KNOW YOUR PARISH – A HISTORY OF WILTON IN CLEVELAND
The following is an edited version of the History of Wilton written 1 September 1906 and revised 10 November 1958 by Hugh Cook. This copy was obtained whilst Yvonne Bentley was working at ICI Wilton in the late 1950s.
Nestled amongst stately trees, and banked on one side by lovely woods and a portion of the Eston Hills, is the charmingly romantic little village of Wilton in Cleveland. Although the village is but a quarter of a mile from the main road from Middlesbrough to Redcar and Salt burn, it is one of the quietest spots imaginable.
Wilton is noted in the Domesday Book written as ‘Wyltune’, and later on it is spelt as ‘Wiltun’. Wilton was taxed in William the Conqueror’s survey for four caricatures of land, two ploughs, two borders, six acres of meadow, valued then at 16s. Allan had three carrs of land and six gangs to be taxed. The Earls of Moreton and Nigel were also extensive landowners. The parishes of Lesingbie (Lazenby) and Lackenbye were also included in the soke of Wilton.
Records state that as long ago as 1060 one Henry De Bulmer held lands here and William De Percy also, in 1170, these being confirmed by Royal Charter in that year as were the lands of Ralph De Bulmer in the fourth year of Edward III. The Manor at an early period became the property of the Bulmer family who resided at Wilton Castle and who became farmers throughout the kingdom. Late in the sixteenth century the manor and castle were granted to Sir Thomas Cornwallis, and later on sold to the Fox family who, in 1770, sold them to the Earl of Lonsdale, and subsequently came into the possession of the Lowther family who still hold them. [See CFHS journal vol 12 no 9].
From the Conqueror’s time to the 16th century there is little mention of Wilton, excepting in connection with the Bulmer family. During the reign of Henry III, one Sir John Bulmer of Wilton was hung at Tyburn, and his wife was publicly burned at Smithfield, London [for their part in the Pilgrimage of Grace 1536]. Sir William Bulmer of Wilton, High Sheriff of Yorkshire in the time of Henry VIII, commanded at the battle of Flodden Field in 1513, where he showed conspicuous bravery. This brave knight died on October 6th 1531 and, according to his own will which stated, ‘If I dye wythin ye parish my bodyie iss to be byred yn Kyrkeleatham’, where he was buried. However, in the porch of St Cuthbert are two stone effigies in memory of Sir William Bulmer, Kt., and his lady.
A chantry, or chapel, was founded here in the 23rd year of Henry VIII, by one of the Bulmers, for two priests to say daily mass and perform certain rites for the “sowles offe ye founder and hys wyff”. This building, which was called St Ellen’s chapel, either fell down or was destroyed in 1699, and no traces of it now remain.
Almost adjoining Wilton Castle, is the ancient little church dedicated to St Cuthbert, the north-country saint. The building, which has been almost demolished, was of stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, south porch, and a tower, with a short spire of wood containing two bells. The porch is Norman, and contains some fine carvings of stone of the period. This church was partly restored in 1850 by the late Sir John H Lowther, but much of the older building was still retained. In the beautiful little ‘hallowed acre’ lie the remains of nearly twenty five generations of Wilton men and women. Here rests the dust of knights, dames, lords, and men of rank, mingling with that of humble men. In life, a vast difference of station, but here all are alike. Now, almost entirely overgrown with trees and ivy, are many quaint tombstones. Some of the epitaphs, like many of our older churchyards, are very contradictory and almost absurd. One, for instance, reads: – ‘To serve herr Godd was herr constant endeavour. She lyved to dye, and she dyed to live for ever’. There are well-preserved tombstones, dating from 1620, 1701, etc and many old stones setting forth the virtues of their long dead occupants. To this little church and its predecessor, during the past eight centuries, many generations of Wilton men and women had been brought to be baptised and later to be united in the bonds of holy wedlock, then finally, to be brought to their last resting place, under the shadow of the stately trees, to join those who had gone before them.
The registers date from 1719, the previous records being included with Kirkleatham registers. Although Domesday Book mentions a church and priest being at Kirkleatham at the time of the survey, there is no mention of either being at Wilton. The original church must have been built a few years afterwards, as the rude carvings of the porch pillars will verify. In the little chancel is (or was) a slab, supposed to be in memory of some long forgotten member of the Bulmer family, and as Mr Ord in his History of Cleveland states, the brass work has been torn off by some profane sacrilegious hands. The church, which was demolished, contained the old box pews, and the special pew ‘belonging’ to the Castle was surrounded by boarding over five feet in height.
