Agnes Nicholson’s Narrative 1916

Following is my transcription of Agnes Nicholson’s hand-written narrative about the Smith family and about Gamblesby where her father was born.  Agnes Nicholson was born in 1866 near Cashel, County Tipperary, the second daughter of Lancelot Smith and Eliza Upton.  She was named Agnes Hannah Smith. 

 Agnes visited Gamblesby and, I have been told, attended school there for a time.  From a mention later in the narrative about a centenary in Gamblesby, it seems Agnes was there at that time; I think the year would have been 1884.  I assume she stayed with her aunt Sarah Cowen, who was living there with her husband Joseph.  The John Smith of Melmerby mentioned early in the narrative was Agnes’s great-grandfather (my 3 times great-grandfather). 

 Agnes wrote her narrative in 1916.  I believe she wrote it mainly for her son John (Jack) Nicholson, who emigrated to Australia and married an Australian girl called Phyllis.  Agnes clearly thought her daughter-in-law should know something about her husband’s maternal ancestors and where they came from.  Many years later, Phyllis Nicholson gave a copy of this narrative to my parents. 

 Some of the handwriting is very difficult to read, and some of it is indecipherable.  Where I was unable to read the words, I have added several dots  …  Occasionally the writer has missed a word that was clearly meant to be there so have added it (in brackets).  I think some of the factual information in the narrative is incorrect but I have left it as is. 


I am writing this for my children, & perhaps in the dim future, who knows!! Some grandchild or great-grandchild might long to know, as I have often done, something about their forefathers, where & how they lived, & what sort of people they were? & might be glad to read what I can tell about them.

It seems to me that there ought to be a family historian in every generation who would write down a simple unvarnished account of those special family events which so quickly fade into oblivion when those who could have supplied the oral account have pass beyond our questioning.

In our own family I feel it would be a distinct loss if any of our descendants should be entire ignorance of the upright & saintly life of my father Lancelot Smith (born 1824).  I firmly believe that the good influence of his life will not be lost & that many of his line may rise up to call him blessed in lives of truth & purity the inherent tendency of which they may distinctly trace back to him, & through him to ancestors further back, his mother, of whose goodness I have heard old Mrs Parker in Gamblesby testify & his grandfather of whom she said “no-one ought to be bad who was descended from old John Smith of Melmerby” & I think it was the same John Smith’s wife who was one of those converted during John Wesley’s visit to the village & was one of the pioneer Methodists in those parts.  I have often heard my aunt Hannah tell how she used to go down to the little Wesleyan chapel near their house to pray, & how she used to say

I have been there & still would go

‘Tis like a little heaven below.

Another of his ancestors was Joseph Benson the Commentator.

I don’t think any of our posterity need search the family tree for aristocratic & wealthy connections for they will not find them, but I should like to assure them that they come of quite a good family in the highest sense of the word.  I think as a family we can be thankful that we come of an honest God-fearing stock, in which I can hardly recall an instance of one who has disgraced himself.

A cynical person has remarked, “why should I trouble about my posterity, they never did anything for me.”  But I should like to try to pass on to mine a few pen pictures of the times & the people to whom we owe so much.  I should say here, “Please, posterity I wish I could do it better! But this is my first attempt at writing history.”

I think I might begin my father’s life by telling you a little of where he was born.  If you ever go to Cumberland & take a long drive out from the old fashioned town of Penrith, you will find after a tedious journey crossing the river Eden & up & down steep & lonely roads into what might truly be called the back of beyond, the village of Gamblesby, one of the chain (of) fellside villages which lie along the foot of the Pennine Range.

In my time, and as I write in 1916, they are still strangely primitive even after the introduction of the telegraph, telephones, motor cars & a new water scheme.

