History of a Village: Freckleton

By Dr Alan Crosby and Peter Shakeshaft
Follow Peter Shakeshaft's account of how he became interested in the history of a village where he once lived, and how he ended up writing a local history that covered almost a thousand years.
Freckleton village 

A brief history

Image of Freckleton grid
Freckleton Tithe Map 1838
Freckleton is a large village a few miles west of Preston on the north shore of the Ribble estuary. The earliest documentary reference is in the Domesday Survey of 1086. Monastic charters provide insights into the community in the 13th-century and from the mid-16th century there is an ever-increasing quantity of written records.

During the Tudor and Stuart period the village was dominated by the Sharples family. But their influence ended in the early 18th century. Freckleton was then largely run by the community itself. There was no manorial lord, a relatively unusual state of affairs for anywhere in England 250 years ago. One of the results of this communal responsibility was that Freckleton developed quite differently from neighbouring townships.

'... from the mid-18th century onwards, industry co-existed with traditional farming.'

For over 100 years, from the mid-18th century onwards, industry co-existed with traditional farming. The small port of Freckleton had a busy trade, serving as a centre for the distribution of coal throughout the district.

In the 19th century the village witnessed more than its fair share of social and economic distress, particularly among handloom weavers and their successors in the cotton factory. The population today is about 7,000, with aircraft manufacturing by British Aerospace in the neighbouring parish of Warton employing many local residents.

First steps

Image of Peter Shakeshaft studying a document
Studying a document

With hindsight I realise that, apart from wanting to write a 'village history', I had no specific aims or plan - it was only when I began my research that I realised the magnitude of the task I had set myself. However, as research progressed my aims were refined and chapters of a potential book began to take shape.

'I began by reading everything that I could find about Freckleton ...'

The final product was exceedingly rewarding not only from a sense of personal satisfaction but also from knowing that it has created a great deal of interest amongst the community which it describes.

I began by reading everything that I could find about Freckleton which had already appeared in print. This meant working through sources such as the Victoria County History [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] of Lancashire and the publications of the county history societies.

I also read three published books on the village, one of which was a general history, but I soon realised that there were large areas that these did not cover. There was much more to be found out, but only by going back to original sources and investigating documentary evidence.

History detective

Image of the will of James Smalley, 1734
The will of James Smalley, 1734

At the beginning I attended a university continuing education course and did a piece of written work on an aspect of Freckleton history, though subsequently I preferred to attend day schools and local history courses as a way of widening my understanding.

'... each community will have some aspect that is unique ...'

I also asked for help from professional historians, to be sure I was on the right lines, but in 'going alone' I realised that it is vital to keep my feet on the ground and be aware that there is always much more to learn. It is also important to remember that each community will have some aspect that is unique and which you will have to unravel yourself.

I found the detective side of local history exciting but frustrating - but detective work it undoubtedly is. This is the most important phrase to remember when undertaking research for the first time.

The majority of my research was carried out at the Lancashire Record Office, looking at written documents covering several centuries of history. At the start of the work two problems were immediately apparent.

The first was that it was absolutely essential to learn to read 16th and 17th century handwriting (I still have a lot to learn in this respect!). The second was that documents relating to a single village can be found in a wide range of archive collections [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] , some of which may not be catalogued.

The detective work necessary to locate these documents, and to track down material in collections with no obvious connection to your subject, is very challenging but also very rewarding, and may lead to a wider and more ambitious project. In my case, it led to me writing a 26-chapter History of Freckleton, which was published in the autumn of 2001.

Medieval Freckleton

Image of an old map from Freckleton
An estate map from Freckleton, 1781
This section of the book discussed the origins and medieval development of Freckleton and was largely based on previously published material. But wherever possible I included recent academic research [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] - for example, new interpretations of the place-name Freckleton.

Researching the medieval period was a surprise because of the amount of information available. Monastic charters [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] are a rich source - many have been transcribed and published - but those relevant to Freckleton remain unpublished and I was especially grateful that the keeper of the archives where they are deposited sent me his own transcripts.

'... they recorded field names which could still be identified on the 1838 tithe map ... '

The medieval charters provided a wealth of information about the village. They named many residents and provided valuable evidence for 13th-century farming practices.

