FELIXKIRK: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1890.


Wapentake and Petty Sessional Division of Birdforth - Electoral Division of South Otterington - Poor Law Union, County Court District, and Rural Deanery of Thirsk - Archdeaconry of Cleveland - Diocese of York.

This parish, comprising the townships of Felixkirk, Boltby, Sutton-under-Whitestone Cliff, and Thirlby, with an aggregate area of 8,297 acres, is situated between Thirsk and Kirkby Knowle, and, in 1881, had a population of 825. In the township there are 1,170 acres of land belonging chiefly to the Archbishop of York, who is also lord of the manor. The rateable value is £1,368, and population, 113. This township, with that of Sutton-under-Whitestone Cliff, was, formerly, included in the Liberty of Ripon, but were separated from it by an Act of Parliament, 1st Victoria.

Feliskirk or Felixkirk is unique among English place names. Its derivation is apparent, the Church of St. Felix, by whom the sacred edifice is said to have been founded. This saint was a Burgundian, and accompanied St. Paulinus to this country in the seventh century. He preached the gospel among the East Anglians, and converted them to the faith. The name of Felixkirk does not occur in Domesday Book, though Sutton, Boltby, and Marderby, places in the parish, are recorded. It is, therefore, probable that this name was given after the erection of the church, and that to our Saxon forefathers the place was known by some other appellation, which, in the lapse of time, has been forgotten.

The village, distant about three miles N.E. of Thirsk, is situated on the side of a green hill, in a richly wooded district abounding with diversified scenery. The Church, though frequently restored, still retains traces of its Anglo-Norman origin. It consists of chancel, nave, with aisles, tower, and porch. In the Perpendicular period the circular chancel end was taken down and a flat wall substituted; but in the recent restoration, this part of the edifice has been rebuilt "with an apse on the old lines, and finished with a wall arcade in accordance with existing traces of the original pattern. A fine Norman arch leads into the chancel, and arcades of two pointed arches separate the nave from the aisles. The tower is of later date than the chancel, and contains three bells. The ancient sedilia and piscina still remain, and in the sacrarium, on the north side of the chancel, is the recumbent figure of a knight, cross-legged, and clad in chain armour, and the effigy of a lady lies on the south side. At the feet of the former crouches a lion, and at those of the latter, a dog. The male figure is evidently that of a crusader; in what relation the female may have stood to him is not known, but certainly not that of wife, as each figure has covered a separate tomb; and unfortunately there is neither inscription nor heraldic device to tell either the names or lineage of the persons commemorated. It is however probable that the effigies are memorials of some members of the De Ros family, who, at an early period, had a manor house at Raventhorpe in this parish. On the walls of the church are tablets to the memory of former vicars, and within the altar rails is a brass in the floor bearing a Latin inscription to the memory of William Turbutt, who died in 1673. The brief career of Hannah, wife of David Cornforth, who died on the 10th of July, 1853, at the age of 21, is thus epitomised on her tombstone in the churchyard

"Twenty years I was a maid,
One year I was a wife,
Eighteen hours a mother,
And then departed life."

This church was given at an early period to the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, in England, by, it is supposed, one of the De Ros family, lords of Helmsley. In 1279, Walter Gifford, archbishop of York, appropriated to the same brethren the rectorial tithes of the parish, and thenceforth the living became a vicarage. The right of presentation was at the same time transferred from the Hospitallers to the archbishop and his successors, with whom it remains. In the Valor of Pope Nicholas (1291) the living is valued at £10; and in the ecclesiastical survey made by order of Henry VIII., it is returned at the same amount. The present gross income is £650, inclusive of about 100 acres of glebe. The rectorial tithes of the parish have been commuted for rent-charges amounting to £477 17s. 7½d., and the vicarial for £430 17s. After the dissolution of religious houses the rectory and advowson were granted by the king to the see of York, The present vicar is the Rev. Henry Clayforth, B.A., who was appointed in 1873.

The School is a neat brick building in the Tudor style, erected in 1885, by Mr. Elsley, the late recorder of York and Richmond.

