsons, were to be found living in the Witherslack area during the 17th century, moved to Dawson Fold, Lyth, in the 18th century and went on to becoming one of the foremost families in the area. Their names and signatures are to be found as witnesses and assessors on many of the wills and inventories of their neighbours and they obviously took a leading part in the affairs of Witherslack and the Lyth Valley. They have many descendants, many of whom have taken the opportunity to investigate the Dawson Fold papers that are in the record office at Kendal, and their story has been told by others.
Betty's grandfather, Daniel, was the first Dickinson to live at Dawson Fold having been given it by his father at the time of his marriage. He married Elizabeth Ion on the 1st June 1734 who was the daughter of the Revd Richard Ion, Vicar of Witherslack for thirty years. Only one of their six children, Robert, survived into adulthood and he started farming on his own account at Dawson Fold in 1762 shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Turner. Daniel's wife died in 1764 and he lived at Dawson fold with the rest of the family dying in 1792. As his son Robert had already taken possession of Dawson Fold and other property which would then go on to his son Daniel, Daniel left the rest of his estate to his other grandchildren and great grandchildren. His grandson John was to inherit Low Wood in Witherslack, his grandson Frank Middle Low Wood in Witherslack, his grandson Revd Robert Dickinson £100, his granddaughter Elizabeth Townson and her sisters £40 each and his great grandchildren Robert and Ellen Townson £20 each. Grandson Daniel was left a silver tankard.
Robert Dickinson, as mentioned, was a trustee under Thomas Townson's will and it is in his notebook that details of the funeral costs are to be found. Amongst other expenses, he also details purchases for Betty (hopefully not the two gallons of rum and the one gallon of gin listed in the book!) and her children; jackets, breeches and a hat for Robert, dresses, stays and a bonnet for Ellen, and shoes, clogs and a book each for them. Robert died in February 1795 and he left Dawson Fold to his son John, Daniel having died two weeks before him; he left further property in Witherslack to Frank, an annuity of £6 a year to Elizabeth Townson and £100 each to Frank and the other daughters. Dawson Fold passed down through descendants of the Dickinson family until it was sold in 1980. It was purchased by George Walling, whose family had farmed the farm and occupied part of the house since 1880, and his daughter, Christine, now lives on part of the property. Her great great great grandmother was Ellen Townson, so there is still a descendant of the Dickinsons living at Dawson fold.
The Revd Robert Dickinson only inherited £20 from his father, but that was probably because he was already doing quite well in his career. He also owned a small farm called Arlesbeck (Old House Beck) on Cartmel Fell, which had belonged to his grandfather, Henry Turner, a linen weaver. Henry's widow Margaret, although she had married again, still had an interest in the property and Robert Dickinson did not own it outright until she died in 1803. He continued to own it until his death.
Having finished his time at Queens College, Oxford, Robert Dickinson spent the years between 1794 and 1798 tutoring the son of Lord Hawke at Scarthingwell Hall in Yorkshire and at Portland Place in London. While at Portland Place, he also looked after Berkeley Chapel near Berkeley Square and comments in a 1797 letter to his brother John about the smart people he was able to meet there and his chances of a good marriage:-
"It is a place of worship situated in the best part of London and frequented by many of the first families of nobility and gentry in the kingdom. Probably it may lead me in a little while to preferment; my predecessors in the office have been fortunate. At any rate I shall have a college fellowship shortly. But I am not satisfied with the prospect of a fellowship and if, in the course of the following year, an opportunity should offer itself to me, which is not unlikely, of making an advantageous and favourable match, I shall certainly take this method of raising my fortune. Money in great abundance, to the amount even of £1500 or £2000 a year, I have more than once been able to obtain. But many ingredients are necessary to make a man happy in marriage besides money. Though I must very earnestly advise both you and Frank to follow a rule I mean to observe myself; never to think of marrying a woman without a good fortune."
He obviously followed his own advice as he married twice and died in the south of England in 1847, leaving a fortune of £26,000 which wasn't bad for a younger son from a Lakeland farm. His second wife Charlotte outlived him by 25 years and, as there were no children, the estate was left in trust until she died. His sister Betty's children, from both first and second marriages, were to inherit one fifth of the estate and her son Robert Townson was one of the executors and trustees. Charlotte Dickinson comments in a letter shortly before her death that she is not going to leave anything from her own estate to the Dickinsons and Townsons as they are already well off.
