Local history is exploding into life in a North Yorkshire village. At Kirkby Fleetham, they are nearing completion of a history room built onto their village hall; a lychgate is taking shape into the parish cemetery to commemorate the lives of 14 local men who fell in the First World War; a Village Voices project is underway recording stories from yesteryear before they fade away; a play based on local ghost stories is to be performed for the first time next month, and next week, they invited everyone to a Community Heritage Open Day, complete with cake and scones, to bring everything together.

The free open day features displays, pictures, cuttings and maps. It is in Kirkby Fleetham village hall on Saturday, January 20, from 10am to 2pm, and there will be more details about the Fleetham Players’ spooky performance of The Nettle Bed on February 23 and 24.

The parish of Kirkby Fleetham includes its two smaller neighbours, of Great and Little Fencote. It is near Northallerton, and is bordered on the west by the A1(M) and on the east by the River Swale, and it is teeming with fabulous old stories and terribly tall tales...

In the beginning

Fleetham was a Saxon village – its name, like that of Darlington FC’s former ground of Feethams, refers to a settlement near a stream. By contrast, Kirkby was a Danish settlement, the incomers building a wooden church in a delightful dell about a mile from Fleetham. The two communities seem to have lived peacefully side-by-side.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Kirkby Fleetham Hall and St Mary's Church in their secluded dell in the 1960s

After the Norman conquest, the wooden church was rebuilt in stone, and its strong tower may have been a place of refuge against rampaging Scots.

The Scots so troubled the area that in 1314, Henry le Scrope, the Chief Baron of the Exchequer so an important national figure, built a motte and bailey castle at Fleetham. It had a raised central area, perhaps with seven towers, surrounded by a moat (there’s a story that it was connected by a secret tunnel to Hornby Castle about four miles due east), and its outline can still be seen in a sheep field on the edge of Fleetham.

It may have been the violent Scots that forced the abandonment of the village at Kirkby. Or the villagers could have been wiped out by the plague, or they could have been flooded out by the Mill Beck. For whatever reason, the Danish settlement disappeared, leaving just a church and a large hall in the wooded dell.

Evil-disposed persons

In 1514, Sir Thomas Metham, the lord of the manor of Fleetham, let his house and lands to William and Elizabeth Conyers for 41 years. When William died about ten years later, Sir Thomas let the property to William Belforth.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Community Heritage Open Day at Kirkby Fleetham on Saturday, January 20, 10am to 2pm

In 1529, Belforth complained to Sir Thomas that Elizabeth had turned up at the manor house “accompanied by 12 other evil-disposed persons” in “an unlawful assembly” and had driven him out of the house and moved in.

Elizabeth countered by saying that she was merely reclaiming her 41-year lease and that Belforth had only moved into the manor house in a bid to force her to marry him, which she refused to do.

The Smelts

In 1600, Leonard Smelt bought the manor of Kirkby and in 1670, his descendant, Richard Smelt, bought the manor of Fleetham and so the two settlements were united as Kirkby Fleetham.

Several Smelts were MPs for Northallerton, and the Leonard Smelt who was baptised at the church in 1725 fought at the battles of Dettingen and Fonetenoy in Flanders, surveyed and then built the military road which runs from Newcastle to Carlisle (now the B6318 which runs past the treeless Sycamore Gap), and was sent to Newfoundland to design British defences. He was a close friend of King George III, who made him the personal tutor of his sons, George (later IV) and Frederick (later the grand old Duke of York, who did much marching). Leonard died in Langton Hall, a fabulous home near Fleetham, in 1800 and created a charity which still gives money to the village poor each year.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Farming around Kirkby Fleetham in the 1950s

A headless body

James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, 26, was executed on Tower Hill in London on February 24, 1716, for leading 70 men from Corbridge, in Northumberland, in support of the Jacobite rising. On its way to be buried at his family seat of Dilston, near Corbridge, his headless body rested for several days at Fleetham Lodge, to the west of the village. The execution and journey north coincided with a fabulous display by the aurora borealis which in some parts of the North East sympathetic to the Catholic cause is still known as “Lord Derwentwater’s Lights”.

Death by elephant

On April 12, 1824, George Morgan’s travelling circus ran into trouble when its caravan carrying its star elephant toppled off Bedale bridge into the River Em. Mr Morgan jumped into the water and pacified the perplexed pachyderm by plying it with rum until ropes were found strong enough to haul it out. It then wowed the crowds in the Market Place, along with Mr Morgan’s 3ft tall sister, who was billed as “Lady Morgan, the celebrated Windsor fairy”, before, the following day, the train of wagons moved north.

Coming to Salutation Inn (now a private residence) on the edge of Little Fencote, Mr Morgan became concerned that the weight of the cargo was troubling the horses. He jumped out of his caravan, tripped, went under the wheels and was killed outright. Two days later, he was buried in Kirkby Fleetham churchyard.

In 2022, the village historians published a guide to all the headstones in the churchyard, and noted that the rhyme on 40-year-old Mr Morgan’s said:

All travellers who may pass by

Stop here awhile & cast an eye,

Like you in life, I once was gay

In the next moment turned to clay.

