Family History Notebook

A Mountain Chapelry
(part 2)

 By BS Wignall Simpson (Benjamin Smith)

(previous section)


WE will commence our study of the objects of local interest with the Church. "The Kirk of Ulpha, to the pilgrim's eye, is welcome as a star," says Wordsworth, in his Sonnets on the Duddon. Though known locally as Ulpha Kirk, or Church, its official designation is the Chapel of S. John Baptist, from its being a Chapel-of-Ease to the Church of Millom. When founded, or by whom, there is no record. Presumably the Lords of Millom assisted the local inhabitants, or perhaps some pious clerk of Millom became anxious for his scattered sheep in the mountains and established the Chapels of S. Anne at Thwaites and S. John at Ulpha. We do know that there was a Church at Ulpha in the reign of Henry III, and the building probably occupied the present site. A legend, told also of many other Churches, says that a different place, in our Parish, near the old Peel tower, was originally chosen, and that the Devil removed the stones by night from where they had been placed by the builders. At any rate, the present building is very old, and, like a local house or barn, is composed of rough local stones, with very little mortar. The roof is supported by adze curved beams, and was open to the rafters. There was also probably no plaster on the walls. Up to the Reformation period, when preaching and longer services were becoming the order of the day, there would be no seats; the chief, and often the only service, was the Mass or Communion, during which the worshippers knelt or stood at the appropriate places. To the same early period are supposed to belong the two holes, one in the North and one in the East walls. These were probably for the reservation of the sacrament, or for the keeping of books or vessels; it is impossible to say with certainty.

The first seats or pews were placed facing the aisle, as we still see in some old Churches, and were made of oak. They were, unfortunately, removed in 1882, and the present seats introduced.

Chapel of S. John Baptist.    1937    J. Marriott, Selwyn

On examination it will be seen that the walls have three different plasters; the first, made largely of rough sand from the river, the second, a thin lime one, and third, a more modern cement one. The old rough plaster was put on about the year 1700. This date is arrived at by studying the fragments of the coloured drawings which were discovered when the ceiling was removed in 1934. A fragment of the Lord's Prayer near the priest's reading desk points to the custom being followed here, as elsewhere in the XVII and XVIII centuries, of painting the Creed, Lord's Prayer, and Ten Commandments on the chancel walls. It is also obvious from the position of one or two drawings that either more windows have been added at sometime, or that their size and situation must have been different. The fragment of the Royal Arms with "A.R." inscribed thereon gives us a date in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714).

It is interesting to note that similar paintings, also in vegetable water paint, were found in Broughton Church. These are known to have been the work of a certain eccentric Salathiel Court. The two figures of "Time" and "Death" at Broughton bore the date 1720. It is most likely that the same artist exercised his skill at Ulpha also.

The only mural monument in the Church is that to the memory of Joseph and Eleanor Gunson, the parents of John Gunson, the founder of the Almshouses, and of which we shall think later.

The Parish of Ulpha is 13,000 acres in extent, and consists of all the land on the west bank of the river Duddon, from its source at the top of Wrye Nose, near Three Shires Stones, down as far as Logan Beck, the stream which can be seen coming down behind Duddon Hall, the large yellow-coloured house in the valley. The river Duddon also used to form the boundary between the counties of Cumberland and Lancashire

The name Ulpha is founded in old writings as "Woolfhay", Uffay or Ouffa. It is generally held to be derived from Ulf's "hough" or "how" meaning Ulf's Manor. The land was granted to Ulf, son of Evard, shortly after the Norman Conquest, and his posterity enjoyed it until the time of Henry III. Later it passed into the hands of the Lords of Millom - the BOYVILLs and HUDDLESTONS. The latter family owned Duddon Hall and worked the furnace in the wood a little lower down the valley, at a point to which ships in those days could approach by sailing up the river.

Though several old writers refer to the wildness and rugged nature of the valley, and until recently its roads proved too much for many motorists, it was, nevertheless, a real hive of industry. Men had to make what they needed, or do without it. Stone was quarried for building, lead was mined and sent away in rough carts, and the felling and burning of wood for charcoal provided further employment. The introduction of a water wheel caused the establishing of a corn mill and a bobbin mill. Every house had its hand loom for weaving. The only fuel consisted of peat and wood. Lighting was supplied by rush lights, reeds dipped in fat, preferably goose grease, which was run into stone moulds chiselled out of the hearthstone. These holes can be seen in many farmhouses today. To conserve herbage, cattle and sheep which were not needed for breeding were driven to market in autumn, and everyone, in town and country alike, laid in a supply of salted meat. In many houses one can see the roof of the living room, or house, just in front of the fireplace, has been raised a foot or more. This was to provide space for hanging pieces of mutton to be smoked. Many old people tell of the time when fresh meat was only seen on special occasions, like a funeral. Butter was, and is, salted when it is plentiful, and reserved for the winter season. Salmon was found in abundance in the pools of the river. These were speared, taken out, killed and salted in barrels. This practice continued up to within living memory.

