Parish Council History - End of an era

Chapter 2 – End of an Era

The Great War

The declaration of War on Germany in 1914 was accompanied by an outburst of national patriotism. St. Bees Parish Council was caught up in the fervour and called a meeting to discuss the National War Fund and make plans to form a Volunteer Corps for those villagers above 38 willing to fight. The Fund got under way, but the Volunteer Corps was gently quashed by the Authorities, which did not want irregular bands of volunteers from all the parishes in England.

As the war progressed and it became obvious it was going to be a long hard slog, the Council became relatively inactive and concentrated on its routine duties, such as collecting the rates. The only significant initiative was the creation of allotments at Outrigg when the U-Boat menace threatened food supplies in 1917.

At the height of the war over 100 village men were serving: but many did not return. The columns of the press made sad reading with their casualty lists. During just the first few days of the ill-fated Somme offensive in July 1916, three men from the village and school were killed. Captain Stanley Kenworthy, formerly of Sea Croft, Captain R.J. Ford, a past science master at St. Bees School, and Jack Mawson of Flatt House, were among the dead.

But there were heroes to welcome back. William Leefe-Robinson, who had been a pupil at St. Bees School as recently as 1914, was awarded the V.C. in 1916 for shooting down the first Zeppelin over Great Britain. He was one of a squadron sent to attack an armada of 16 airships on a night bombing raid over London. He managed to empty a complete drum of incendiary bullets into Zeppelin SL11, near Cuffley, Herts, bringing it blazing to the ground. This incident proved the Zeppelins’ vulnerability and no further bombing raids were made by the German Army Airship Service. Leefe-Robinson re-visited St. Bees School after this exploit, and got a week extra holiday for the boys. Sadly he died in 1918 of ill-health brought on by his treatment whilst a POW.


W Leefe-Robinson – Educated at St. Bees School, he shot down the first Zeppelin from a plane over Britain and was the first member of the Royal Flying Corps to win a Victoria Cross. Three former pupils of St. Bees School won VC’s in WW1.

In Memoriam

The First World war had changed the world, and had left an indelible mark on the minds of villagers. A War Memorial committee was set up to create an enduring memorial to the 26 Village men who were killed during this terrible war of attrition.

W.G. Collingwood, who had been John Ruskin’s secretary and was an authority on celtic art, drew up a design for a memorial based upon the old cross shaft in the Priory graveyard. This design was used for the official Village memorial by the Lych Gate. However, J.D. Kenworthy of Seacroft, who had lost his eldest son in the War, thought that memorial lacked impact and was in the wrong place, so he erected the imposing “St. George & the Dragon” memorial by the Station. Today both are looked after by the Parish Council as village war memorials.

War memorial by railway
School war memorial
Graveyard war memorial
St George and the dragon at the Railway Station
St. Bees School war memorial being unveiled by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle, 1921
The Village war memorial in the graveyard

St. Bees School had suffered too. One hundred and eighty three old boys and Masters of St. Bees School had been killed: a disproportionately large number for the size of the School. In 1921 the St. Bees School Roll of Honour was published and a formal memorial was dedicated by the Bishop of Carlisle, on the terrace by the School chapel.

The Old St. Beghians Club decided to create a playing field as an additional memorial. An appeal for subscriptions raised £4,800. The Vicar’s former glebe land between Pow Beck and the Priory was purchased and an estimate obtained of £1,000 to drain and level the ground. The Club decided this was rather expensive, so decided to do it themselves. However it eventually cost them £2,430.

Nonetheless the “Memorial Field” was finally opened in 1925 by Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley DSO, CMG, an old boy of the School. Critchley was an apt choice. He had been a Brigadier-General at only 27; which had made him the youngest general in the British Army. He had won several amateur boxing, lawn tennis and golf championships, and had played polo for Western Canada. In 1925 he was introducing greyhound racing into Britain. The General maintained in his speech that it was the platoon commanders who won the war, and made the rousing call; “Show me a sportsman, and I will give you an officer”.

British Legion parade

On 29 June 1927 HRH the Prince of Wales inspected the 61 men of the St. Bees branch of the British Legion. With him on the far right is Lord Lonsdale, and in the middle is Lt-Col George Dixon, president of the branch. The Prince went on to St. Bees School, where he inspected the Officer Training Corps, and laid a wreath at the school war memorial.

Peace and Progress

The men returning from the trenches seemed determined to build a new peace, and the 1919 council election had 19 candidates, which made it the most hotly contested since the council was formed. But after this initial enthusiasm, somehow there didn’t seem to be the enduring energy and purpose that had driven the pre-war Council. The war had killed or disabled many village men in their prime, and possibly it had killed some of the faith in an organised Society.

