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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 9th and 10th centuries.
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. Mannix and Co., History, Topography and Directory of Westmorland 1851.
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 the 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’.
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, over saw 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, was born at Marsh Grange on the southern edge of the village.
Kirkby Hall is an outstanding house with large chimneys. It has a small chapel dating from the years of religious persecution in its roof space. There is a long driveway from the road where it seems there was a cross where the market was held. To day it would be impossible to hold such an event in that place due to the volume of traffic passing by.
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 family members 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 Burlington 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 tram-way - 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, who also own some of the local farms and a large mobile home site.
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 1876 and still holds an annual show in The Burlington School.
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 Schools 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.
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 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.
The Co-operative Store is now closed, but the village is served by a General Store and Post Office and there are two garages repairing, servicing and selling vehicles. Light industry includes a panel beating workshop, a joiner’s shop and a stonemasons’. 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 1960’s along and just off the A595. Many of these are now privately owned. Another estate of thirteen bungalows was built in the 1970’s and in the 1980’s some barns in Beckside were demolished and 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.
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 Coniston School, Coniston. Some children travel to the Catholic Schools or Private Schools in Barrow. Very young children are catered for by ‘The Little Acorns’.
There is a Literary Society, Ladies’ Supper Club, Women’s Institute, History Group, Over Sixties Club and a First Responders group, who all meet in Beckside Rooms, as do the Parish and Parochial Church Councils. Other events are also held there but due to the narrow road parking is an ongoing problem. The Flower Show is held at The Burlington School and the Hospice Support Group holds events at different venues in the village. There is a hall at Grizebeck, built in the 1920’s. Events such as Whist Drives, Dances and the Flower Guild meetings take place there. Woodland also has a small hall for local events.
A Community Centre was built in the 1970’s. This has reasonable parking facilities, but is essentially a Sports’ Pavilion. 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. 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.