The New World Hamlet of Kearton in Swaledale

13 05 2013

By Basil Kearton

The Kearton family along with their variant name spellings have been recorded in North Yorkshire from the early 1200’s and it is very interesting to note that after a recent series of Y Chromosome and Deep Clade DNA tests, the results indicate that our blood line has been identified as being “Brythonic” and indigenous to Britain from the Iron Age. The identification being R1b1a2a1a1b4 or L21 This indicates that we are from the original arrivals who were in Britain before the arrival of the Romans and that we are not part, in the male line, of any subsequent invaders, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Normans.

In late 1978, following an inquiry from Cousin Joan Teale in Christchurch about our early family back in England I became very interested in our Kearton forebears. Our family had departed Cleator Moor, Cumbria, England, for New Zealand in three groups in 1910, 1911 and 1912. My father was only 10 years of age at that time and he was the youngest of five sons of John Isaac Kearton and his first wife, Francis Isabelle Thompson who had died of T.B., in December, 1903. Unfortunately his Step Mother also died of T.B. on the voyage out to New Zealand and she was buried at sea off Cape Town. His group was the last to depart and they arrived at Wellington in early January, 1913, on the S.S. Corinthic.. Up until 1978, and not knowing any different, I had always considered that we were a Cumbrian family but research soon showed otherwise and I soon found that Swaledale, North Yorkshire, was the fountain from which the Kearton family had earlier sprung.

On June 10th, 1981, my wife Anne and I and our nine year old son James, having departed Alston and run the gauntlet of the Gypsies and the Appleby Horse Fair, arrived at Thwaite in Swaledale. This was our first visit to the home village and there we were welcomed by our recently found relatives Sylvia and Ray Hunter of Bridge House. To our surprise we were told that there were still Keartons living in the village. George a retired farmer and bachelor, his brother Henry and his wife Isobel and unmarried daughter Mary Kearton . This, a continual occupation by family members for over four hundreds years. We were informed that Bridge House was once the local pub called “The Foresters’ Arms” and the two level old tractor and storage shed next door had been the Beer House. A John Kearton born at Thwaite on the 2nd August, 1787, and his wife Mary Alderson had been the publicans. John had died on the 16th April, 1853 aged 65 years and Mary on the 17th April, 1863.. It took some time to comprehend the fact that we were entering houses which had been built in the 1500’s and that I was walking the paths of my early ancestors. Ray and Sylvia Hunter at that time were also the owners and proprietors of “The Kearton Guest House & Shop” directly opposite, across the main street and this establishment was named after the two famous Kearton brothers Richard and Cherry, who were born in the village. Both Sylvia and Ray, a brilliant craftsman, carpenter and stonemason, had seen the need to cater for the increasing number of walkers and visitors to the dale so, in the mid 1950’s they made the purchase of the large block of terrace houses and converted them into a shop and reception area along with an upmarket restaurant with bed and breakfast accommodation. Not content with that, when Anne and I visited again in 1987, we found that the old beer house building by Bridge House had been demolished and in its place Ray had rebuilt two self catering flats under the one roof.. On the ground floor, each had a large lounge with a modern kitchen and upstairs were the bed rooms, toilet and bathroom. During the rebuild, the ancient rear stone wall of the beer house had been retained and incorporated within the new design and the outside walls of new modern building had been sheathed with the old stone salvaged and put aside during the demolition. This had to be done to comply with heritage and the district regulations. Still obvious on a large corner stone of the old rear wall were the initials “J K” etched into the stonework. Without doubt, carved by John Kearton himself so many years before. Later Ray purchased the old Thwaite Chapel, located at the end of the village on the road leading up to Angram, Keld and beyond to Tan Hill and he also converted that building into two self catering units. Unfortunately, after a short illness, Sylvia had died at the age of 52 year on the 7th December, 1986 so she was not able to participate in Ray’s further achievements. My son James still has very fond memories of his first visit to Thwaite, helping the staff in the kitchen and dining room during our stay. Today, Ray and Sylvia’s two married daughters Valerie and Pauline manage the self catering accommodation. Ray is semi retired and The Kearton Guest House has a new proprietor and it is now known as “The Kearton Country Hotel

During my research I had been told by a number of relatives that further down the dale from Thwaite, near the village of Healaugh, there was a hamlet known as “Kearton.” The next day we had plans to visit Richmond and also have lunch there and on approaching Healaugh we were able to see the “Kearton 1” sign we had heard so much about. We were keen to see the hamlet and we went up the road for the one mile as indicated but, we were disappointed to see only one large farm house on a rise, on our right, aptly named Hill Top. From the female occupier, who was out front in the garden, we inquired if we had arrived at what appeared to be all that remained of the hamlet. With a smile she stated that over the years many visitors had asked the same question and that the buildings and ruins which made up Kearton were, in fact, down to the left of the road, out of sight over the high stone wall. Disappointed, and with no apparent access to the hamlet, we turned about and made our way back down and then went on to Richmond. To my knowledge, for the past 50 years or more, those members of the Kearton family and others from all over Britain, America, Australia and Canada, who have made the pilgrimage to Swaledale and the hamlet, have all ended up at Hill Top. As a result, this lone farm house must be one of the most photographed buildings in the area.