In 1919 the Council lost its long-serving clerk, John Hartley, who died aged 61. He had been clerk to the Council since it was formed in 1894, and had been the village schoolmaster for 35 years. A Provincial Grand Master of the Whitehaven Oddfellows, he also ran the Sancta Bega Oddfellows Lodge. He was also a Churchwarden, Secretary of the Recreation Ground committee and Assistant Parish Overseer. His wife took up the job of parish clerk at his death, a post she held until 1927. Between them the Hartleys served the Council for 33 years.

Mr. T.E.G. Marley, who had been chairman since the death of John Bowly, resigned in 1922 as he was leaving the area. He was born in Darlington in 1850, and was Managing Director of the Whitehaven Haematite Iron & Steel Co., the Derwent Bridge & Boiler Co., and General Manager of the Lowca Engineering Company. A President of the St. Bees Horticultural Society, he was also chairman of the Recreation Ground Committee. He was succeeded as chairman by the Revd. Alfred Ainley, Vicar of St. Bees since 1911, and a councillor since 1913.

The new tourists come to
St Bees by car

Changing Lifestyles

The village had been in communication with the rest of the Country by telegraph following the coming of the railway in 1850. But by 1923 St. Bees still had only one telephone line to the outside world. The Council made strong representations to the GPO, who shortly after laid new cables, and telephoning finally became quicker than writing a letter. Although the village’s first garage had been built in 1906, it wasn’t until after the war that the internal combustion engine started to make its mark. Road transport started to develop, and a regular motor bus service was inaugurated to Whitehaven.

The arrival of electricity in 1930 changed village lifestyles dramatically. Electric lighting, electric irons, and mains powered wirelesses were the greatest boons for villagers. The church was able to scrap its water engines and pump the huge Willis organ by electric blower, although in 1930 gas was still cheaper in the village than electricity. But only a year later, in 191, the Parish Council was receiving very attractive quotations for electric street lighting from the South Cumberland Electricity Company. Gas was costing £2-17s-6d a year per light, whilst electricity would only be £2-5s-0d. There was no argument, and electric street lighting was soon installed. It was maintained by the Electricity Co. under contract to the Parish Council.

The move to electricity within the community caused a huge loss of business for the St. Bees Gas Co., which went into receivership in 1937. After a referendum in the village the District Council took over the Gas Works, which was finally closed when the village was joined to the gas grid via Egremont.

Hampton Lodge group
Fashions old and new
in 1933. A village group of McKays, Warings, Watsons and friends at Hampton Place.

Hodgett’s Club

The Revd. Alfred Pagan had died in 1917. This released the Council from the Utopian terms of his gift. Town Head Farm was sold to repay the capital to his widow, and the Council was left with a considerable sum from its astute investment of the rents. After the War it was decided to use this to purchase “Hodgetts Club” from the Whitehaven Liberal Association for £850. Built in about 1882 by Alfred Hodgett of Abbots Court, the Club was evidently thought to be a good buy, as it was immediately re-insured for £2,000. It had a reading room and a billiard room downstairs, and a dance hall with a stage upstairs. A resident caretaker lived in the house at the back. A sub-committee of the Parish Council ran the club and “Hodgetts” now served as the village hall.

The Brass Band

Perhaps because of the many miners in the village, St. Bees had its own brass band, which was formed in the 1800’s. At its peak it had about 20 players and played for village fetes and dances. In 1917, fearing that the instruments might be split up, the Band made the Parish Council the trustees of the instruments and the “Band Room”.

However, interest was not sustained, and by 1924 the Parish Council was enquiring if the band was still functioning. In 1929, after a silver cornet was stolen, the band was dissolved, and the Council stored the instruments under the stage in Hodgetts Club upper room, where they gathered dust.

brass band

The Band Room was a corrugated iron shed built in 1914 down Gas House Lonning. After 1929 it lay unused, until in 1933 the St. Bees Unemployed Men’s Club and the St. Bees (pigeon) Flying Club used it for their meetings.

There were several requests to use the instruments but the Trust agreement stipulated that they could only be used by the St. Bees Village Band. Since this was defunct, they could not be used at all. The instruments were preserved; but in silence. The sad end of this story of village music making was in 1947, when the instruments were finally sold for £50 to Boosey & Hawkes, the money raised going to the Pagan Trust fund. A year later the redundant Band Room was disposed of for £23.