My wife and seven children dear

& honoured sister mourn me here.

With them on earth I hoped to stay

But God he called me hence away.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Courage family, who owned Kirkby Fleetham Hall, entered one of their brewery drays in the

Moral judgement

Another curious headstone is above the grave of Elizabeth Brown, who died on February 24, 1836, aged 70. She never married but was the mother of five or six illegitimate children, and because of her moral turpitude was condemned for much of her life. Her headstone issues a powerful denunciation of her critics from beyond the grave:

Farewell Vain world I’ve had enough of thee

And now am careless what thou sayest of me

Thy smiles I court not nor thy frowns I fear

My cares are past and my head lies quiet here

What faults you saw in me take care to shun

And look at home enough there’s to be done

Where’er I liv’d or dyd it matters not

To whom related or by whom begot

You now cannot ask no more of me

Tis all I am and all that you shall be.

Ninth life

The church tower was once cloaked in ivy, which caused a length poem to be composed entitled: “An address to a dead cat which had fallen from the ivy tree that runs up the tower of Kirkby Fleetham church, Yorkshire, up which it is supposed it had climbed after birds.” It tells how the prospect of finding birds enticed the greedy cat up the ivy from which the birds, of course, flew and then the wind blew:

“A blast most rude the branches tossed,

Thy hold exhausted nature lost,

And down to earth impetuous sent,

In cries and groans thy life was spent.”

Ivy slasher

The ivy also cost the life of Mr R Pearson, who was charged with trimming it. He would sit on a wooden seat and be pulled up the side of a church by a rope attached to the top of the tower. Unfortunately, he was over-enthusiastic with his pruning, slashing through the ivy and the rope and plunging to his death. He is buried where he came to earth and the ivy was removed around 1880.

Feast formed

The Kirkby Fleetham Floral and Horticultural Society held its first show in August 1876 and it quickly became one of the biggest shows in the district. The first steam roundabouts arrived in 1888 and soon the show was accompanied by dances, sports, fairs and a week-long cricket festival. Held in marquees on the village green, it is still one of the year’s big events.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A fabulous picture of Kirkby Fleetham feast in 1905 on the village green

Bridge built

In 1889, Edward Courage, of the brewing family, bought Kirkby Fleetham Hall and, in 1902, was the main instigator in replacing the ford and ferry over the Swale to Great Langton with a bridge. It was built by Dorman, Long, of Middlesbrough, and a large steam hammer drove the piles into the riverbed. Initially it was a toll bridge – 3d per wheel – but the county council soon adopted it.

Crying down a ghost

It was said that a young lady was tricked by her ex-lover into getting onto his horse as, he said, she needed to see her seriously ill grandmother. Crossing the bridge at Morton-on-Swale, she realised she was being abducted and so she jumped off. Her dress became trapped and she fell backwards into the river and drowned. Her ghost was said to haunt the bridge, and in 1967, Kirkby Fleetham resident Arthur Tweedy told how his grandfather, “Miller Jim”, regularly joined people from villages all around in walking to the bridge to “cry down the ghost”.

Titchy tale

In the mid-1860s, Little Fencote Hall was rented briefly by Sir Alfred Tichborne who was at the centre of a sensational court case that gripped Victorian Britain 150 years ago – week after week, the D&S Times printed column after column about it. Sir Alfred’s older brother, Sir Roger, 25, had gone exploring in South America where, in 1854, his ship had sunk off Chile. Although he was presumed dead and Sir Alfred inherited his title, there was a rumour that a ship travelling to Australia had rescued him. Their mother, Lady Henriette Tichborne, clung to this hope.

In 1866, a butcher from Wagga Wagga in Australia came forward claiming to be Sir Roger. Although chubby, he bore a family resemblance, and Lady Henriette accepted him as her lost son, even though he knew nothing about his own childhood or family. Sir Alfred and the rest of the family refused to accept him.

Sir Alfred, whose recklessness lost much of the family fortune, died in Little Fencote on February 22, 1866, and four months later his son, also Alfred, was born in the hall and became the 12th baronet.

The Aussie claimant pursued his case at length, but it collapsed on February 24, 1874, when he was found guilty of perjury.

The case had so gripped the public imagination that in the 1880s, a musical hall comedian called himself “Little Tich”. He, too, bore a family resemblance although he was only 4ft 6ins tall so the gag was that he was short rather than chubby, and it gave rise to a word still in use today. Little Fencote, therefore, has a small part to play in the word “tich”, or “titchy” entering the English language.

Pet lion

Finally, in their Village Book of 1991, the North Yorkshire Federations of Women’s Institutes told how Kirkby Fleetham’s old mill became a taxidermy business known as the World of Nature. Zoos and circuses from all the country sent dead exotic animals to be stuffed.

One consignment was a pride of lion cubs one of whom was found miraculously to have come back to life.

“He grew into a magnificent lion, but still a family pet,” said the WIs. “His wonderful roar could be heard through the air on a still evening – quite strange for a small Yorkshire village!”

  • Many of today’s pictures from the Kirkby Fleetham with Fencotes Parish Council website. With thanks to Amanda Peirson