Shipbuilding Near Warton




A Barque on the Bay  (Daphne Lester)



“I being at this time much out of business, I was persuaded by some neighbours to stand a sixth part share in a new ship of about 80 tons now building near Warton.” (1)

These words come from the memoirs of the Lancaster Quaker merchant William Stout. The year was 1698 and the energetic Mr Stout – who began in business as a grocer – was about to plunge into the Virginia trade: sending textiles to the Caribbean and North American colonies and fetching tobacco, sugar and ginger back to Lancashire.

His new ship was called ‘The Employment’. It was to have a chequered trading life which finally ended in disaster. More of that later. The questions I want to focus on first in this piece are: where exactly “near Warton” was this transatlantic vessel built, and by whom?

Shipbuilding is not an enterprise that immediately springs to mind when we think of the rural North Lancashire Parish of Warton. Farming, quarrying, small – scale mining for iron and copper, lime-burning – these are the rural and semi-rural industries that we know were carried on locally in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shipbuilding seems improbable, even out of place. But communities around Morecambe Bay must always have built smaller vessels for fishing, trading and transport. Until comparatively recent times, the long-established Arnside firm of Crossfields was famed for its dinghies, “nobbies”(2) and yachts. When local merchants began to trade over much longer distances, these well-honed traditional boat-building skills must have been up-scaled and adapted to meet the massive new challenge of carrying crews and their cargoes across the ocean rather than around the coast.

Our best and most local contemporary source of information for the early eighteenth century is often John Lucas, the author of “The History of Warton Parish”. Lucas lived and went to school in the village. He knew many of the villagers well, was related to quite a number of them, and he had a good eye for the things that future generations would find interesting: everything from the techniques for making sea-salt to the usefulness of peacocks in controlling poisonous snakes! His book was written between 1710 and 1740, after he had left the village to work as a schoolmaster in Leeds. And on pages 211-213 of the new edition of his work, he volunteers some intriguing evidence on shipbuilding.

The old house on Gallihaw Hill on the south side of the River Keer near Millhead, “has anciently been noted for the building of Merchant Ships”, he claims. (3) Gallihaw – or Galley Hall on the modern map – is still there. Travelling from Carnforth to Warton, you turn left down Hagg Lane (signed Shore Road), just before Keer Bridge and you will see the old buildings on the left hand-side.

When the River Kent shifted its course towards the south side of Morecambe Bay in the early 1700’s, Lucas wrote, “a good quantity of ship timber was found near Gallihaw, part thereof appeared to have been wrought, and part had not been wrought. There were also laid bare at the same time and place parts of ships and boats, which, by persons well skill’d in the art of shipbuilding, were thought to have been built several hundred years since.”

To the best of my knowledge there is no other source confirming Lucas’s account of the discovery of this timber, nor of its significance. It is worth remembering, however, that he was recording something which he claimed had happened in his own lifetime. But another of Lucas’s assertions – that the name Gallihaw was derived from an ancient association with shipping – earns him a scornful broadside from a more modern historian.

“Most probably Lucas was seduced by the name of the farm into making some association with galleys,” wrote Dr Andrew White, the distinguished writer and former curator of Lancaster Museums. “He exhibits at times an almost medieval contempt for observable fact, preferring to ignore the evidence of his own eyes in favour of literary derivations, however contrived.” (4)

It is true that Lucas’s approach to history often seems fanciful to the modern reader. But a review of the available evidence suggests his claims for Gallihaw as a shipbuilding location cannot be dismissed. It is certainly true, when one follows the Keer today as it winds its way in a deep cutting out on to Morecambe Bay, that it is difficult to imagine a large wooden vessel being built here. Steering it down the river on to the Bay would be tricky if not impossible: the Keer’s tortuous bends would surely defeat the pilot of any but the smallest of craft. But Lucas tells us  that in his own time, “barks” and “pinks” habitually put in at Gallihaw. Pinks were narrow-sterned, shallow-drafted, square- rigged trading vessels. A bark – or barque – was a ship with three or more masts, often used to deliver coal to communities, kilns or workshops around the Bay. Neither type of vessel was especially large, but nor were they rowing boats. They arrived, said Lucas, “from Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the western coasts of England.”(5)

The idea that vessels of such size would regularly come and go at Gallihaw suggest that the estuary and foreshore may have changed since Lucas’s day. On the Bay, the channels of the Keer and the Kent are known to shift constantly. And perhaps the dumping of tailings from the iron works at Carnforth in the nineteenth century changed the shape and depth of the Keer’s channel, making it narrower and more serpentine.

The most important and relevant of Lucas’s recollections of shipbuilding at Gallihaw, however, refers to the construction of a specific vessel. He named it as ‘The Content’ of Lancaster, built when he was a schoolboy. It is believed to have been built in 1697 – just a year before William Stout’s ‘Employment’ and was probably a similar sort of ship. The process of shipbuilding required surprisingly little in the way of infrastructure. Ships were often built on mudbanks above the high-tide mark with a frame to support the hull while under construction. The technique is clearly demonstrated in an eighteenth century painting, now owned by Lancaster Museums, showing the construction of a ship by the Lancaster shipbuilders Brockbanks. The vessel rests on a frame on the side of the River Lune just below where Sainsbury’s supermarket stands today. The painting suggests it would have been technically possible to build ships at Gallihaw. And we have Lucas’s assertion that a ship was indeed built there during his own childhood – only a year before William Stout says his vessel was under construction “near Warton”.

