A History of Lancaster

By Tim Lambert

Roman Lancaster

The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD. Lancaster began when the Romans built a fort in the area about 80 AD. A small town grew up alongside the fort because the soldiers provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. However Roman civilization declined in the 4th century and in the 5th century, the Romans abandoned Britain.

Lancaster in the Middle Ages

The Normans built a castle on the site of the old Roman fortress at Lancaster. The stone keep was built in 1170. Early in the 13th century, King John built a wall with towers and a massive gateway around the keep.

In 1094 the church of St Mary was given to a Norman Abbey. They formed a priory (a small abbey) to go with the church.

Lancaster probably became a town at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century. However, it gained its first charter (a document confirming the rights of the townspeople) in 1193. The charter confirmed the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. (A fair was like a market but was held only once a year and attracted buyers and sellers from all over the country). From 1196 Lancaster Castle was used as a prison.

About 1260 Dominican friars came to Lancaster and founded a friary east of the town roughly where Dalton Square is today. The Friars took oaths of poverty and chastity like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out and preached. Furthermore, by the 13th century, there was a grammar school in Lancaster.

However, in 1322 Lancaster suffered disaster when the Scots attacked and burned large parts of it (although the Scots were unable to capture the castle). Another Scottish raid on Lancaster followed in 1389.

In 1349, like the rest of England, Lancaster suffered the Black Death, which probably killed half the population of the town.

In 1357 the leper hostel dedicated to St Leonard was founded. It gave its name to Leonardsgate.

In 1414 the priory was taken from the French and given to a Convent in Middlesex. In 1430 St Mary’s became the parish church of Lancaster.

Lancaster in the 16th and 17th Century

In 1536 came the pilgrimage of grace when northerners, angry about Henry VIII’s closure of the smaller monasteries rose in rebellion. The rebels came to Lancaster but later dispersed. In 1539 Henry VIII closed the priory in Lancaster.

At the beginning of the 17th century, a writer described Lancaster thus: ‘The town at this day is not very well peopled nor much frequented and all the inhabitants, therefore, are given to husbandry (agriculture).’

In 1612 the famous trial of the Pendle witches was held in Lancaster. Of the 20 people accused one died in prison, 8 were acquitted and 11 were found guilty. Of those 10 were hanged. One person was treated leniently and was only sentenced to a term in the stocks.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. At first Lancaster Castle was in the hands of the royalists but soon supporters of Parliament captured it.

So in March 1643, Royalists attacked the town. They demanded its surrender but the townspeople refused. After a fight, the royalists captured Lancaster town. They also attempted to take the castle but failed. Moreover, the royalist soldiers were needed elsewhere and after a time they gave up. However, before they left they burned much of Penny Street.

After the execution of Charles I his son was declared King of the Scots. In 1651 he was also declared King of England in Lancaster. But his army was routed by Cromwell at Worcester and he was forced to flee abroad.

At the end of the 17th century, a travel writer called Celia Fiennes visited Lancaster and said: ‘The situation of Lancaster town is very good. The church is neatly built of stone, the castle is just by. Both are on a very great ascent above the rest of the town and so are in open view’. She also said: ‘Lancaster town is old and much decayed. There had been a monastery, the wall of part of it remains’. Furthermore ‘In the river, there are great weirs made for salmon fishing where they hang their nets and catch great quantities of fish’.

In the late 17th century Lancaster benefited from the growth of colonies in North America and the West Indies. Being on the West Coast Lancaster was, obviously, in a good position to trade with those places. Mahogany was imported through Lancaster. So was sugar. (Sugar processing was an important industry in Lancaster).

George Fox, founder of the Quakers was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for 2 years. However, the persecution of religious sects had largely ceased by the end of the 17th century. 

Lancaster in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, Lancaster continued to flourish. The Meeting House was built in 1708.

The writer Daniel Defoe visited Lancaster in the early 18th century and he was not impressed. He said it had: ‘Little to recommend it but a decayed castle and a more decayed port’. He also said Lancaster had ‘little or no trade and few people.

But others did not share his opinion. In the mid 18th century another writer said of Lancaster: ‘ It is, at present a populous, thriving corporation trading to the West Indies with hardware and woolen manufactures and in return import, sugar, rum, cotton, etc.’

