Growing up in Carlisle I was not familiar with its historic buildings. Of course I’d been to the castle, to look around and go to children’s events. My secondary school prize giving ceremonies were held in the cathedral, and one felt like it had gone on for so long that my friends and I joked we could see the sun rising through the window. So I was aware of these places – but I was not familiar with them. It is only when I’ve been set a project with a fixed deadline – for my undergraduate thesis and at the Wordsworth Trust as a trainee – that I’ve really explored the history of my home town in any depth. And what an interesting history I discovered.
For the past month I have been at the Wordsworth Trust as one of the two Oxford graduate trainees they take on every year. When I applied for the position the curator, Jeff Cowton, wanted to develop a project for me to work on. I pointed out that my dissertation and previous work experience had all revolved around Cumbria, so for him it seemed an obvious choice: a project on the history of Carlisle. He thought it would be interesting to research Carlisle in the 18th century and consider the cultural backdrop to Wordsworth’s upbringing nearby. So, for the few months after the end of my exams and before arriving at Grasmere, I researched the history of Carlisle and the people who emerged as being of particular cultural significance. Jeff then asked me to develop this research by applying it to items in the Wordsworth Trust collection. He hoped that this would enhance reader understanding of Carlisle-related items. Jeff was not entirely sure how many items there would be; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small treasure trove. My research is now available to read on the collection website.
Carlisle at the beginning of the 18th century was very much a military city, despite its previous role as a defence against the Scots becoming obsolete with the succession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603. John Bernard Gilpin (1701-1793), an artist resident in Carlisle whose work survives in the Wordsworth Trust collection, was also a captain of a garrison stationed in the city, and soldiers would continue to be based in Carlisle for centuries.
In 1745 Carlisle was required to serve a military purpose once more, when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite supporters invaded England to try and take the throne from George II. Carlisle was besieged from 13-16 November before surrendering to the Jacobites, and then was recaptured by the Duke of Cumberland at the end of the year. Prisoners were tried at Carlisle and kept in the Castle before execution, as shown in J. Carter’s print of Fergus McIvor, the hero of Walter Scott’s novel Waverley (1814) being carted from the castle to his place of death. Waverley was Walter Scott’s first novel, and the beginning of a long string of hugely successful works. The use of real historical locations as the settings of dramatic fictional events, such as Scott’s characters fighting at the siege of Carlisle, is rather exciting.
J. Carter after Thomas Miles Richardson (Senior) (1784-1848), Carlisle Castle, Execution of Fergus McIvor and Evan Dhu.
Images of Carlisle in the early 18th century show that it was limited by its military function; for example, in the Buck brothers 1745 print, we can see that the majority of buildings are contained within the city walls, which was the safest place to be during an attack. The peace which followed the 1745 Jacobite rebellion allowed for population growth as suburbs developed outside the walls: Caldewgate, Botchergate and Rickergate. The Universal British Directory (1790) claimed that in 1775 the population of Carlisle was 4,000 while in 1785 it was double that. This growth meant that there was a greater variety of citizens and increasing cultural pursuits.
Now that Carlisle’s original military purpose had come to an end, its historic military buildings could be admired for their pleasing appearance, rather than their functionality. The castle and Citadel, both shown in the Buck brothers print, were of particular interest due to their history. Prints of historic buildings were often made in anticipation of their being demolished. For example, Queen Mary’s Tower, the corner of the castle where Mary Queen of Scots had lodged in 1568, was pulled down in 1835. In the same year Thomas Allom’s drawing of the castle was published as a print with the tower made to look bigger than it actually was, and M.E. Nutter’s print of the tower was also published in the 1830s.
Engraving by A. Le Petit, published London: Son and Co. Fisher, 1835. Queen Mary’s Tower is the projecting turret to the far right, with a flag above.
The Citadel, built on the order of Henry VIII in 1541-3, was in poor condition by the early 19th century and so it was rebuilt to the plans of Robert Smirke. J. Noble’s engraving of 1803 shows the old Citadel in its dilapidated but romantic state, while Edward Finden’s engraving of 1828 shows the new Citadel, built in the Gothic style to maintain a connection to the previous building and which still survives today.