In Kirkleatham Church register, an entry dated 31 October 1777, states that ‘We ye churchwardens of Kirkleathame promise as long as we are inn offis to remit to ye vicar and wardens of Wilton our share of ye cost of keeping ye church at Wylton in decent order. T Wrightson and W Rountree, churchwardens, Kirkleathame’. The north wall and eastern wall will be entirely rebuilt with the same stones, in same positions. The Norman windows and one early English window, which were found completely blocked up in the north wall, will be restored and re-opened. A new chancel arch, much higher and wider than the former arch, will be built, and a light screen of oak will be added. A new eastern window will be added, and the present three windows on the south side will have new stone work in the 15th century style. The turret and western wall will remain, but the brick pillars supporting the turret will be replaced by stone ones, and three arches will be erected across the western end from pillar to west wall. The roof of the edifice is to be of redwood, covered with red flat tiles, and the porch roof is also to be of oak. The whole church is to be re-seated with plain oak pews, in place of the old “high-backed” benches with doors. A new heating chamber will be built under the modern vestry, and the church will be heated by hot water. A new font, the gift of Mrs Lynley, is also to be placed in the church. Another great improvement is the heightening of the chancel arch, as this not only makes a great difference regarding the sound of the singing, but adds much to the look of the church.
The original castle structure dates back many centuries. The manor at an early period became the property of the Bulmer family, who resided at the castle, and became farmers throughout the kingdom. Late in the sixteenth century the manor and castle were granted to Sir Thomas Cornwallis, and later on sold to the Fox family, who in 1770 sold them to the Earl of Lonsdale. He was an eccentric, cruel, and avaricious man (vide Graves’ and Ord’s Histories). In 1797 he built a huge wall of a tremendous length on Coatham marshes in order to prevent the encroachment of the sea onto his lands. When it was almost finished, a terrific storm arose one night and the force of the sea demolished the wall which was never rebuilt. This curious Earl imagined he was a pauper, and actually claimed parish relief which was administered to him thrice a week in the drawing-room of the castle. ‘After his death’ says Ord, ‘secreted under his bed and in other curious places the sum of £100,000 in gold was found’. [It then became the seat of the Lowthers, and was rebuilt in 1807 as a mansion house by Lonsdale’s brother, Sir John Lowther, on the site of the Bulmers’ old castle, which was eventually converted into luxury residential apartments and is now listed as a Grade II building].
Colonel John Lowther sold his estate of 3,500 acres including Wilton Castle, his private residence, in 1945 to Imperial Chemical Industries for £190,000. A year later, staff moved into Wilton Castle to plan the development of the estate for chemical works. Construction work took place between 1946 to 1949 which included the many offices for the administrative staff. The development of the future major complex at Wilton was a massive boost to Teesside’s chemical industry and very much at the forefront of this new industry in Britain. The Wilton site was officially opened on 14th September 1949 by the then ICI Chairman, Lord McGowan. The monster plant generated headlines like ‘Wilton blazes the trail’ and ‘Wilton – Industry’s Spearhead’ in the newspapers.
The concept of a job for life has become something of a joke, but chemical producers ICI provided that – and something more. “It was very much a cradle to grave organisation,” recalls Roy Billany, who worked at ICI’s Wilton complex for 28 years. “Not only did they look after you while you worked for them, but they looked after you when you had retired. They offered good pensions and personnel officers used to visit retired workers if they heard they were sick. It was grandfathers, fathers and sons who worked in the company, and a lot of people would get together after they retired and have an annual or a monthly event.”
In 1952 there was 15,000 staff at Wilton with peak numbers reaching 25,000 in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a massive company in every way and operated almost like its own town with a vast range of functions. There were good recreational facilities with golf, football, cricket and hockey pitches, bowling greens, tennis courts, an indoor gym and every department had its own teams playing sports. A popular social interaction was ballroom dances at the Coatham Ballroom in Redcar.
Yvonne Bentley, Member 4457
Present Day Wilton Castle Photograph by Paul Buckingham, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14629747