Robert Dickinson took an interest in his Robert Townson's family throughout his life and also relied on his nephew to look after his property at Arlesbeck for him. It was probably through his influence and help that three of his great nephews, John, Robert and William Townson, all went to university and then went into the church. It seems to have been a source of wonder in the area.
Early childhood must have been a difficult time for Robert and Ellen Townson. Only seven when their father died, they also lost a number of their close Dickinson relations in the early 1790s and, in addition, had to contend with the difficulties with the Townson family. It was uncertain also where they and their mother were to live after Thomas's death and in the end it is possible that they went to live at Arlesbeck in early 1795. Robert Dickinson writes to his brother John:-
"Betty is going to Arlesbeck at Mayday. I suppose she means to live there something in the manner of my grandmother at Tarnside. Perhaps she may keep a small cow, but as to any land it is impossible for her to undertake the management of any. Therefore all except the garden, orchard and a small plot at Arlesbeck will be let to some neighbouring farmer. For so small a family as hers much furniture will not be requisite. I think it would be best for her not to be burdened with more care than is necessary. However you and my father will consult about these things and direct all for the best."
This letter was written almost on the day that Robert's father actually died. It would appear that Betty and her children moved to Low in 1797, once the question of the inheritance had been sorted out, and a George Bennett came to look after the farm. He was only 23 and much younger than Betty, but they were married on the 11th December 1797. Robert Dickinson was horrified:-
"You may well conceive that I was greatly surprised and distressed by the disagreeable news received in your last letter. What a miserable, disgraceful, foolish match! Made too under all the most scandalous circumstances imaginable. Your letter reached me on Christmas Day and, at that time, the marriage had not been concluded above a fortnight: and yet you mention her in advance state of pregnancy. Good heavens! She must have been the talk and scandal of the whole neighbourhood. However what's done cannot be undone. I shall say no more of it and I hope to never hear any more of it. She has made her choice and she must take it for better or worse. If a person has not discretion at 35 years old, the remainder of life will promise nothing but folly."
Robert Dickinson continues in this vein for the rest of the letter and in a number of letters afterwards. Betty had a daughter, Isabella Bennett, on the 7th January 1798 and then a severe case of what we would now call post natal depression. She is mentioned as lying in a complete state of madness, but recovered in the end and had one more child, a son George, born on the 23rd November 1802. In the end life returned to normal and George and Betty Bennett were forgiven by the Dickinson family, their children even sharing in Robert Dickinson's estate when it was distributed many years later. George was evidently a good farmer and continued to farm at Low until about 1815, when he moved to another farm in Crosthwaite. He eventually moved to Hincaster near Heversham, where he farmed successfully for a number of years. Betty died there in 1835 and was buried at Crosscrake Chapel on the 11th June. A number of descendants stem from this marriage.
Robert Townson's sister, Ellen, married Robert Martindale at Heversham on the 30th November 1807. He is shown as a stone getter in the 1851 census and this probably means that he was a quarryman at one of the quarries around Whitbarrow Scar, providing stone for the local buildings and field boundaries. Ellen died at Row in 1851.
With his mother and George Bennett living at Low, Robert does not seem to have been keen to start farming on his own account, although he had been confirmed as the customary tenant of Low at the manor court in 1802. At the age of 20, he wanted to get into a clerk's office and Robert Dickinson tried to get him a position in London, Liverpool or Lancaster. A few years later he was described as a tanner of Kendal when he sold one of his fields to his stepfather, George. Eventually when he was nearing 30, he moved back to Low and is described as yeoman of Low when he married Mary Wilson on the 13th May 1819. Mary was the daughter of John and Elizabeth Wilson who lived at the other farm at Low.
Robert and Mary Townson had five children, their only daughter Elizabeth being born in 1820. She never married and lived with her parents all her life, dying at Staveley in 1876. One of the sons, Thomas born in 1828, died unmarried in 1863. Not much is known about Thomas, but he was probably the son who farmed with his father and the one who should have taken on the farm.
