EAST WITTON: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1890.


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, with its beautifully diversified surface of hill and dale, lies on the south bank of the Ure, below the confluence of the Cover with that river, and stretches southward to the lofty ridge of moorland, called East Wittom Fell, which lies within the limits of the parish. From this eminence one of the finest and most extensive prospects in the county is obtained, embracing within the range of vision York Minster, two abbeys, five castles, and numerous parish churches and gentlemen's seats. The soil is sandy and gravelly, and the substratum contains lead, coal, and freestone - the last of good quality for grindstones. The land is chiefly laid down in meadow and pasture. The parish comprises the townships of East Witton Within and East Witton Without, and also Colsterdale and a small part of Thornton Steward. East Witton Within contains 2,609 acres, including seven of water, and 240 inhabitants; its rateable value is £1,977. The area of East Witton Without is 3,999 acres; rateable value, £2,174; and population, 236. S. Cunliffe Lister, Esq., Swinton Park, is lord of the manor, which is co-extensive with the two townships, and principal landowner. Miss A. Topham, Middleham, owns about 400 acres.

The village of East Witton is situated near the confluence of the Cover and Yore, two miles S.E. of Middleham. In the centre of the green is a huge boulder stone weighing about five tons. It has been utilised as a fountain for the villagers, being supplied with water from Witton Fell. Witton was formerly a market town, its charter having been granted by Edward I., in 1306; but the privilege is said to have been lost during the prevalence of a plague which raged in the parish in 1563. The country people, being afraid to approach the town, the market was removed temporarily to Ulshaw, and, after the disappearance of the pestilence, the inhabitants of Witton were never able to re-establish it. Cattle fairs are held on the 3rd of May and the 20th of November, and the village feast on the 23rd of the latter month.

The Church, dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, was built in 1809, by Thomas, earl of Ailesbury, then lord of the manor, as a memorial of the jubilee of George III. It is a handsome Gothic structure, consisting of nave, side aisles, chancel, and tower, containing a clock and six bells. The nave is separated from the aisles by arcades of four pointed arches. The chancel window, of five lights, on which are depicted the Ascension and the four Evangelists, was inserted by Mary Caroline, marchioness of Ailesbury. Several of the windows are stained glass memorials. The church was thoroughly restored in 1871, at the sole expense of George William Frederick, second marquis of Ailesbury, and at the same time the bells were rehung by subscription. The communion plate is a handsome service of solid silver, presented by Thomas, earl of Ailesbury.

The old church was dedicated to St. Martin, and stood in a sweet, retired spot, about a quarter of a mile from the present one. It dated from Norman times, and its antiquity alone might have insured its preservation; but, unfortunately, it was levelled to the ground, and a portion of the material used in the erection of the new church. The register dates from the year 1697. The living is a vicarage, gross value £103, derived from the rent of 65 acres of glebe, in the gift of S. Cunliffe Lister, Esq., J.P., D.L., and incumbency of the Rev. David Wilkie, M.A., Oxon.

The church school was erected by the Earl of Ailesbury, in 1817, for 80 children, and has an average attendance of 30. Mr. S. Cunliffe Lister contributes £50 a year towards its support.

Near the confluence of the Cover with the Yore are the bridges and hamlets of Ulshaw and Coverbridge. The former, which crosses the Yore, is an ancient structure erected, there is reason to believe, in the first half of the 15th century. Ralph Neville, earl of Westmoreland and lord of Middleham, directed in his will, dated October 18th, 1424, that £20 should be given towards the erection of the bridge at Ulshaw, if such bridge should not be completed in his lifetime. In one of the recesses is a sun dial, with the date 1674. The Roman road which led to the camp on Addleborough crossed the Yore at this point. The hamlet of Ulshaw Bridge is in the parish of Thornton Steward.

Kilgram Bridge is another hamlet on the Yore, three miles E. of East Witton.

Braithwaite is an estate lying two miles W. of East Witton, the property of Miss Topham, of Middleham. The hall, now in the occupation of Mr. James Dawson, farmer, is an old fashioned gabled structure, erected by the Purchas family in the 17th century. Near the hall rises Braithwaite Hill, formerly a forest, whence Middleham Castle was supplied with firewood. A lead mine was worked here some years ago.

Colsterdale is a hamlet and estate four miles S. of East Witton, belonging to S. C. Lister, Esq. A new school was built in 1882, by Messrs. George Danby and E. G. Moore, which is also used as a chapel-of-ease. Coal and lead are found here, but are not worked at present. Colsterdale is ecclesiastically under Healey, under which parish its directory is given.

Newstead is a hamlet consisting of two farms, two miles S.E. of East Witton.

