The Thackray Sagabok

Chapter 1. The Name
Chapter 2. The Movement And Emigrations
Chapter 3. The Invasion Of North West England
Chapter 4. The Move To Yorkshire
Chapter 5. In Yorkshire
Chapter 6. General Characteristics

Author: Gordon Thackrah

Chapter 1. THE NAME

Sagas were tales and histories of Norwegian and Icelandic families and individuals in Viking times, their genealogies, travels, colonisations, and deeds good and bad. The name Thackrah is Old Norse in origin, and traces straight back to them, so that the above title should be apt.

Old Norse was the language used in Norway long before the discovery of Iceland in 874 AD, and the name is therefore of extreme antiquity, probably well over thirteen hundred years old, and must be one of the oldest in existence in the Western world, particularly as a surname or place name. It is in fact a place name, or the name of "the man who lived in the place where reeds for thatching grow"; "the dweller at the Thack or thatch corner". Both elements of the name are Old Norse. "Thack" or "þ" (thorn character) = "thatch, a roof, thatching material" and usually alludes in place names to marshes where thatching materials or reeds are obtained. The man who lived at the nook of land where thatch was got"

The second element is Old Norse "vra" or "ra" which means a nook or corner of land used in Scandinavian place names for a secluded or outlying place, a patch of cultivated land jutting out from the main grounds of an estate. This element remains in Northern dialect as "wro" - a nook, a secluded spot, a cattle shed. The initial w, which was lost at an early date in Iceland and parts of Norway, is retained in Medieval English in the Danelaw of Northern England. In compounds it nearly always occurs with significant words often denoting vegetation, i.e. Dockray, Thackwra, Whinray, Thackray, Thackery. Thackeray, Thackrah, Thackwray, Thackara.

"ray" is frequently found as a place name either by itself or in a compound, alongside rivers known to have been sailed by Vikings, and of course there are many in the Lake District. An example is Wray on Windermere. It is found particularly in Cumberland, Westmorland and West Riding of Yorkshire compound names.

Anyone who has heard "Thackrah" pronounced by the older generation in Yorkshire dialect would immediately recognize the coincidence with the original spelling in Old Norse of "Thakvra" or "þakvra." The verbal emphasis is equally stressed in both elements - the second kept short, clipped, and not stressed or drawn out as in modern, educated Southern England speech. The name is spoken quickly to link both elements in one pronunciation.

Originally the name was an address as shown above, and then became the surname - surnames do not go back earlier than 1300, or 1200 at the earliest, and were not common in the North of England until between 1300 and 1400.

Interesting confirmation of the original spelling and origin of name is given when compared with the ancient Scandinavian runes. The first runic alphabet started just before or a little after the beginning of the Christian era and comprised twenty-four letters, phonetic symbols, but during the Viking Age proper (700 - 1050 AD) reduced to sixteen. In the larger, earlier alphabet the name would be spelt "þ (= th) akwra", and the shorter, later one "þakra" By the inclusion of the "w" or "v", it would indicate that the name is earlier than 700 AD.

This "w" continued in use with the Vikings who colonised abroad, but it dies out in the native Norway as mentioned above, just as Elizabethan expressions are still current in the U.S.A., such as "gotten" and yet have been lost here. The "w" or "v" continues in the pronunciation of Yorkshire dialect although the spelling has changed from "wra" to "rah". It is interesting to note therefore, that the earliest recorded names in Yorkshire have this original spelling. For instance, in the Poll Tax of 1379 for the West Riding, there is recorded Johannes de Thakwra and Robertus de Thakwra - the Christian names recorded in Latin and Norman French by the tax collector. There is no "c" in Scandinavian runes nor was one shown in 1379. Representation of "kk" by "c" or "ck" are English conventions.

Again, in the Memorandum Book of Fountains Abbey 1446/1458, a Wm Thacwra and a Rob'tum Thacwra are mentioned and spelt in that manner thirteen times, but in the entries alongside, the same tenant farmers are spelt Thacwray ten times, and it will be noticed that the "k" of the Vikings has been changed to "c".