The other three Townson sons, John born in 1823, Robert born in 1831 and William born in 1833 were the ones who caused such a stir in the valley. The Park family of South Low had formerly lived at Low Farm and had therefore been neighbours of the Townsons when they lived at Low. Even in the 1980s, they had family memories of the three bright boys who had lived at the farm in the mid 19th century and had gone to university. They talked of the boys reading their books under a tree in the orchard and of the little study that had been built for them at the southern end of the farmhouse. Crosthwaite had been fortunate in having a small grammar school (in earlier times a grammar school meant one where Latin was taught) since the 17th century, long before legislation in the 19th century provided for village schools. The school probably started in the church and then moved to a school room alongside, now the parish room. At the time that the Townson boys started their education, the Revd John Dixon was master of the school and also incumbent of the parish. He, and the Revd Robert Dickinson, were instrumental in preparing John, Robert and William for their further education elsewhere.
The early 19th century was a time of great change in the Lake District and the area, so long isolated and inward looking, started to have greater links with the outside world. The romantic movement of the late 18th century had opened people's eyes to the beauty of the lakes and fells and the general improvement in the country's road system finally reached the northwest. In parallel with this, common land was being enclosed all over the country and this had a huge effect on agriculture, larger farmers being able to improve their efficiency and peasant farmers having no option but to become farm labourers on those larger farms.
The Lyth Valley was drained and enclosed between 1815 and 1820; a neat pattern of rectangular fields, straight roads and ditches taking the place of the soggy mosses, which in the summer had formerly come alive with every kind of farm animal fighting over the bare pasture. Robert Townson was granted three fields near Low, totalling 10 acres, and this meant that he was farming 35 acres when he returned to Low about that time. This seems to have been enough for him to farm profitably, but he may also have had other income. About twenty five years later, in 1842, he writes to his uncle, Robert Dickinson:-
"The present prices of agricultural produce and the productive harvest last year, together with the high value of all kinds of stock upon farms make farming rather profitable for the present time; and probably might continue for some time but for the alteration that is likely to be made to the corn laws. In Kendal we have anti-corn law meetings and petitions to parliament drawn up and hawked about from house to house, both in town and country, for signatures."
In this same letter, Robert Townson touches on another source of income that many southern Lakeland farmers had, coppice wood which could be quite valuable. In earlier times, it had been used in charcoal making for the local iron and gunpowder industries, but now it was used by the bobbin makers who supplied the Lancashire cotton mills. Robert had just sold some coppice wood at Arlesbeck for Robert Dickinson and thanks his uncle for the gift of £100 from the proceeds.
A turnpike road was at long last constructed across the Lyth Valley and beyond in 1818, on the line of the present day A590 between Levens and Greenodd. Connecting with Lyth Lane which ran up the west side of the valley through Low and Dawson Fold to Crosthwaite, this became the preferred route for southerners, or 'lakers' as they were known, to get to Windermere and other fashionable destinations in the Lake District. Soon problems arose and William Pearson, the Crosthwaite writer and friend of Wordsworth, wrote an ironic article for a Kendal newspaper, entitled 'Lyth Lane'. An extract is given here:-
"Then what a change in this hitherto retired lane! Now might be seen passing along, at all hours of the day, the chaise, the gig, the barouche and every fashionable vehicle, to the great delight of the younger part of the natives – more particularly the farmers' daughters, servant girls, etc, who would gaze with wonder and amazement at the unwonted spectacle. What a pleasure to the postilion in his smart cap and yellow jacket, and to the rustic maiden, to see and to be seen. Things might all have been very well; but what begins pleasantly does not always go on so. This poor lane was soon found by the new comers to be inconveniently narrow. What a vexatious thing for an elegant chaise, or a gentleman's carriage, to be jammed into a thorn hedge on one side, and to come into grievous contact with the massy wheels of a vile and vulgar dung cart on the other!"
The lane had to be improved in 1825; Robert Townson, his father-in-law John Wilson, and his relations the Dickinsons all losing land to the widened road. What had annoyed William Pearson was that the cost of the road improvement fell on the inhabitants of Crosthwaite and Lyth who were quite happy with the lane as it had been.
There was another change in the mid 19th century that was to have an effect on the whole of Crosthwaite and Lyth. Up until this time, most of the farms and houses had been individually owned, subject only to the customary rent payable to the Lords of the Manor; none of whom had lived there or been much interested in the lives of their customary tenants. The inhabitants of the valley had to a great extent run their own affairs through bodies such as the manor court. This altered when Thomas Atkinson, member of an old Crosthwaite family, did well in London and started to buy up property in the Lyth valley. He died unmarried in 1850 and his estate came to two nephews, Frank Argles and the Revd Marsham Argles and they continued to buy up the Lyth farms when they could, becoming the major landowners in the valley. They and their descendants were also benefactors, giving money and land to help both the Church and School, and later on the Memorial Hall. They are chiefly remembered for their financial help when the church was rebuilt, after Crosthwaite and Lyth became a separate ecclesiastical parish in 1869.
