Haverthwaite - A Potted History

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Haverthwaite by Ronald Mein

photo of the Blue Mills in production around 1977 by Ron Mein

Haverthwaite - Origins

The word "thwaite" is old Norse and usually refers to a clearing or settlement in the forest and many villages in the area derive their names from former Viking Settlements. Haverthwaite, Nibthwaite, Saterthwaite & Finsthwaite being typical examples of this.

Viking Beginnings

The Vikings settled this area after establishing themselves in Ireland and by this time, contrary to popular belief, were in the main farmers. But there is no doubt that Haverthwaite's origins go back much further than this. The river Leven is tidal almost to a point opposite the cemetery and in view of there being Roman Forts as close as Ambleside it is quite possible that the river would have been used to transport goods using a simple series of locks taking them up the Leven to Windermere (from where the Leven flows) and then on to the forts. However this is no more than an educated guess.
What is certain is that before 1790 Isaac Wilkinson the father of John Wilkinson had an Iron furnace on the site at Lowwood, Haverthwaite. The main product of the furnaces was cannon and cannon shot. The Wilkinson's were local Iron Masters and here Haverthwaite has a significant historical connection with the Midlands as John Wilkinson was the famous Iron Master who built the first iron Ship and the famous iron bridge at Iron Bridge.
The furnace at Backbarrow is we understand the only survivor of its type and is protected as an ancient monument.
Iron Ore was brought by boat from the mines in Low Furness these boats having been designed with flat bottoms to allow shallow draft in the tidal waters and rivers. They were constructed of wood, known as Flatties and had a single sail; this made them perfectly suited to run up and down the Leven. In those days the bridge over the Leven was about 150 yards further up the river at Croasdale's yard. The bridge was constructed of wood with the centre supports of the bridge resting on an island in the river, aptly called Ford Island, and this island with the raised road across the centre still exists today.

The quays for ships to dock were then on the Lowwood side of the river just above the present stone bridge which was constructed around 1829. Once the present bridge had been constructed quays appeared on both sides of the river remnants of which can be seen on the King George's Playing Field at the river bank.

The furnace at Backbarrow was supplied from 1711 with iron ore from low Furness which would have arrived at the quays in Haverthwaite and been transported to Backbarrow by horse and cart. If you take the trouble to look and take care in doing so, at the old sites of the quays you can still see the red iron ore if you pull back the grass which overgrows it and if you know where to look on the current playing fields you can see the raised cart track along the edge of the field. In 1860 the Furness Railway opened its branch line that ran from Ulverston to Lakeside and almost overnight the quays fell into disuse. However, it is recorded that ships came into the quays as late as 1914 and the old boat house on the quay was still standing in the 1930's.

The Village

Haverthwaite village almost certainly would have housed the workers for the various industries that have been in the area for centuries. The village was built on the higher ground because hundreds of years ago Haverthwaite mosses and the playing fields were under water at each tide, even today this is still a flood plain for the river and in times of heavy rain and high tides the fields close to the river flood. We should be aware that before the 15th century the walls of most buildings were constructed of wattle and daub, woven twigs and sticks covered in mud and cow or horse dung, or bails of straw treated in the same way and the roof was usually thatch. Stone, brick and slate were only used for very important buildings. Today's buildings will therefore have been built on the same site as much older buildings dating back many hundreds of years, now lost in the mists of time.

Haverthwaite at one time boasted a brewery in the buildings now known as Woodside cottage, a Blacksmith's Shop which was halfway up Smithy Hill and a very large farm which in the 1940's was farmed by a family called Robinson. Men worked in the woodland industries providing materials for the furnaces and the gunpowder works and there were many workshops in the village producing besoms and swills. Besoms are hazel brooms for sweeping and swills were woven baskets made from split oak spelks, quite a skilled job and hard work.


Perhaps the most famous industry remembered in the area is the Gunpowder works at Low Wood which opened in 1798 and continued production right up until 1935. Naturally the manufacture of gunpowder was a very dangerous business and there are seven recorded fatal accidents at Lowwood in which twenty one men were killed, the number seriously injured is not recorded but we can assume that it was much larger.

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