Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Cattle Droving, Cotton and Landownership: a Cumbrian Family Saga by Peter Roebuck. CWAAS.
In 1696, when Thomas and Mary Parker made it their home, Old Town House was small, just one room downstairs and another above that was reached by a ladder. In the first ten years of their marriage they had five children and in the second decade they had a second five - six boys and four girls in total. The house was extended, tripled in size with larger rooms to accommodate the growing family and reflecting the Parkers' increasing prosperity. "The upper rooms now had higher ceilings and, easing congestion above and below, the offshoot provided a kitchen, scullery, pantry and half-cellar." The back garden was laid out for vegetables and there were four bee-holes in the wall to shelter the straw-skeps or hives.
Beyond the house, across a cobbled lane, a barn was built in 1725. It was three stories high, far too large for a yeoman farmer. It was a "service station" on the droving route south from Scotland, well placed to provision the cattle and the drovers as they made their journey to market through High Hesket. A ramp led to the first floor where hay, oats, bigg and straw would be kept. The drovers would have slept on the floor above and their horses and dogs would have been on the ground floor, where there might have been a blacksmith's shop as well.
Thomas's ancestors in Wreay and Carleton had thrived on the droving trade and the trade proved equally lucrative for his descendants. There were strong family bonds and a streak of yeoman independence. By 1784, Robert Parker was, apparently, senior partner in the firm of Parker, Topham and Sowden, cloth merchants of Watling Street, London. In under ten years he had moved to the heart of the business and was manufacturing cotton himself owning a factory at Heaton Mersey in Stockport. Business prospered and Robert was joined by other members of the family in making calico.
The enterprising Cumbrian yeoman family expanded out of farming into droving and, moving south, became industrial entrepreneurs. They made and sold the cloth and opened up export markets and found themselves at the heart of booming Manchester. Robert was sixty-four before he married, a woman half his age. Within seven years, he was dead, thrown from his carriage on to the hard cobbles.
In the 1820s, led by Thomas Parker, they installed power looms and bought warehouses. "In the longer term, it was the canny, resourceful and quick-witted who survived and prospered. Robert senior and his nephew, Thomas Parker, steering their activities adroitly, had these qualities in abundance."
Industrial money enabled other members of the family to buy and develop Warwick Hall and Skirwith Abbey back in Cumberland. Within a generation, however, the family's entrepreneurial energy had dissipated. Wrong decisions were made and the family which had been so fertile a century before, failed to produce heirs.
Peter Roebuck has pulled at one thread in the fabric of Cumbrian history. Carefully following that thread he has shown the rise and fall of the Parker family, but he has also shown, in lucid and enthralling detail, the pattern of change that took place over two centuries and how individual people were caught up in the process. Old documents, wills and accounts and mortgages, have been brought to life.
And that thread began in the walls of his own home. When he retired after a distinguished career as Professor of History at Ulster University, Peter went to live in Old Town House with the kitchen, scullery, pantry and half-cellar and the bee-holes in the back-wall.
He has brought the house to life.