A Short History of Kirkby Stephen

Within this area there have been stone-age finds in the fields and iron-age settlements have been recorded around the town on high ground.  The Romans had a fort called Verterae at Brough that guarded the main east to west route with old roads believed to have come south.  Whilst we have no evidence of very early occupation in the town, it is thought that the area known as The Green was the earliest village area prior to Danish settlement.

Around the 10th century much of the area was settled by Danish, often referred to as Vikings.  Many of our local places have old Norse names.  Kirk-by is said to mean a church - centre.  This would be a place of worship rather than an actual church building.  Imagine a hill where the graveyard is now with no surrounding buildings but just stone crosses. The remains of early stone crosses including our world famous Loki stone can be seen inside the church.

By 1090 the village was recorded as Cherkaby Stephen.  We are not so sure where the name Stephen originates and there are several theories.  The church is not dedicated to St Stephen as it is often mistakenly reported and at one time was called St John’s.  If we delve into ancient records we find that after the Norman Conquest there was a revival of the monasteries.  The income from Kirkby Stephen went to the newly founded Benedictine Abbey, St. Mary’s of York whose first Abbot was Stephen de Whitby. Stephen’s church centre  The second explanation is that the name is a corruption of ‘on the Eden’ giving us Kirk-by on the Eden. The third is that it is an Anglo-Saxon word ‘stefan’ meaning moor.   Church centre on the moor.  This last theory is said to be supported by the locally pronounced  Stevven instead of Stephen.

Our Parish Church of Kirkby Stephen, built of soft red sandstone, is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Dales’ in view of its size and elegance.  The earliest stone church dates from about 1170, part of which can still be seen with the most worn stones.  This was replaced in about 1220 and there has been continuas improvements through the centuries.  It was originally a cruciform church with a central tower which was replaced in the 16th century by the present bell tower on the end after the central tower  had collapsed for a second time.  After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the church and lands were bought in 1546 by Thomas 1st Baron Wharton for £427.13s, this then allowed for some of the income to stay local and improve the church. The churchyard contains graves and the gravestones are stood around the sides.  Further history of the church is displayed inside and it is well worth a visit. 

Whilst in the church area, one last interesting fact is that the ‘Taggy’ bell is still rung at eight o’clock.   After the chiming of the hour, the bell rings to mark the day of the month.   The ‘taggy’ is an older form of the Norman ‘curfew’, to cover the fire. The local saying is that if children are not home by eight o’clock, the ‘taggy’ man will get them.

The Market Square and surrounding houses grew almost as a planned village after the market charter of 1353 and the renewed charter of 1605.  This second charter changed the market day from Friday to Monday but still allowed for the two fair days.  Our Market Charter is still celebrated on St Luke’s Fair day in October with the reading of the charter at the charter stone outside Co-op Welcome.  There is a board giving details of old market charges in the Cloisters and the tolls were paid just inside the churchyard on the tomb stone.

Most of Kirkby Stephen is a conservation area with predominately 18th and 19th century buildings that are situated on older footprints of thatched wattle and daub houses.  The building material is the local Brockram stone, a mixture of limestone and sandstone which is very hard and the houses are built in rubble or later quarried and cut stones.  There are a some noticeable 17th century and a few 20th century as well.  Some of the older buildings have had an extra floor added when they were changed from thatch to sandstone flags

Union Square, part of The Green, is named after the East Ward Union Workhouse which served the community well for 150 years and included its own laundry, hospital and Georgian Manager’s house.  This was knocked down when the new Christian Head retirement home was built and Briarcote flats stand on the site.  The village stocks stood on Tinkler Hill at the northern end of The Green.

In Vicarage Lane stands the old Kirkby Stephen Grammar School established in 1566 by
by Thomas Lord Wharton in what was probably the Tithe Barn.  The local secondary school still wear a badge bearing his crest.  Church House opposite has been renovated many times from an old Rectory and boarding house for the pupils of the school.  The date stone SS 1677 refers to Samuel Shaw a former headmaster and later the vicar.

The houses around Frank’s Bridge are the converted brewery buildings.  The bridge is a 17th century corpse lane bridge and there are stones at the far end where the coffins could be rested on their way from Hartley or Winton.  It is said to be named after Francis Birbeck, a brewer.  There are reports of a ghost referred to as Jangling Annas who haunts the bridge jangling her chains.  She is said to have been a prisoner at Hartley Castle and after escaping in her chains, drowned in the river.

The River Eden has, of course, always been of great importance to the community.  Old records tell us of a corn mill at Kirkby Stephen, another on the Hartley side of the river and a fulling mill at Stenkrith.  There was also a carding mill built in 1799 downstream that was converted into a sawmill later.  Mellbecks is said to mean ‘between the becks’ or the Millbecks which are now incased underground.  There has been a Manor House in Kirkby Stephen since records began but we are not aware whether this occupied the site of the current Manor House dated 1672.

The area at the beginning of Nateby Road was known as Saur Pow, sour water or pig pool where there was once a pond and grazing cattle.  This then became the site of the tannery yards which discharged their waste into the open sewer with bridges.  The Temperance Hall was built in 1856 on the site of the tannery yards and along with the Temperance Hotel served the needs of those who had taken  ‘the pledge’. Opposite was the old R Winters brewery and there were at one time 17 Pubs and Inns in Kirkby Stephen.

Halfway along Market Street between Barclays Bank and the Mulberry Bush is Little Wiend.  Narrow entrances to the town and very narrow lanes were built to protect the town from invading Scots.  This one marks one of the quarter divisions of the town and goes down to Frank’s Bridge.  A little way along is the entrance into Arcade Royal, not Royal Arcade as it is often quoted as there is no ‘royal’ appointment.  This is the courtyard for the once New Inn where a royal princess is said to have visited.  At the other end of the square in the alleyway is Faraday House which was a Sandemainian non-conformist chapel where the parents of Michael Faraday worshipped.  Michael’s father was the village Blacksmith at Outhgill in Mallerstang before moving to London where Michael was born.

This is just a brief introduction to the history of Kirkby Stephen and there is further information available in our local library, now housed in the Old Grammar School building.  The Upper Eden Visitor Centre also has historical information about the town and a town trail leaflet.

With thanks to Ann Sandell, who supplied this information.