About Barrow-upon-Humber

Early History

Barrow usually means ‘the wood or grove’ so the full meaning of the village’s name can be translated as ‘the wood or grove by the River Humber’. The remains of three boats dating from the Bronze Age (between 2030 and 1680 BC) were discovered near North Ferriby (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferriby_Boats) indicating, not surprisingly, that the Humber was a well-used highway well before the Roman period.

There is no record of Barrow during Roman times, although Lincoln and York were, of course, important Roman cities and there would have been traffic between the two of them, crossing the Humber at or near South Ferriby.

St. Chad

The local British / Celt population was displaced or absorbed by immigrants from Northern Europe following the Roman retreat. So although there was probably a settlement in or near Barrow for thousands of years the first record we have is of the founding of a monastery in the seventh century by Chad (later St Chad) on land given by Wilfhere, King of Mercia. By this time the Anglo-Saxons were well established and were gradually converting to Christianity.

Chad (died 672) was a prominent Anglo-Saxon churchman, who became abbot of several monasteries, Bishop of the Northumbrians and subsequently ‘Bishop of the Mercians and Lindsey People’. He is credited, along with his brother, Cedd, with introducing Christianity to the area.

The region roughly comprising Lincolnshire would only recently have been absorbed into Mercia, having existed both as a small ‘kingdom’ known as Lindsey and as part of Northumbria, at that time one of the five dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (See map)

The Danes

The next great change came with the Danish attacks and settlement. Between 865 and 870 the whole of Eastern England fell under Danish control and that included Barrow. Fifty years later, English rule was restored following the expansion of Wessex (under King Alfred and his successors). However, in 1015 this area was subjected to further Danish raids and in the following year the majority of what we now call England was ruled by the Danish king Cnut (Canute). Shortly after his death in 1035, the throne reverted to the Anglo-Saxon line… but by then it was nearly 1066 and more changes were on their way for North Lincolnshire.

Domesday to Dissolution

Following the establishment of the Norman dynasty in 1066, William I ordered an inventory of the whole kingdom. This painstakingly compiled document is known as the Domesday Book and contains information about every settlement, including Barrow, where the land was held by Drogo of la Beuvriere, a Fleming from near Bethune who had presumably come over with William of Normandy. He was feudal overlord to Earl Morcar who had land at Barrow ‘for 18 ½ ploughs’. A mill already existed here and down near the Humber was a motte and bailey castle, the remains of which can be detected as earthworks in fields at Barrow Haven. It was never upgraded to a stone castle which implies that the Normans did not envisage a threat from overseas via the Humber or a local uprising. There were, of course, important castles at Lincoln and York.

Between the Domesday survey and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Henry VIII’s reign very little is known of Barrow. That’s nearly 500 years of obscurity. However, we do know that Barrow’s development would have been much influenced by the existence of Thornton Abbey, which owned the manors of Barrow. Thornton Abbey was founded as a priory in 1139 by William le Gros, the Earl of Yorkshire, and raised to the status of Abbey in 1148. It was a house for Augustinian or black canons. Little of the Abbey can be seen now but a visit to the site and the imposing gatehouse will give some idea of the power and wealth this religious centre would have possessed.

The two centres of devolved power in the village were manors on the sites of the present Down Hall and Barrow Hall, at opposite ends of the settlement.

During the 12th to 16th  centuries, (i.e. Late Medieval to Tudor periods, we can assume that the feudal system would have governed people’s lives as it did elsewhere. Good and bad harvests would have been enjoyed or survived and the population probably changed only slightly. We have no records of the impact of the ‘Black Death’ in the 14th century but again we can assume that Barrow was affected and its population suffered a decline. Otherwise, the field system worked well enough given the good quality and variety of soil types, providing both arable and pasture land.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539) came a power shift in that the manors owned by the Abbey passed to lay owners who held their titles to the land from the King. Unlike some villages, there was no overall powerful landlord, which probably led to the local vicar having more influence in the life of the village.

Religious Uncertainty and Civil War

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the country’s religion changed with the regime, sometimes lurching from extreme Protestantism to Catholicism and back again within a few years. In these situations, sometimes the religion changed the vicar changed and sometimes the vicar changed his religion. Apart from that, as far as we know, the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration had little direct effect on Barrow.

In the meantime, life continued much as before. The village was largely self-sufficient with only a few items needing to be imported along the Humber, such as coal, sugar and spices. Almost all the buildings were single storey and constructed of timber with mud and lath walls and thatched roofs. The roof spaces would be used for storage and sleeping accommodation for servants but there would be no proper ‘upstairs’. Most people, even if they had a trade such as blacksmithing or thatching, would have a link to farming: some land, a cow, swine and almost certainly geese or chickens.

John Harrison

It was in this kind of society that John Harrison grew up, having moved to Barrow in 1697, where John’s father held the post of parish clerk for many years. John Harrison’s revolutionary chronometer changed the face of marine navigation. His struggle to prove his invention worked and win the £20,000 prize offered by the Board of Longitude is well documented most recently in Dava Sobel’s novel Longitude which was adapted into a television film staring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons. John Harrison’s story is sufficiently important to deserve a section of its own. Read more here.