In runic symbols of the earlier alphabet the name would appear PDCPBD and is the written Old Norse common to the Scandinavian peoples during the first six or seven hundred years after Christ's birth. Designed in straight lines, it was obviously meant for writing on wood - there are no horizontals or curves. The origin of runes is uncertain, and they contain the elements of several alphabets, including Latin, Southern Europe, as well as Celts and Goths.

From the fifteenth century onwards, there are a large number of references in Manor Rolls and Parish Registers in the West Riding. The first element is always spelt "Thack", but the second is recorded in many ways in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries frequently as "wro" but usually as wray", "ero", "era", "row", "ray", "ara", and even "erowe" The first "rah" found, is that of Hanah Thakrah of Hollock, baptized 30 May 1728 (Holbeck, Leeds). The first "Thackrah" that of Willom, son of George in Mill Hill Leeds on 5 April 1732."

As shown above, the surname springs from the place name where the family lived, and in fact either or both elements occur as place names within the Northern Danelaw and, most significantly, throughout the principle invasion routes and colonisation areas used by the Norwegians and the Irish-Norse. The first element occurs nowhere else.

The main colonisation is said to have taken place from the West Cumberland coast eastward across Cumberland and Westmorland, over the Pennines. and down into the Yorkshire Dales as far as Leeds and Harrogate. and whilst written accounts of this movement are barely mentioned in history, the overwhelming proof lies in the vast number of Scandinavian names in these counties, as well as Irish-Norse crosses, hogback gravestones, longhouse farms, the similarity of the dialects, and the ethnic characteristics of the people. The name occurs as a place name in one form or another from the North West coast of Cumberland, eastward across the Lake District and particularly in Northern Cumberland.

Eilert Ekwall in "Scandinavians and Celts in the N.W. of England" says:

"As a result it may be laid down that the place and personal nomenclature of N.W. England bears strong traces of Goidelic influence. The Goidelic elements must, on the whole, have been introduced by Scandinavians, and to them are to be ascribed the numerous inversion - compounds (i.e. Aspatria - The ash of Patrick). As the Scandinavians cannot have come into close contact with Goidels in England, we must assume that they had to some extent been Celticized before their immigration into England.

"This corroborates the theory advanced long ago (though not supported by sufficient evidence) and adapted in the introduction as the starting point for the present investigation; viz., that the Scandinavians came from Celtic lands in the West."

"The results of our investigations also give some hints as regards the time when the Scandinavian immigration took place. The strong Goidelic influence, to which the place and personal names testify, indicates that some considerable time must have elapsed between the colonisation of Ireland etc., and that of the N.W. of England. In view of the general chronology of the Scandinavian colonisation of the countries round the Irish Sea the immigration into N.W. England can hardly have taken place earlier than about 900 and very likely it was partly not carried out until somewhat later".

"The place and personal names of N,W. England however, do not merely give us certain information about the language of the said districts, they also allow us a glimpse in to the Scandinavian language in the Viking colonies in Goidelic lands about the year 900. It is indeed a fortunate chance that has preserved some fossilised remains of that language. While in the Goidelic lands most Scandinavian place names were probably given up at an early date, they were to a great extent preserved in N.W. England, at least down to the earliest records, because here a Scandinavian language long continued to the spoken, and was finally displaced by a kindred language, which absorbed a considerable part of the Scandinavian vocabulary, particularly the Scandinavian place names"

In "Scandinavian Personal Names in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire" by Dr. Gillian Fellows Jansen, there is nothing for Thackrah, Thak, or vra, surprisingly, but the following is relevant:

Page 24 "York remained more or less in control of the Danes or Irish-Norse until 954. In the period between 919, when Ragnold or Raegneld came from Ireland and captured York, until 954, there was a constant stream of Scandinavian settlers of Norwegian origin from Ireland into the North Western part of Yorkshire. By the middle of the tenth century, however, the native rulers of Wessex were strong enough to prevent the conquest of the country by Scandinavians, even by a combined force of Danes and Irish-Norwegian Vikings".

