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Wapentake and Petty Sessional Division of West Hang - Electoral Division of Middleham - Poor Law Union and County Court District of Leyburn - Rural Deanery of Catterick West - Archdeaconry of Richmond - Diocese of Ripon.
This parish lies along the south bank of the Ure, opposite that of Wensley. Its area is computed at 3,852 acres, exclusive of water, the whole of which is comprised in one township; rateable value, £3,739, and population (in 1881), 550. The surface is diversified by hill and dale, the former culminating towards the south in cloud-capped Penhill, whose huge heather-clad mass rises to a height of 1,685 feet above the level of the sea. The ancient Britons called it Pen signifying the rounded hill; and the Saxons, unacquainted with the meaning of the British word Pen, added to it hill from their own language, thus forming a name one half British, the other Saxon, and each having the same signification. The summit is a broad moorland plateau, from which an extensive prospect of the surrounding country may be obtained, including within the range of vision no less than 52 churches.
Previous to the Norman Conquest this district, including both East and West Witton, was held by Glumer; but William I. ousted the Englishman from his lands and gave them to his Norman follower, the Earl of Richmond. Conan, the fifth earl, who succeeded to the title in 1146, gave the manor of Witton to Reginald Boterel and his heirs, to hold by scutage, that is by a pecuniary payment instead of military service. After the death of Reginald, King John, who had seized the earldom, gave the manor to his bailiff, Robert Tateshall, the elder, and afterwards to a Breton knight, his balistarius (cross bowman), who, however, retained possession of it but a short time. Peter, the son of Reginald, then put forth his claim for the restitution of the manor, but unable to pay the fine demanded, he leased the manor to the abbot of Jervaulx for 10 years, receiving at once a great part of the rental. Before the expiration of the term, the abbot purchased the manor and advowson of the church for the sum of £20 yearly. In 1418, Ralph, earl of Westmoreland, whose castle and lordship of Middleham lay hard by, received from Henry V. a charter of free chase in all his lands in Bishopdale, West Witton, and Penhill, and the names of Capple Bank Park, Penhill Park, Paddy Park, and Park Gate still perpetuate the memory of this ancient chase. Capple Bank was once famous for its red and fallow deer; the former disappeared long ago, but the latter were preserved until about the middle of the present century. By the marriage of Anne Neville with the Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III., the Neville lands came into the possession of that monarch; and in his household book of Middleham it is recorded that he contributed five shillings towards choosing a "King of West Witton."
In 1853, the Wanleys estate, with the manorial rights of West Witton, was submitted to public auction by the trustees of the late Sir William Chaytor, Bart., and was purchased by Lord Bolton, who is now lord of the manor and principal landowner. The following have also estates in the parish:- Exors. of the late Jas. Pilkington, Esq., Swinithwaite Hall; T. R. King, Esq., West Witton; the heirs of the late J. F. Clarkson, Esq., West Witton; Miss Topham, Middleham; and J. Winn, Esq., West Burton.
The Village is pleasantly situated on the northern slope of Penhill, five miles W. of Middleham.
The Church (St. Bartholomew) is an ancient foundation, but was thoroughly restored in 1875 at a cost of about £900, exclusive of the chancel, which was rebuilt by Lord Bolton. The tower and north wall of the nave are almost all that remains of the old edifice. During the progress of the work several interesting relics of the past were brought to light. In a niche in the chancel wall, previously concealed from view by a flat stone, probably a post-Reformation insertion, was found a very perfect Saxon cross of good workmanship. Another curious stone bore a rudely sculptured representation of the crucifixion, and is now built into the vestry wall. The style and workmanship of this also indicate a very early, probably Saxon, origin. Many other carved stones were found, most of which were the undoubted work of later ages. These discoveries point to the existence of a church here in Saxon times, and upon the ruins of this ancient structure, a Norman edifice was erected about the time of Henry I., or a little later, In the 15th century, the church was restored in the style of architecture which then prevailed, "and then during the subsequent period," says a writer, "as to alterations, they had been done with an utter disregard to appearance, and with a desire to lay on as much whitewash as possible," the result being a dismal architectural jumble. But no such depravity of taste characterises the recent restoration; out of the architectural medley has risen a neat Gothic edifice, consisting of nave, chancel, tower, and vestry, The chancel window, presented by Mr. and Mrs. King, bears on its three lights the Crucifixion, with the Blessed Virgin on one side, and St. John on the other. The painted window in the tower and the reredos were given by Mrs. Clarkson in memory of her husband. The seats and woodwork of the interior are of pitchpine.
The living, formerly a rectory, was appropriated to the monks of Jervaulx, who assigned out of the revenues an annual stipend of £5 6s. 8d. for the maintenance of a vicar. After the dissolution of monasteries, Henry VIII. granted a lease of the rectory of West Witton, with all its possessions, to one Richard Mason, a groom of his stall, reserving, however, the above mentioned stipend to the vicar or chaplain. Subsequently the great tithes were demised to James Metcalfe, Esq., of Nappa, and they are now the property of Lord Bolton, who is also the patron of the living. Their present commuted value is £152. The benefice is worth £103 per annum, including 60 acres of glebe. Present incumbent, the Rev. W. Whaley, B.A., Christ's College, Cambridge.
