Morecambe Bay (Background: Dalton in Furness)

Map from Thomas West, Antiquities of Furness 1774.

Morecambe Bay did not exist before 1774 – that’s when Fr Thomas West first gave the Bay its name.

Fr Thomas West, of Tytup Hall near Dalton-in-Furness, was a Catholic priest with time on his hands, which he devoted to studying The Antiquities of Furness. When he published his great work of that name in 1774, it was accompanied by a map which named Morecambe Bay.  Nothing remarkable there, you may think – but in fact that was the first time that name had ever appeared on a map.  It was certainly not the local name for the Bay – the locals just called the bit near them Leven Sands, or Kent Sands, or Lancaster Sands. So where did Fr West get the name from?

Well, the story goes back to the mid-second century AD when the Alexandrian-based Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy drew up a list of 8000 places with grid-references, to allow maps of the world and its regions to be made.  One of the places he named was Morikambe eischusis, in the north-west of Britain: and from the 16th century, English antiquaries tried to work out where that was – the problem being that Ptolemy’s grid references are not accurate enough to be able to say much more than that it is somewhere between the Solway and North Wales.

The place-name isn’t much help either.  The Greek word eischusis seems to have been made up by Ptolemy, meaning something like ‘tidal flats’ – while the first part comprises two elements in the British tongue - mori meaning sea – and cambo meaning curved – so all it means is a curve of the sea – in other words a bay.  So that is not getting us much further.

The great late-16th century antiquary William Camden decided Ptolemy must have meant the estuary of the Waver and Wampool, near Silloth – and for the next 150 or so years, that was generally accepted.  But then in 1732 the Roman historian John Horsley, wrote ‘‘Moricambe estuary must be that in the northern part of Lancashire, into which the rivers from Kendal and Ambleside empty themselves’.  This interpretation was backed up by John Whitaker in his ‘History of Manchester’, 1771 - and Fr West accepted it too.  And so he put it on his map – but apparently very much as an afterthought. The map he used had originally been surveyed by W Brasier in 1748, and had been copied for West by T Richardson in 1772. But the proof copy in the Lancashire Archives does not have Morecambe Bay inserted, so it was clearly a late correction by West.  Notably, too, West did not put it onto the map inserted into his Guide to the Lakes, of 1778, using instead ‘Lancaster Sands’ and ‘Leven and Ulverston Sands’– presumably because he did not see its relevance for a modern tourist map.

However, for some unknown reason, when William Yates made his One-Inch-to-the-Mile county map of Lancashire, published in 1786, he inserted the words ‘Bay of Morecambe’ as well as the more familiar ‘Lancaster Sands’ and ‘Leven Sands’.  In the next century, in 1818, Greenwood added the words ‘Bay of Morecambe’ to his map, as did Hennet in 1829 – while in 1848 the Ordnance Survey made it official by putting ‘Morecambe Bay’ on the First Edition Six Inch map.  By now, it would seem people were actually starting to use the name for the first time -  and in 1846, a new railway company was formed, the Morecambe Bay Harbour and Railway Company – which built a railway station and harbour. From the 1850s a sea-bathing resort grew up around the terminus, to which the name Morecambe was given informally – and the name was officially adopted for the new town in 1889. 

So far from being an ancient name, used locally for thousands of years, Morecambe Bay is effectively an invented name, in use for less than two hundred years, and just a guess on the part of some 18th century antiquaries as to where Ptolemy had in mind. They may have been right.  But who knows?

Text by Bill Shannon

Illustration from Thomas West, Antiquities of Furness 1774. 

For more information, see William D. Shannon, ‘From Morikambe to Morecambe: Antiquarians, Periploi and Eischuses’, Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, Third Series, 12 (2012), 37-54.

The proof copy of the map is at Lancashire Archives, LRO RCHY 3 17 3 West Map of Furness 1773

To find out more about the history of the Township of Dalton-in-Furness, click here.

To find out more about Thomas West, click here.