Low Farm, formerly owned by the Wilson family, was already part of the Argles' estate and Robert Townson sold South Low to them in the 1860s. In the 1861 census, he is still living at Low with his wife Mary, son Thomas and daughter Elizabeth, and a farm worker and an indoor servant. He describes himself as a landed proprietor and yeoman, 75 years of age, and he probably looked forward to passing on the responsibility of the farm to his son, Thomas. Thomas died in 1863, however, and this no doubt influenced him in selling to the Argles, as it was unlikely that any of his other three sons would be interested in coming back to the farm.
Robert Townson moved to Raven Bank, Staveley, where he died on the 23rd July 1873 aged 86. There is a short obituary to him in the Westmorland Gazette which mentions that he was one of the last surviving officers of the old Westmorland Militia. Elizabeth Townson died on the 15th November 1876, followed by her mother, Mary Townson, three days later on the 18th November 1876. They are all buried at Crosthwaite and there are memorials to them at the eastern end of the churchyard, behind the Punchbowl Inn. Robert Townson left a life interest in his estate to his wife and daughter and then it was to be divided between his three surviving sons, John, Robert and William.
The Trotter family were the first tenants to occupy South Low after the Townsons moved and they were followed by the Park family, who had been farming at Low Farm. The Parks lived at South Low until the 1990s buying it from the Argles in the 1920s. The present owners are John and Jean Sceal and they are restoring the house.
Considering the amount of information that has survived about the Townson and Dickinson families, it is strange that it has been so difficult to find out anything about the Wilsons of Low, the family that Robert Townson's wife, Mary, came from. There seem to be very few wills or inventories, deeds or early papers surviving and, although it is possible to put together a tentative family tree from parish registers and manorial records, this is very limited. Wilson is a very common name in the Westmorland area and it is difficult to see which families might be related.
It would appear that the Wilson family were at Low (now Low Farm) as early as the mid 17th century, as they are mentioned in the parish registers and a widow Wilson of Low is shown in the 1669 Crosthwaite chapel seating plan. A Thomas and Mary Wilson were living at Low in the early 18th century and he is shown from the manorial records to have taken it over in 1705 by agreement with his father. He died on the 18th October 1723 and there is an inventory, but no will, at Preston. His son John was probably underage at the time of his death, as he didn't present himself to the manor court until 1730, when he was confirmed as the customary tenant of Low at the rent of six shillings and ten pence. He died in 1789 and was buried on the 20th March at Crosthwaite.
It is not known when or where the next John Wilson was born, but it would have been 1754 or 1755 from the age given when he died. There is a portrait supposedly of him as a child, although it is difficult to equate the silks and satins in which he is dressed with the robust and practical house at Low. This portrait, originally thought to be by George Romney but now thought to be by his teacher Christopher Steele, passed down through the family until being sold by John Strover Townson in the 1940s. John Wilson appeared before the manor court in 1789 as the only son and heir of his father, John Wilson, and was confirmed as customary tenant of Low at the rent of six shillings and ten pence; also of the other property at Low, formerly Dorothy Atkinsons at a rent of five shillings. This had been taken over by his father in 1766. John Wilson would have been farming about 40 to 50 acres at this time and he was granted a further 24 acres in 1815, when the Lyth Valley was enclosed.
John Wilson married Elizabeth Burton, daughter of George Burton of Kendal, at Heversham on the 4th August, 1783. Their first daughter, Ellen, born in 1784 died at the age of ten in 1794. They had no sons, but three other daughters, Betsy born in 1796, Mary born in 1797 and Jane born in 1801. It was Mary who was to marry Robert Townson in 1819.
There is very little other information about John Wilson. The Revd Robert Dickinson refers to him occasionally in his letters and asks once or twice whether he farms his own land at Low. He is referred to in an 1829 Westmorland Directory as a yeoman of Low and he is given a notice in the Westmorland Gazette after his death in 1840:-
"On Wednesday the 1st April at Low in Lyth at the advanced age of 85 years, Mr John Wilson yeoman. Mr Wilson was greatly respected in his sphere of life and deeply regretted by a large circle of friends and relatives."
