Parish Council History - The Village grows

Chapter 5 – The Village Grows

The 1972 Local Government Act gave parish councils a shot in the arm. They were given increased spending powers, and amongst other things, gained the right to be consulted on all planning applications for building development in their parishes. This was highly fortunate for St. Bees as the village was under unprecedented pressure for new building development.

An application in 1972 to build an estate at the top of Outrigg, and one in 1973 for about 40 houses in the field behind Abbotts Court had caused an outcry amongst villagers, who queried the domination of speculative building over the needs of the community. Why disperse the population of the village in this manner?

The Parish Council had first requested a Village Plan in 1925, but it was not until the creation of Copeland Council in 1973 that the first steps were taken. During 1975-6 packed meetings in Hodgett’s saw the “St. Bees Plan” developed into an agreed document for the best development of the community. The Plan allowed for a controlled growth rate whilst concentrating development round the village core. It encouraged public sector and retirement housing and building styles which were sympathetic with the traditional architecture.

The Crofts Estate was the first major development under the Plan. It was close to the village, built largely in a sandstone coloured brick, and catering partly for the price bracket the village needed.

A proposed development in the grounds of Seacroft House in 1985 caught villagers by surprise. This had not been included in the Plan, but was in a good situation, and met many of the criteria. However, it was the density of housing, and the felling of trees that spurred villagers to object with a petition of over 300 names. It was only after much amendment, and the promise of access to land behind the Main Street for public sector housing that permission was eventually given.

The St. Bees Plan has now been superseded by the Mid-Copeland Plan, and in the future by the Copeland Plan, which means the only certainty about planning is that nobody knows what’s going to happen.


The entrance to Seacroft House before the building of the new estate.





The Council Changes Gear

The 1972 Act abolished Whitehaven Borough and Ennerdale Rural District Councils, and created the bigger Copeland Borough Council in their place. With increased spending rights, the Council now took a greater role in encouraging local initiatives, and there was an immediate increase in Parish Council business.

Public interest in the Parish Council reached an all-time high in the 1979 election, when there were 21 candidates for 14 seats. Enthusiasm was seemingly unabated at a later by-election for a vacancy, when one candidate toured the Village with a loudspeaker van.

During the lengthy firemen’s strike in 1977, a village emergency fire brigade came into operation, based at the Station Garage. The County Council loaned a fire pump which was towed behind the breakdown lorry. During the day the Garage staff manned the “Engine”. At night incidents were to be phoned to the Council Chairman, who would ring the Seacote Hotel, from where three distress rockets would be fired. This alerted Council members to go the Garage and race to the scene of the fire.

In 1976, Leslie Brownrigg, who had been Parish Council Chairman since 1964, resigned the Chair so he could concentrate his efforts on representing St. Bees on Copeland Council. Remaining as a Parish Councillor to the present day, he comes from the family that offered pioneering trips to the lakes in the 1900’s and is well known as a past owner of the Station Garage. His successor was Derek Sim, who had been on the council since 1955.

The remarkable Jack Middleton also retired that year, after holding the Clerk’s job since 1939. At various times, railway porter, signalman, and butcher with a shop on Cross Hill; Jack had first assisted George Knutsford in the slaughter-house at the foot of Outrigg. He served as a corporal in the Border Regiment in the Great War at the age of 16, and later became Secretary of the St. Bees British Legion and a sergeant in the Home Guard.

Parish council

Retirement of jack Middleton 1976, after being clerk for 37 years. Front Row: L to R, Leslie Brownrigg; Chairman, Jack Middleton. Middle row: Trevor Moulding (County councillor) Dacre Watson, Arthur Irving, Neville Denson (CEO Copeland) Gerald Lamble, Billy Cottam, Roland West and the new clerk, Bob Pearson. Back row: Harold Wilson, Derek Sim, Ron Mullely (assn local councils) Phillip Marshall, Donald Brownrigg, Henry Steele, and Roy Letheran. Jack became clerk in 1939 at a annual salary of £6/8s/4d. Smiles are at the thought of the dinner to follow, served by “mine host” Roland West at the Seacote Hotel..

The Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977 was celebrated by the Council with gusto. They organised a sports day at the Recreation Ground which included subjecting the councillors to the usual “It’s a knock out” team games. There was the obligatory bonfire on Tomlin, and mugs were given to all the village schoolchildren.

The demolition of the Old Barn opposite the Tuck shop provided the opportunity to create some greenery in the middle of the village. The result was the “Jubilee Garden”. This was highly successful and was the first of the Council’s initiatives in buying land for public amenity.

Stonehouse Barn

The old barn (on the left) was demolished and on the site there is now some welcome greenery in the centre of the village in the Jubilee Garden.(below)

Stonehouse Garden

There have been other similar initiatives. In 1982 the long field by the Station garage was bought and the Beck Edge Garden was created. In 1992 the Seamill Foreshore was purchased from the County Council to ensure that private development did not prevent access to that end of the beach.

Less successful have been the allotments. The 1978 potato scare prompted villagers to petition the Council for the provision of allotments, and land was purchased at Seamill Lane. But as the scare died off, and the EEC entered a toilet roll shortage, the allotments were abandoned to the weeds.


Crowds assemble at the recreation ground for the 1976 Jubilee celebrations organised by the Parish Council



The Great Phone Box Stake-Out

St. Bees was briefly in the national limelight in 1973 when the Great Phone Box stake-out burst on an unsuspecting public. The GPO had never been generous with public telephones, and allowed only one call box in the village centre. St. Bees School was apparently similarly short of apparatus, and the ritual of a long queue of schoolboys waiting to phone home on a Sunday was a common village sight. The phone was denied to all but the most determined queuer. Residents complained, but St. Bees School didn’t feel there was a problem; there was a phone available for pupils’ use. Unfortunately Matron sat within two feet of it.

Complaints increased, so finally the Council bit the bullet and staked out the Call Box in John Le Carre style. Councillors in plain clothes lurked on the Main Street and kept a log of its use throughout one Sunday. Their report showed that during seven hours the phone had only been free for 40 minutes. The council’s findings found their way into the national press. Unfortunately the London Times was using a medieval map, and reported St. Bees as being in Northumberland. Nonetheless, the story had the desired effect and telephonic apparatus for the private use of pupils was soon installed at the School.

Phonebox cartoon

In the days before almost universal domestic phones, (and mobiles were a dream still) the phone box on the Main Street opposite 31 Main Street was heavily used. Sunday afternoons became a battleground until St. Bees School decided to install a phone for the use of pupils – but it had to get in the national press first.

This little straining of relationships between Council and School did not last long. The School and Village must live together, and a new era of co-operation was ushered in by several initiatives. One such was the building of the new footbridge.

By 1981 it was obvious there a road safety problem for pedestrians at Pow Beck bridge; especially with the large numbers of St. Bees School pupils using the very narrow pavement. The School and Council petitioned for the construction of a separate footbridge to solve the problem. However this was costed out of existence by the County Council. Nonetheless, the School and Council persevered. With the help of the Groundwork Trust, and with the donation of a steel bridge from BNFL, the present footbridge was jointly funded by St. Bees School and the public sector, and was opened in 1987.

New bridge

A good example of joint co-operation to improve road safety. The Pow Beck pedestrian bridge came about as a result of the Parish Council initiative to improve road safety at Pow Beck bridge. The galvanised steel bridge was donated, and the council was instrumental in organising funding and logistics in a joint project with St. Bees School and the County Council.

The Inshore Lifeboat

After many local fund-raising events, the RNLI stationed the first inshore lifeboat in St. Bees in 1969. The original boathouse was a 26 foot concrete garage, and the lifeboat was a 15-foot inflatable, for daylight use only. Over the years the garage was enlarged, and in 1985 a twin-engined “C” class arrived, which could be used both day and night. In 1995 a new purpose-built bigger station has been completed to house an Atlantic 75 boat. This latest improvement has cost over £300,000.

