A Brief History of Kirkby-in-Furness


The Domesday Book refers to this area as ‘Cherchebei’, which means ‘Village by the Church’. Although our knowledge of the area is of more recent times, i.e. from the 12th Century when the Abbots of Furness commanded the area, it would appear that there was life here before then. There are the remains of a stone circle on the fell side above the hamlet of Beckside and some of the place names and local expressions are of Viking origins from the C9 & C10.

1577 map of Kirkby by Christopher Saxton
1577 Christopher Saxton
1786 Yates Map of Kirkby in Furness.
1778 Cary (First to show roads & first mention of Beckside Chapel)

The Parish

Kirkby in Furness, map of old parish of Kirkby Ireleth.
Map of the Parish of Kirkby Ireleth, now Kirkby in Furness

The old Parish of Kirkby Ireleth was “bounded on the southwest by that of Dalton, on the west and north by the river Duddon, and on the east by the parish of Ulverston. It stretched from the Duddon Sands to the source of the Duddon, under Wrynose Mountain, a distance of about sixteen miles. It averages about three and a half miles in breadth. The area is computed at thirty five thousand statute acres and commands stunning views to the Lake District in the north and sea views to the south.”

Although the Civil Parish is still Kirkby Ireleth, the area is now known as Kirkby-in-Furness. Once part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and then Lancashire the boundary changes of 1973 placed it in the new county of Cumbria. When in Lancashire local government was accessed by offices in Ulverston but now the nearest point of contact is Kendal.

Kirkby Ireleth is made up of a number of hamlets and small villages. At the northern end in the area of Heathwaite are signs of habitation from Stone age through to the 20th century. The hamlet of Woodland has its own small church and village hall to serve the dwelling houses and farms.

The settlements of Grizebeck, Dove Ford, Chapels, Marsh Side (built in the nineteenth century by Burlington Quarry owners), Wallend, Sandside, Soutergate, Beckside and Four Lane Ends form a long narrow loop of living areas, with settlements on the outer areas of Mere Beck, Pear Tree, Gargreave, Ghyll End and various ‘Grounds’.

St. Cuthbert’s

Kirkby in Furness, St Cuthbert's Church 1906 ish
Kirkby in Furness, St Cuthbert's Church 1906 ish

The parish church is that of St. Cuthbert, and although ‘renovated’ in the late nineteenth century it still retains its Norman arched doorway. It recently celebrated eight hundred years of Christian worship.

It had a daughter church, The Church of the Good Shepherd, at Grizebeck, sadly this has now closed and been house converted. Non-Conformist establishments appeared with the influx of workers to the quarries in the nineteenth century and there is now a Methodist Church and a Church of Christ which are both well supported. There was also a Gospel Hall in Sandside but this too has now closed and been house converted. There is good ecumenical co-operation between these Churches.

Kirkby Hall

Kirkby Hall or Cross House
Kirkby Hall. Parts from the 13th Century

Kirkby Hall, once the residence of the Kirkby family, is still a working farm. They owned much of the land in the area from the twelfth century through to the eighteenth century when it eventually came in to the ownership of the Cavendish family. It remains so to this day.

The Kirkby family have played a major role in local and national politics. John Kirkby, b circa 1204, became a judge on the Kings Bench and a Baron of the Exchequer. Richard Kirkby, b circa 1624 was Governor of Chester Castle and the family provided Sheriffs of Lancashire, Justices of the Peace etc. William Kirkby of Ashlack, a younger son b circa 1627, oversaw the comings and goings of the coastal vessels on behalf of the King, from Carlisle, down the coast as far as Chester. At one time the family seem to have had the area ‘ring-fenced’ by ownership of properties. Eventually the family fell into ‘disgrace’ by supporting the losing side during the Civil War but they hung on to their property. The Kirkby family were also active in the persecution of the Quakers and attempted to sequestrate the lands of Margaret Fell, a neighbour, and founder member of the Quaker movement, who was born at Marsh Grange on the southern edge of the Parish.

Kirkby Hall is an outstanding house with large, round, chimneys. It has a small chapel in its roof space, dating from the years of religious persecution or earlier. There is a long driveway from the road where it seems there was a cross where the market was held. Today it would be impossible to hold such an event in that place due to the volume of traffic passing by.


Kirkby in Furness, Graham Armistead harrowing, aged 14
Kirkby in Furness, Horse drawn harrowing
Kirkby in Furness, Burlington slate quarry workings.
Kirkby in Furness, Burlington slate quarry workings in one of the biggest holes in the UK.