In the late 18th century another writer said of Lancaster: ‘The streets are well paved and thronged with inhabitants busied in a prosperous trade to the West Indies and other places. Along a fine quay noble warehouses are built’

Although Georgian Lancaster was a flourishing port it was also famous for furniture making. Gillow started making furniture in Lancaster and others followed him. Mahogany from Lancaster was transported along the coast to other parts of Britain.

Other important industries in Lancaster in the 18th century were candle making, sailcloth making, rope making, and (in the latter part of the century) shipbuilding.

Several new buildings were erected in Lancaster in the 18th century. Pennys Hospital was built in 1720 with money left in the will of William Penny (He died in 1716). Assembly Rooms were built nearby in 1759.

A Port Commission was founded in 1749 to improve the facilities of St George’s Quay. The Old Custom House was built in 1764. Skerton Bridge was built in 1788.

Meanwhile, St Johns church was built in 1755 and the Presbyterian Church of St Nicholas was built in 1787. The Palatine Hall was built in 1798. It was, at first, a Roman Catholic Church, the first purpose-built one in Lancaster since the Reformation.

A canal from Lancaster to Preston opened in 1792 and the Lune aqueduct opened in 1797.

Meanwhile in Georgian Lancaster amenities improved. In 1781 a dispensary where the poor could obtain free medicines opened. The Grand Theatre was built in 1781 and the Old Town Hall was built in 1783.

New houses were built in Lancaster in the late 18th century. Dalton Square was laid out about 1784 by a man named John Dalton. He also built the neighboring streets and named them after members of his own family.

Lancaster in the 19th Century

In 1801 at the time of the first census, Lancaster had a population of just over 6,000. By the end of the century, it had risen to 25,000. Most of this growth happened in the late 19th century. In 1871 the population of Lancaster was still only 9,713. It more than doubled in 30 years partly due to boundary changes.

As Lancaster grew new buildings were added. Ryelands House was built in 1836. The militia barracks in White Cross was built in 1854.

However, from about 1800 Lancaster declined dramatically as a port. This was mainly because of the competition from Liverpool, which was a much larger town. Lancaster could not compete with Liverpool’s facilities.

Nevertheless, in the 19th century, there was a considerable cotton industry in Lancaster but it did not dominate the town in the way it did towns further South. Much of the prosperity of Lancaster depended on making oilcloth and linoleum. This new industry began in the mid-19th century.

Meanwhile Richard Owen the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’ was born in Lancaster in 1804. St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was built in 1859.

Amenities in Lancaster improved during the 19th century. In 1801 Lancaster gained its first newspaper. Gas street lighting was introduced in 1825. The first electric street lighting in Lancaster came in 1892. The first cemetery in Lancaster was laid out in 1855. Lancaster also gained a piped water supply in 1853.

Ripley Hospital was built in 1853 (it was an orphanage). Lancaster Infirmary was opened in 1896. Furthermore, a railway to Preston opened in 1840. A branch line to Morecambe opened in 1861.

Lancaster in the 20th Century

In 1903 Corvell Cross was built. It was named after a keeper of the castle. Trams began running in Lancaster in 1905. They stopped in 1930 and were replaced by buses.

The Queen Victoria monument in Dalton Square was built in 1906. In 1909 a new Town Hall was built in Lancaster and in 1925 St Peter’s Church was made a Roman Catholic cathedral.

In 1923 Lancaster gained its first museum and in 1937 Lancaster was made a city. Then in 1939, a new bus station was built in Lancaster, and swimming baths opened in Kingsway in 1939. Furthermore, the Ryelands council housing estate was built in the 1930s.

Furniture production in Lancaster ended in 1962. During the 20th century the prosperity of Lancaster still largely depended on the manufacture of linoleum. There was also an engineering industry in Lancaster.

Lancaster University was founded in 1964 and the Church of St Anne in Moor Street was converted into a theater in 1971. The Custom House was made into a Maritime Museum in 1985.

In 1994 there were celebrations to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the foundation of the priory in Lancaster. Meanwhile, the shopping center in Lancaster was improved when St Nicholas Arcades were redeveloped in 1989-90. Marketgate Shopping Centre was built in 1995 and a fountain was erected by the Town Hall in 1997.

Lancaster in the 21st Century

The University of Cumbria was founded in Lancaster in 2007. Today Lancaster is a prosperous town. In 2023 the population of Lancaster was 52,000.

Lancaster Castle
Lancaster Castle