A very sad story about two young boys who tragically drowned while bathing in a lake, and the tale of two valleys submerged to quench the thirst of a growing population.
While researching the history and families of Wet Sleddale, I came across an article written in 2012 by Helen Ashworth, who is the 2nd great-niece of the two boys who had drowned in Hawes Water in 1874. Helen was very keen that the boys were not forgotten, so she kindly allowed me to use some of the information for my first ‘local history’ story. After much correspondence, ground work, and further researching, the events of that sad day and the following years came to light.
This article was updated on 2nd April 2022, after receiving more information.
The following chapters are:
1. Double tragedy at Hawes Water
2. The Wilkinson and Noble families of Wet Sleddale
3. Farewell to Hawes Water
4. What we have done
5. Remembering Robert and George
Double tragedy at Hawes Water
Littlewater Farm, Bampton
On the evening of Friday 10th July 1874, friends Robert Noble Wilkinson aged 15, and George Ashworth aged 18, were tragically drowned while bathing in Low Water at the north-east end of the valley of Mardale and Hawes Water (now Haweswater Reservoir). Robert, from Beckside Farm in Wet Sleddale, and George who had travelled with his mother from Manchester, were staying at the farm of Robert’s uncle at Little Water. The home of William and Ann Noble, Littlewater Farm was only one mile walking distance from the location of the drownings.
Low Water and the locations of Little Water and Eastward farms (top right)
An inquest was held at Littlewater Farm the following afternoon, before George Rowland Thompson, coroner for Westmorland. The jury empanelled on the inquest were: William Serjant (foreman), J. Kirkbride, J. Jackson, William Dover, H. Burton, Thomas Cox, M. Shadwick, John Ion, John Watterson, John Greenhow, and George Tinkler.
It appeared from the evidence from Ann Noble, that the boys decided to go for a bathe at the foot of Hawes Water about half-past five Friday evening. Shortly after, Robert had returned back to the farm for a towel, before heading back to the lake. George’s mother, Elizabeth Ashworth, was later becoming uneasy about their lengthened absence, so both Ann and Elizabeth went to look for the boys at about half-past eight. With no sign of them, Ann and Elizabeth returned back to the farm. At about half-past ten, William Noble, and Thomas Noble of nearby Eastward Farm, went in search of the boys. Near to the foot of the lake they found the clothes of both boys, which had been placed on two boulders near to the water’s edge.
Measand Beck Farm and the location of the boat house (top right)
The Kitching brothers at Measand Beck Farm
With the assistance of Thomas Kitching, of nearby Measand Beck Farm, they got a boat and went out on the lake with lights and boat hooks. They soon found the body of George Ashworth about 30 yards from the shore, in about six feet of water, then shortly after, they found the body of Robert Noble Wilkinson, who was only 10 yards away from George in about nine feet of water.
It was stated at the inquest that George Ashworth had been taking swimming lessons in Manchester, and that in all probability one boy must have tried to rescue the other after getting into difficulty. The jury returned a verdict of “accidentally drowned while bathing”.
“The deceased were two fine young men, and their untimely end has called forth the greatest sympathy for their parents and friends, who are thus suddenly plunged into the deepest distress. Wilkinson’s family are numerously connected to the parish. It is but a few months since Mr Wilkinson, the elder, died. We may add that Wilkinson was a very promising youth, having progressed rapidly with his studies at Beetham School. In the returns of the Diocesan Society his name appears in the first division, first class for religious knowledge.”
Kendal Mercury – Saturday 18th July 1874
The last fatal accident in Hawes Water before the tragedy of 1874, was almost 150 years previously. On Saturday 17th December 1726, a young man named Hughes, from London, drowned after falling through the ice that covered the lake. His body was interred nearby at Bampton on Tuesday 20th December.
At some point after the burial of Robert and George, the boulders that the boys had placed their clothes on were engraved and left in their original positions at the water’s edge. I’ve no information of who engraved them, or exactly when it happened, but the boulders were left undisturbed for many years.
R. N. Wilkinson
July 10th 1874
July 10th 1874
The Wilkinson and Noble families of Wet Sleddale
It was during my research of Wet Sleddale when I came across the story of Robert and George, so I thought it may be of interest to add a little background on Robert’s family who lived and farmed in this small isolated community.
The Howe, and birth place of Robert’s mother, Ruth Noble
The Shap Registers suggest that The Howe was in existence from at least 1668 when it was the home of the long established Noble family. It appears from the records to have been unoccupied from the 1880s until it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the reservoir.
From the Shap Registers:
Edmund Noble, son of Thomas Noble o’th How, baptised 28 Feb 1668.
Edmond Noble, son of Thomas Noble o’th How, buried 29 May 1668.