He was buried at Crosthwaite and his simple will left everything to his wife, Elizabeth, for life and then it was to be left to his three surviving daughters in equal shares. Low Farm was sold in 1840 and Elizabeth Wilson came to live with the Townsons next door. She died during the 1840s.
Robert and Mary Townsons' first son, John, was baptised at Crosthwaite on the 2nd September 1823 and started his education at the Crosthwaite School. After a time at the bigger grammar school at Heversham, he went on to Sedbergh where he got a scholarship to University College, Durham. He graduated with a second class honours degree in classics in 1845 and became a Fellow of the University in 1847. He was ordained at this time and became curate of Warminster in Wiltshire for a number of years, before moving to Dorchester. He became Rector of Strensham, Worcestershire, in 1862; a living he held until his retirement in 1907, when he was presented with a large silver tray by his parishioners in honour of his care of them over such a long time. He appears to have written a number of religious works, but none of these seem to have survived.
The Revd John Townson married Agnes Hodgson, the daughter of Jonathan and Elizabeth Hodgson, both deceased, at Kendal in December 1862. Agnes was a person of some property indicated by the marriage settlement enacted just before the wedding. Apart from holding a number of mortgages, including one for £450 on Townend at Troutbeck, she owned three small farms at Underbarrow in the Lyth Valley, Beckside, Lindeth Brow and Gillbank Spout. They had only one child, a daughter Mary Agnes Croft Townson (known as May), who was baptised on the 23rd September 1865 at Strensham. It would seem that the couple kept their links with Westmorland and visited the area frequently, to see family and to manage their property. John Townson would have liked a local living and applied unsuccessfully for the incumbency of Crosthwaite and Lyth in 1862 when it became vacant after John Dixon's death.
It is not known when Agnes Townson died, but she predeceased her husband who died on the 17th July 1910. He was living in Malvern at the time of his death. Apart from a few bequests to servants and some items for the church at Crosthwaite, he left his whole estate to his daughter May. She died unmarried at St Leonards on Sea in Sussex on the 8th December 1926. She left her estate, including the farms at Underbarrow, to be shared between the grandchildren of her two uncles, Robert and William Townson. It was from her that John Strover Townson, the young son of her cousin George Harrison Townson, inherited the John Wilson portrait.
For some reason, Robert Townson was not born at Low, but born in Kendal on the 3rd August 1831 and baptised there on the 3rd October; not the best year to be in the town as there was a terrible outbreak of cholera there during the summer. Schooling at Heversham and Sedbergh was followed by four years at Queen's College, Oxford, the college of his great uncle, the Revd Robert Dickinson. He was ordained on leaving Oxford in 1855 and taught for a while at Rossall School in Lancashire. After his marriage in 1859 he filled in for a short while as head of Lowther School, near Penrith, but was said to be incapable of keeping order and anxious to escape the job! He exchanged with the curate of the local church at Askham, before becoming curate of the remote parish of Grayrigg, Westmorland in 1860. After six years at Grayrigg, the family moved to Allithwaite, a township in the parish of Cartmel, where he was curate for sixteen years to 1882. A move from the North West followed when he became rector of Gedding in Suffolk for a couple of years. It is unclear where he was between 1884 and 1891, but in that year he became vicar of Moulsford, Berkshire until 1894 from where he retired eventually to Sussex.
The Revd Robert Townson married Margaret Cowper, daughter of James Swainson Cowper of Hawkshead, at Cartmel Priory on the 6th January 1859. The Cowpers were a local family owning land near Ulverston and Hawkshead and Margaret's grandfather, Thomas Cowper, had been the 'guide over the sands' in the Leven estuary between Cartmel and Ulverston. This hazardous post, daily marking a safe route across the river and around the quicksands, had passed through the family for hundreds of years. Margaret's father, James, had not wanted the job and ran away to sea as a ship's carpenter to seek his fortune. He came back apparently as master of the ship and, in 1831, also inherited property and land from his mother. His main fortune originated from a relation on his mother's side of the family, Isaac Swainson, who had bought the rights to a patent medicine called 'Velnos Vegetable Syrup' in about 1775. This was immensely popular and made Isaac and his niece Margaret, who carried on the business after his death, a great deal of money. This came eventually by inheritance to James who, although living in the south of England, bought up a lot of land and property in the Hawkshead area. He died in 1878 leaving two sons and two daughters, one of them being Margaret Townson who benefited from his will.