Page 30 Footnote, "Hereditary surnames were introduced by the Normans and appear frequently among the upper classes from the time of the Conquest onwards but they do not seem to have become popular with the lower classes until the fifteenth century. There is some evidence of the use of surnames by these classes in the fourteenth century but these surnames were not hereditary. In A.H. Smith early Northern Nick Names and Surnames, 38-39, 47. P.46. "The typically Norwegian elements "(as in Thackvra)" can scarcely have been introduced into Lincolnshire and Yorkshire before the period of secondary settlement from Ireland in the tenth century

Page 49 "Since there was no large scale Scandinavian immigration into England after the tenth century, and none at all of any significance after the Norman Conquest, it must be assumed that the majority of the personal names were introduced into Lincolnshire and Yorkshire at the time of the original settlements. ----"

Page 133 "V" or "w" was still a bilabial in Scandinavia at the time of the adoption of Scandinavian names and works into old English. In Old English records it is always represented by "w."

Many of the commoner types of Scandinavian names in Westmorland and Cumberland are to be found in the Stavanger and Bergen areas of the West Coast of Norway.

This Chapter has given the facts on the name and the research as far as it has gone at present. With this information coupled with the known history of the Vikings and their colonisation movements, it is possible in the next Chapter to construct a theoretical history of the family and their movements down the centuries. At this distance of time it is doubtful if it will ever be proved, but there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence, much of it strangely coincidental as will be shown when a description of the manner of the research is given. This is particularly significant when it is realised how narrow was the Norwegian immigration into England, and the total absence of alternative facts and theories.


After the retreat of the Little Ice Age, people "came from the east" and settled throughout Scandinavia, developing a high degree of culture in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and moved imperceptibly into the Viking Age around 750. They were all part of the Teutonic tribes and must have occupied and then migrated Northwards across the North German plains - presumably as younger sons seeking land. All shared much the same basic language, the same Northern gods of Wotan, Thor, Odin, and the similar mysterious folk tales of Sigard, the Niebulung and the rest.

The structure of society in the Western Fjiords of Norway at the time was that of families, isolated farms, and freemen; linked together" into bands under kinglets or earls (jarls) connected with each other by common Thing assemblies. They lived by fishing, a little arable farming, and sheep on the moorland tops. To anyone who has been there, it is painfully apparent that cultivable land is extremely scarce due to the steepness of the mountains: so that as the population increased, the nights are long in these Northern Latitudes, younger sons had to look elsewhere for a living. The archaeological evidence shows that maximum population was at its height in the tenth century and, in spite of it, life was active and prosperous.

From these conditions sprang the final flowering of the Viking Age - the ocean going longship, the most potent war weapon known until the invention of gunpowder. It was a technological development of the first magnitude which enabled its owners to explore the whole Western world from the Mediterranean to America, to carry on a large and diverse international trade, and to found a complex culture (rather than civilisation) which altered the face of the world and continues to act just as strongly to-day - a thousand years after.

It was these three factors. - population, pressure in restricted space, ocean going ships, and trade that were the basic causes of Norwegian emigration, rather than the political one, beloved of Icelandic Sagas written three centuries after, of Harold Hörfager's ambition to weld Norway into one nation and substitute feudalism for freemen. Harold Fairhair, of an ancient lordly family on Oslo Fjord, succeeded, but held power only tenuously, although there is evidence to suggest that he did ... (remainder of paragraph, less than one line, is illegible).

The popular image of the Vikings as exclusively plundering pirates has been fostered by the fact that they received a bad press, as all contemporary descriptions were written by Anglo-Saxon monks who were on the receiving end of the early pagan, bloody raids; but the truth as shown archaeologically, and by the sagas, gives a different picture of people as restless as the Atlantic by which they lived, technically most skilful in weapons, metalwork, ships, trade and navigation: and intellectually brilliant: whose saga and skall writing has never been surpassed in literature; with lawmaking of the highest order, from which all parliaments have sprung.

The effect of the Vikings on the Western world, their culture, pragmatic thought, sense of equality, and realism, have been greatly underestimated and usually ignored in history, but they have contributed much, and deserve to be better known and appreciated.

An exact analogy is the exploration and settlement of North America - the great bulk of the emigrants were hard working, skilful, and land thirsty, and little resembling the Elizabethan pirates that had gone before.

By 750 AD, the Norwegians had settled the Hebrides, then followed the Western Isles of Scotland (the mainland came later) and on to Ireland. According to the Annals of Ulster, the first raid took place in 798 AD. All the main ports of Ireland - Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Cork, and others - were created and settled from 836 AD onwards, and the Irish were conquered.