Perhaps most importantly, they recorded field names which could still be identified on the 1838 tithe map [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] , making it possible to pinpoint locations where people lived and worked 700 or more years ago. Discovering that sort of link with the past can be very moving for the local historian and fascinates readers and listeners today.

Village life and families

Image of a 19th-century street in Freckleton
A 19th-century street in Freckleton
Among the many documents which I used, the wills of more than 150 Freckleton residents from the 16th to the 18th centuries were particularly important. Over a period of two years I transcribed every will and inventory [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] . This could be slow but engrossing work - sometimes a single will might take a day to transcribe.

I extracted all the details from these documents, telling not only of the individuals concerned but also providing otherwise unrecorded information about the village. About one-third of these wills had an accompanying inventory giving a wealth of detail about the personal estates (household contents and livestock) of the deceased.

'Parish registers provided evidence of connections between village families ...'

I analysed these using spreadsheets, listing the contents of each under a total of 17 headings (such as occupation of the deceased, different breeds of livestock, crops and weaving equipment). In this way I could chart the social changes in the village over a 200-year period.

In the absence of early township records, important sources included parish registers and quarter sessions records [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] . Parish registers provided evidence of connections between village families and were particularly useful when they could be linked to names mentioned in wills.

Quarter sessions records gave information about such matters as the poor seeking the help of the magistrates and disputes within the township. When combined, these sources helped to piece together the story of the people who lived, worked and died in Freckleton from the reign of Elizabeth I to the time of George II.

The Marsh

Image of the marsh in Freckleton
The marsh in Freckleton today
One of main assets of this township was the valuable grazing marshes along the north side of the Ribble. These were communally managed, with an intricate system of sharing the rights of pasturing animals.

Remarkably, this communal system still operates in the same way today, as a real living relic of the past. As well as using pre-19th century documents at the Lancashire Record Office, I contacted the present secretary of the owners of the grazing rights, who made available all documents still in his possession, including minute books and various maps and plans which proved vital in interpreting the written evidence.

This example of committed assistance highlighted for me the importance of face-to-face contact and the establishment of mutual trust and confidence. It also resulted in several minute books being deposited at the Record Office, guaranteeing their availability to future historians.

The history of the watermill which stood on the edge of the marsh appeared in a county journal back in 1942. I found out more, continuing its story until the building was finally demolished in 1968.

Three excellent hand-drawn maps of the marsh, including the site of the watermill as it probably appeared in the 14th, 19th and 20th centuries, had appeared in the 1942 article. Approval was given by the present secretary of the county society to reproduce these maps in my book, but I was left to clear the copyright [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] .

Churches and schools

Image of the Holy Trinity Parish Church, Freckleton
Holy Trinity Parish Church, Freckleton
In compiling the religious history [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml] of Freckleton I had to research the records of no fewer than seven different denominations - Anglican, Congregationalist, Wesleyan Methodist, Primitive Methodist, Plymouth Brethren, Quaker and Roman Catholic.

There was no Anglican church in Freckleton until 1837 and its minute books begin only in 1894, so it was only possible to establish the history of the first 57 years from miscellaneous sources such as press reports, personal scrap-books, and memorial inscriptions in the church. I suspect that some apparently lost minute books were long ago taken away for safe-keeping and may still survive somewhere - archives can often turn up quite unexpectedly.

'Quaker records are among the most detailed of all.'

For example, during my research into the Wesleyan Methodists it was especially rewarding that, as a result of making personal contact with officials, the original 1814 Freckleton church deeds were discovered in the safe of a neighbouring church.

Quaker records are among the most detailed of all. Their minute books contain a treasury of information about individual members. Bequests in wills helped to reconstruct the background to building the first meeting house and told how the earliest burial ground came into use.

I carried out similar research for the other churches and by using a combination of written sources and reliable anecdotal evidence it was possible to build up a picture of events and the lives of these institutions which, until recent times, played a central role in the lives of most village people.

The most important source for the history of education was school log books [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml0] , which gave information about many aspects of village life. They began in 1876 and present a vivid picture of daily events, including reasons for the absence of pupils (such as health and epidemics) and social events held in the school.

Evidence for the employment of young people is found here, with references to the owners of the local cotton factory. I transcribed the log books and analysed the contents under various headings.