The truth is, what remains of the hamlet is located high up on the North side of Swaledale, between the present day villages of Feetham and Healaugh. What we eventually saw were the remains of several dwellings in complete ruin and those building remaining were becoming ruinous and in the main unoccupied.. In the 1841 census, the eleven occupied dwellings which made up the hamlet housed seventy people, both young and old. The 1843 Tithe map of the district of Melbecks, Swaledale, shows the hamlet as an attachment drawing and this clearly places the position of the eleven dwellings, gives the list of owners and occupiers and it also shows one dwelling already a ruin, a pile of rubble at that time. Refer attached illustration, re-drawn from the original as supplied by the Northallerton Record Office. Early mining records and other early documents give a number of variant name spellings for the hamlet and there is no doubt that the site has been the home of many people for a very long time. Several of the unoccupied stone built dwellings also have the remains of their internal stone spiral staircases giving access to an upper floor, thus indicating their old age. A recent examination of the immediate area by landscape archaeologists indicate that the site was occupied as far back in time as 840AD. Also in line with that, an English Place Name Directory gives that the site of “Kearton” was the Homestead or Enclosure of a Swede ( Viking ) called “Kaerir.” who settled Swaledale.

On our return In July, 1987, and now having a far better knowledge of the area Anne and I entered the hamlet off the Langthwaite Road from up above Peat Gate. Referring to the tithe map of the hamlet and quoting the numbers given to the houses illustrated, I can describe the hamlet as we saw it:

  • 958.. Of one level in poor condition and showing its age. It was still intact and apparently used as a holiday home.
  • 960.. Not recognisable as a dwelling, it had been converted into a barn and its West facing wall was falling apart with large longitudinal openings in the stonework.
  • 963/4.. Of the two semi detached dwellings there only remained a low heap of stone rubble under a large tree with only part of the chimney of 963 standing. Embedded in the pile of stones was one very rusty old style steel bed end and the remains of a small tricycle and other miscellaneous junk.. What remained of the sandstone carved fireplace surround of 963 was very ornate and I managed to retrieve a small section of this and on returning home, to keep a memory of the place, I mounted it on a wooden base along with a piece of Galena ( lead Ore) along with a brass name plate “Kearton” It was obvious that almost all of the stones which at one time formed the construction of both semi detached dwellings had been robbed to make up stone walls in the vicinity.
  • 994.. This was in complete ruin with only parts of its two walls standing. Surrounded and almost hidden by trees, stone had been robbed from the ruin to construct walls for a large sheep enclosure on site..
  • 992.. Already a ruin in 1843, the only trace of this old homestead to be seen were a small number of stones still scattered in the long grass along side the track.
  • 987/990.. Only three outside stone walls of the old houses remained and the roof was very dilapidated. The South facing walls of the two had been demolished, the interiors of both had been gutted and the whole structure was being used as a tractor and implement shed.
  • 985.. Unoccupied but part of it appeared to be used as a holiday home. Structure reasonably sound but one stone wall fractured and open to the elements.
  • 1013/1013A.. Surrounded by high trees. Known as Home Farm. Neglected and abandoned but one section of it looked to have been lived in.
  • 1011.. Known as Langhorne House. In the advanced state of being ruinous. A section of the North wall had collapsed and was open to the elements. Sheep were being kept in an eastern section of the house. In 1990, Bertrand Esarte-Sarries and his wife Veronica from Reeth made the purchase of this ruin and fully restored the dwelling to its former glory. A family of Spensley were the last occupants before it had been abandoned. The dwelling was later sold on and with further alterations by the new owners, when visited in 2000 it looked magnificent.

Today the road sign “Kearton 1” at Healaugh, at the junction of the Swaledale to Langthwaite Road which crosses Kearton/Feetham pasture, is still there. As mentioned previously, following that sign, you do go up the road for about a mile, through a gate across the road ( known as Morley gate, the only one remaining of the three that at one time enclosed Kearton/Feetham pasture ) and then you come across the farmhouse on your right known as Top Hill Farm. I must strongly emphasis that the direction sign indicating the way to “Kearton” at the junction is there in great error as neither the house Park House, Birk Park, Top Hill Farm or the dwelling immediately below the road on the left, known as Brockmagill, have never ever had any association with the Kearton hamlet, although some modern day locals, not knowing any better, would like to think that they were.. In July, 1995 I contacted the Richmond authorities about having the sign removed and re-located to a more suitable place, to the other junction to the Langthwaite Road, at Feetham. That sealed road, several hundred yards above Peat Gate, ( now a cattle grid like the other, at the end of the pasture near to the Old Gang Lead Mine entrance ) gives direct access to the original unsealed gravel road leading into the hamlet, which itself is located about a quarter of a mile distant away. After several years of exchanging letters, sending maps etc., and reports on the subject by the local newspaper, I almost succeeded in my quest but, at the last minute, an appeal by the owner of a bed and breakfast establishment at Park House, who pleaded that he used the Kearton address for his business, won the day and the misleading sign remains. However, all was not lost as the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority kindly offered to Way Mark the old public footpath into Kearton which goes down from above Morley Gate and Hill Top and through the fields of Brockmagill and exiting into the East extremity of the hamlet, by the dwelling known as Langhorne House.. They also offered to erect a finger post on the road junction, above Peat Gate. Thus indicating the road, its direction and the distance into the hamlet.