Until the mid to late nineteenth century much of Kirkby’s industry was in farming. There is evidence of a small port on the coastline and some of the inhabitants of the village are listed as ‘mariner’ There were public houses and ‘beer houses’ where people eked out their income by making and selling beer from their homes. Other goods such as tobacco, sweets and groceries were also sold and trades such as tailor, clog and shoe maker, blacksmith, miller etc., were carried on. Three public houses survive – namely The Greyhound Inn at Grizebeck, The Commercial Inn at Four Lane Ends and The Ship Inn at Askewgate/Sandside.

The Quarries at Kirkby produce strong, blue-grey slate and many houses and roofs are clad with it. As the Quarry expanded – boasting the largest man-made hole in Europe – and iron ore mines were excavated in other parts of Furness, the occupations of the inhabitants began to change. There was an influx of workers from other parts of the United Kingdom. It was a hard life. The miners walked by the various footpaths to the mines at Roanhead near Askam. They returned home in the evening to work on their garden to provide food for their families. Agricultural workers often worked on the land in the summer months and at the Quarries during winter. Food was also obtained from fishing and cockling. When times were really hard they had recourse, in C19, to the ‘Select Vestry Committee’ who administered the poor relief.

From 1841-1881 the three main sources of employment were agriculture, slate quarrying and iron ore mining. There were also some small businesses employing a few people. A survey taken today would probably show that only two of the old industries remain to any great extent – that of agriculture and slate. The slate was initially brought down from the quarry by sledge or horse and cart – later there was a small tramway – loaded on to flat bottomed barges and transported by sea, round the coast line or carted to Ulverston for transportation via the canal. It is still in the ownership of the Cavendish Family (trading as Holker Estates), who also own some of the local farms and a large mobile home site.

With the advent of the railway in 1846 the slate was loaded on to wagons and then taken to Piel Pier on Roa Island in the early days of the railway and latterly to Barrow in Furness to be shipped out to other ports. Business was good – a Reading Room was created in Marshside and the Non-Conformist Chapels were built. The Gospel Hall being built about 1916. The Churches were very active. A Temperance League, Girls’ Friendly Society, Male Voice Choir and a Brass Band, alongside the Sporting activities, were formed. The original Police Station was at Beckside, then latterly on the A595 at the junction with Nuttery Lane. This property is now in private ownership and the nearest part-time police station is at Dalton-in-Furness.

Co-operative Society

Kirkby in Furness, New Co-op opened 1864 and shop on far left in 1904.
Kirkby in Furness, The new Co-op double gabled part opened 1864 and additional shop on far left opened 1904.

A group of forward looking men decided to form a Co-operative in 1861. This was housed in a cottage at Sandside and soon expanded into a larger purpose built store. Houses were built and let to the employees. A few farms were bought and a house provided for a resident doctor. The houses and farms are now in private ownership. The ‘Co-op’ also held a children’s sports day every year. A Horticultural Society was formed in 1890 and still holds an annual show. This used to be held in The Burlington School but is now held in the Methodist Church Hall in Marshside.


Kirkby in Furness, 1902 Burlington School, built 1877.
Kirkby in Furness, 1902 Burlington School, built 1877 with staff in the front yard.

In the very early days, children were educated at Beckside School initially by the local Clergyman, and then by an appointed Master or Mistress. There is evidence of another school on the ‘High Ground’ above the village. There was a ‘Dame School’ briefly at Townfield on the edges of Sandside and Soutergate. In the nineteenth century a school opened at Grizebeck, and then The Burlington School was built in 1877. Beckside School became the village hall and remains so today. The children attended The Burlington School from five to fourteen years of age. After the Education Act of 1944 Secondary Education was available at Ulverston Grammar School or Dowdales School, Dalton-in-Furness.

The Burlington School is the Primary School, Grizebeck School having closed in the 1980’s. Secondary children attend Dowdales School, Dalton, Ulverston Victoria, Ulverston, or John Ruskin School, Coniston. Some children travel to the Catholic Schools or Private Schools in Barrow. Very young pre-school children are catered for by ‘The Little Acorns’ group which meets at the Community Centre, Beckside.


Kirkby in Furness, Mill, Post Card dated 1904
Kirkby in Furness, Mill, Post Card dated 1904. Mathew Stables in the Straw Boater and William Johnson
Kirkby in Furness, Blacksmith, Soutergate, shoeing a horse.
Kirkby in Furness, Blacksmith, Soutergate, shoeing a horse. Tommy Coward standing in left foreground.
Kirkby in Furness, Moorland Stores and Cafe 1950 ish
Kirkby in Furness, Moorland Cafe and Stores late 50's from Margaret Anne Southward
Kirkby in Furness Community Centre.
Drone photo of Kirkby in Furness Community Centre post extension and updating.