In the churchyard is a neat monument bearing the following inscription: "In memory of John James, F.S.A., author of the History of Bradford, and other works. Born at West Witton, January 22nd, 1811, died at Netheredge, Sheffield, July 4th, 1867. 'After a life's fitful fever he sleeps well.' Erected by a few Bradford friends - 1885."
The National School, average attendance about 80, is supported by endowment and contributions, which amounted to £39 in 1888, and school fees.
The Wesleyans have a small chapel in the village, built in 1842, at a cost of £300, and in connection therewith is a Sunday school, erected three years ago, at an expense of over £100.
At the west end of the village is Wynbury Holme, the residence of T. R. King, Esq.
Swinithwaite or Swynythwaite is a small hamlet about one mile west of West Witton. Its name signifies the woodland clearing where swine were kept, and is a relic left us by the Norsemen who effected numerous settlements in the north, especially in Cumberland, where thwaite is a very common element in local terminology. This estate was formerly held by the Bulmers under the earls of Westmoreland. Subsequently it was divided, and in later times, a portion was possessed by the Spences who resided in the old manor house in the village. Swinithwaite Hall, long the property of the Law and Anderson families, was purchased in 1849 by the late James Pilkington, Esq., formerly M.P. for Blackburn. It is situated on the south bank of the Yore or Ure, and in the immediate vicinity is the hamlet of Temple, with an octagonal three-story building of red granite, in the Grecian style. It is now a farmhouse.
In the woods on the hillside, a short distance from this tower, are the remains of a Preceptory of the Knights Templars, the existence of which was unknown until 1840, when the removal of an unsightly mound disclosed the ruins and complete ground plan of the chapel and other buildings. The former is 66 feet by 27 feet with walls of rude masonry 4 feet thick. The old stone altar remained in situ,. and two piscincæ. A number of stone coffins were unearthed containing bones, probably the remains of the warrior monks who had "shuffled off the mortal coil at this Preceptory, In the other buildings were discovered spurs, horse shoes, and fragments of armour, In the grounds of Swinithwaite Hall is a stone font or holy water stoup, which was found here; and at Temple, an ancient millstone, now cut in two and used as "stepping stones." The order of Knights Templars was instituted by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1118, and consisted, at first, of nine knights, who undertook to guard the roads near Jerusalem, and to protect pilgrims visiting the holy places. They wore a white habit with a red cross upon the left shoulder, and lived in community near the site of the temple, and hence their name of Templars. They were introduced into England in the reign of Stephen, and soon acquired both wealth and fame. But the circumstances which had called forth the establishment of this military order, had passed away, and with them, the primitive fervour and holiness of life which the warrior monks had vowed to observe; discipline became lax; abuses crept in; and in 1313, the order of Knights Templars was suppressed by the Pope throughout the world.
In England, the property and estates of the order were transferred to the Knights Hospitallers, and these lands continued in the possession of that order until the dissolution of religious houses at the Reformation. History is totally silent both in respect to this preceptory and its inmates; and, except the name of Temple, which had clung to the place, though people knew not why, its memory had long been buried in the forgotten past.
Another monastic property in the parish still bears the name of Chantry, and was probably the endowment attached to some chantry in the Abbey Jervaulx. It was granted by the Crown, some time previous to 1568, to Thomas Ward, of London, and John Browne, of York, and subsequently came into the possession of the Ascough or Askew family. It is now the property and occasional residence of Mrs. Strickland, Mrs. Garnett, and Miss Theodora Clarkson, daughters of the late John F. Clarkson, Esq.
A little below Capple Bank is a summer-house, resembling a ruined tower, erected by the Duke of Bolton for the accommodation of his duchess, the famous. Lavinia Fenton, the original "Polly" in Gay's "Beggar's Opera."
CHARITIES. - Four acres of land at Canton, near Coverham, the rent of which is applied to apprenticing poor children; and four rent-charges, amounting to 34s. 6d. per annum, are distributed among the poor. In 1790, Charles Robinson bequeathed £260, the interest to be applied to the education of poor children of West Witton, except 20s a year, which was to be given to the poor of Newbiggin, and the same sum to the minister of West Witton.
The intoxication of loyalty which seized the nation on the occasion of Her Majesty's Jubilee, displayed itself in West Witton with a vigorous energy. A huge beacon, 30 yards in circumference and 8 yards in height, formed of timber, tar barrels, and turf, was erected on the top of Penhill, and about 1,000 persons, perspiring with devotion to the Crown, as represented in the person of her Majesty, climbed to the summit to witness the blaze which was to announce, far and wide, the intensity of West Witton's love for and loyalty to the throne. At 10 o'clock p.m., beacon fires were seen at Richmond and on the Hambleton hills; the torch was then applied to this, and, in a few minutes, the whole pile was ablaze. At halfpast ten, eight beacon fires could be seen from Penhill, including Richmond, Hambleton hills, Roseberry Topping, &c.
Scan, OCR and html by Colin Hinson. Checking and correction by Peter Nelson.