But in my Father’s young days, people carded & spun their own wool & had it woven into cloth by the village weaver.  The daughters of the house spun flax & had their stores of sheets woven from it & laid up against their wedding day.  I have the remains of some sheets now with her initials which were spun by my Aunt Hannah.  And many a story has she told me of how hard they had to work as almost everything was made at home, soap, candles, & all the family sewing including the men’s white shirts with fancy tuck fronts all done in fine backstitching, also numberless patchwork quilts which they afterward quilted at home in large frames for the purpose, as well as the large knitted white quilts which took such a weary time to complete.  In connection with which I must record the tragic story, often repeated to me by my aunt, of a certain Miss Moreton of Melmerby who had just finished a very elaborate quilt, after infinite patience, & had washed & spiced it out to bleach when the cows came & chewed holes all over it, her feelings may be imagined.  Rag carpets woven by the village weaver from strips of old cloth of many colours sewn together in long lengths & resulting in a sort of Joseph’s coat, or as I heard it called, “Thunder & Lightning” pattern, were the favourite covering for the floors, & may still be found in the front kitchens in Gamblesby.  It was the custom, in Father’s young days, to lay in a good stock of meat for the winter.  Sheep were killed & salted down & a number of geese were boiled down & kept in large jars covered with cakes of mutton fat.  All this was a strenuous time for the women of the family.

Situated at the foot of the mountain range rejoicing in the summer sun & the fresh exhilarating air with a delightful view of the surrounding country, with the mountains of the lake district as a background, one could find it a very delightful place; but in the winter when the storms rage & the iron frosts hold the ground for weeks, the snow lies thick on the almost impassable roads, when the care of the animals has to go on as usual & the sheep perhaps sought for & dug out of the snow on the mountainside, I know of no place more bleak & desolate, or where one could be more completely cut off from the outside world.  Peculiar to this district is what is known as the Helm Wind when a cap or helmet of cloud sits on Crossfell & a cold & piercing wind sweeps down from the mountain with a peculiar howl of its own & continues for a week at a time, while the inhabitants remain indoors if possible for the Helm is on.  The stern & hard fight with nature has produced a hardy & determined race of men & women.  Once can read it in their faces.  It was bred in their strong uncompromising views of duty & of religion.  They have now & still more so in my Father’s time a perfect obsession for “wark”.  Wark is the highest virtue, & if in the village there should be one who will not wark he is looked upon with the pitying derision he deserves – even the “women foak” help in the outside work of hay & harvest, milk & feed the animals.  They rose in the small hours & usually kept their clocks half an hour or an hour before the time, so that when anyone wanted to catch a train it often required some calculation to know what time it was “by the day” as it varied very much from what it was by “oor clock”.

The village of Gamblesby consisted of a long straggling street the water of the back intersecting it about half way down & running across under the road bridge.  Substantial farmhouses & outbuildings, all of the red sandstone of the district were clustered round the street in what might almost seem studied irregularity, facing in various directions as their builders had fancied.  About half way down was Toppin’s forge where the men folk were wont to foregather for a crack, & higher up the road was the village green given over to the geese & the playground for such children as were too young to wark.

In Father’s time there stood facing the village green a very small plain building erected in the time of John Wesley, which in after years gave place to a rather handsome new chapel.  Still farther up the street was the church, also a neat red sandstone building with a short spire.  My grandfather’s house was at the other end of the village facing up the street & with an uninterrupted view of almost the whole village.  It stood full south with a small orchard at the side & a bright little garden in front which sloped down to where the beck murmured & glinted in the sun, the pleasantest house in the village I always thought.  It was a small freehold property, bought I think at the time of his marriage, the original property being at Melmerby where his father, the John Smith I have mentioned before, lived.  In fact they were of the Yeoman Class who owned the land they farmed, & of which there are not many examples left now but at that time they were quite numerous.  They had a sturdy pride of possession & my brother Lancelot speaks of how one day in Penrith an old cousin of the family dictating his address gave it as Benjamin Salkeld, adding with some impressiveness, Yeoman.

Any picture of life in Gamblesby would be incomplete (if) it did not give some idea of its religious aspect.  A distinctive line of cleavage between church and “chapel foak” has existed for generations.  Many of the inhabitants have never been inside the little church.  I think in the old days it was attended by a mere handful who belonged to the two or three distinctly church families & who seemed to live a life apart from the rest of the inhabitants who flocked to the Methodist chapel.  The feeble state of the church may perhaps be traced to the careless lives of some of the church clergy of that time.  One of whom at Melmerby was wont to say to members of his flock “Do as I say & not as I do,” which was in sharp contrast to “the holy & self-sacrificing” lives of the early Methodists.  This in time gave rise to the rather sanctimonious self-satisfaction with which their descendants who perhaps lacked their true spirituality of heart & life came to regard themselves as superior in some way to the church foaks.