About half-a-mile from the village is Mount St. John, where there once stood a Preceptory or Commandery of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in the reign of Henry I., by William de Percy, who endowed it with lands in the vicinity to the amount of five knights' fees. Other benefactions followed, Robert de Ros, lord of Helmsley, who died in 1184, gave to the brethren the manor of Mount St. John, and grants of land were also given by Roger de Mowbray, Odo de Boltby, Baldwin Wake, and others. The Knights Hospitallers were a military order, founded abont the time of the first crusade. They took their name from a hospitium, erected for the benefit of pilgrims resorting to the Holy Land, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The first duty of the knights was to provide for such pilgrims at that hospital, and protect them from injuries and insults at the hands of the Moslems when on the roads. They followed chiefly the rule of St. Augustine, and wore a black habit with a white cross upon it. They were divided into three classes - the Nobles, who formed the military portion of the Order, and were ever ready to unsheath the sword for the protection of the pilgrims: the Ecclesiastics, whose duties were such as appertained only to their priestly character; and the Lay Brothers, who performed the menial offices of the house and tended the sick. The order was introduced into England about A.D. 1100; and, as it appealed directly to that chivalrous spirit which was then fostered in our land, it rose rapidly to wealth and power. Their superior in this country was the first lay baron, and had a seat in parliament. The brethren, whether they were nobles, priests, or lay brothers, took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to possess nothing but their clothes and their weapons. They took only two meals in the day, and from Septuagesima Sunday till Easter no flesh meat.

At the dissolution of monasteries, the revenues of this house were valued at £102 13s. 10d. net, and the lands belonging to it, together with the tithes of Felixkirk, were granted in exchange to the Archbishop of York, and have ever since belonged to that see. The house and estate were held on lease from the archbishops by a family named Gregorie; early in the 17th century they were held by the Turbutts, from whom the lease was purchased by the Rev. William Elsley. This gentleman pulled down the house and erected a mansion on the site in 1720; and this was partially rebuilt and enlarged in 1877, by the late owner, Mr. John Walker. The only vestiges of the monastery are four stones, built into the back wall, two of which bear the Percy shield and crescents.

At Mount St. John, was born William Harrington, a seminary priest, educated at Rheims, who was cruelly butchered during the Elizabethan persecution for exercising his priestly functions in this country. Mr. Stow, in his Chronicle, says "he was drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, cut down alive, struggled with the hangman, but was disbowelled and quartered." He was born of a gentleman's family, and suffered on the 18th of February, 1584. Mount St. John is now the residence of the Hon. J. C. Dundas, J.P., lord lieutenant of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and chairman of the quarter sessions for the North Riding.

Marderby Grange, an estate in this township, was once a distinct manor, and, at the time of the Domesday Survey, belonged to Hugh, the son of Baldric. It was then of much greater extent than at presest, and had its priest, from which we may infer that it possessed a sacred edifice in which he officiated. Subsequently, a part of Marderby was given to the knights of St. John, and the remainder to the monks of Byland, who erected a grange here. At the Dissolution, these lands, with others, were transferred to the Archbishop of York, and belonged to that see until 1853, when they were taken over by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

CHARITY - Richard Scurr, a native of Boltby, in this parish, who died February 3rd, 1881, left the sum of £500 for the benefit of the poor. The interest, £24, is distributed in food and clothing by the vicar and churchwardens.

BOLTBY is a township and chapelry in this parish, comprising 4,712½ acres, chiefly owned by the trustees of the late Edmund Walker, Esq., of Mount St. John, and Sir Charles Dodsworth, Bart., Thornton Watlass, Bedale, each of whom possesses the manorial rights of his own property. The gross estimated rental is £3,036; rateable value, £2,719; and population, according to the last census, 317.

The village of Boltby, consisting of a number of scattered houses, is situated in a valley at the foot of the Hambleton Hills, five miles N.E. of Thirsk. The final syllable of the name denotes a Norse origin, and it is, therefore, probable that in the first syllable we have the name of one of its early Danish owners. At the time of the Domesday Survey, Boltby was the property of Hugh, the son of Baldric. At a later period, either the descendants of this Hugh, or another family to whom it then belonged, adopted the local name, and one of them, Odo de Boltby, was a benefactor to the preceptory of Mount St. John.

The church or chapel-of-ease, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was rebuilt in 1855-6 by subscription and a rate of 6d. in the pound. It is a neat Gothic edifice, consisting of nave, chancel, and vestry. The first chapel was erected in 1409, and continued in use until 1802, when it was rebuilt; the present chapel being the third that has occupied the site. The school, built at the expense of Messrs. John and Edmund Walker, was enlarged by the same gentlemen in 1875.

At Ravensthorpe was formerly a castle belonging to the noble family of De Ros. The present Ravensthorpe Hall is a neat modern mansion, picturesquely situated at West-how, about half-a-mile from the village of Boltby, and is now the residence of the Rev. Fred. Richard Johnstone.

South Woods Hall is another neat mansion, the property of Sir Charles Dodsworth, and the residence of Peter Garnett, Esq.

On the tableland above Southwoods are several ancient British tumuli, and the remains of a Roman camp.

The Thirsk waterworks are situated in this township. They cover an area of 10 acres, and were completed about four years ago.