John Noble, son of Thomas Noble o’th How, baptised 18 May 1672.
Thomas Noble o’th How, buried 25 Dec 1673.
Catherine Noble, daughter of William Noble o’th How, baptised 7 July 1696.
Catherine Noble, daughter of William Noble o’th How, buried 24 July 1697.
James Noble, son of William Noble o’th How, baptised 18 Aug 1700.
Edmond Noble, son of William Noble o’th How, baptised Dec 1702.
Cristable Noble, wife of William Noble o’th How, buried 21 May 1704.
John Noble o’th How, buried 19 Nov 1747.
Elizabeth Farrer, daughter of Elizabeth Farrer o’th How, baptised 7 Aug 1753.
William Noble, Farmer (1829 Shap Directory)
Dale End Farm, and home of Robert’s father, Robert Wilkinson
1841 England Census for Dale End Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Robert Wilkinson, head, aged 36
Ruth Wilkinson, wife, aged 25
Catherine Wilkinson, daughter, aged 1
Mary Sowerby, aged 15
Robert Wilkinson was living at Dale End Farm in Wet Sleddale when he married Ruth Noble in 1839, however, he was actually born in the neighbouring valley of Swindale. Robert was the first member of the family to own Dale End Farm, and it remained in the Wilkinson family until it was compulsorily purchased by Manchester Corporation, before the building of the dam and the flooding of the valley.
1851 England Census for Dale End Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Robert Wilkinson, head, aged 46, Farmer of 45 acres
Ruth Wilkinson, wife, aged 35, Farmer’s wife
Catherine Wilkinson, daughter, aged 11, Scholar
John Wilkinson, son, aged 9, Scholar
William Wilkinson, son, aged 6, Scholar
Elizabeth Wilkinson, daughter, aged 3
Mary Wilkinson, daughter, aged 1
At some point between 1851 and 1861, Robert and his family moved to Beckside Farm which was also located in Wet Sleddale.
Beckside Farm, and birth place of Robert Noble Wilkinson
1861 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Robert Wilkinson, head, aged 56 (1804 – 1873), Farmer of 240 acres
Ruth Wilkinson, wife, aged 46 (1815 – 1902)
Catherine Wilkinson, daughter, aged 21 (1840 – 1883)
John Wilkinson, son, aged 19 (1842 – 1922)
William Wilkinson, son, aged 16 (1845 – 1917)
Elizabeth Wilkinson, daughter, aged 14 (1847 – 1923)
Mary Wilkinson, daughter, aged 11 (1849 – 1921)
Henry Wilkinson, son, aged 9 (1851 – 1927)
Thomas Wilkinson, son, aged 6 (1854 – 1916)
Ruth Wilkinson, daughter, aged 4 (1856 – 1939)
Robert Noble Wilkinson, son, aged 1 (1859 – 1874)
In all, Robert and Ruth had nine children.
1871 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Robert Wilkinson, head, aged 66, Farmer of 87 acres
Ruth Wilkinson, wife, aged 55, Farmer’s wife
William Wilkinson, son, aged 26, Farmer’s son
Elizabeth Wilkinson, daughter, aged 24, Farmer’s daughter
Robert Noble Wilkinson, son, aged 11, Scholar
John Stewart, grand-son, aged 1
After the death of Robert Wilkinson in 1873, his wife Ruth was left to run the farm with the help of her two eldest sons, John and William. Sadly, and only seven months later, the family grieved the loss of their youngest child Robert Noble Wilkinson. Nine years later, at the age of 43, the oldest sibling Catherine died of Bronchopneumonia.
Ruth Ashworth (nee Wilkinson)
Six years after the drownings, their youngest daughter, Ruth Wilkinson (Robert’s sister) married Charles Ashworth (George’s brother) at St Michaels Church, Shap on 16th September 1880. After their wedding, Ruth and Charles lived in Salford, Manchester. Although at the time of the accident, the newspapers reported the boys to be cousins, they were not blood relatives. However, the two families did have a common link. George’s mother, Elizabeth Ashworth (nee Winder) was born at the nearby village of Askham. Her uncle, John Winder (1779-1865) married Mary Hind (1775-1866), the sister of Elizabeth Noble, who was Robert’s grandmother. The families became closely related with the marriage of Charles and Ruth in 1880.
