Kirkby Stephen

Market town in Kirkby Stephen parish, East Ward, Westmorland.


3,135 acres [1,269 ha], including Kirkby Stephen Common (1,491 acres [603 ha]), enclosed 1855. Shared pastures called Intake (215 acres [87 ha]) and High Intake enclosed 1850 and 1852.


Part of barony of Westmorland (see Appleby), with which manorial lordship descended. By 17th century Wharton and Musgrave families had considerable landholdings in town. Manor said 1885 to be held in three portions by Lord Hothfield, earl of Lonsdale and trustees of Sir Richard Musgrave.

Origins and growth of the town:

Market had probably grown up around parish church by 12th or 13th century: market place located at entrance to churchyard (divided from it by The Cloisters, serving as market house and piazza, built 1810). Charter granting market on Fridays and fairs in April and October granted 1351, almost certainly ratifying existing market. New market charter obtained 1606, moving market to Mondays with fairs at Whitsuntide and in October. By 19th century six livestock fairs held (between March and October) but by 1906 only those on 29 September (for horses) and 27 October (St Luke’s day ‘tup fair’ for sheep) were of significance. Hiring fairs for servants were held at Whitsuntide and Martinmas and on two consecutive Mondays in June/July. By later 17th century Kirkby Stephen had become established as centre of stocking knitting. In 1671 Sir Daniel Fleming described its market as ‘much improved by the trade of stockings, lately taken up’ and Thomas Denton, writing 1688, listed town’s staple commodity as ‘wooll & the manufacture of wool, vizt. yarn, stockings, caps, cloath &c’. This specialism maintained across 18th century but attempts to move into larger-scale textile production failed: unsuccessful attempts to establish cotton mill and manufacture of coarse woollen hats c.1800. Tannery, founded early 19th century, also short-lived. Other economic activity, growing in importance in 19th century, included brewing, brockram and limestone quarrying and lime burning. Coming of railways (South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway with Eden Valley branch 1861-2, and Midland Railway’s Settle-Carlisle line 1875-6) had only limited effect, both stations lying at a distance, south of town. Population increase was modest, rising from 1,141 in 1801 to 1,339 in 1851 but (except for slight increases associated with railway building) remaining steady at around 1,500-1,600 from later 19th and across 20th century, standing at 1,832 in 2001. In 20th century, town’s manufacturing base extended with new light industry, including Heredities cold-cast bronzed ware (1968-2003); C. J. Wilkinson’s bobbin factory (on site of disused East Station, 1969-1992); cable assembly (Brockhill Enterprises Ltd, from 1986); and mechanised stocking manufacture.

Places of worship:

Name ‘Kirkby’ (Scandinavian for ‘settlement with a church’) suggests church founded by 10th century. Medieval parish church (early dedication unknown; now St Stephen’s) partly rebuilt 1847-51 and 1871-4. Sandemanian chapel, New Inn Yard, later used by Baptists and, from 1810, by Independents; disused. Wesleyan Methodist chapel (Centenary Chapel) built 1839; still in use. Primitive Methodist chapel built 1864 (later used as Masonic Hall); replaced by new chapel 1902; closed 1979; now Youth Hostel. Congregational chapel built 1864 (replacing earlier chapel in New Inn Yard); closed c.1945; became Roman Catholic church from 1946 until Catholic congregation moved to share parish church from 1990s; now a shop. Brethren established Melbecks meeting room 1878; Gospel Hall (evangelical Christians) from mid-20th century; still in use. Baptist church built 1891; now Upper Eden Baptist Church. Quaker meeting house, Town Head, opened 1930. Cemetery, at north end of town, opened 1861.


Grammar School founded by Thomas Lord Wharton 1566; rebuilt and enlarged after 1878; and occupied latterly by girls’ school 1908-1955. Several private academies in 19th century. National boys’ school built 1868. Board school built 1877; now Kirkby Stephen Primary School. Christian Head co-educational secondary school built 1955; combined with Grammar School to become comprehensive school on Christian Head site, retaining name Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, 1959.

Other institutions:

East Ward Union Workhouse (in former cotton mill building – therefore known as ‘The Factory’) opened 1818 as Gilbert Union workhouse; became public assistance institution known as Eden House 1930; closed 1961; demolished 1974. Temperance Hall and Literary Institution, containing hall, library and reading room, built 1856. Another reading room in Market Place recorded 1860. Oddfellows’ Hall built 1855; replaced by new building 1890. Jubilee Park opened 1887.