J. Noble after R. Carlisle, the Citadel at Carlisle, 1803, engraving,
Finden, Edward (1791-1850) after Westall, William (1781-1850). – Entrance to Carlisle from the south, the prison and session house. –
Artists were also interested in historic buildings due to the ideas of Romanticism. This movement celebrated nature and the emotions, so medieval ruins and historic buildings could be evocative subjects. William Gilpin (1724-1804), the son of John Bernard Gilpin, developed the theory of the ‘picturesque’: ‘a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture’. He believed that all locations should be viewed from a particular spot which was the most ‘picturesque’. Surprisingly, many prints show Carlisle from the same location: from the north-east on the other side of the River Eden. This allowed artists to include both of the city’s key buildings – the castle and cathedral – and the natural scenery which Romantics admired. Sir George Beaumont’s 1798 drawing of the city perfectly exemplifies the contemporary focus on these features.
Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), Carlisle, 29th August 1798, pen and ink drawing.
Romanticism also shaped the expectations people had when they came to Carlisle. While artists tried to emphasise Carlisle’s natural scenery by drawing the riverbanks curving towards the Eden Bridge, the reality of Carlisle’s urban landscape might not satisfy visitors. Dorothy Wordsworth expresses her disappointment in her Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, manuscripts of which survive in the Wordsworth Trust collection. ‘Walked upon the city walls, which are broken down in places and crumbling away, and most disgusting from filth. The city and neighbourhood of Carlisle disappointed me’. Romantic ruins might be appealing in pictures, but the reality of decay was less attractive. Dorothy also disliked Carlisle’s natural scenery: ‘the banks of the river quite flat, and, though the holms [the flat land beside a river] are rich, there is not much beauty in the vale from the want of trees… I scarcely know how, but to me the holms had not a natural look; there was something townish in their appearance, a dullness in their strong deep green.’ Dorothy much preferred the natural landscape of the Lake District.
Dorothy’s ‘Recollections of a tour in Scotland’ with revisions from the 1803 text, showing the pages on Carlisle.
While Carlisle did not inspire Dorothy’s imagination, it proved a fertile home for Susanna Blamire (1747-1794), Carlisle’s outstanding 18th century poet. Blamire began to write poems as a child, often addressed to and discussing the lives of people she knew. Friendship was a common theme in her poems, and she admitted she could not do without good company in her poem ‘On Society’, now in the Wordsworth Trust collection: ‘For me in social life is all my Bliss, / There rests my Idea of the smallest good’. Blamire was a good rider, and the Carlisle Hunt included ladies; she wrote a poem about it in which we hear about the exploits of ancient deities watching over the hunt. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, declares: ‘My daughters are like snowdrops seen, All dress’d in white and trimm’d with green’ – the uniform of the Carlisle hunt. Cupid steals Diana’s arrows to shoot the young ladies and cause them heartbreak, but Hymen, the god of marriage ceremonies, ‘heard, and with a smile, Declar’d he’d hover round Carlisle.’ Blamire never married; according to family gossip she fell in love with Earl Tankerville’s son Lord Ossulston, but the match was not considered appropriate by the earl’s family. Many of Blamire’s mournful poems are claimed to have been written about this relationship, such as ‘My Nanny O’, also in the Wordsworth Trust collection: ‘the late enlivgning maid… Now grief absenses the cheerfull sky / And clouds the sun-beam of her Eye’.
Carlisle’s political life was equally dramatic. Elections were hotly debated as the Earl of Lonsdale tried to secure his candidates with ‘mushroom voters’, which the House of Commons overruled. The French Revolution caused further anxiety, as establishment figures feared popular uprisings and challenges to the social order. William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle 1782-1805, was famed as a theologian during his lifetime, but he also wrote about social issues. In his 1793 treatise Reasons for contentment; addressed to the labouring part of the British public he argued that the lower classes should accept their positions and not envy those wealthier than them. He tried to argue that the poor are actually better off than the rich, as having no occupation is ‘the greatest plague of the human soul’. All people find the greatest happiness in ‘domestic affections’: ‘The poor man has his wife and children about him, and what has the rich more?’
These items associated with Carlisle’s history certainly inspire my imagination, as I envisage how the city has changed, the buildings which have disappeared, the social gatherings which took place and the fascinating individuals who called the city home. I can see the variety of emotions at play in 18th century Carlisle in the surviving artefacts: awe and dismay, fear and delight.
Joseph Massey is a curatorial and conservation volunteer at The Wordsworth Trust and Tullie House.