The British Legion

The St. Bees branch of the British Legion was formed after the First War, and after 1925 had their HQ in two wooden huts at the bottom of Outrigg. One hut had been the temporary premises of the Midland bank in Whitehaven and the other was brought from Camerton, where it had been the Miner’s Welfare Club.

With about 60 members, the Legion was a hub of village social life between the wars. There were legendary tatie pot suppers, when the tatie pots were cooked around the village in member’s houses and a barrel of beer was set up at the end of the room.

During the Second War the aging huts nearly burnt down. One night in March 1940, Harold Butler noticed flames under the stair, and after calling out other Legionnaires the flames were eventually subdued with stirrup pumps.

But by 1960 the huts were in poor repair, and the Legion moved into Hodgett’s Club. Although the Second War gave a new lease of life to the Legion, numbers inevitably dropped. Finally, on Remembrance Sunday 1994, the banner was paraded for the last time, and the Branch was disbanded.

Scouts to the rescue

St. Bees’ most remarkable maritime incident occurred in the 1920’s when a ship abandoned by its crew was saved by Boy Scouts. On the night of August 8th 1925, the 400 ton SS Linton en route from Workington to the Mersey developed a heavy list off St. Bees Head. Fearing she was going to founder, the Captain took her close in, and launching a small boat reached the rocks beneath the North Head, and then climbed up to the lighthouse.

But the Linton didn’t sink, and drifted south with the tide. The next morning, the 10th Halifax Scouts, who were camping on the “Green” at the Seacote foreshore, spotted the ship. The sea had moderated, and realising the Linton was abandoned, the scouts decided to try and salvage her. Led by their scouter, the Revd. E.H. Roseveare, two scouts and two Hensingham boys, who were camping nearby, launched a small boat in the heavy surf, and boarded the Linton at 11 am. Unfortunately their boat was smashed up soon after boarding, but they managed to drop the anchors and stop the ship drifting.

Meanwhile, the shamefaced crew were persuaded to re-board the Linton, and at 4 p.m. the tug “Puncher” from Whitehaven put them on board and took off the scouts, who received a heroes’ welcome on their return. The Linton was inspected by Lloyds, and allowed to continue a few days later. The Scouts had wisely written their names on the ship to prove their claim for salvage; and later each got a substantial payment which they put into Scout funds.

Council Reform

The process of local government reform rumbled on. In 1929 the old Boards of Guardians were finally abolished, and their Poor Law responsibilities went to the Social Services Departments of the County Councils. The cumbersome system of having overseers in every parish to value and collect the various rates was also abolished, and this work was centralised at the District Council. The Parish Council lost its overseers, and probably a little bit of status, but got rid of a big headache.

>Hartley family
The Hartley family at Grindal Terrace. John Hartley was the village schoolmaster and parish clerk. After his death his wife took over as clerk.

Under the Local Government Act 1933, the old Whitehaven and Egremont Rural District Councils were abolished, and the Ennerdale Rural District Council was created in their place. This now became the District Council for St. Bees.

Roads now became the responsibility of the County Council, and one of the first effects of this was the purchase in 1934 of the Coach Road from the Lowther Estates. This was now made a public road.

The St Bees Bomb Hoax

In 1932 Scotland Yard descended on the village when a “bomb” was found under the stage at St. Bees School Annual Speech day. The speaker, Lord Lloyd, Viceroy of Egypt, was to unveil the memorial to the School’s three First War Victoria Cross holders. During his speech a cracking noise was heard from under the stage, and afterwards an apparatus resembling a bomb was discovered.

Examination revealed a small charge of black powder triggered by a clock . It had merely fizzed like a fuse, and the incident would have fizzled out too, but a government explosives expert who was fishing at Ennerdale was called in to investigate. Soon the device was in London, and the story was in the national papers. Lord Lloyd had fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the desert, and the incident had political implications as Arab influence was suspected. Inspector Kitchener of the political investigation branch of Scotland Yard caught the next train to St. Bees.

Speculation buzzed in the press until two old boys of the school were arrested and charged. QC’s were engaged on both sides and argument raged, but in the end the prosecution failed to prove the presence of the old boys in the village prior to the incident, and they were acquitted on lack of evidence. Generally thought to be a hoax which had gone wrong, the press reported that the prosecution “was a sledge hammer to kill a fly”.

The Tomlin Swimming Pool

The 1930s blight of unemployment hit West Cumberland as hard as anywhere in the country. A fair number of village men had worked in the mines, and unemployment increased as these shut down or went on short time. Unemployment was alleviated for some by a project to build an outdoor swimming pool in the rocks at the foot of Tomlin.