1881 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Ruth Wilkinson, head, aged 65, Retired farmer
John Wilkinson, son, aged 39, Joint farmer of 100 acres
William Wilkinson, son, aged 36, Joint farmer of 100 acres
Henry Wilkinson, son, aged 29, Writing Clerk
Susan Burgess, aged 15, General servant (Domestic)
1891 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Ruth Wilkinson, head, aged 76, Living on her own means
John Wilkinson, son, aged 49, Farmer
Ruth Stewart, grand-daughter, aged 20, Housekeeper
Robert Stewart, grand-son, aged 17, Assistant deer keeper
Thomas Coulston, aged 20, Farm servant
Margaret J Greenhow, aged 23, Domestic servant
1901 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
Ruth Wilkinson, head, aged 85, Living on her own means
John Wilkinson, son, aged 59, Farmer
William Wilkinson, son, aged 56, Farmer
Mary Elizabeth Proud, aged 25, Domestic servant
Beckside Farm and Sleddale Beck
The man standing at the back is believed to be John Wilkinson, who was the eldest son of Robert and Ruth, and brother of Robert Noble Wilkinson; John became the head of the family at Beckside Farm after the death of his mother in 1902. The lady sat reading to his right, is thought to be the housekeeper Jane Watson from Cockermouth.
The lady sat directly in front of John, is thought to be Ruth Ashworth (nee Wilkinson) who married Charles Ashworth; sat next to her, on her right, is Cecil Henry Ashworth, Ruth’s son and George Ashworth’s Uncle.
1911 England Census for Beckside Farm, Wet Sleddale, Shap, Westmorland
John Wilkinson, head, aged 69
William Wilkinson, brother, aged 66
Jane Watson, housekeeper, aged 50
George Lamb, farm servant, aged 20
Farewell to Hawes Water
It was December 1919 when the farming communities of Mardale, Swindale and Wet Sleddale, heard the news that their valleys were to be flooded to quench the thirst of Manchester. In 1925, the Manchester Corporation acquired the necessary lands and conducted field work and surveys, and the deadline to begin work on the ‘Haweswater Scheme’ was on 17th June 1929.
Ceremony to mark the start of the construction of Haweswater Dam
The official start of the construction of the dam was on 5th April 1935. It was during the next 2 years that Mardale would change forever; and to prepare for the forthcoming flooding of the valley, the Manchester Corporation demolished all the buildings, which included the homesteads, farm buildings, the school, Mardale Chapel and the Dun Bull Inn.
“And that little nook of peace and quiet and beauty is now invaded with theodolite and dynamite, and pick and axe. Already, trees have been felled, rocks blasted, the water-course in part diverted, great square pits dug to hold, I suppose, massive pillars of stone or concrete. The future high-water indicated by great splotches of lime, wooden huts and offices built, rails and timber assembled on the site in preparation for the devastation of this Nature’s jewel.”
Nelson Leader – Friday 26th July 1929
The ‘1937’ Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial 0n 16th September 1937
Another sad part of the ‘preparation works’ is that in July 1937, the engraved boulders had to be moved 195 yards higher up the bank, to avoid being victims of the impending rising water level. A memorial was placed between the two boulders, however, even though what appeared to be a great gesture at the time, it is believed it was a PR exercise by the Manchester Corporation Waterworks Committee, partly because of the huge controversy over the dam and subsequent flooding of Mardale.
The inscription on the memorial read:
In Their Original Positions
On The Shore Of The Lake
195 Yards South Of This Spot
Marked The Place Near Which
Robert Noble Wilkinson
Of Wet Sleddale
Were Drowned While
Bathing In The Lake
On July 10th 1874
What we have done
Having been close to the shore of the reservoir for nearly 60 years, the location hadn’t been kind to the memorial. Battered by the elements, subjected to forest work, and the seasonal growth of bracken, had all taken effect on its condition.
The ‘1937’ Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial in January 1992
It is believed at some point the memorial was learning over, and as a result a large crack appeared across its width. It is clear from these two photos, that the memorial had been turned around to face the reservoir, but I’ve not been able to find out when this occurred, or the reasoning behind it. Had it completely fallen over which then caused it to crack? It is a possibility that when it was re-erected, it wasn’t known at the time which way it was originally facing.
John Ashworth at the memorial on 10th July 1993
Helen Ashworth, who kindly allowed me to use some content from her article from 2012, contacted me in May 2021 to share some more information about the memorial. A suitcase of “family memorabilia” was passed onto her by her brother, which contained some letters and photos regarding the memorial. A letter from North West Water in August 1993 to John Ashworth, who is a great nephew of Robert and George, acknowledges the receipt of a letter from him asking for the memorial to be made more secure, and that they would let him know “what we have done”.
On a visit in 2019, Helen was told by Sylvia Hindmarsh, who lived at the nearby village of Burnbanks, at one point a metal frame was put around the stone to hold it together. This brace was clearly only a temporary fix, and in January 1995, a letter to John Ashworth says that the old headstone “is sadly in a bit of a state and almost illegible”, and that they are thinking of replacing this with a new stone.
