Ilkley MoorIlkley MoorIlkley moor

Information on Ilkley, Yorkshire

Ilkley is a sizeable community (around 14,000 residents) situated on the banks of the River Wharfe to the North of Bradford. The arrival of the railway in the early 1800’s led to it becoming a popular Victorian spa resort .Today, the town centre is still characterised by Victorian architecture, wide streets and floral displays.

Ilkley Moor, to the south of the town, is the subject of a folk song, often described as the unofficial anthem of Yorkshire, “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”. The song’s words are written in Yorkshire dialect, its title translated as “On Ilkley Moor without a hat.” Ilkley Moor is also famous for its ‘Cow and Calf’ rocks, which are popular with rock climbers and afford some of Yorkshire’s iconic views, stretching up to 30 miles away on a clear day.

The area is also renowned for its prehistoric rock carvings. The area around Ilkley has been continuously settled since at least the early Bronze Age, around 1800 BC; more than 250 cup and ring marks, and a curved swastika carving dating to the period are visible high on the moors. A druidical stone circle, the Twelve Apostles Stone Circle, was constructed 2,000 years ago and can be visited via a footpath leading along the Moor’s edge. More recent rock carvings can be found on the rocks above the Cow and Calf, with carved Victorian graffiti providing an interesting window on our recent past. (See Stories of the Stones below )

The view from the road leading from the Cow and Calf hotel towards the town is breathtaking and is one of the most famous views of the Yorkshire dales.

For info on where to stay in the Dales and hotel, B+B and cottage bookings see my accommodation page.


The Stories of the Stones -Ilkley’s Victorian Rock Carvings

A sunny morning in 1875 and two young men ascend the steep slope from the railway station to the moors, high above the town of Ilkley in West Yorkshire. 20 Year old Arthur Thackwray and his 18 year old brother Tom, had left the house they shared with their parents and 5 siblings in the smoke shrouded terraces of Leeds that morning, and embarked on a journey to a different world.

Their half hour train journey transported the brothers from a grim industrial cityscape to the rolling hills of The Yorkshire Dales.  In 1875, Ilkley was one of the most fashionable destinations in Victorian Britain, with celebrities of the day such as Madame Tussaud and Charles Darwin visiting to benefit from the therapeutic qualities of the renowned spa town’s waters. Arthur and Tom may have paused to appreciate the stylish fashions of the ladies and gentlemen promenading in The Grove or one of Ilkley’s other ‘parades’ that morning, but will have soon turned their attentions to the main reason for their visit – making their mark on history by carving their names at the famous ‘Cow and Calf’ rocks, situated high on the moors overlooking the town.

Ilkley Moor rock carvingsOther young people had similar ideas before the brothers, and the opening of the rail line to Ilkley in 1866, paved the way for numerous chisel wielding city dwellers from nearby Leeds, Bradford, and beyond, all eager to leave their names on the rocks for posterity. But Arthur and Tom faced even more temptation than their peers –Their father Joseph was a stone mason, and the 1871 census informs us that both Joseph’s oldest sons were following in their father’s footsteps and were training as apprentice masons. Therefore the tools for the job were readily available, and it’s easy to imagine the lads finalising their plans in their small shared bedroom on the night before their adventure .We can only guess whether Joseph noticed that his hammer and chisel went missing along with the boys that morning!

Once high on Ilkley Moor, the boys located a suitable rock, its face sloping slightly away from the town below them. We can then only imagine the sequence of events as the boys took their turns with hammer and chisel. Perhaps, the oldest lad, Arthur goes first and over the next few hours carefully carves his moniker into the granite under the impatient eye of his brother.  Maybe they discuss the chances of Captain Matthew Webb, who was to become the first man to swim the channel, that same year. Or Maybe Tom teases his older brother about his sweetheart Eliza , who he would eventually marry.

Ilkley Moor rock carvingsWith the carving of “A.Thackwray, Leeds, 1875’’ complete, perhaps Arthur settles down for a snooze as Tom eagerly snatches up the tools and begins his own masterpiece.  Eventually, Tom proudly proclaims that he too has finished his carving and Arthur clambers over the rock to view his brother’s handiwork. Again, we can only try to imagine the scene as Arthur spots the glaring error -“T.H.Tackwray, Leeds, 1875” underlined with a flourish. Tom has taken care to add the ‘H’ of his middle name, Henry, but has unfortunately missed the one in his surname. “You’ll never make a stonemason!” was probably the rebuke from his older brother.

Victorian Graffiti135 years on, and although now weathered and surrounded by other carvings,  Arthur and Tom’s handiwork remains, providing us with a unique link to the past. In previous decades countless day trippers have clambered over the rocks, reading the Victorian ‘graffiti’ and wondering just who the artists were, and what were their stories? The power of modern technology, and in particular the availability of online census records, suddenly provides us with a window on the lives of ordinary people, like Arthur and Tom Thackwray, who one day decided to spend a couple of hours recording their presence on Ilkley Moor. Little did they know that their names would be remembered and discussed in the 21st Century!

It could be said that defacing the rocks was little more than Victorian vandalism, though the time and dedication needed to produce some of the Ilkley carvings, was more akin to a day of hard labour than the efforts of today’s ‘spray can brigade’. Also, the Victorians were only following a tradition of carving the stones of Ilkley Moor which had begun around 2000 years before. The moor has a wealth of mysterious Bronze Age carvings, the most famous being the swastika stone, situated on Woodhouse Crag. There are over 250 individual carvings known to English Heritage from circular hollows known as ‘cups’ to more intricate swirled patterns. No one is sure what the carvings represent, but the most popular theories are that there is a link to nearby burial sites, or perhaps some attempt to harness cosmic powers to ensure plentiful crops by early warrior farmers of the area.

