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Low Furness in the 17th / 18th centuries

Henry’s decision to establish the Church of England had profound consequences across the nation and many of the subsequent changes can be seen through a careful study of religious and other buildings across Low Furness.

Henry Birkett in his ‘History of Ulverston’ (1949) says that there is little doubt that the century following the dispersal of the monks was hard throughout Furness. Their industry, their business acumen as well as their philanthropy were greatly missed and ‘not until a new Order had been established and modern England was almost in sight did prosperity return’.

It is true that the dissolution of the monastries in 1536-9 and the chantries in 1546 curtailed developments in educational foundations but within a few years of the accession of Elizabeth 1st it was clear that the new Church of England was firmly established and that the prospect of stability coupled with the increasing wealth of the middle classes encouraged gentlemen to endow more schools. Urswick Grammar School was founded in 1580.

Sunbrick FarmThe School and Church constructed at Dendron by the gift of Robert Dickinson and completed in 1642 was in the midst of considerable religious turmoil and was not in fact used much until at least 1652. Other examples of fine buildings of this period can be seen across Low Furness, for example in Little Urswick, Leece, Dendron and particularly at Sunbrick which became a significant Quaker settlement, visited by the ‘notorious’ George Fox (who also preached at Dendron in 1652 to good effect) who is associated with Judge Fell and Swarthmoor Hall.

The suppression of the Catholic faith and the growth of the Anglican Church allowed Puritans to thrive under Elizabeth but James 1 declared himself not in sympathy with Puritan beliefs and non-conformist groups emerged, particularly Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists as a result.

With Parliamentary victory in the Civil War of 1642-5 the Presbyterians assumed nominal control of worship but with the re-imposition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1662 many refused to conform and were ejected from their churches.

George Fox became a religious itinerant in 1643 ands commenced his public ministry in about 1647. He met significant opposition but was apparently well received in Gleaston, Rampside and Dendron. The Society of Friends Meeting House above Ulverston was given by Fox to the founders of the Society in 1688. Bulmer notes that ‘after encountering innumerable sufferings, opposition, and afflictions, though generally brought on by himself by his violent attacks on the clergy, and his strictures on them in their public ministry, this singular and extraordinary man died on the 13th November, 1690’.

It is from such ‘non-conformist’ seeds that Methodism grew and took a hold. From 1750 until 1791 John Wesley preached to ‘the world my parish’ although preaching out of doors was still not considered the done thing.. Many unconsecrated chapels were established, including in Low Furness hamlets and villages and they were ‘serviced’ by itinerant lay preachers.

It has been suggested that the growth of Methodism prevented the French Revolution from being repricated here but in some ways it emphasised the different class divisions within English society and the difference between ‘church’ and ‘chapel’ which was further emphasised during the 19th Century as the new wealth and prosperity of the nation led to a ‘mushrooming’ of building of both churches and chapels across the country and the further advances in education- a mixed blessing!
It has to be said that the 18th Century was not a good time for those Churches without significant patronage and endowments and even where there were often the clergy were absent from their ‘livings’. Even Aldingham, a significant Crown living since the demise of Lady Jane Grey, was found to be badly neglected and in need of considerable repair when Revd. Doctor Stonard arrived there in 1812.