As shown on the family tree, Robert and Margaret Townson had ten children born at Askham, Grayrigg or Allithwaite, of whom two died in childhood and possibly a third, Leonard, as nothing more is known of him. It is known that at least three of the sons, Robert Walter, John Henry and Frederick Cowper went into the church. Robert Townson would apparently have had little time for any of his sons who didn't go into the church so this must have pleased him, as would the fact that one of his daughters, Charlotte Elizabeth, married a clergyman. Unusually one of his sons, John Henry, and two of his daughters, Charlotte Elizabeth and Emily Margaret, married into same family, a daughter and two sons of Charles Curtis of Stroud, Gloucestershire. Of the other children, Mary Alice did not marry and Frederick Cowper married, but the marriage was annulled. Little is known of the eldest son, Charles James, or whether he married, but it is known that he spent a year at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester and that he was still living at the time of his father's death in 1914.
The second son, Robert Walter Townson (known as Bertie), seems to have been something of a character. He was educated at Rossall School and then went to St John's College, Oxford, gaining his BA in 1889. After ordination and peripatetic years as a curate, he became vicar of Headington, Oxford in 1899. Although he was at Headington for some fifteen years, his time there was not without controversy as he was an extreme Anglo-catholic. It was said that 'he raised the churchmanship to unknown levels and alienated most of the congregation in the process', bringing him into conflict with the Bishop of Oxford. Whether it was this or whether it was the fact that he left his wife for a helper in the SPCK bookshop is not known, but his ministry at Headington came to an abrupt end in 1916. He had married Gertrude Annie Poland at Littlehampton, Sussex in 1893 and they had three daughters, Dorothy, Joyce and Stella. After he left home, he lived with Daisy Wilson until they were able to marry on Gertrude's death in 1930. They farmed in Gloucestershire, Bertie having also spent a year at the Royal Agricultural College. One thing that is remembered in the family is that Bertie had to go to America as a young man to extract one of his brothers from some sort of trouble there; which brother it was is not known.
It would appear that there were not a lot of children in the next generation. May Townson, daughter of the Revd John Townson, lists probably all of them in her will of 1926. Bertie Townson had his three daughters, Dorothy, Joyce and Stella; Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis had one son, Wilfred; and John Henry Townson had a son and daughter, Robert and Marjorie. In addition Frederick Cowper Townson had an adopted daughter, Gwendolen, but she is not mentioned in the will. Robert, an estate agent in Guildford, was possible the only one in this generation who could pass on the name Townson and it is not thought that he had any children. None are mentioned in his will when he died in 1971, a widower.
The Revd Robert Townson died at St Leonards on Sea on the 9th February 1914 and is buried in Hastings Cemetery. In common with his two brothers, John and William, he seems to have been comfortably off at the time of his death and his family well established in middle class occupations. Going into the church in the 19th century was obviously the route to social advancement and an advantageous marriage, advice given by the Revd Robert Dickinson in the previous generation. Robert's four sons were executors (no mention of Leonard), pictures and books were to be divided between all the children and the furniture between Mary Alice and Charles James. The total estate was about £11,000.
The youngest son of the family, William Townson, was born at Low and baptised at Crosthwaite on the 22nd September 1833. He does not seem to have gone to Sedbergh like his brothers, but went straight from Heversham Grammar School to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he arrived in 1852 as a sizar (someone who receives financial assistance from the college). He gained an honours degree in mathematics and graduated in 1856.