The ‘1997’ Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial on 25th July 2018
A new memorial was commissioned, and in late 1997 it was positioned, with the boulders, a further 6 yards up the bank towards the boundary wall. Because the old memorial was so illegible, sadly the yardage and the age of George are wrong on the new memorial. It is a possibility that they thought the yardage was “19” on the original memorial, instead of “195”. A new memorial, if commissioned, should now read “201” yards, and George aged “18”.
Remembering Robert and George
St Michael’s Church, Shap (2018)
Robert and George were buried at St Michael’s, Shap on 14th July 1874. On a personal note, I think it’s quite moving that the boys were buried together.
The headstone of Robert and George at St Michael’s Church, Shap (2018)
Robert Noble Wilkinson
Aged 15 Years
Aged 18 Years
Who Were Drowned Whilst Bathing
In Lake Haweswater
July 10th 1874
A sudden change we in a moment fell,
We had not time to bid our friends farewell.
Tis nothing strange death happens unto all,
It was our lot that day; tomorrow you may fall.
The Wilkinson family headstone at St Michael’s Church, Shap (2018)
In memory of Robert Wilkinson
of Beckside Sleddale
who died December 17th 1873
aged 69 years
also of Ruth Wilkinson his wife
who died March 23rd 1902
aged 86 years
also Thomas their son
died August 25th 1916
aged 62 years
also William their son
died June 6th 1917
aged 72 years
also John their son
died March 16th 1922
aged 80 years.
Green Farm over River Lowther, Wet Sleddale (2018)
The small group of trees on the left is the location of the remains of a large sheepfold, that once belonged to The Howe. The sheepfold was located on the lane that lead to the farm, which was the birth place of Ruth Noble. Just beyond Green Farm (centre of picture) are the ruins of Dale End Farm, where Robert Wilkinson was living before he married Ruth in 1839.
The ruins of Dale End Farm, Wet Sleddale (2018)
The sheepfold of The Howe, Wet Sleddale (2018)
Wet Sleddale Dam and the sheepfold of The Howe (2018)
The actual location of The Howe was directly below the dam.
The buildings of Wet Sleddale
Beckside, Brek Dale (location not known), Bowfield, Cooper Green, Cragg’s Mill, Dale End, Green Farm, High Side, The Howe, Kemp How, Mirethwaite, New Ing, Sleddale Hall, Thorney Bank
As you can see from the map above, Beckside Farm was completely submerged by the creation of Wet Sleddale Reservoir in 1962. Today only a few are working farms, the rest are either unoccupied, used as farm buildings, in ruin or have totally disappeared due to the construction of the dam. The current Wet Sleddale farms, that are now owned by United Utilities, are run by Mike Harrison and Son of Green Farm. Robert and Ruth Wilkinson are Mike’s 3x great grandparents; Mike is descended from John Wilkinson, Robert Noble Wilkinson’s eldest brother.
Sleddale Hall is now famous for being the setting for the 1980s film Withnail and I.
Burn Banks from Littlewater Farm, Bampton (2018)
With prior knowledge of the memorial location, my wife and I visited the site and the surrounding area in 2018, and have done since on many occasions. Our main objective was to retrace Robert and George’s last journey from Littlewater Farm to the north-east shore of Hawes Water, and like them, we were also enjoying the hot July weather.
Path from Littlewater Farm leading to Haweswater Reservoir (2018)
From their approach, the boys would’ve enjoyed a grand view of Mardale and Hawes Water, but today this view is blocked by a plantation.
Gate leading to the Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial
Just a short walk from the hamlet of Burnbanks, along the north-east shore bridleway, a gate on your left leads to the memorial site. Since the creation of the reservoir, trees were planted and the area has become overgrown; during the summer months especially, the ground is dense with bracken. I wonder how many walkers pass this gate not knowing about the memorial, and the sad story attached to it?
The ‘1997’ Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial on 25th July 2018
Haweswater Dam from the north-east shore (2018)
This photo was taken from below where the present memorial is located, and above where the boys had drowned in Low Water.
Path from Littlewater Farm leading into Mardale (2022)
Haweswater Dam from Burn Banks, Mardale (2022)
The ‘1997’ Wilkinson and Ashworth memorial on 1st March 2022
Mardale and Haweswater Reservoir (2022)
Thanks to Helen Ashworth and the water companies, Robert Noble Wilkinson and George Ashworth will never be forgotten. The memorial and the boulders celebrate the life of two young lads, but they are also a reminder of the dangers of swimming in deep water. May they remain at this location for many generations to come.
Thanks, sources and further reading:
Bampton and District Local History Society
Fine and Country
Helen Ashworth of Devon
Jean Jackson of Shap
National Library of Scotland
Shap Local History Society