Trade and Industry

Image of the mill in Freckleton
The mill in Freckleton
I researched different subjects under this heading: for example, agriculture, the coal trade, handloom weaving, the cotton factory, inns, the port and shipbuilding. Apart from agriculture and the inns there is now only fragmentary physical evidence of these once important industries, so documentary evidence was crucial.

Wills and inventories provided details about 17th and 18th century agriculture, including livestock, crops, and farm implements, while farm surveys and the tithe map gave more recent information. Property deeds [/history/trail/local_history/village/history_of_a_village_fact_file.shtml1] provided the names of owners and occupiers of inns.

'... the story was pieced together from diverse sources ...'

More than any other part of the research, investigating the industries meant real detective work. For example, there were linen and cotton factories in Freckleton from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries, but I found no business papers relating to any of these.

Ultimately the story was pieced together from diverse sources including miscellaneous documents in the Record Office, references in existing publications, a letter written in 1810 (now in a private postal history collection) and, most exciting of all, the deeds of a cottage that once formed part of the cotton factory. These contained a summary of all purchase and sale transactions involving the factory from 1858 to its demolition in the 1980s.

Similar detective work sorted out the story of the port, with its coal trade and shipbuilding. Sources included an original plan of the 1802 coal wharf in the ownership of British Waterways and an account book (in private ownership) of the sailings of a local vessel to various ports in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland over a 24-year period.

At the Lancashire Record Office were records of vessels built from 1782. The outcome of all this careful research and detective work was most satisfying, though inevitably I would have liked to have discovered more. It showed what is attainable by steady application and persistent enquiry.

Using oral sources

Image of a Methodist church 'club day' procession, in Freckleton
Methodist church 'club day' procession, in Freckleton
Researching from the mid-18th century onwards, with an ever-increasing volume of source material, I had a new problem: deciding what to leave out. Wills were perhaps less important as the practice of making inventories ceased in the late 18th century, so I only transcribed about 20.

The most valuable source for this period proved to be a collection of documents in the custody of a village resident. These were the late 18th and 19th township books which included details of payments to the poor, highway accounts, township valuation books and township committee minute books. These provided almost all the information for the chapters on the lives of the poor and the administration of the Georgian township.

'Different people often see the same event from completely different perspectives ...'

Newspaper articles were also increasingly useful, as were personal scrap-books deposited at the record office. There was, for example, a comprehensive collection of press cuttings relating to Freckleton during the Cotton Famine, the terrible trade depression of the mid- 1860s.

When my research reached the 20th century I realised the value of anecdotal evidence and interviewed some 30 residents whose ages ranged from the late sixties to the mid-nineties. Different people often see the same event from completely different perspectives, so it was reassuring to discover that recollections invariably corresponded.

When I came to use this anecdotal information in my book I decided to use only first-hand accounts, as opposed to stories of events told to the interviewee by parents or grandparents. I also tried to find documentary sources such as press accounts which confirmed the anecdotal information.

Finishing touches

Image of Peter Shakeshaft's book on Freckleton
The work completed - Peter Shakeshaft's record of Freckleton
The majority of my notes were handwritten in pencil on A4 paper and filed under specific subject headings. Every item was noted with either a record office reference, the details of the publication in which it appeared, or the name of the individual who had provided the information.

I knew at the outset that I had to organise my material very carefully and I chose to keep separate files for each subject and to divide these into six main categories: medieval; property deeds and parish registers; wills and inventories; farming and the grazing marsh; township records (including the poor, health, roads, trade and industry); inns; churches and schools.

In this way I had a clear and easily accessible system so that every piece of information could be easily located. This saved many hours of frustration of the 'now where on earth did I see that' variety.

Seeing the work through to publication was a real challenge, but following publication my sense of personal achievement was very real. The greatest satisfaction, though, was being able share my research and my findings with members of the community in Freckleton.

About the authors

Image of author Peter Shakeshaft
Peter Shakeshaft's initial interest was family history. But he moved on to local history as a result of his interest in the village of Freckleton, Lancashire, where he lived for nine years as a teenager. Like many places, Freckleton was changing fast - old buildings and ways of life were disappearing, and there was a need to record them before they vanished. Peter began to investigate more closely and this resulted in the pubilcation of a large and authoritative book, Freckleton (Carnegie Publishing, 2001).

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-03
This article can be found on the Internet at:

© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to:

BBC History