Dynamiting pool

This was master-minded by Isaac Spedding, an unemployed marine engineer who enlisted unemployed volunteers to assist him. A lease on the land was given by the Lowther Estates, and work started in 1933. Six hundred tons of rock were removed with the aid of explosives and a 3 ton crane lent by Stouts Foundry. A rectangular pool was constructed which could hold 80,000 gallons of sea water and was 31/2 feet at the shallow end and 7 feet at the deep end. It had a diving board, and an apparatus to give swimming instruction.

Tamping the dynamite before blasting during the construction of the pool.

A large crowd was present for the opening on a hot sunny day in July 1934. The Parish Council Chairman, Revd. A. Ainley, welcomed the crowds, and Miss Claribel Walker J.P. of Seascale, who, after a short speech, declared the pool open. The first in the pool were the St. Bees Scouts to give a swimming demonstration.

Below – The finished article

Swimming pool

The Pool was maintained by the St Bees Unemployed Mens’ Club, who kept it clear of debris and could empty it with a petrol-driven pump. Pensioners and unemployed had free access, but children paid a penny and adults twopence. During the early part of Second War it was cleaned by boys from St Bees School, but it had silted with shingle and rocks by the War’s

Aerial diversions

Aircraft provided welcome diversions for villagers in the 1930s. In June 1936 a two-seater Avro Cadet landed in a field near Blythe Place owing to a shortage of oil. A crowd soon gathered and someone was despatched to Fee’s garage for 5 gallons of Castrol XL . Meanwhile, the pilot, Mr. T.E. Wessen of Warwick, who was en route from Carlisle to Croydon, settled down to tea at a nearby house. Unfortunately the landing field was so small that take-off was impossible. But a large crowd had gathered and the small plane was physically man-handled 150 yards to Pica Banks, the brows above Seamill Lane. At 8 p.m. Mr. Wessen took off, and with a buttered muffin in his hand no doubt, circled the crowd and headed south.

The international air races from London to the Isle of Man, and the King’s Cup air races both used St. Bees Lighthouse as a turning marker. It afforded villagers a grandstand view of the competitions and crowds of over 300 would gather at the North Head. Despite this obvious marker in the 1937 IOM race two competitors mistook Tomlin for the turning point, and headed for the Island to be disqualified on arrival at Ronaldsway.

Clouds of War

In 1932 the Parish Council had been advised by Vickers Armstrong, the armaments manufacturers, that they wished to extend the area of test shelling so that large calibre shells would fall within 2000 yards of the low water mark on St. Bees beach. These shells were fired from 19 miles away at Eskmeals, south of Ravenglass. Modern naval warfare dictated that the point of impact had to be accurate to within a few feet. As this had to be spotted from fixed observation huts on land, the impact had to be close in.

The St. Bees Council, along with other coastal parishes, objected strongly. The prospect of supersonic shells sailing over the heads of holidaymakers was not attractive. Eventually a modified licence was granted which allowed a 4,000 yard margin from Nethertown Point and banned firing in summer.

By 1937, with the storm clouds gathering over Europe, the need to test new guns and munitions, as part of the belated arms race against Hitler, prompted a further application to fire close in. Again the Parish Councils objected. But this time, there was more at stake, and Council representatives were taken to the highly secret Eskmeals installation ( which still doesn’t exist on the map). After seeing the fire control systems, they recommended approval, and shells were allowed to land within 2,000 yards of the low water mark.

Whilst a crisis was brewing in Europe, St. Bees School was having its own crisis. Numbers had fallen badly in the 1930s because of the Depression, and by 1938 there were less than 70 boys at the School. Unless something was done, the School would have to close at the end of Summer term 1939. Rather than do this, the Governors opened negotiations with the County Education Committee to turn it into a State secondary school. The Old Boys were horrified at this prospect, and an appeal for funds raised enough money to enable the school to continue past that date. This solution was never put to a long term test because the war intervened. Mill Hill arrived and used the empty classrooms, and with the blitz raging in the south, St. Bees School became very attractive for worried parents.

In preparation for the inevitable conflict, the Fire Service was nationally organised under District Councils, ARP wardens were appointed, and there was a dummy evacuation exercise (minus pupils) of Mill Hill School from North London.

Excursion leaving St. Bees

St Bees railway station between the wars.

In the Second World War it would see the arrival of war evacuees, a garrison for the radar station and the pupils of Mill Hill School.

Scroll to Top