SUTTON-UNDER-WHITESTONE CLIFF township, comprising 1,854 acres, is situated on the western side of the Hambleton Hills, The surface is very diversified, and the scenery varied and picturesque The estimated gross rental is £2,784, and the rateable value £2,496. The manor of Sutton, i.e., South town, belonged, at the time of the Domesday Survey, to Hugh, the son of Baldric, and that record also tells us that it had then its priest and its mill. It must also have had its church, and in an inquisition taken 5th November, 1314, it was found that the vicars of Felixkirk were bound to provide a chaplain to celebrate mass three days a week in the Chapell of Sutton-super-Whitsoncliff. Subsequently, the whole township became monastic property, one portion having been given to the monks of Byland, another to the canons of Mount Grace, and the remainder, with the lake Gormire, to the priory of Newburgh. At the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII., these monastic lands were seized by the Crown, by whom they were granted in exchange to the see of York, Gormire lake excepted, which became the property of the Earls of Fauconberg as the grantees of Newburgh Priory, and has descended to Sir George Orby Wombwell, Bart. The remainder of the township is held on lease, under the Archbishop of York.

The village of Sutton, named, by way of distinction from the numerous other Suttons which dot the country, under Whitestonecliff, from its position at the foot of a lofty limestone cliff. It is situated on the high road leading from Thirsk to Helmsley, about 3½ miles E. of the former town. There was formerly a chapel-of-ease here, but it was demolished more than 200 years ago. The Wesleyan Methodists have a neat little chapel erected in 1850, as also have the Independents. The village still retains an ancient house or two, one of which bears the date 1655.

Sutton Hall was formerly the seat of a family named Smyth, before they came into possession of New Building, and is now the property of Miss Johnstone.

Both coal and iron have been met with in the township, and limestone is extensively quarried in Sutton Brow.

THIRLBY is a small township containing 634½ acres, chiefly the property of the trustees of the late John Walker, Esq., and Sir Charles E. S. Dodsworth, Bart., Thornton Watlass, Bedale. Its gross estimated rental is £1,038, and its rateable value £931. The village occupies a secluded situation in a valley about 5½ miles E.N.E. of Thirsk, and contains a Wesleyan Chapel, erected in 1881, and one public house - The Board - with the following couplet over the entrance

"What sign this is no man can tell,
Yet it is a sign here's ale to sell."

Hambleton Hills. - The range to which alone this name is applied extends from Osmotherley to Kilburn, a distance of 12 miles, forming the western front of the East York Moorlands, the eastern boundary of the vale of Mowbray, and skirting the parishes of Felixkirk, Kirby Knowle, and Cowesby. The learned and unfortunate Eugene Aram derived the name from the Saxon hemel and don, signifying the heavenly hill, whilst others have suggested ham blæe, a cold bleak place, and dun, a hill. The most convenient and romantic approach to these heights is from the village of Kilburn, which is within an hour's walk of Roulston Scar, the commencement of the range. This cliff, 950 feet above the sea level, presents on the front a rugged escarpment of rock, 200 feet deep. The magnificent view from the summit well repays the little toil of the ascent. The top is nearly level, and looking from the edge of the precipice you see scattered about many hundred feet below huge masses of rock

"Confusedly hurled
Like fragments of an early world."

On every side except the east, where gloomy Blakehow meets the gaze, the scenery is varied and beautiful - a combination of flood and fell, wooded knoll, and pastoral vale. Separated from Boulston Cragg by a narrow valley on the west is Hood Hill, a detached eminence, near the top of which is a huge mass of rock, supposed to have been used as an altar by the Druids.

Pursuing the bend of the rocky ridge northwards we come to Whitestone Cliffe (1,056 feet), often locally called White Mare Crag, from a tradition that a racer of that colour, becoming unmanageable, broke away from the neighbouring training ground and leaped with its rider over the cliff. This is probably pure fiction, the product of local ingenuity to account for the name; we may, with more apparent reason, suppose it to have been so called from the mere, or lake, which lies at its foot. Others, however, connect the name with the White Horse, an object of special veneration among the pagan Saxons (Horsa, a mare), who cut its figure on the hill-sides of Berkshire and Wiltshire. The view from the summit is surpassingly beautiful, "extending," says the author of Vallis Eboracensis, "over the wild romantic vale of Mowbray, the beautiful and interesting vale of York, the plains of Cleveland, Wensleydale, the Western Hills, the Eastern Wolds, the Southern Plain, and the Northern Mountains. A little in advance stood the hermitage of Hode Grange. Beyond is a fine view of the ruins of Byland Abbey and the village of Coxwold. On the other side are the splendid remains of the abbey of Rievaulx, with the Ionian temple and beautiful terrace; the rich and magnificent demesne of Duncombe Park, and the Catholic College of Ampleforth. Further to the north is Upsall Castle, with the Mount St. John, where stood a preceptory of the Knights of St. John. Gliding down a little further is Newby Park and Topcliffe; the sylvan park of Thirkleby; an extensive view of the Western Hills, among which may be seen the city of Ripon, with its noble cathedral, the towns of Thirsk and Northallerton, and a little further on the celebrated abbey of Fountains. Veering to the south, and passing along the vale of York, is the splendid minster of York, the ancient castles of Sheriff Hutton, Creyke, Gilling, Helmsley, and Castle Howard, and the rich romantic scenery of Newburgh Park."

