The History of Keswick
Our knowledge of the human history of Keswick begins with the magnificent Castlerigg Stone Circle just outside the town, constructed 5,000 years ago as a religious site, or perhaps as a trading and meeting point.
The earlier history of what became Keswick is unclear, though we know St Mungo (who glories in the alternative name of St Kentigern) visited in 553AD, founding a church in the place: the current building dates from the 12th century. As with all older British churches St Kentigern ’s has been much altered over the years including some restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1844, though the Tudor consecration crosses survived his improvements.
Keswick in the Dark Ages and the early medieval period was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The town’s name, however, reflects its Viking occupation in the 10th century, though they are thought to have come as invited settlers rather than as invaders, perhaps for economic reasons or possibly to bolster Strathclyde’s southern border against incursion by the Northumbrians. The Norsemen were great traders and farmers, and are thought to have introduced the Herdwick sheep still seen on the fells around the town, whose ancestors doubtless provided milk for the industry that gave Keswick its name: it means ‘cheese town’.
When the Cistercian monks arrived in Furness in the mid-13th century they acquired swathes of Cumbrian land and thus controlled and increased sheep farming there, and the wool industry it supplied. According to one legend it was these monks who first exploited the writing properties of the local graphite to mark their sheep.
The civic development of Keswick continued with the granting of a market charter by Edward I in 1276.
In the 16th century mining became economically important to Keswick and the surrounding area: slate deposits were exploited for roofing and floors; copper was mined, the technical difficulties in extracting it leading to the 1564 arrival of German miners, brought over by royal invitation. The wealth such activity produced allowed for Keswick’s most famous building, the Moot Hall .
By far the most important material mined locally, however, was graphite. Ambrose Dormer in 1555 was the first to be given a lease to mine graphite in the district. Though early on it was used for writing and artistic purposes, it was far more significant militarily: with a melting point above 3900 Celsius and a very low coefficient of friction it made wonderful moulds for high-quality lead musket shot and cannonballs; equally useful as a lubricant for ship’s rigging and as a coating to prevent cannon rusting graphite has been called the plutonium of its day.
By 1800 graphite was worth £3500 per ton, compared to lead at £15, which made it the target of thieves and smugglers (its export generally banned by the government).
The first proper lead pencil was made in 1683. Keswick became the centre of British pencil-manufacture until very recent times, and some are still made there, a fact celebrated by the famous Pencil Museum in Keswick – graphite’s other uses are covered in the nearby Mining Museum .
For a period around the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries Keswick was of significance in English literary history: the Wordsworths stayed at Windy Brow nearby in 1794; Coleridge rented Greta Hall to the west of the town in 1800, and lived there with his family until 1803, hosting Charles Lamb for a time, and later Robert Southey who in 1809 bought the place, living there until his death in 1843. Southey in turn hosted Shelley in 1811. A rather different writer is also associated with the town – Beatrix Potter holidaying there in 1903, early in her long love affair with the region.
Keswick was opened up to wider tourism by the arrival of the railways in 1865, facilitating the inauguration of the Keswick Convention in 1875, a Christian festival still held to this day, every year swelling the population of the town as do the walkers, sightseers and climbers who congregate there at all times of the year.