In Ireland, the Vikings stayed just over a hundred years, about three generations, and appear to have settled around the ports rather as garrison forces. There was some inter-mingling, particularly in the art of the Irish Norse crosses, and partial Christianization, but around 900 AD the Irish rebelled, or gave the Norse sufficient trouble to look elsewhere, culminating in the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014 AD when the Norse were heavily defeated. It was from Ireland that the Irish-Norse invasion of the Isle of Man and North West England was undertaken: but not before some fusion of cultures with the Celts had taken place.


There is little documentary or archaeological evidence available on what was an invasion and colonisation on a considerable scale spreading eastward from the West Cumberland coast, and which continued over a long period - probably fifty or a hundred years at least. There was a similar movement into Galloway, and further South on to the Lancashire coast, and the Wirral. They came not only from Ireland but also from the Norse colonies of the Orkneys and Shetlands, and even perhaps from Norway.

It is this mysterious invasion that is so important to the Thackrahs, as the name first appears as a place name across Cumberland and within a few miles of the coast, which indicate that they were early arrivals. From "Scandinavian Antiquities of Dublin" by Charles Halliday: "Northern and English historians concur in stating that Ivor, son of Regnald Ledbrog, King of Denmark and Norway invaded England and conquered Northumberland (867)

Footnote: Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland and part of Lancashire are omitted from the Doomsday Book as not being part of England.

The invasion dates are difficult to pin-point but 900 AD is generally accepted as the start by the various authorities; Fergusan states 945-1000,. Oman 890-920, Lindkvist 900-1000, Ekwall 900-925, Rollinson 895 (from Isle of Man) - 1200, Collingwood 925, and Arbmann 875-950. Ekwall appears to have studied the subject in greatest depth.

At that time Cumbria was a separate kingdom, comprising the present Cumberland, Westmorland, most of Lancashire, and probably the Lowlands of Scotland up to the Clyde, and, significantly for the Thackrahs extended eastwards as far as the Leeds boundary, - then itself the independent little kingdom of Elmet - a buffer between Cumbria and the Danes in East Yorkshire.

As the area contains an extensive mixture of Celtic, Angle, and predominately Norse and Irish-Norse names it is generally assumed that the invasion was peaceful, and even perhaps encouraged by the British King, perhaps as a bolster against political pressures from either the Scots In the North, Danes in the East, or English from the South.

There were, however, Irish-Norse Kings of the House of Ivar, (Ragnold) simultaneously Kings in Dublin and in York around 900-944. so there would appear to be political connections on a Dublin-Cumbria-Yorkshire axis, but too complicated to be discussed here, although possibly relevant to the movement of the Norse into the area. They appear to have had a large measure of independence, and may not have been included in the Danelaw. Cumbria was the last independent kingdom in England and did not practice the feudal system.

Eastwards from that part of the Cumberland coast between Workington and St. Bees Head, the two Thackrah name elements appear as place names as shown on the map, although there is no evidence of surnames or family connections West of the Pennines - all surnames, until the nineteenth century, appear only in the West Riding of Yorkshire.


The first Thackrahs that appear in Yorkshire, and the first recorded so far as is known, (but see Chapter 7), are Johannes de Thakwra and Robertus de Thakwra, each of Fewston, and who paid Poll Tax in 1379. The site where they lived was still marked on the 1858 O.S. Map (96-182544) but is now submerged in Fewston reservoir, but the lower part of Gill Beck is still called Thackray Beck (Thackwray Beck 1770).

However the Doomsday Book Survey compiled in 1086 shows Fewston uninhabited, probably the tragic result of the harrying of the North by William the Conqueror in 1069 when Yorkshire was mercilessly burnt and massacred. The Conqueror swore "by the splendour of God" that he would not leave one living soul north of the Humber, and as a result the Normans (North Men, i.e. Norwegian Vikings themselves) laid waste every church, manor and farmstead between Humber and Tees, including York and her Minster. Famine completed the devastation.