The mysteries of the Bronze Age carvings are replicated in some of their Victorian counterparts. At the base of the large rock known as ‘The Cow’ is a carving which reads “S.Farrar 1886.” Below it has then been added a second date – 1968. Are we to believe that S.Farrar revisited the scene of their original ‘crime’ 82 years later?  Ilkley KhanoplersA vision of a sprightly centenarian bounding through the heather, chisel in hand to add to the carving he created as an 18 year old is tempting, but unlikely! Is it more likely that a new S.Farrar took the opportunity to immortalise themself without going to the trouble of actually carving their name? Also who were the ‘Four South Shields Khanoplers’ who left their mark in 1880? Indeed what is a Khanopler??

Victorian graffiti IlkleyIt’s obvious that over the years, visitors have travelled to Ilkley from all over Britain, and indeed the world, to leave their mark on the rocks. Bath, Bristol and Dundee are all represented in addition to most of the big towns and cities of Yorkshire. And who was S.B.Hewgill of St.Louis, USA who left a boxed name carving in October 1902

The online census records provide the detective work to identify some visitors to Yorkshire who took the opportunity to permanently record their presence in the county. E.Slater, F.M.Ornsby and J.Whitehouse carved their names on the rocks in May 1875. Victorian rock carvingsResearch tells us that Edward Slater was a 30 year old labourer living in South Shields, County Durham at the time. He was accompanied by the intriguingly named Francis Middlemost Ornsby, a 26 year old joiner from the same part of South Shields. As young, working class married men with families, its unlikely they were on a visit to Ilkley to ‘take the waters’. More likely they were involved in a building project in the town and chose to spend a rare day off putting Francis Middlemost’s tools to nefarious use! ?

Carving ones names on the rocks also seems to have been something of a military tradition, particularly before embarking on a tour of duty overseas. There are a number of names followed by the initials B.E.F, indicating that the subject was a member of the British Expeditionary Force, with dates corresponding with World War 1. These carvings take on a particularly poignant quality when one considers the high probability that the young man responsible may not have had the opportunity to return and review their handiwork in years to come.

The military theme continues with one of the most intriguing and best known carvings on Ilkley Moor, the neat lettering spelling out “E.M.Lancaster , 1st XXIV Foot, 1882”. The 1st battalion,  24th Foot Regiment had distinguished themselves in the Zulu campaigns of the late 1870’s but had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Isandlwana, where they were overcome by a huge Zulu force .Ilkley EM Lancaster Their comrades in the 2nd battalion were the outnumbered defenders of the garrison at Rourke’s Drift in a battle later immortalised in the film ‘Zulu’.The first puzzling aspect of the E.M.Lancaster carving is that the decimated 24th Foot Regiment was merged into the South Wales Borderers in 1881. The regiment therefore no longer officially existed when the carving was made a year later. We first locate an Edward Mortimer Lancaster in the 1871 census living with his father Alfred in Halifax, where we’re informed he was born 6 years earlier. Moving forward ten years, we find the boy soldier Edward Lancaster living in barracks with the 24th Foot Regiment in Colchester, Essex, which he shares with a 21 year old Alfred Lancaster, who we may guess is his older brother.

Records show that the 24th Foot were based in Manchester in late 1882, so maybe it was at this point the 17 year old soldier crossed the Pennines to revisit his Yorkshire roots, and decided to leave a permanent reminder of his visit to Ilkley Moor? Edward obviously had a soft spot for Ilkley as he married a local girl, Esther, and was living there by the turn of the century.  Our last definite record of the young man who made his mark on the rocks is the 1911 census. At this point Edward has moved to 9 Mount Pleasant, a sizeable property with 9 rooms, some of which he lets out to boarders. Edward, now 45, is working as a chauffeur and is living an apparently comfortable existence with Esther and their 4 children.

The twist in the tale of the E.M.Lancaster carving is an entry on the Commonwealth War Graves commission website. There, we find an intriguing entry recording a First World War death in November 1915- A soldier of the Manchester Regiment, Edward Lancaster aged 50 , the same age that the Ilkley Edward Lancaster would have been in that year. Are we to believe that E.M. Lancaster left his comfortable life in Ilkley to die in the Flanders fields mud for his country?  Standing on the moor today looking at the neat, deep etching of Edward’s name, it’s easy to visualise a strong willed individual who set out to finish whatever job he started.  Could it be that the old soldier couldn’t resist the temptation to end his military career in the greatest conflict the world had ever experienced?

And what became of the Leeds brothers Arthur and Tom Thackwray?  Working with stone was in Arthur’s blood and it became his life’s work. In 1911, we find him, aged 57 and described as a stone merchant, living with his second wife in Headingley, Leeds, his first wife Eliza having passed away, leaving him with three teenage daughters.

Tragically, Tom Thackwray died of Tuberculosis three years after carving his name on Ilkley Moor, aged 22. It’s not known whether Arthur carved a headstone in his brother’s memory, as one would expect, given his profession. Perhaps instead he thought back to a day in 1875, spent with his brother on the Yorkshire moors, and decided that Tom’s memory was already set in stone for centuries to come, on the rocks high above Ilkley.

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Ilkley — 1 Comment

  1. Hi there
    I am an archaeologist based in Orkney, and I have been researching the Victorian graffiti carved into rock faces and cairns here. Great blog by the way! One inscription in particular is of a Sam W wells, from Keighley – see
    I know a lot about him now, but I was wondering – have you come across his name anywhere on the Ilkley rocks? It’s not too far from his home town – at least much nearer than Orkney!

    Thanks and best wishes, Antonia

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