Holy Trinity church has in its churchyard a sundial made in 1731 by James Harrison, brother of John.

Change and Growth

By Harrison’s time we know that buildings were beginning to change and become more like the ones we see today. The vicarage was recorded as being ‘walled with brick’ in 1693 and the new material, together with tiles for roofs, became more and more common as the next century progressed. Together with stronger materials came the desire to raise the roof and make two storeys. These materials could be sourced locally though not, it seems, within Barrow parish until after enclosure.

The Enclosure of Barrow

“Before enclosure, much of the arable land in the central region of England was organised into an open field system. Enclosure was not simply the fencing of existing holdings, but led to fundamental changes in agricultural practice. Scattered holdings of strips in the common field were consolidated to create individual farms that could be managed independently of other holdings. Prior to enclosure, rights to use the land were shared between land owners and villagers (commoners). For example, commoners would have the right to graze their livestock when crops or hay were not being grown, and on common pasture land. The land in a manor under this system would consist of “Two or three very large common arable fields; several very large common hay-meadows;     closes, (small areas of enclosed private land such as paddocks, orchards or gardens, mostly near houses) and, in some cases, a park around … the manor house. There would also be common waste / rough pasture land (effectively everything not in the previous categories). … At this time “field” meant only the unenclosed and open arable land – most of what would now be called “fields” would then have been called “closes”. The only boundaries would be those separating the various types of land, and around the closes.” (from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure )

Barrow possessed all of these features (see map) with hay-meadows towards the river and arable fields towards the south. There were many small enclosed fields or closes in and around the village settlement itself (shaded on the map) and parkland around Barrow Hall. Some of the ‘waste’ would have been areas marked as ‘Bog’.

The Enclosure of Barrow was carried out between 1797 and 1803, transforming the parish (see the ‘After Enclosure’ map). Not only was land allotted to individuals, but roads and drainage developed and improved.  The road system as we know it derives from this period.  147 individuals were awarded land and the cost of the exercise was a massive (for those times) £15,175 17s 3d – paid by those in receipt of land. (Extensive details of the process and much else can be found in ‘Aspects of the History of Barrow on Humber’ edited by Rex Russell, 1988.)

There are still arguments about the effects and morality of the enclosures. In Barrow, as elsewhere, it is likely that there would have been winners (the local gentry and some of the new landowners, plus the commissioners, surveyors and solicitors) and losers (those left landless, perhaps becoming farm labourers or leaving the village for work in towns and those awarded land but burdened with the costs of fencing, drainage and road and bridge building).

Barrow Grows


Before 1801 figures are very unreliable, sometimes being based solely on the number of ‘communicants’ i.e. those taking communion, sometimes based on adult males only and sometimes on households.  These are some estimates based on figures in ‘John Harrison’s Village’ WEA 1999:

1563 = 477

1641 = 768

1705/1723 = 640

Whether it was due to the increased production of food following Enclosure or other factors, Barrow’s population certainly grew during the 19th Century. With the introduction of the census, figures are much more reliable:

1801 = 926

1811 = 1,129

1821 = 1,307

1831 = 1,334

1841 = 1,662

1851 = 2,283

1861 = 2,443

1871 = 2,517

1881 = 2,711

1891 = 2,695

1901 = 2,808

As the population grew, so did Non-conformity. Though Barrow was fortunate in having a resident vicar, unlike many of the surrounding parishes, by 1851 two-thirds of Barrow residents (which included New Holland) were ‘dissenters’.  There were three non-conformist chapels serving the Primitive Methodists, the Wesleyan Methodists and the Independents. Wesley himself preached in Barrow on several occasions between 1761 and 1782.  The Wesleyan chapels was built by 1782, the Independent chapel 1780-84 and the Primitive Methodist chapel in 1833. A Sunday School building was added to the Independent chapel in 1850.

Temperance Hall (North Street, now the site of ‘Ivydene’) opened in 1844, causing further splits in the community as not all Non-conformists were teetotallers.


Educational provision also grew. In 1819 it’s recorded that half the brides and a third of the grooms could not sign their names. (Given the lack of schools, perhaps it’s surprising that so many could sign).  Schooling was disorganized and sporadic.  Different numbers of schools are recorded at different times, many of which would have only a handful of pupils and all would be supported by fees from parents.  Church schools began to operate in the second half of the century (1851 in New Holland, 1868 in Barrow itself, classes being held in the Foresters Hall until 1895). In the meantime those who could afford it could take advantage of Barrow Infant School run according to the system of Samuel Wilderspin, see www.wilderspinschool.org.uk for more information.

Barrow Primary School as we now know it was built in 1895 and opened in November of that year. A very full account of education in Barrow and the history of what became John Harrison CE Primary School can be found in Barrow upon Humber: A Village at School, Peter Croton, Tigermoon 2016.

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