Extensive research has revealed that “Kearton” is often referred to as an old world hamlet. After the Romans departed Britain in the early part of 410 AD the country was invaded by the Angles and Saxons, many of whom settled permanently in Britain. Later came the Scandinavians and as they pushed their way inland they established small settlements and it is to these Scandinavians that Swaledale owes many of its place names and dialect. The Angles preferred the lower lands as this was more suitable for their type of arable cultivation while the Scandinavians showed great preference for the upper part of the dales. This was because the steeper slopes were more suited to the type of farming they were accustomed, in the homeland they had left behind. This explains the site of “Kearton” selected with great care high up on the Northern side of the dale, in the main to take full advantage of what warmth the sun would give them as the sun would be in the South at its zenith.

It must be realized that in those early days Swaledale looked nothing like it does today. Then, it would be heavily wooded with an abundance of elm, hawthorn, mountain ash, yew and oak. Large herds of deer roamed these woods so, at times, these new settlers must have lived a almost contented lifestyle. The Viking settlement flourished and in these modern times it is very hard to imagine the primitive domestic huts which would have made up the small settlement or enclosure. From what knowledge we have today, the lower walls would have been made up of a double row of stones to about shoulder height built on a level piece of ground or platform, many of which can still be seen about the area to this day. With a good solid base of stone, the remainder of the structure would be made up of light timber and thatch. Not much is known of this early settlement but it survived and most important it retained its name. In the time of Henry 111 the name of the hamlet was recorded as “Karretan” and in 1298, in an inquisition of Yorkshire it is given as “Kerton” In the Lay Subsidy Rolls of 1301, ( taxation for the Scots campaigns and European military activities ) among those in the lists of names were Jordan of Kearton and Geoffrey of Kearton, sometimes recorded as Kerton. As time progressed, the style and type of construction would have altered many times and it was in the early 15th Century that locally quarried gritstone was used to construct the buildings which we are fortunate to be able to still see on site today.

From the time of recorded history, Keartons with their variant of name spellings, have continued to occupy Swaledale. It has not been a very prolific family when you compare them to the Aldersons and the Metcalfes but, never the less, the Keartons remain one of the oldest family groups. It is acknowledged that the early family with is number of variant spellings, took its surname name from the settlement. In later years, prominent among these were George Kearton or Kirton as he was sometimes known, of Low Oxnop, a lead miner who also fought bare fisted contests at Tan Hill, rode with the hounds in his 100th year and who died in July, 1764 in his 124th year. A little known fact is that his youngest son George Kearton, in partnership with William Lindow of Lancashire, established a large sugar and coffee plantation on the Island of St Vincent, in the Caribbean in 1763. This plantation was known as “Keartons” and although now abandoned, it is still known as that today. We also have the brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton of Thwaite, famous for their wild life photography at home and abroad, their explorations and their 30 books published on animal and bird life, the first to illustrated with photographs rather then drawings. Still in the family we have William Johnson Kearton, Emeritus Professor of Engineering of Liverpool University, born at Cleator Moor, who also wrote and published a number of books on Turbines and Engineering Practice and like Richard and Cherry Kearton before him, he lectured on his subjects overseas. Not forgetting Sir Christopher Frank Kearton of North Sea Oil, ICI and Courtaulds fame who is of the Cheshire family…

Returning to Swaledale in 1991, 1994, 2000, 2003 and 2008, accompanied by my brother John [4 times] and with Cousin Ralph Kearton [2] and John’s son Shane Kearton [1] it was agreed by all of us that there was nothing more pleasant than a drive through Swaledale on a Summer’s Day. A far cry from its description as “Wasteland” in the Domesday Book. Driving or walking along the modern day road by the river Swale, constructed by the lead mining companies in the early 1830’s to facilitate the carriage of lead ore, you are shut in by the barriers of the surrounding hills and the remoteness of the area. This valley is recognised as one of the most beautiful in England, with its meadows, wild flowers, dry stone walls and the numerous grit stone barns and houses perched on the sides of the dale.



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