New lifeboat

H.R.H The Duchess of Kent opens the new lifeboat station 1995.

Perhaps the most daring of many rescue calls was in July 1993 when the “Coeur de Lion” ran aground on the rocks in Fleswick Bay. The lifeboat’s first attempt to get the crew off was thwarted by damage to the lifeboat propeller. Nothing daunted, the lifeboat was beached in strong surf at Fleswick, and a spare propeller fitted. After re-launching, the lifeboat managed to get the boat’s crew off just before the Coeur de Lion disintegrated.

Members of the lifeboat crew were washed overboard and sustained injuries during the rescue. Subsequently, bravery awards were presented by Admiral Sir John Kerr to lifeboatmen Ian Mc Dowell, Marcus Clarkson, Paul McDowell and Alistair Graham.

The St. Bees Man

The plan to extend the graveyard into the “Bull Paddock” next to the Dandy Walk, led to two archaeological “rescue” digs. In 1979 Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University made an initial survey, which enabled a grant of DoE rescue funding for further work. Consequently in 1979 and 1980 there were two digs in the Paddock directed by Deirdre O’Sullivan now of Leicester University, which uncovered much of interest, including leather textiles and implements. This suggested that the site had been used in the Middle Ages for farming and as a tannery. The full report has yet to be published.

St Bees man dig site

The 1981 dig on the site of the monastic Lady chapel. The vault containing the “St. Bees Man” is at the top of the excavated area.

In 1981 Ms. O’Sullivan directed a dig at the Priory which led to the discovery of a Knight in a lead coffin, which was possibly the body of Sir Anthony de Lucy who died in about 1368. A detailed autopsy was performed on the body which was found to be the most perfectly preserved medieval man found in modern times.


St. Bees News

Although the Parish Council was born out of the demise of the Vestry Meeting, there has always been close co-operation since between the Church and the Parish Council. The Council has assisted the church over years with matters such as graveyard expansions, and there has always been some commonality of membership between the Civil and the Church Councils.

This co-operation is best shown in the production of the lively parish Magazine which is distributed free to all households in the church Parish. In 1968 it ceased to carry only Anglican Church matters, and included Methodist and secular news in the community. Since 1969 it has been known as the “St. Bees News” and is partially subsidised by the Parish Council, though the main costs are still borne by the Church. The magazine’s flyleaf list of organisations is impressive, and a recent estimate showed that there are over 40 activities, clubs or organisations that a villager can participate in. A testimony to a lively community.

Grindal’s Birthplace

The 400th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of St. Bees School, held in 1983, included a display by the Red Arrows and the first visit since the 1100’s by an Archbishop of Canterbury. It was now definitely known that Grindal had been born in St. Bees, not at Hensingham as had been previously thought. Tudor wall paintings were uncovered at Manor Stead on Cross Hill during renovation work, and subsequent documentary research by Mary and John Todd revealed that this was the house where the future Archbishop had been born. In 1988 a memorial plaque was put up by the Parish Council to mark the site.

Red Arrows

1983 – the Red Arrows give their display in the St. Bees valley to celebrate 400 years since the founding of St. Bees School.



The Battle on the Beaches

The 1983 news of a release of some radioactive contamination down the sea pipe at Sellafield burst upon an unsuspecting Village. Villagers frustratingly read in the national press of fictitious barbed wire fences and warning signs supposedly preventing access to the beach. The Council felt rather impotent as the welter of scientific argument passed to and fro. To clarify the situation, the Parish Council organised a well-attended, and at times heated, public meeting at which the Incident was discussed with representatives from BNFL. Later the Council applied for membership of the Sellafield Local Liaison Committee, but was unsuccessful as St. Bees apparently wasn’t local enough.

Unfortunately those south of Watford were now convinced that not only did we live in igloos, they were radioactive igloos, and the decline in holidaymakers coming to St. Bees, which had been started by the advent of cheaper air travel in the 1970’s, was accelerated. Yet the tide of opinion may be changing. In 1995, with some of the hottest weather on record, the beach has once again been crowded with swimmers.

