Kirkby Lonsdale

Market town and township in Kirkby Lonsdale parish, Lonsdale ward, Westmorland, including hamlets of Biggins, Kearstwick, Tearnside and Underley. Became Kirkby Lonsdale UD from 1894 to 1935.


3,254 acres [1,317 ha], including common land at Kirkby Moor (1,124 acres [455 ha]), enclosed 1810.


Manor of Kirkby Lonsdale granted to St.Mary’s Abbey, York, by 1100; after Dissolution granted to Thomas Carus of Halton 1558, passing by marriage to Curwens of Workington. By 1640 was held by Prestons of Holker who sold it before 1672 to Sir John Lowther. Manor of Deansbiggin held by Copeland family in 13th and 14th centuries; passed through several families (Tunstall, Middleton, Booth, Borrett, Batty) before being sold on death of Henry Bickersteth (d. 1821) to Alexander Nowell of Underley. Underley estate in hands of Wilson family from 17th century; sold 1732 to Hugh Ashton, whose descendant sold it 1808 to Alexander Nowell, who rebuilt house 1825-8. Nowell sold Underley to William Thompson 1840, from whom it descended to Cavendish-Bentinck family. Largely broken up in 1940s

Origins and growth of the town:

Market grew up adjacent to parish church, probably in 12th century: market charter granted to parson, John de Kirkby, 1227, with weekly market on Thursday and livestock fairs (held fortnightly from Maundy Thursday to Michaelmas in late 17th century). In 1692 market and fairs said to ‘afford a great store of cattle and all sorts of grain in great plenty’. By later 17th century Sir Daniel Fleming described Kirkby as ‘a Towne of note, whither all the people round about repair to church and mercate’ and said it was second only to Kendal in size. Market places in narrow streets close to church replaced by new Market Square 1820, where trading was governed by precise and elaborate rules, laid down 1822. As market centre close to county boundary and on main Kendal-Skipton road, Kirkby Lonsdale contained numerous inns. By late 18th century tanning and weaving had been established: carpet and blanket factories, two tanneries and water-powered textile printing works recorded in mid-19th century but most industrial activity had died out by 1900. Town remained modest in size, probably in part because railway did not reach it (nearest station 2 miles away at Cowan Bridge). Population rose from 1,283 in 1801 to only 1,802 in 1891, then fell, to reach a low point of 1,240 in 1951, before rising again to 1,771 in 2001. Economy increasingly depended on tourism by later 20th century. Livestock market closed by 1990s. Rural parts of township remained largely agricultural, with limestone quarrying and lime-burning in 19th century. Small business park beside A65 to west of town from 2007.

Places of worship:

Name ‘Kirkby’ (Scandinavian, meaning ‘settlement with a church’) implies presence of church by 10th century, probably on site of later parish church of St Mary (contains fabric from c.1100; extended 15th/16th century; north aisle added 1574; restored 1866-8). Other medieval religious sites included hospital of St Leonard at Spittal and chapel at Tearnside (recorded by 1250; demolished 17th century). Methodist meeting house by 1778; replaced by new chapel 1834; still in use. Independent (Congregational) chapel established 1815; closed 1965; sold to Roman Catholics. Sandemanian chapel built 1828; had closed by 1873. St Joseph’s RC church established in former Congregational chapel 1966.


School recorded 1550. Queen Elizabeth Grammar School established 1591 near church; rebuilt on Biggins Lane 1848; became comprehensive school 1985. Subscription school opened 1856 in former workhouse; replaced by National school 1858; replaced 1986 by new school on new site, now St Mary’s CE Primary School. School in Independent chapel and several dame schools in mid-19th century. School of handicrafts established 1891 in former Sandemanian chapel; continued until 1940s. Underley Hall became residential school from 1940s, first as preparatory school; then as seminary (from 1960); latterly (from 1976 to 2012) school for children with special needs.

Other institutions:

Workhouse at Mill Brow (newly built 1735) extended 1812 to serve Gilbert Union (Kirkby Lonsdale and sixteen surrounding townships), formed 1811; closed after formation of Kendal Poor Law Union 1836 (may have continued in use as casual ward in mid-19th century). Library (above vestry in parish church) in 17th century; book club, with library of 500 volumes, recorded 1794. Mechanics’ Institute founded 1854. Institute on New Road built 1895. Public library in UD Council offices, Beckhead, until moved 1980 to former Sandemanian chapel. Reading room and institute at Kearstwick built 1902; closed 1990s and converted to dwelling.