Ordained Deacon in 1859 and Priest in 1860, William Townson spent twelve years in parishes around the country as a curate. The Victorian curate is something of a joke in literature; hard working, ill paid and rather put upon by the incumbent of the parish and his family. It is however easy to see how someone like William, without influence or financial backing from his family, would find it difficult to find someone to offer him a satisfactory parish of his own. His first curacy was at Mumby on the Lincolnshire coast and he then went for three years to Ulverston, not far from the Lyth Valley; a spell as his brother John's curate at Strensham was followed by another two years in the Lake District at Applethwaite on Lake Windermere; and a time in Liverpool was followed by two years at Belgrave, just to the North of Leicester. From references written at the time of his application for the post of Chaplain to the West Riding Lunatic asylum (he didn't get the job!), he appears to have been well thought of. This is from the Archdeacon of Liverpool:-
"The Revd William Townson, formerly my curate at this place, having applied to me for testimonials of character and ministerial qualifications, with a view to his applying for some ecclesiastical preferment, I have great satisfaction in stating that I consider him to be a truly excellent man in all respects – sound in doctrine – faithful in preaching – kind and conciliatory in his disposition – and truly amiable in his temper. I always found him most obliging and willing to fall in with my arrangements.
His voice is strong and powerful – and his reading of the prayers devout and reverential. He is well informed on almost all subjects and is considered to be able in conversation. I need scarcely add that his resignation, consequent upon an illness from which he is now happily recovered, was a subject of general regret."
While he was at Belgrave, William Townson met his future wife, Sarah Harrison, who had been brought up by her Uncle Isaac Harrison in Leicester. The Harrisons had started as farmers in the Leicester area and had also become nurserymen and maltsters to serve the increasing population of the town. It was said that Isaac Harrison had at one time kept a fruit and vegetable stall in the market and spoke with a broad Leicestershire accent. By the time of the 1851 census however, he was listed as a landowner and maltster occupying 400 acres and employing 29 men. When he died in 1855, he left his substantial property to Sarah's brothers and, as this was between Leicester and Belgrave, they benefited from the Victorian expansion of Leicester becoming gentlemen of means.
Sarah Harrison herself had been born in 1833, one of the daughters of William and Sarah Harrison of Belgrave Gate, Leicester. He was also a maltster and owned two inns in Leicester, the Red Lion and the Crown and Cushion, as well as a number of houses. He died in December 1835, his wife having predeceased him, and left his estate to be divided between his five children. Sarah and William Townson were married on the 28th July 1868 at St Margarets, Leicester, and moved immediately to Yorkshire where he was again a curate at Wakefield. They had their first child, Mary Elizabeth (known as Lizzie), at Wakefield in 1869.
William and Sarah were shortly back in Leicestershire, as he became Rector of Carlton at the end of 1869. Carlton is a small village in flat countryside between Leicester and Tamworth and William was to stay there as Rector until 1904. There was no Rectory when they arrived and they stayed in a wing of Measham Hall nearby until the new Rectory was built. This substantial red brick house was finished by the end of 1872 and their bill for curtains, carpets and other furnishings survives. Amongst other items, they spent £35 on ten mahogany dining chairs, £7 for a hunting chair and £10 on a second hand mahogany dining table. William seems to have become the epitome of the Victorian parson, looking after his small flock of parishioners and doing the social round of the neighbourhood. It was felt by other members of the family that he had possibly wasted his intellectual gifts and his education.
A son, George Harrison Townson, was born at Carlton on the 1st April 1875 and this completed their family. Very little is known about the childhood of Lizzie and George, except that they benefited from their Uncle George Harrison's estate when he died in 1881. They each inherited a number of newly developed houses in Leicester and George also inherited the Milkmaid Inn in the town, which was not much good to him at the age of six! The will was challenged by another uncle, Isaac, and the case went to court. There seems to have been no ill feeling over this, as when Isaac died a rich man in 1887, he left William Townson as trustee to his children.
Lizzie Townson seems to have been what her father called 'difficult to please'. In around 1902 she married Dr George Merriman Hirons of Bournemouth, a man seventeen years older than herself, and William Townson was not happy with the marriage. Whatever the problems with the marriage, George Hirons was a leading citizen of Bournemouth at a time when the town was expanding fast. He came to the town as Medical Officer of Health, was a JP, mayor and on numerous committees. When he died in 1927, there were many obituaries and the town mourned him. Lizzie unfortunately went senile after his death and had to be looked after by nurses for the rest of her life, with her brother George looking after her financial affairs. She died on the 19th September 1938.
George Townson was given a tremendous party in 1896 to celebrate his coming of age and this was covered in the local newspaper. All the parishioners were invited and, the children having been given tea, about 200 adults sat down to a supper of roast beef, veal and ham, being entertained by a brass band all the while. A 'limited' amount of beer and tobacco was distributed during the evening! After a hearty vote of thanks was raised for William and Sarah Townson, the party broke up at about 10.30. Shortly after this coming of age party, George went to military tutors in Germany as he had decided to go into the army. His mother Sarah Townson died on the 18th March 1898 and William Townson was left at the Carlton Rectory, being looked after by three servants and his daughter Lizzie when she was at home.