Nowadays as I write I think the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, the chapel beginning to be somewhat deserted.  The old life & power seem to have gone & its somewhat formal service, attended by the faithful few, cease to attract the youth of the village, & instances of popular and sociable curates who have visited in the village regardless of religious differences have done something to break down the wall of partition & the church begins to have a better attendance.

If the church would only wake to the true spirit of Christ a harvest is waiting to be gathered in the fellside villages.  As it is the growing indifference to any form of religion & the deplorably low moral tone of the village life calls for a new breath of the spirit of God from whatever quarter it may come, to renew the spiritual life of the people.

In Father’s time the Methodists were a strong body.  The building of the new chapel & schoolroom which is quite an ornament to the place shows what can be accomplished by zeal & united effort of a small community.  Gamblesby is in the Kirkoswald circuit & got its share of the ministers stationed there but most of the Sundays the pulpit was filled by one of the local preachers who often had to walk or ride from a long distance.  A reference to the plan which I have sometimes seen printed on a square of calico like a handkerchief would show that one “Hall” of Renwick or “Bird” of Ainstable were due to preach on the Sunday & on that day he would mount the pulpit stairs and with sturdy well shined boots, his honest tanned ruddy face & strong brown hands, bespeaking the farmer of hard working weekdays & pray with great unction & at some length in strong Cumbrian speech, & give out the hymns, often sung to one of the good old tunes with bewildering twists & turns, some of the old folks swaying to the music in sort of Methodist rapture.  And in due time, from a somewhat shy & modest beginning, warming into his sermon sometimes nailing down the points with good sound thumps, calculated to make sleepy hearers jump.  The story is told of one more than usually energetic preacher who explained triumphantly when he had smashed the book rest with a blow, “Ah, I only wish I could break through old prejudices as easily.”

I need hardly say that the talents of the local preachers varied very much, from the shy & awkward new beginners to the men of deep thought & expression such as Thomas Benson of Unthank & others of his stamp.  On the whole, though plain & homely men, they were fired with the spirit of God, & spoke out their inward convictions which they had thought out in long quiet hours as they perhaps worked their mountain lots or followed the plough.

Perhaps once a month the minister came from Kirkoswald, on … day even from Penrith, being entertained for dinner & tea by someone in the village. Of late years my aunt Mrs Cowen always welcomed them at the old house.

The monotony of life was broken by the tea meetings which were a great institution in each village, it being the thing to attend all the neighbouring teas, a return visit from them being expected.

Gamblesby has held a special tea meeting on Xmas Day for many generations.  Before a tea meeting there has always been great activity on the part of the ladies in the baking of bread & cakes from time honoured recipes.  And on the day the village is busy & thronged with the arrivals from far & near in high back to back traps, or conveyances as they are locally called, of family parties, work hardened mothers usually garbed in black with their more gaily dressed daughters.  Fathers driving carefully & bethinking themselves of the houses of cousins or other connections where they could put up if not already too full, though indeed on that day conventionalities were for once broken down & even strangers were heartily welcomed.  The tea meeting proper was held in the afternoon, all adjourning to the school room or perhaps a large barn, where long tables were set out & attended by beaming ladies of the local chapel flushed with their hospitable exertions.  The guests crushed in between the tables & long forms & waited in some grim & taciturn silence till grace was sung.  Then there arose a mighty clatter of cups & there was a general & continued onslaught first on the favourite flat toasted tea cakes & square moist slices of  … cake & in a more critical spirit on the plates piled with thick slices of seed cake or currant loaf which had to undergo comparison with their own special make.  When the tea pots had gone their rounds many times & the people had finally put their spoon in the cup, neatly placed the cup & saucer on their plates & leaned back with a sigh of repletion then it was that their social spirit broke loose & the wits of the party cracked their jokes to hearty peals of laughter or a good old story was told & … were exchanged by the ladies regarding the scarcity of eggs or the price of cloth or as to whether it had been a good years for apples or the berries had been plentiful, with statements as to how much jam had been made & discussions as to the special family recipes for the same, which prepared the way for closer confidences regarding oor Mary Elizabeth or Martha Ann or John Wm… , broken into ruthlessly at long last by a general pushing back of forms & uprising to sing “We thank thee Lord for this our food” with full hearts in more than one sense.  All then scattering to different friends’ houses, the menfolk perhaps gathering in knots to discuss the weather & their crops, all except the busy helpers who cleared away & washed up the tea things or “pots” as they were often called there.