Electricity was provided in the 1920’s, but no gas, except for the station and one or two houses, until the 1980’s. A few people had their own generators. The provision of electricity must have made a great difference to peoples’ lives. However, the countryside was marred somewhat by the overhead cables and pylons which are still in place today.

Because of its isolation the people of Kirkby had to be self-sufficient. Small shops were opened by local people selling various goods. ‘Kirkby Potatoes’ were well known over the whole of Furness. As rail travel grew more popular, and latterly vehicle ownership, local people were able to travel further afield to work. ‘K’ Shoes opened in the area and provided more diverse employment for women as well as men. Vickers Armstrong Shipyard & Engineering Works in Barrow now BAE Systems (Submarines) became more accessible together with other industries. Taking advantage of the ‘New Prosperity’ cottages were modernised and living conditions improved. However, the local industries such as the mill and the blacksmiths closed down and the properties converted into private dwellings. Ease of travel, though, also brought in people who wanted to live in the countryside.

At the time of writing January 2024 the Co-operative Store closed in 1979, and until recently, the village was served by a General Store and Post Office (Moorlands) at Four Lane Ends. This store is currently closed and Post Office services are provided in the Community Centre in Beckside on Thursday mornings 10am to midday and at Grizebeck filling station on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 09.30 to12.30. In addition to this filling station there is also a garage (Moorlands Service Station) repairing, servicing, buying and selling vehicles. Light industry includes a panel beating workshop, a joiner’s shop and a stonemason’s. One farmer has diversified and opened boarding kennels, and there are various gardening services. There are local plumbers and builders and recently a publisher of educational books has been established. The doctors’ surgery is still functioning now as a modern health centre and the railway station is used regularly for journeys to Barrow and further afield. There is also a local bus service with free transport to local supermarkets.

A large mobile home site, owned by Holker Estates, is situated below the quarries. There is also a wind farm owned by National Windpower on the northern slopes of Kirkby Moor.

Housing, to all intents and purposes, has changed very little over the years. Some cottages were pronounced unfit for habitation in the fifties and the people were housed in prefabs built alongside Marshside. These have now been replaced by a small estate of privately owned bungalows and called Marsh Garth.

A small estate of council houses and bungalows was built in the late 1960s along and just off the A595. Many of these are now privately owned. Another estate of thirteen bungalows was built in the 1970s and in the 1980s some barns in Beckside were demolished and six houses built. A small estate of bungalows was also built at Wallend. Some farmers have converted their barns into living accommodation and ironically there are as many people living close to the farms as once were when farmers employed many workers. Other properties have been built as ‘infill’ to maintain a sympathetic approach to development. In spite of all of these changes the population of the area has been maintained at about twelve hundred people. However a new development of 47 houses and bungalows is now being built next to the Burlington School on the A595.

There is a Ladies’ Supper Club, Ladies Guild and History Group, who all meet in the recently upgraded Community Centre as does the Parish Council. The Parochial Church Council continues to meet in Beckside Rooms. An over 55s Luncheon Club meets at the Ship Inn and a Photographic and Book Club in the Commercial Inn.

There is also a First Responders Group which meets in the Methodist Church Hall in Marshside. Other events are also held in these venues but due to the narrow road in Beckside parking is an ongoing problem. The Hospice Support Group holds events at different venues in the village. A Community Hall was built in Grizebeck in the 1920’s which has recently been replaced with a brand new and much improved building. Events such as Whist Drives, Dances and the Flower Guild meetings take place there. Woodland also has a small hall for local events.

The Community Centre below Beckside was built in the early 1970s but has now been modernised and much upgraded to be a virtually new building with state of the art facilities including wi-fi. This has reasonable parking facilities, and from being essentially a Sports Pavilion has now become a much used hub for village activities. Cricket and Football are played here. There is an attractive play area for children, a ‘Trim Trail’ round the field, a bowling green and two hard tennis courts which are also marked out for Basketball, Hockey etc. Visiting teams always admire the open aspect of this area as it looks down the coast to the Irish Sea and is overlooked by the clock tower of St. Cuthbert’s Church.

Further information of these groups and others can be found in the Parish Calendar or on the Kirkby-in-Furness web-site at http://www.kirkby-in-furness.org/, the Community Centre web site at https://www.kirkbycommunitycentre.co.uk/, and the History Group at the Kirkby Ireleth Parish Council Website https://kirkbyirelethpc.org.uk/history-group/

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