This short summary of the occupations of the old dalesman, one hopes, will serve to dispel the popular illusion that life was one long monotonous task of trying to keep body and soul together. Life was hard and men had to scrat and scrape, but it was filled with change and variety, for each new season brought its hopes, its special tasks, its success and its disappointments. Men had to be adaptable and resourceful as well as strong, and those who had these qualities, and were fairly lucky, rarely failed to have a long stocking hidden in a hollowed out kitchen beam.

The 2 black and white drawings on the walls are on the lime plaster, one bearing the names of the Chapel Wardens and the other the name of one of the DANSONs, who gave the lich gate and the oak porch.

Two murals in Ulpha Church

The Lychgate, Ulpha Church

These Dansons, one of whom was a doctor, came from Chelsea and acquired the Foulds. One of them left the sum of £3 per annum, to be distributed among the poor of Ulpha.

Ulpha Church 1882
The Chapel of St. John Baptist as it was after the restoration of 1882


HAVING dealt with the Church itself, let us now consider some of the objects of interest which it possesses. The font is interesting, and is of pre-Reformation date. Whether it originally had a pedestal or not is disputed. It had a lid (one can see the marks for the fitting in the stone) which the Wardens would keep locked; for people used to steal the water for medecine or some other superstitious use. When the side door was blocked up, it was placed in the wall on a cement base. It was removed to its present position in 1934.

From the font, one naturally turns one's thoughts to the altar. This piece of Church furniture is unique; it is made from a fruit tree. It bears the inscription T.S. 1882.

Now T.S. are the initials of Thomas Stephenson, the Church Warden, in 1882, the year in which the present pews were introduced, as well as a general renovation of the whole building being undertaken. Thomas Stephenson, as his gift to the Lord, cut down a fruit tree of more than normal size, which several old people can well remember; and had it made into the holy table. Surely an offering most appropriate and more acceptable to the Deity than the product of a Church furnishing store! Thomas Stephenson was also one of the last "pinchers". When a cow or sheep went astray he "pinched" or keeped it until the rightful owner was found. He was then called upon to recompense the pincher for his trouble.

The brass panels behind the altar, depicting the vine, the cross, and sheaf of corn, are the work of the late Rev. Chas. Whitaker, B.D., Vicar of Ulpha from 1897 to 1914. He was also responsible for carving the woodwork of the reredos. The Alms-dish, which contains symbolic drawings of the four evangelists, is also his work.

The pulpit was the work of Mr. Thomas Atkinson, joiner, of Broughton-in-Furness. He began his task when he was seventeen years of age, a mere boy. Mrs. Gunson, of Oak Bank, as the tablet states, defrayed the cost.

The tenants of Holme Cottage, as representing the Lord of the Manor from Duddon Hall, at one time sat in a pew where the pulpit now stands, and the old pulpit was a "double decker", which was placed nearer the middle of the Church under a small sky-light window.

Up to 1882 the singers and a couple of fiddlers occupied a raised platform where the present vestry is situated. With the introduction of the new pews, an attempt was made to follow the custom of the town Churches, where they have a surpliced Choir, and the singers were transferred to the East end.

Shortly afterwards, the first American Organ was introduced. Owing to the damp and the ravages of time, the present instrument is the fourth. Thus thrust out of the Chancel, the tenants of Holme Cottage have always claimed the front seat under the pulpit. At one time, as in many lakeland Churches, every house in the parish claimed a particular seat. There is no record of any pew rents, but by virtue of being a rate-payer, one's household was entitled to its pew.

The crowded sanctuary produced an undignified effect, especially at Communion and funerals, and, therefore, in 1934 the old order of placing the singers at the West End was restored.

The kneeling benches replaced a former simple railing, and are a return to the "housel stools" which were used in pre-Reformation times. These stools were made by Messrs. Rainey, of Barrow.

The coloured brackets which support the altar curtains are the work of a blacksmith in Newcastle, and are similar to the ones made by him from the crypt chapel in the Cathedral of that city. This is due to the fact that the architect of the restoration there, Mr. H. L. Hicks, was responsible for the work here in 1934. The housel stools and iron brackets were designed by him, and to his expert care and guidance we owe the success of our recent undertaking.

The hanging figure of Our Lord fixed to the oak beam over the chancel is of unknown origin, and was given to the Church by Mrs. Chris. Johnson, of Holme Cottage, in 1958.

The crucifix near the pulpit was the gift of Mr. George Ambler Watson, of Horsforth, a relation of the author.