JERVAULX ABBEY. - The most interesting feature of the parish is the ruins of this once famous religious house. The name has been variously written Jorevalle, Yorevale, Gervaux, Jervaux, Jervanix, Jerveaux, and Jervis, which appear to be only French forms of the ancient Latin name Jorevallis, that is, the vale of the Yore or Ure. The ruins stand in a beautiful green nook on the south bank of the river, about two miles from the village of East Witton. The abbey was erected in A.D. 1156, by Conan, fifth earl of Richmond, for the small community of Cistercian, previously located in the Abbey of Fors. (See page 336.) The latter had been founded by Akarias Fitz Bardolph a dozen years before, and Herveus, his son, consented to the transference on condition that he should have the right to the patronage of the new abbey, as well as the prayers of the monks usually offered up for the founder and his relations. He also stipulated for the removal of the bones of his father and mother from Fors Abbey to Jervaulx.

This abbey, like all others belonging to the Cistercian order, was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and was richly endowed by succeeding earls of Richmond, and the descendants of Herveus, who assumed the surname of Fitz Hugh. For four hundred years it stood, the beauty and pride of the vale, until Henry VIII. laid his unholy hands upon the Church's property, drove out the religieuse, and robbed the poor of one of the principal means of their support. At the Dissolution the annual revenue, including the rectories of Aysgarth, Ainderby Steeple, East Witton, and West Witton, which had been granted to the abbey by various benefactors, was £445 10s. 5d., as given by Speed, or £234 18s. 5d., according to Dugdale, the latter sum being probably the clear income after the payment of all pensions and stipends.

From its foundation to its fall there were 23 occupants of the abbatial chair; and though this office was one of such high dignity and vast responsibilities, four of the abbots have passed away without leaving a record behind. The names of the others are

1, John de Kingston; 2, John de Brompton; 3, William; 4, * * .* * 5, Eustace; 6, Radulphns; 7, Simon de Midgley; 8, John; 9, Thomas de Griselhurst; 10, Hugh; 11, John; 12, John de Newby; 13, Richard Gower; 14, Thomas; 15 and 16, * *; 17, Peter de Snape; 18, * * *; 19, John Brompton, the Chronicler; 20, William; 21, William de Heslington, whose rebus, a hazel, growing out of a tun, surmounted by a W, is carved on one of the stalls in Aysgarth church; 22, Robert Thornton, whose rebus, a thorn bush, and a tun cut in stone, is preserved in Middleham Church, of which he was dean; 23, Adam Sedbergh.

The last abbot did not long survive the wreck and plunder of his abbey. Taking part in that abortive attempt made by Sir Robert Aske and his followers to reinstate the monks in the monasteries, from which they had been ruthlessly expelled. he was hanged at Tyburn in June 1537

The work of destruction commenced the following year, and was carried out with a spirit of vandalism worthy of Attila himself. The church plate and all articles of value having been forwarded to the royal treasury, the roofs were denuded of their leaden covering, by which 365 fodders (about 356 tons) of the metal were obtained, in addition to 34 fodders found in store. Richard Bellycys, to whom the superintendence of the work was intrusted, writes to his employer, Thomas, Lord Cromwell, informing him that "the said lead cannot be conveit, nor carried until the next sombre (summer), for the ways in that countre are so foul and deep that no caryage can pass in wintre." He further says, "concerninge the selling of the bells, I cannot sell them above 15s. the hundred," and asks whether he shall sell at that price or send them up to London. Hammer and crowbar were next applied, and in a short time the grand old abbey was reduced to the mouldering ruin we now behold.

The lordship of East Witton, with the site of the abbey, was granted by Henry VIII. to Matthew Stuart, earl of Lennox,* and Margaret, his wife, the king's niece, and after passing through various hands, the property came into the possession of the Bruce family, one of whom was created Earl of Ailesbury in 1805. The estate was purchased from the trustees of Ernest Augustus Charles, 3rd marquis, in 1887, by S. Cunliffe Lister, Esq., of Swinton Park, for £310,000. Here we may observe that whilst many changes have taken place in the proprietorship of the estate, the family of Croft has never ceased to be represented on the tenant roll for the past five hundred years.

* The earl had been banished from Scotland, where his property was forfeited, for basely attempting to betray Dumbarton Castle. Henry not only gave him shelter in England and several manors in Yorkshire, but also the hand of his niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of his sister Margaret, queen dowager of Scotland, by her second husband, the Earl of Angus. This Earl of Lennox was the father of Henry, Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The abbey long served as a quarry of ready dressed stones, and a careful examination of the walls and buildings in the neighbourhood reveals melancholy evidence of the spoiler's hand. When the first earl of Ailesbury came into possession, what was left of the sacred pile lay buried beneath mounds of debris, and in 1806 and 1807, his lordship caused the rubbish to be cleared away, the grounds to be tastefully planted with shrubs and evergreens, and as a protection against future vandalism the site was enclosed, partly by a sunk fence and partly by a wall.