It is significant from the aspect of the Thackrahs that this punitive expedition of William's did not include Cumbria, and indicates, perhaps, that was where the family was in 1069. Cumbria was considered so much a separate kingdom from England that it was not indicated in the Doomsday Survey; a pity as Thackrahs may have had an honourable mention if only as tax payers.

There was a controlled immigration by the landlords of these "wasted" settlements from 1086 onwards and gives a clue as to why and when the Thackrahs moved from Cumberland into the West Riding.

There is strong circumstantial evidence to show that the Yorkshire landlord who moved the family, or younger sons, across the Pennines, down the Dales, and into the West Riding was the Cistercian order of monks of Fountains Abbey. This evidence is as follows: -

Fountain's Abbey, one of the most beautiful and elegant places in all England, was founded in 1132, and over the next two centuries became owners of vast areas of upland moorland grazing to the West, including Fewston and Blubberhouse moors.

Throughout medieval times and up to the seventeenth century, the Thackrah name appears frequently in parish and other registers on these moors from Adel and Ilkley in Wharfedale in the south. to Hampsthwaite and Birstwith to the northwest of Harrogate - a small area of land only twelve miles across, and therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this sheep grazing area of wild and magnificent moorland was the family's home throughout this period, as free tenant sheep farmers (villeins) with younger sons as wool workers - enjoying the legal and political protection of the monks, and thus escaping the feudalism found elsewhere.

The Cistercians were a reformed, strict, and puritan order from which doubtless the family learned much, and to which perhaps is owed the puritan and religious tradition which has always been so strong.

Fountains also became the greatest wool centre in England, and exported vast quantities to the Continent, and this coincides too, with the long connection with wool in the family right to the present day.

Thackrahs appears in the Abbey's Memorandum Book 1446 - 1458 with Rob Thackwra of Hasthahous (Hashay Grange a parcel of the manor of Brimham) and a Will'm Thacwra. also spelt Will'mo Thacwray of Westholmhous (on Lofthouse Grange estate -Lofthouse Hill near Knaresborough).

From Dr. Gillian Fellows Jensen: "Scandinavian Settlement Names in Yorkshire" Akademisk Forlag Copenhagen in 1972:

Page 127 "FEWSTON" - a Scandinavian hybrid name in Claro Wapentake Yorks West Riding. The first element is the Scandinavian personal name Fotr which shows the normal development of long `o' in the Yorkshire dialects". "tun" - English or Anglican for enclosure.

Page 196 "Three of the other Tuns in Yorkshire West Riding whose first element is a Scandinavian personal name have comparatively good situations; namely - Fewston is on the River Washburn and not far South of a Roman road but its situation is rather high and isolated".

Page 233 "The devastation of Yorkshire by the Conqueror created opportunities for subsequent colonisation and these were grasped by the Cistercian monks in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - it is significant that 44% of all known twelfth century Cistercian granges in Yorkshire lay within the lands of vills that were wholly or partly waste in 1086 and where there may not have been any inhabitants at the time when they were taken over by the abbeys. In spite of much evidence for depopulation, recent work on the grange has revealed that far from rejecting local assistance, the Cistercian normally recruited local labour for the working of their granges and, where there was no village near at hand, often established a substitute community.

With the collapse of the grange, however, there would be tendency for the social organisation around it to disintegrate and many of the grange sites were probably deserted in the fifteenth century. This fact may well account for the loss of some villages which were comparatively prosperous before the Cistercians took them over"

Perhaps this was point when the Thackrahs 'or at least younger sons, again moved'; this time possibly to Leeds? Research may be able to clear up this point.

Page 251 "Many of the Scandinavian Topographical names are adaptations of older English names but others were given by the Scandinavians to some natural feature transferred to the settlement that arose on the site."

Page 220 "of the 96 settlements where sculpture showing Scandinavian Influence has been found, 27 are in Yorkshire West Riding. Their distribution pattern is striking. In Yorkshire West Riding, the majority of the settlements where such sculpture has been found lies in the area between the Nidd and Aire."

Page 188 "It is, however, in Yorkshire West Riding, that there is most reason to assume a relationship between the routes taken by the Vikings and the sites of their settlements. Some of the by's situated on roads in the Pennine valleys are very likely to have been established by Irish-Norwegian vikings following the Roman roads over the Pennines and it was probably these same Norwegians who established or renamed Fewston."