In 1900, George Townson left for India as a Lieutenant in the South Staffordshire Regiment. There is a splendid album of photos of his time there; showing the officers in their quarters, in their tents while guarding Boer prisoners of war and on the move. There are also photos of a number of the well known sights in India. It was fortunate that he was able to travel around in his short time there, as he was invalided back to England in March 1902 suffering from fever and the effects of the climate. He resigned his commission shortly afterwards, perhaps because he wished to get married (his acceptance into the army had required him to be unmarried).
Violet Beatrice Birkin was one of the two daughters of a Nottingham Lace Manufacturer. Both parents having died while they were young, they were living with their Aunt, Rebecca Strover, in a village near Nottingham when George met them in 1902. George and Violet became engaged that August, but were not able to marry until January 1904 when they had planned for their future. Early that year, they and the Revd William Townson rented the Manor House, Barrow on Trent, a substantial country house with 250 acres of land not far from Carlton. William Townson resigned the living at Carlton to be succeeded by his nephew, John Henry Townson, one of Robert Townson's parson sons.
George intended to farm on a grander scale than his Westmorland forebears had in the Lyth Valley. By the end of 1904 he had had a good harvest and had 80 beef cattle on the farm, as well as 160 sheep and 10 horses. A new water supply was laid in and other improvements were being made. Sadly all this was to come to nothing as William Townson died on the 2nd January 1906 and George and Violet gave up the farm a short while later. Although George had been left a comfortable inheritance, it perhaps wasn't enough to finance farming on that sort of scale. William Townson was buried next to his wife Sarah in the Carlton churchyard.
In 1908, George and Violet were living at Measham House and George had started a garage in Ashby de la Zouch nearby, selling and repairing cars and supplying everything that the pioneer motorist needed. He also had a taxi service and a primitive open topped charabanc which was used for outings. He was obviously a useful man when the First World War broke out and, although nearing forty, he rejoined the army in October 1914 with the rank of Captain. He was in the Army Service Corps and, after a short spell overseas, came back to help run the Mechanical Transport Training Corps at Osterley near London. He was a Major by the time of his demobilisation in 1920. After the war, he continued to work in the London motor trade from time to time, but also had a smallholding at Renhold near Bedford. He seems to have had sufficient income to do as he pleased. George and Violet's final move was to another smallholding near Romsey in Hampshire where they lived for some years. For some reason, George suddenly decided to go and live in lodgings on the Isle of Wight in 1949 where he died on the 29th November that year. He is buried on the Isle of Wight. Violet went to live with her son and daughter in law at Fareham in Hampshire and died eighteen months later on the 17th June 1951.
George and Violet had two children, Faith Mary Townson born on the 25th December 1913 and John Strover Townson born on the 19th October 1918. They were both educated at Bedford. Faith married Frederick Spencer Chapman (known as Freddy), the explorer, mountaineer and author, just after the Second World War. He had been brought up at Lindale near Cartmel and had a great love of the Lake District, but ironically Faith, who did not realise that her own family originated from that part of the country, did not like 'the Frozen North'. It was only after Freddy had died in 1971 that she came to know about the Townson family history. Freddy and Faith had three sons, Nicholas, Stephen and Christopher. She died in 2003.
John Strover Townson (known as Jack) went straight into the Royal Navy after leaving school and served as a navigating officer on a number of ships through the war. He also had two spells of special service, one being part of the operation that reconnoitred enemy beaches in the Mediterranean prior to Allied invasion. Jack continued to serve in the navy until 1960, when he retired with the rank of Commander to farm at Hatch Beauchamp in Somerset where he died in 1967. He married Anne Blanche Sykes in 1946 and they had two children, John and Jane. John continues to run the family farm at Hatch Beauchamp. After Jack's death, Anne married another naval officer, Commander Barry Nation, and she died in 1995.
It has been interesting to chronicle this branch of the Townson family through more than 300 years and to see how, for 200 years, they remained self contained and more or less self sufficient at Low in the Lyth Valley…
Acknowledgments - awaited.