For his own investigation, “Early Ship-Building in Warton Parish”, Dr White scoured the Warton parish records for evidence of tradesmen active in the industry. He noted that the Nicholson family who owned Gallihaw did produce one shipwright: Christopher Nicholson, who had been baptised in 1687. But the wills of other family members revealed no involvement with shipbuilding. Dr White was more impressed by another shipwright whom he felt was a better candidate for operating a ship yard building larger vessels “near Warton”.

Edward Barrow was a ship’s carpenter from Cartmel. In 1721 he married a widow, Mary Thornton of Lindeth in the parish of Warton. The marriage produced two children, but came to an end in little more than six years, when Edward died at the age of 45. He left more than £660 in his will, as well as “plank at Sunderland”, “timber in sundry places” and shares in two ships. “It is unlikely”, Dr White observed “that Barrow would have accumulated so much money had he not been the proprietor of a shipyard.”(6)

Since Edward Barrow was based in Lindeth – a part of Warton parish now merged with Silverdale – Dr White thought it improbable that he was building ships at Gallihaw on the Carnforth side of the River Keer. The more likely location of the shipyard was in Lindeth – “somewhere on the sheltered eastern side of the Silverdale peninsula, perhaps in the area of Leighton Moss,” Dr White believed.

However, some years after Dr White wrote his article, a new piece of evidence about shipbuilding in Warton came to light in the form of a notebook recording the daily transactions of a tradesman working in the shipbuilding industry. It covers the years 1722 to 1727. Although it is unsigned, Dr Nigel Dalziel, a former curator at Lancaster Maritime Museum, believed it to be the work of Edward Barrow: the same shipwright identified by Dr White as a probable shipyard owner. (7)

The notebook is a record of work done, timber bought and payments made. It does not pinpoint the location of the shipyard where Edward Barrow worked. But it does contain an important clue. One scribbled sentence on page 8 of the notebook refers to labour provided for work at “kear”, which is taken by Dr Dalziel to mean the River Keer in the parish of Warton. There are also at least six references in the daybook to one of Edward Barrow’s workmen, Christopher Nicholson, whose family – as Dr White noted — owned Gallihaw.

Overall, the evidence of the shipbuilder’s notebook seems to support the idea that ships were being built on the River Keer in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These ships for the transatlantic trade were being constructed in Warton parish some years before Lancaster became established as a shipbuilding centre. It means that John Lucas was probably right when he suggests that ships were built at Gallihaw. And it looks increasingly likely that when the Quaker merchant William Stout inspected “Employment”, his new ship “of about 80 tons now building near Warton”, in 1698, it was probably to Keer Bridge and the stretch of the River Keer around Gallihaw that he came.

But what about ‘The Employment’? Did its construction mark the beginning of a profitable new phase in William Stout’s trading career? Sadly, no. After construction near Warton, she was fitted out at Sunderland Point and then provisioned and filled with cargo for her first run to Virginia. She returned, disappointingly, only half filled with tobacco and poor old William Stout made a loss on the voyage.

Worse was to come. After a series of largely unprofitable voyages, she was surprised by French privateers on the way back from Barbados. The French wanted to tow her back to St Malo as a prize, but her captain persuaded them to let the ship continue on its way while taking him to France as hostage. Although the privateers agreed, the arrangement left ‘The Employment’ in the hands of an inexperienced ship’s mate, who piloted the vessel all the way back to Lancashire only to run aground off Fleetwood. Mercifully, all hands survived, but the ship broke up on the rocks. The wreck left the unfortunate captain a prisoner in France for six months … and the luckless William Stout lost another £300. (8)

 ‘The Employment’s’ story underlines the risks undertaken by mariners and merchants in these early years of the transatlantic trade. But great fortunes were made along this coast, many of course, derived directly or indirectly from the hideous business of slavery. As vessels evolved and grew larger, their construction moved to Milnthorpe, Lancaster and Sunderland Point. Eventually, even these ports proved too small for the increasingly specialised business of shipbuilding. But William Stout’s ‘Employment’ and the work of historians, ancient and modern, do provide us with a snapshot of a brief period when parochial horizons were broadened for locals, when innovative craftsmen stretched traditional skills to meet new challenges, and when ocean-going ships were constructed on tidal mudbanks “near Warton”.


1 ‘Autobiography of William Stout of Lancaster’ p 48 (reprinted by “Forgotten Books”)

2 A nobby is a traditional inshore sailing boat used along the Lancashire coast.

3 John Lucas ‘The History of Warton Parish’, translated, and abridged by J Rawlinson Ford and JA Fuller Maitland, 1931

4 ‘Early Shipbuilding in Warton Parish’, by Andrew White, Contrebis, XVII, 1991-2, pp76-82
5 John Lucas ‘The History of Warton Parish’, translated, and abridged by J Rawlinson Ford and JA Fuller Maitland, 1931 137-8
6 ‘Early Shipbuilding in Warton Parish’, by Andrew White, Contrebis, XVII, 1991-2, pp 76-82
7 ‘Lancaster Shipbuilder’s Daybook, 1722-7’, NR Dalziel, Lancaster Maritime Museum, 1996
 8 ‘Autobiography of William Stout of Lancaster’ p 62-3 (reprinted by “Forgotten Books”)
A version of this article  first appeared in The Mourholme Magazine of Local History 2014, No. 2, issue 66



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