The ruins as we now seen them are neither imposing from their magnitude, nor from any elaborateness of ornament in their architecture, but the ground plan, owing to the accumulation of soil and rubbish which preserved the lower parts from the destruction which befell the upper portions, is perhaps more perfect than that of any monastic ruin in the kingdom. The site of the abbey church with its aisles, choir, and transepts, the chapter house, the abbot's house, the refectory, cloisters, &c., can all be distinctly traced and identified. The variations observable in the style of architecture indicate the work of different periods. A little transitional Norman remains, probably the part erected by the first abbot, but the prevailing style is pure Early English, with a few fragments of later date.

The Church was of the usual abbey type cruciform, and measured 270 feet in length and 63 feet in width. The octagonal bases of the clustered columns that supported the roof still remain, as also portions of seven stone altars, each of which has been ascended by three steps, symbolical of the Trinity, and one still entire and in situ in the north transept. This retains on the top the five crosses of consecration, representative of the five Sacred Wounds. Two curious piscinæ lie on the floor, and before the high altar lies the cross-legged effigy of Lord Fitz Hugh, a crusader, in link mail, In the church also are several monumental slabs, some of which bear crosses, chalices, inscriptions, &c., informing us whose bones they once covered, In the Lady Chapel is a curious stone coffin, nearly 7 feet in length, whilst its breadth is only 18 inches. When the floor was laid bare in 1806, the centre aisle was found laid with a beautiful tesselated pavement in geometric figures, but this soon perished on exposure to the air. The Chapter House, where so many grave councils were held, has been an exquisite little chamber, with groined roof supported by six slender columns of grey marble, five of which remain, four of them being entire, with richly foliated capitals. A stone seat runs round the room where the monks sat in solemn conclave. Here are the coffin-shaped tombstones of seven of the abbots; that to the memory of the first abbot bears yet its inscription almost as sharply cut as when laid down 700 years ago. "TVMBA JOH'IS: P'MI: ABB'IS: JOBEVALLIS." Near it are the memorials of William, the third abbot; Eustace, the fifth; and John, the eighth. The fine large slab of Peter de Snape, the seventh abbot, who died about 1430, bears a pastoral staff and mitre; but the dignity symbolised by these was probably only a spiritual one, as Jervaulx is not mentioned in the list of mitred abbeys. The cloisters formed an extensive quadrangular court on the south side of the nave, and under the shade of its piazza the monks retired for exercise or meditation. The Refectory, situated to the south of the chapter house, has been a noble hall, 99 feet by 30, with groined roof, supported by five octagonal columns. In it were three large fire-places. Adjoining the refectory was the kitchen, with enormous open fire-places on three of the sides. This was the cook's domain, and the apertures still remain in the wall, through which the viands were conveyed, smoking hot, to the refectory and the abbot's private room. Near the kitchen is a small chapel with a nearly perfect altar, where it is supposed mass was daily said at an early hour for the servants and tenants of the abbey, whose avocations obliged them to be abroad before the usual hour of divine service in the church. Above the refectory was a room divided by wooden screens into separate cells or apartments, each lighted by a window. This is supposed to have been the dormitory. The Abbot's House was situated to the east of the refectory; and the Hospitium or Guest House, where strangers and wayfarers were entertained, to the west of the cloisters.

The ruins are now carefully preserved but are accessible to the public at all reasonable hours, without charge.

Adjacent to the ruins is an elegant mansion, erected in 1868, and called Jervaulx Abbey. It is in the Elizabethan style, and consists of a centre and two wings, with a verandah in front. It is the property of Mr. Lister, and the residence of Hector Christie, Esq., J.P. for the West Riding.

LOCAL WORTHY. - William Gideon Michael Jones Barker, the author of an interesting work of an historical and ecclesiological character, called "The Three Days of Wensleydale," was a native of East Witton, where he was born in 1817. He was the son of a joiner and builder in the village, and whilst still a child was adopted by the Rev. William Jones, vicar of East Witton, by whom he was brought up and educated at the vicarage. He resided there till the death of Mr. Jones, in 1837, when he removed with the widow to Harmby Lodge. She died in 1853, leaving him a small fortune. Two years later he died, after a short illness, at the age of 37, and was interred in the vault of his adopted parents, at East Witton. He devoted much of his time to the study of ancient history, antiquities, and heraldry, and in 1846 was unanimously elected a member of the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The result of his reading and researches led him towards Romanism, and he was received into the Catholic Church in 1848, by the Rev. H. J. Bolton, of Leyburn.

[Description(s) from Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire (1890)]


  • Transcript of the entry for the Post Office, professions and trades in Bulmer's Directory of 1890.

Scan, OCR and html by Colin Hinson. Checking and correction by Peter Nelson.