"In the Pennine region of course, the only suitable settlements sites would be in the river valleys"

From the family aspect, a most significant fact is that Fountains Abbey was in the period 1192/5 given lands in Keswick, and West and East of the Bassenthwaite, and up to Cockermouth in Cumberland, and held these up to the Dissolution. It is at Isel, on the North side of the River Derwent, on these lands, lies Thackray Cottage and Thackray Wood, one of two known occurrences of the full name as a place name. Within a mile, there is Setrah Hill, and in the area Dockray, Rowrah and three Thackthwaites. (thwaite = old Norse for farm or settlement). Isel Church possesses an Irish-Norse cross, Viking hogback tombstones, and other Norse evidence of residence.

It would appear, therefore, from the above, that the Thackrahs were Irish-Norse, or perhaps direct from Norway's western fjords, with a pure Old Norse name, entered Cumberland between 900 and 1000, and moved from there to the West Riding sometime after 1192, but were firmly established and sufficiently rooted to pay Poll Tax in 1379, and it is a reasonable assumption that the family moved to the country west of Leeds, Harrogate and Ripon under the auspices of Fountains Abbey and as their tenant sheep farmers and/or wool workers. They stayed in Yorkshire until the nineteenth century and after.

Against the Fountains Abbey theory, it must be said that there was a considerable Norse infiltration across the Pennines from the North West over Stainmoor and down the Yorkshire Dales and into the West Riding and probably before the year 1192 mentioned above. For instance there is the definite statement in the eleventh century life of St. Cadroc that the saint was escorted, at a date which can be inferred to be about 941-2, by Cumbrians from the court of Owain's son Davnald to Leeds, and that Leeds was "the boundary between the Northmen (Danes) and the Cumbrians" This can only mean that the earlier British Kingdom of Loides and Elmete had reverted to its ancient nationality in politics and joined Cumbria. It is obvious that Owain, already King of mixed Britains and English , was encouraging the settlement of Norse as good sheep farmers and hardy fighters.

Supporting this theory, a paper "Early Territorial Organization in Northern England and its bearing on the Scandinavian Settlement" by Glanville R.J. Jones states:

"The Scandinavian Settlement on our North West Shores effected by Irish-Norse immigrants never attained the importance of that effected by Danes East of the Pennines. Further north, Scandinavian place names become more frequent and in the fells of the Lake District outnumber all others. The evidence of place names also goes far to show that the Norwegians entered Yorkshire from the North West. Names of Irish-Norwegian type are especially well represented in Craven. in West Riding, in the West Dales of the North Riding, in lower Teesdale, and in the Cleveland district, where the Scandinavian place names strikingly resemble those the Lake District, through which most of these new settlers presumably came. Norse immigration is easily explained as a result of the intimate connections between the Scandinavian Kingdoms of York and Dublin, at the same time these connections account for the Irish elements."

This paper of Glanville Jones offers a theory of a Norse superimposition of military overlordship in Northumbria (i.e. including that part of Yorkshire in which we are concerned) upon the existing social fabric already several centuries old and dating back to the original Welsh (Britons). According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the inhabitants of Northumbria in the first quarter of the tenth century included "English ..... Danish, Norsemen and others" (including three grades of Welshmen).

Jones concludes:

"as Stenton himself once wrote, "in regard to all this matter we are arguing in the dark; for this reason the illumination yielded by Celtic twilight is better than none at all, at least in indicating paths for future exploration. The preliminary results presented in this paper suggest that the Scandinavian impress on Northern England was produced not by a mass migration but rather by the advent of the members of several military corps d'elite, who were later joined by their wives and families. To judge by the abiding results in our dialects and our nomenclature, what they lacked in numbers was more than adequately compensated by their quality".

This theory of Jones is based on a study of place names, in relation to known manors and discrete estates at that time.

An interesting feature of the medieval Thackrahs in the West Riding is their location on, or just off, the Roman roads in the area. They were at Adel, Otley, Ilkley. Fewston Hamsthwaite, and Birstwith. Whilst the Romans had left the country over seven hundred years before the time under review, their roads must still have been in active use for commerce, stock movement, and communications both civil and military, which is not altogether surprising when one considers their excellent construction, the lightness of traffic both in volume and weight, and the total absence of alternatives, except the green roads over the hills and down the dales used since time immemorial by earlier inhabitants as drove roads. This, too, is a clue to the family's movement.