At the evening meeting they filled the chapel to listen with rapt attention to the “speakers” who varied from the bright particular stars who had been invited to address them & the solid worthies who took the chair, to the local supporters who were wont to introduce the subject of the collection with cautious words, to a … & the shy younger men who had greatness thrust upon them by being asked beforehand to propose or second votes of thanks, without quite a number of which no tea meeting could properly close.

Other landmarks in their strenuous working day were the anniversary services, missionary meetings, Sunday school treats when the young folks often played the favourite local game of Kiss in the Ring, in which any one can kiss any one else on being chosen and drawn into the ring.  In connection with which a curious line of distinction as to propriety of conduct was drawn.  The chapel folk allowing Kiss in the Ring at their gatherings, though looking with stern disapproval at the dancing at the church folks’ socials.  It is only fair to add that some (of) the elders looked on with disapproval at the game, & one gave vent to it in my hearing, answered by, “Eh mon ye canna put old heads on young shoulders.”

Once in my memory Gamblesby blossomed out in a Centenary, the occasion being the 100th anniversary of the building of the chapel by John Wesley, it was indeed a notable gathering when Gamblesby fairly made a name for itself for enterprise & hospitality to all around, the memory of which still lingers in the fell sides.

In connection with John Wesley a high sloping bank just across the road by my Grandfather’s house is pointed out as the spot from which he preached to the inhabitants when he visited the village.


If you walk on from Gamblesby to the south still keeping under the shelter of the mountain you come to Melmerby, or Mellerby as it is called in local speech, which is the original home of our branch of the Smith family.  It has not the same long street as Gamblesby, the houses being more scattered round a central village green & it is I think prettier & a bit more pretentious having a large school building & a fine old church and vicarage.  In the church yard lie many of our forebears including old John Smith & his wife, his son Wm Smith & his wife Agnes Longrigg, his grandson John Smith & his wife of the Hardys of Park Head.  Also Hannah Huddart to whom belonged the old oak corner cupboard left to me by my aunt Sarah Cowen.  Most of our people lie in the church yard but the graves of others of the family may be found at Glassonby.  The Smiths were originally church people & the Melmerby branch have continued to be connected with the church.  Those who joined the Methodists continued to be baptized & married at Melmerby.

4 Responses to Agnes Nicholson’s Narrative 1916

  1. Hildegard Cahill (nee Walker) says:

    This is a most interesting account of life in Gamblesby. I think that my grandfather, Robert Henry Walker, schoolmaster in the school as present many of these gatherings. He emigrated to Boston at the age of 73 in the 1930’s after his wife Sarah Benson died. He also buried five of his six children – Elsie, John, Marion and Frances Lilian and Frank. The only daughter left was Hilda and she lived in Boston. She came with her two daughters Daphne and Marion Cooper and accompanied Robert Henry back to Boston. He sold many of his possessions from the house Aikriggs.

    • Jean says:

      Thanks for your comment, Hildegard. It is possible that my great-aunt Agnes Smith (as she then was) was taught by your great-grandfather in Gamblesby because she went to school there for a time as a young girl. She was sent from County Dublin to Gamblesby to live with her aunt Sarah Cowen, which is why she knew so much about the local people and their Wesleyan tradiitions; her older sister Elizabeth (Betty) also lived for a while in Gamblesby before returning to Ireland.

  2. Kate says:

    Hello Jean
    Does anyone know who lived in the cottage in Gamelsby in the days of your great grandparents? Or any other time?

    • Jean says:

      Hello, Kate. Thanks for your query. This is what I know about the Smiths who occupied the house at Townfoot in Gamblesby;. The house was acquired by my great-great-grandfather Lancelot Smith around the time he married Elizabeth Westgarth in 1817. He lived there for at least thirty years. In the 1851 census, the house was occupied by his son, another Lancelot Smith (my great-grandfather), while the older Lancelot Smith was living on another Cumberland farm. Soon after that, the Smith family moved to Ireland so I don’t know who occupied the Gamblesby house from about 1852 to 1875. I am quite sure it was still owned by the senior Lancelot Smith, who died in 1871. The house was inherited by his daughter Sarah who married Joseph Cowen in 1875. The Cowens then lived in the house until Sarah died in 1913. She was my great-great-aunt. I hope this information is helpful to you.

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