Book review: A-Z of Lancaster: Places, People, History by Billy F.K. Howorth

A-Z of Lancaster: Places, People, History by Billy F.K. Howorth
A-Z of Lancaster: Places, People, History by Billy F.K. Howorth

From A to Z, and from 2,000 years ago to the modern day, the imposing city of Lancaster is brimming with history.

And now you can take an armchair journey through its cobbled streets, impressive landmarks, industrial heritage and grand buildings with a fascinating new illustrated guide by Billy F.K. Howorth, a local history expert and manager of Carnforth Bookshop, one of the largest independent bookshops in the North West.

The places and important people, the nooks and crannies that have put the city on the map since its foundation as a Roman fort on the River Lune are explored using photographs from the past and the present, and a fascinating mix of original documents and maps.

Lancaster’s history has been two millennia in the making and it encompasses some of the most important events in British history, including the infamous trials of the Pendle Witches, the use of its port in the slave trade, its role in the English Civil War… and for giving the word ‘dinosaurs’ to the world!

But it was the rapid expansion of the city in the Georgian period and the growth of local industry in the Victorian decades that made Lancaster famous and gave it a reputation as an important place with an exciting past.

The city’s most prominent landmark is the Ashton Memorial, one of the country’s largest follies which sits majestically atop a hill in Williamson Park and can be seen for miles around.

Work on the park began in the 1870s and was one of the first major projects of Lancaster industrialist James Williamson who never lived to see its completion. It was his son, another James Williamson, later Lord Ashton, who finished off the park and built the memorial for his second wife at a cost of £87,000. By the time the memorial was completed in 1909, however, Lord Ashton was married again, to his third wife!

But no tour of Lancaster would be complete without a visit to the famous castle which has stood proudly on Castle Hill for over 900 years, houses the spectacular Shire Hall and has witnessed many important events in local and national history.

Throughout its long history, the castle, with its splendid John O’Gaunt gateway, has been used for both fortification and incarceration. Records show that it was first used as a jail in 1196 and it eventually closed as a category C men’s prison in 2011. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was imprisoned there for his religious teachings and the cells were used for German PoWs during the First World War.

During the civil war, the castle was captured by Parliamentarian forces in 1643 and a Royalist attempt to retake the town later that same year ended in failure. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, Parliament ordered the destruction of many of its buildings but following the Restoration, the new King Charles II visited the castle and was asked by the High Sheriff of Lancashire to assist in the repairs bill.

Howorth takes us to all corners of Lancaster, uncovering historic inns and taverns like The Wagon and Horses on the quayside and The Sun Inn in the heart of the city as well as visiting Bowerham Barracks, home of the proud King’s Own Royal Regiment which served in major British conflicts like Waterloo, the Second Boer War and the two world wars.

We also meet Richard Owen (1804-1892), one of the least-known Lancastrians who provided one of the most important scientific developments of the 19th century. A renowned biologist, anatomist and palaeontologist, Owen was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and went on to study the Mesozoic land reptiles which he famously named ‘Dinosauria.’

Owen’s illustrious career was rewarded with a cottage in Richmond Park, London, donated by the royal family, Sir Robert Peel put him on the Civil List, and in 1843 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

But the city also has dark events in its past… none more so than the infamous case of double murderer Buck Ruxton, an Indian-born doctor who lived in the city’s Dalton Square and who was hanged in 1936 for killing his wife Isabella and their 20-year-old maid Mary Rogerson.

The Ruxton murders became one of the most publicised trials of the 1930s and are remembered today for the use of pioneering forensic science and fingerprinting to track down the doctor who cut up the bodies, wrapped them in newspapers and threw them into a gorge in Scotland.

From churches and grand houses to town halls and towers, the A- Z of Lancaster is packed with local history and has plenty to offer for both residents and visitors alike.

(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)