An example is Thackwray House in Barnet, North London (0S91 Grid 334871) just east of the Great North Road (A1), a Roman Road, and beside the River Swale, obviously where the reeds for Thatching grew, on low ground, unlike the other sites. Note: William Makepeace Thackwray lived just 3 houses away from Thackwray House.

These places in Yorkshire, as also the Thack---vra' place-names in Cumberland, are all on high, bleak moorland; a further indication of their Norse ancestry. As late arrivals, in the tenth century, they found the fertile valley bottoms and plains already taken, and had to have the poor upland pasture that no one else had tamed. As sheep farmers, this suited them, as the moors gave good sheep runs. Most Norse longhouses left in this country are over the 1000-ft contour. An ancient example of one is Thackthwaite hall (265435 on OS82 Keswick). The original building is of longhouse farm construction, beside Thornthwaite Beck which provides its water supply, and within two miles of a Roman road, although it is at 450 feet, it is on open moorland overlooking the Solway Firth.

Another facet in their lives that may have encouraged and even compelled the Thackrahs move was the increasing incidence and greater severity of the Scottish raids; which is not surprising, as whole areas of North Cumberland where the name appears and where the first family immigrants must have settled, lay right across the southward thrust and invasion routes of the Scotsmen as they fanned out from the Carlisle river crossing on their cattle rustling raids. These raids led by Robert the Bruce took place between 1309-1314 and up to 1322, and were particularly bad after 1311.

At this distance in time, we shall probably never know the real manner of the family's move to Yorkshire, but of four possible reasons mentioned above, the Fountains Abbey theory appears the most likely because:-

  • (a) it was an economic reason - man must work to live
  • (b) the Fountains Abbey land ownership connection linked with the name
  • (c) the wool motif
  • (d) Thackrahs on the Abbey records as early as 1446 and 1336 (see Chapter 7)
  • (e) there is no evidence at all that the monks of Fountains wove or finished the vast quantities of wool they produced, except for their own use.

However, in spite of the above, it is not safe to assume that the family took the place name from Cumbria to Yorkshire as the name could have arisen independently in both counties, as neither element is uncommon in the north country. It is possible moreover that the first de Thackwra may have had no connection with those who first established the settlement, and might even have been English and not Scandinavian, but the evidence makes this unlikely.


The name appears frequently in parish records in those parts of the West Riding described above, down through the Middle Ages, spelt in different ways as the recorder fancied, but invariably phonetically correct. Typical is the following:-

"Unfortunately it must be recorded that at the Court of Ilkley in 1522, James Thackwray was fined for taking Greenwood, and again in Oct. 1571 William Thackwray was fined 4p for cutting wood." These are the only misdemeanours so far found, but cutting greenwood was a serious offence as it implied the making of bows for poaching or worse, as a weapon. In 1589, Tenants at will included James Thackwray paid 2p each to their lord. These Manor Courts were held in the manor House and always the Lord or his steward presiding, the free tenants sitting with him, and with these a certain number of men who had risen or were rising from serfdom and villeinage [serfdom with some freeman rights], and were tenants at will.

At Ilkley in the seventeenth century, a number were Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor, and these Ilkley names were long established as "The Skalwras retained the said messuage [house + adjacent lands] and XVIIJ acres until 1464 when William Skalwra de Wheteley (now Ben Rhydding) quit-claimed them to Robert & William Thackray and to John Herfeld.

As mentioned previously, they are most numerous in the triangle Ilkley and Otley in the south - many in Leeds, and Hampsthwaite and Birstwith in the north. As wool finishers and immigrants into Leeds, they must have been the very earliest industrial workers, as opposed to agriculture by which the overwhelming mass of the population then lived.

It could well be that the family movement into the Pudsey, Leeds area from Blubberhouses and Fountains was caused by the establishment of Kirkstall Abbey in 1153, a daughter Cistercian order of Fountains. The parish records of Calverley nearby shows Thackrahs from the fifteenth century. At Kirkstall, iron and steel smelting would be added to wool as an industrial process known to them, as Kirkstall Forge, founded by the monks, had been operating continuously ever since.

