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History of Cockermouth

Cockermouth owes it existence to the river system. The nearby Roman camp of Dervenitio, modern Papcastle, was situated at the northern end of a crossing of the river Derwent, which flows from east to west just north of the present town centre. Here was an important road junction in the back-up to Hadrian’s Wall. Also originating in the central Lakeland fells, the Cocker flows from the south to enter the Derwent here, hence the name of the town. At this confluence grew the normal and medieval settlements, a natural administrative and trading centre for a number of converging valleys.

Little happened after the Romans left about AD 400 until the Normans arrived, but place names and Anglian remains in nearby churches prove the continued existence of communities in the area. Governing the district first from the former Roman site, the Normans soon moved to the present castle site on the end of a ridge between the rivers at their confluence. The town developed below the castle and for some distance west along the line of the present main street. In 1260 about 180 burage properties were listed, in addition to the mills, workshops, etc of an active and growing community. Excavations in 1980 proved habitation at the western end of Main Street by 1300.

Cockermouth developed as a typical medieval town, having a broad main street of burgesses’ houses, each with a burgage plot stretching to the usual ‘back lane’ – the Derwent bank on the north and Back Lane,(now South Street) on the south. This basic layout of streets and plots still largely remains one reason for the town’s inclusion as one of the fifty one ‘gem towns’ selected in 1965 by the British Council for Archaeology as being worthy of special care in preservation and development, ‘so splendid and so precious that ultimate responsibility for them should be a national concern'.

The town grew in importance as shown by the fact that at one time there were six MPs for the former county of Cumberland – two for Carlisle, two for Cockermouth and two for the county as a whole and voting for these last two took place in Cockermouth! In addition to its market town life it was involved in West Cumberland trade. Although geographically cut off from much of the country it was linked to national events through the lord of the manor, the castle owners including the Lucy family (pre 1365); Percy, Earls of Northumberland (1385-1670); Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1670-1750); and Wyndham (since 1750). Many of these were largely absentee landlords as far as Cockermouth was concerned, being involved in state affairs from one of their other, more accessible, seats.

Always a textile area, the town had a fulling mill by 1156, probably earlier. When machinery was invented to speed up spinning and weaving the domestic industry declined and Cockermouth, with its ample water supply, became a mill town. In the mid nineteenth century there were over forty industrial sites – mills (wool, linen, cotton), hat factories, tanneries and smaller concerns making chairs, churns, mangle rollers, nails, farm machinery, etc. Throughout this period of industrial activity, now over, the town remained an important agricultural centre and today farming, tourism, one factory, a brewery and a growing number of small commercial and business concerns provide local employment, supplemented by industry along the West Cumbrian costal belt, in particular Sellafield. Most mill buildings have been demolished, but some remain, converted to other uses.

The buildings of the town, past and present, have been well documented in J.B.Bradbury's series of books of sketches under the general title ‘Cockermouth in Pictures’.

The above text is the introduction to J Bernard Bradbury's book 'Cockermouth and District in Old Photographs', published by Alan Sutton in 1994, and now out of print.

Cockermouth's principal claim to fame is that William Wordsworth was born here, and spent the first years of his life at the school in Kirkgate (now the Church Hall). He certainly wrote about it in one of his poems.

"A little croft we owned - a plot of corn,
A garden stored with peas, and mint, and tyme,
And flowers for poises, oft on Sunday morn
Plucked while the church bells rang their earliest chime,
Can I forget our freaks at shearing time!
My hen's rich nest through long grass scarce espied;
The cowslip-gathering in June's dewy prime;
The swans that with white chests up reared in pride
Rushing and racing came to meet me at the waterside

From Guilt and Sorrow - XXIV

Wordsworth is not the only well known person to have come from the town or its environs. Both Fletcher Christian, the mutineer, of the Bounty, and John Dalton of atomic theory fame came from villages close to Cockermouth and are claimed as its own.

Old Photos of Cockermouth :

Historical photos of the area

Related Links :

Kirkgate Centre Museum Group - Dedicated to research, record and preserve the history of Cockermouth and surrounding area. We stage exhibitions twice a year and pursue areas of research throughout the year. New members are always welcome.

The museum group has published a booklet on the former Moota POW camp, with photographs.

Books :