The precipice beneath sinks perpendicularly like a jagged wall of rock fully 100 feet, and then falls away with a steep descent, over which lie scattered in wild confusion, huge masses of stone, torn from the cliff above by some great convulsion. The last of these occured about the middle of last century, and is thus described in the Rev. John Wesley's Journal:- "1755. On Thursday, March 25th, many persons observed a great noise near a ridge of mountains in Yorkshire, called Black Hamilton. It was observed chiefly in the south-west side of the mountain, about a mile from the course where the Hamilton races are run, near a ridge of rocks called Whiston Cliffs, or Whiston White Mare, two miles from Sutton, about five from Thirsk. The same noise was heard on Wednesday by all who went that way. On Thursday, about seven in the morning, Edward Abbott, weaver, and Adam Bosomworth, bleacher, both of Sutton, riding under Whiston Cliffs, heard a roaring as they termed it, like many cannons, or loud and roaring thunder. It seemed to come from the cliffs, looking up to which they saw a large body of stone, four or five yards broad, split and fly off from the very top of the rocks. They thought it strange, but rode on. Between ten and eleven a larger piece of rock, about 15 yards thick, 30 high, and between 60 and 70 broad, was torn off and thrown into the valley. About seven in the evening, one who was riding by observed the ground to shake exceedingly, and soon after several large stones or rocks, of some tons weight each, rose out of the ground, others were thrown on one side, others turned upside down, and many rolled over and over. Being a little surprised, and not very curious, he hastened on his way. On Friday and Saturday the ground continued to shake, and the rocks to roll over one another. The earth also clave asunder in very many places, and continued to do so until Sunday morning." Traces of this disruption may still be seen in the numerous fissures in the face of the cliff, and in the huge fragments of rock which were hurled into the fields and woods in the vicinity. At one part of the cliff near its base, but almost inaccessible, is a large natural cave in the rock, called the Fairies' Parlour, which extends inwards about 20 yards, and a similar cavern in the face of Roulston Scar bears the name of the Devil's Parlour.

Along the tops of these hills runs an old Foss road, formerly a part of the great highway between York and Edinburgh. It was much used by drovers before the construction of railways to avoid the payment of toll on the turnpike. This road attains, in one part of its course, an elevation of 1,148 feet above the sea-level, and was probably, originally, one of the trackways of the ancient Britons, who appear to have had a populous settlement here, and have left numerous traces of their occupation along the hillsides in the barrows, tumuli and remains of pit dwellings which are still to be seen among these hills.

At the foot of Whitestone Cliff is Gormire, a beautiful lake or tarn measuring about three quarters of a mile in circumference, and margined by hills. Though nestling at the foot of the cliff it is situated at a considerable elevation, and attracts, by its beauty and romantic surroundings, numerous visitors in the summer season. It is fed by no streams and must, therefore, depend for its supply on rains and unseen springs. It is also commonly said to have no outlet, but this is not strictly true. There is a recess in the side near the cliff through which the waters find egress among the rocks, and a local tradition avers that a goose once penetrated the dark gully, emerging again to the light of day near Kirby-Moorside stript of all its feathers. Another legend ascribes the formation of the lake to an earthquake which swallowed up a populous town and left an unfathomable lake in its place, and the same veracious authority asserts that the tops of the houses and the chimneys may be seen through the clear water. Mr. Grainge says it is 27 feet deep in the middle, but popular belief declares it has no bottom, and in allusion to this fancied impossibility of its ever becoming dry land the villagers say -

"When Gormire riggs shall be covered with hay,
The White Mare of Whis'n'cliff will bear it away."

Gormire was given to the Priory of Newburgh by one of its early benefactors, and at the dissolution it was granted to the Fauconbergs, from whom it has descended to the present owner, Sir George Orby Wombwell, Bart.

From Whitestone Cliff this oolitic ridge continues northward to Hambleton End (1,246 feet) preserving a level surface called Long Plain. On the west the ridge presents a steep or precipitous front, and towards the east it sinks away imperceptibly into the York moors. Spread about on every side are seen the evidences of a considerable population at a very early period. The numerous remains of pit dwellings show that the Brigantian Britons had a village here, and the many barrows and tumuli indicate a dense population.

[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.