Heritage and Science

The rehabilitation of the coast’s image has undoubtedly been helped by the formation of the RSPB bird reserve on the Head, and the designation of St. Bees Head in 1989 as a Heritage Coastline.

In 1992 the St. Bees Heritage & Tourism Group was created and has done much in its short life to improve the amenities and image of the village. Working in concert with the Parish Council, it has helped to put St. Bees back on the map. Positive aspects of the village have been emphasised with initiatives such as “Cumbria in Bloom”, which St. Bees won in 1994 and 1995, and the restoration of the blacksmith’s rimming site at Cross Hill.

Few villagers would have noticed the famous eccentric Alfred Wainwright 22 years ago when he invented his famous Coast to Coast Walk. His route now carries about 14,000 walkers a year, and has had a remarkable effect on the village’s tourism fortunes. There is an official starting monument at the beach and the Village signboards carry the legend “

Start of Coast to Coast walk

Start of the Coast to Coast Walk.

In 1989 the Westlakes Science Park was created in the north of the Parish. This is made up of a number of small technologically-based units and some larger laboratories mainly concerned with servicing the scientific infra structural needs of Sellafield. In 1995 work is proceeding on a post-graduate centre on the site.

In 1992 H.R.H. the Prince of Wales arrived by Royal Train to open the St. Bees Management Centre in the Whitelaw building at St. Bees School, another link in the long academic history of the village.

In 1993 Derek Sim, chairman since 1976, died suddenly. The second-longest serving Chairman, Derek was born in St. Bees, and had been a Parish Councillor since 1955. He became Chairman at a time when the Council’s powers and its workload were significantly increasing as a result of the 1972 Act. Arthur Irving, who had served since 1976 as Vice-Chairman and had also been a Councillor since 1955 stepped briefly into the Chair.

The Chairman since 1994 has been Tony Cotes, a former classics master at St. Bees School. He has taken on the dual burden of chairing both the Heritage & Tourism Group and the Parish Council. The Secretary of the St. Beghian Society (formerly the Old St. Beghians of St. Bees School), he has reinforced the links between the Council and St. Bees School which were forged in the Victorian days of the Council.


The History of the Council is largely the history of the village. Most village events have concerned it in some way, and it has created many events itself. Its weighty minute books and sheaves of documents are a window on past village life.

Some events pass quickly through the pages, such as the Jubilee: others never go away; such as the Pagan gift. But from the start in 1895, St. Bees Council has been concerned with home-grown initiatives, and this thread has run throughout the 100 years of its operation.

But there have been ups and downs. The early years of the Council held great promise. Rural democracy was at last a reality, and there was great scope for putting to rights many things that had remained unquestioned over centuries. The First war shattered all that. After 1918 it was a different, more brutal, world, and the seventy village men returning from the trenches brought this reality back with them. Gone was the cosy rural community and unshaken faith in authority.

Faith was lost, as were functions, as local government was re-organised and more power went to the district councils. From then until after the Second War the Parish Council ticked over at a relatively low level of activity.

The celebrations for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II were a turning point for many things. Self-confidence was returning. The country was picking itself up again. The Parish Council started to assert itself, and from that time the Council has gone from strength to strength.

Probably 1973 was the other turning point. Rottington and St. Bees were joined; as they should have been from the start, and parish councils, far from being abolished as many centralists would have liked, were given greater powers.

Throughout its life the Council has been primarily a springboard for local initiatives. This short chronicle of village life is just one of its many initiatives; may there be many such in the future.


Finally I would like to thank Bob and Thelma Jopling for long hours of research in the local collection of the Whitehaven Library, the many villagers who loaned photographs, Gilbert Rothery for his minutiae on village life in the 1940s, and the many other people who have given help and advice, and the present Parish Clerk, Bob Pearson, for his immaculate bureaucracy; which has made the task of my research so much easier,

Douglas Sim. Autumn 1995

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