Mr. Watson also gave the two oak standard lights, which are made from oak taken out of Howden Priory, Yorkshire. They are the work of a blind ex-service man from the 1914-18 war—the late Capt. Wm. Allan Smith, of Huggate.

It was not always possible to obtain the services of a fiddler or two, so the pitch-pipe had to be used. This instrument resembled a wood whistle, about a foot long, with a stopper at the end. This stopper was marked with the letters of the scale, and when this was adjusted and the pipe blown the commencing note for the Psalm or Hymn was heard. Up to within living memory the pitch-pipe was used. Like the Scottish Churches, these "Fell Parishes" generally used a metrical version of the Psalms, such as Tate and Brady's, in place of the one in the Book of Common Prayer.

The pipe used at Ulpha is still preserved. Like many used locally, it was made by an inhabitant of Seathwaite, the neighbouring parish, who specialised in producing these instruments. It cost 3/- in 1834. There is also hanging on a hook in the Vestry the old Collecting Box with a long handle, with which the Wardens used to reach along the pews. On a hook near to the Collecting Box hangs what probably no other Church possesses—two pairs of handcuffs, reminiscent of the time when the spiritual and secular spheres were not so clearly separated as they are today. Near the Clerk's seat will be seen a small wooden alms box made from the oak of Millom Castle Roof.

In the Vestry there is a small oak table, now used for setting out the vessels for Communion. This table was presented to the Church in 1934 by Mr. Wilson Butler, of Broughton-in-Furness. He obtained it in the sale of the effects of the late Mrs. Kewley, widow of a former Vicar of this Parish. It was during the incumbency of the Rev. W. Kewley that the present altar was given by Thos. Stephenson; and the table in the Vestry is the one used before 1882 as the altar. Several of the older people can remember it, covered with a red baize cloth, nailed on, and surrounded by a slender oak rail on three sides, as frequently found in Churches in the XVIII century.

On the Vestry Table visitors will see a head carved in red sandstone. This was found by the late Robert Jackson and his brother whilst draining in the field behind the Church. It was secured for the Church by Mr. Wilson Butler. Whether the head is that of John the Baptist or our Lord one cannot say. No doubt it was removed by some person when the zeal of the Reformation touched these parts.


THE Communion vessels of the Church, like the registers, are dated at the beginning of the XVIII century. Whether the earlier registers and vessels were removed at the troublesome times of the Commonwealth or kept at Millom, as the Mother Church, we cannot say. There is no record of a resident priest until over thirty years after the restoration of the Royal Family; the Chapelry was served intermittently by the Vicars of Millom. It is, of course, possible that the older vessels were of inferior metal, perhaps pewter, and that they were melted down or sold when the present silver chalice and paten were brought to Ulpha. The present simple chalice, approximately 5¾ inches in height, bears the inscription, "Ulpha, 1708", and is said to be of old York silver. The paten acts, when inverted, as a lid for the chalice. The Church also possessed a much larger separate paten, with an inscription, "Given by Dr. Stratford, Commissary of Oaths, Richmond, for the use of the Chapel of Ulpha, 1744". The paten appears to have been given as an antique, for though the marks have been examined by experts, no one can give a decisive answer as to its exact date or origin. The same Dr. Stratford was a benefactor of other Churches in the district, e.g., he gave the bell at Woodland Church and a chalice to Egremont Church. He also helped to raise the endowment of Ulpha by gifts of land. The Richmond referred to is the one in North Yorkshire, at which town, at the time of Dr. Stratford, wills from this district were taken for probate.

Whether the Church possessed a pewter Communion Service or not, up to the year 1867 the wine was kept in a flagon of this metal. This flagon, with a broken thumbpiece, and black with age, had stood for years in the Piscina in the South wall of the Chancel. This Piscina, by the way, was made or restored in 1882 by the Rev. W. Kewley, who apparently used it, for it has a sink with an outlet into the ground through the Church wall. The flagon was loaned for exhibition at Carlisle in 1933, the Octocentenary of the Diocese, when it was examined by Mr. Howard Cotherell, the great authority on pewter. He found that it was of the same make and date as the Borgate (Appleby) Flagons, about 1700. It has no inscription, but the maker's initials, W.B., within a lozenge, over a small ornament. Mr. Cotherell was thus able to restore the broken thumbpiece and serrations which had come away from the lip.

In 1867 the then incumbent, the Rev. Jeremiah Walker, D.C.L., B.D., presented the Church with a flagon of silver, of a simple yet beautiful design, which was to be used in place of its humble brother of baser metal. The silver vessel bears the inscription, "Given to the Church of Ulpha by the Revd. Jeremiah Walker, B.D. et L.L.D., Surrogate, Incumbent of Ulpha, July,1867".