As they arrived in Leeds so early, they too must have undertaken their full share in the start of the Industrial Revolution which has so radically changed the face of the world. For this reason, Thackrahs must have been familiar with industrial methods, machinery, engineering and business organization long before the rest of the nation.

Likewise, the Nonconformist records show many Thackrahs from the earliest days of the Dissenting Movement - Baptists, Wesleyans, Congregationalists and other Chapels, so that they had the strongest religious views of great individuality and independence which must have required considerable courage at that time. However, not all were Nonconformists; others were Churchwardens, Overseers of the Poor, and recorded in Parish Registers of the Church of England, but these were mainly before the Dissenting Movement had got under way in the Eighteenth Century.

From the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the family began to leave Yorkshire as the world opened up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The author's own family is typical. Some went to Aberdeenshire to pursue hand loom weaving of the first tweeds and of woollen blankets, others to London to sell woollen carpets and blankets, and others still went abroad to the Dominions and the U.S.A. Others however remain in Yorkshire continuing a residence of nearly a thousand years.

Occupations changed too, although wool remained a steady living down to the present day for some.

No particular link or connection has been discovered with any land or estate in Yorkshire. which is not surprising in view of the long tradition of industrial textile working, and this aspect is borne out by the parish records.


It is always dangerous to generalise, particularly on people, and even more so for an historian, but under this heading it is possible to show certain characteristics to those on the family tree, and others of the same name in parish registers, and also to point out those not possessed by the family.

For many centuries, it would indicate that the family gained their living from wool - for some right down into the twentieth century. The Norse colonisers obviously spent their time breeding sheep as is shown by the location of their place names and surnames on the high moors and in the Yorkshire Dales, and this activity still continues in these places by their descendants.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century the author's family have been concerned with the finishing end - hand loom weaving at first, then hosiery, carpets, finishing, and wholesale selling: indicating a greater acumen than their fellow workers: but no fortunes appear to haven been made during the Industrial Revolution although they were connected with it at such an early date, and when so many others were successful - and even more went bankrupt.

This leads to one overwhelming characteristic of the family in that for nearly two hundred years, where there are records, they are middle, middle-class. There are no labouring, manual workers in occupations normally associated with the "working class" on the one hand; nor are there any titled, landed, officer class, mill owner, or employer of any consequence. During the nineteenth century, as other occupations were taken, these included shop keeping, wholesale and stockholding of woollen products, nonconformist Ministers, and one of the first women doctors; and this century has seen a move into the upper middle class in the shape of managerial and professional positions and quite a number who have enjoyed a grammar and public school education; but few at university.

There has been seen this century a dramatic flight from wool reflecting not only the relative decline of that commodity in daily life, but a grasping of new opportunities by flexible, unprejudiced minds, as wider horizons opened beyond the Dales. However, if any Thackrah has to choose a coat of arms, a bale of wool, or better, a shuttle, should appear upon it as a recognition of the long association historically with wool, that useful and comforting commodity.

From the parish records the overwhelming majority of those holding the name were Nonconformists, and this reflects the strong Dissenting Movement in the West Riding during the 18th and 19th Centuries. It is an interesting speculation on their attitudes in these religious matters, to the Dissolution and to the Monks of Fountains before that, in view of their later Nonconformism.

There is no record of crime or violence, and non-professionally in the Services. except those in the last world wars, where there were casualties on the Western Front in the First, and by an Australian member on the notorious Burma Railway in the Second. There appear few who have undertaken public or political service, or received decorations for so doing. None appear wealthy, landed or titled.

There is a love of literature and of culture - a continuance of the saga tradition: and of travel, particularly off the beaten track, and in quiet places - justifying the "vra" in the name, and the Viking restlessness for far away places.

A picture emerges of a healthy, long-lived family of average, pragmatic, intelligence, peaceful, individualistic, quiet, engaged in industry or the professions. They reflect the qualities of the wool in which they must have spent at least a thousand years of work - useful, adaptable, practical, a long life, a strong tensile, out of the North, warm and friendly, but not glamorous or distinguished.

Author: Gordon Thackrah