The ecclesiastical parish of Fishlake formerly included the townships of Fishlake and Sykehouse. After 1860 Sykehouse became a separate parish.

The scope of this essay is restricted to the township of Fishlake, which is essentially a nucleated township centred originally on the River Don (now diverted). Not only has the river given Fishlake its name, (Fishlake meaning fish-stream), but it was one of the village's chief economic resources.

The village may be classed as polyfocal in structure, as there are three main focal centres. One lies near the church and river, which is approached via a quay or landing as it is locally termed. A second focal centre lies north of the church at Hay green, and there is a third centre at Far Bank, whose chief feature is a medieval stone cross known as Butler cross. All three centres are medieval in origin. Outside the village core, which contains the bulk of the township population, we find a number of outlying settlements all of which seem to have been established by 1500.

Perhaps the most substantial of these outlying settlements is Fosterhosues, mentioned for the first time in a will of 1546. By the 17 th century Fosterhouses had become an enclave for non-conformity and in particular of the Quakers. Although no purpose -built meeting house was ever established the Fishlake Quakers did bury their dead in a cemetery at the back of this settlement along a lane still called Burial Place Lane. (George Ornsby, vicar of Fishlake, 1850 -1886, noted that a broken tombstone was found bearing the names of Thomas Womersley and Elizabeth his wife both known Quakers). It was still in use as a burial ground into the 19th century but ploughed up 1930.

Thorninghurst, another outlying settlement on the eastern side of the township, is recorded in 1483 and subsequent wills show its continual occupation. It seems to have developed little beyond a single settlement where a tanner named Cuthbert Parkin lived until his death in 1558. By the 18 th century the most recent structure was built (now demolished). It was a substantial residence complete with private chapel, wall fresco and sunken fence surrounding the whole.

Three other outlying settlements or farmsteads are situated in the north and west of the township. New House, which today is represented by an 18 th century farmhouse, may have been the site of an earlier settlement under a different name possibly Fleethouse or Moorhouse. The same may be said for Westfield House, a farmstead, now derelict, farmed by the Jubb family in the late 19 th century. The third of this group of settlements is Smallhedges, a rather more interesting example. Mentioned by name as Smalehacchedich as early as 1253, this is interpreted by the Place Name Society as, "a narrow ditch with a hatch or grating across it". This must refer to the Clay Dike which runs close by.

Growth, Development and Decline.
Quite often there is too much emphasis placed on change and revolution but not enough on balance and stability. At Fishlake the impression is of a long period of balance and stability but when change became inevitable this was achieved with little disruption.

Many people ask why such an apparently small and unimportant village came to possess such a large and magnificent church. The answer is not going to be straightforward, and more than one solution must be looked for. There is a combination of factors to be considered. Firstly, Fishlake's riverside position is crucial. It was a modest sized inland port, though precise information on the goods moved in and out of the village is as yet unknown. However, one would expect such goods as tanned leather, wool and cloth being exported, while imports would consist of those things not locally found or made, such as stone, pottery metals and millstones.

The River Don was an important river route by which goods were brought inland from Hull to Doncaster, Rotherham and Tinsley. Fishlake was well situated midway between Hull and these centres and would therefore have acted as an en-route ‘service-station’. Certainly to judge from the 17 th century records a large number of travellers stayed in Fishlake hostelry for the night and refreshed themselves before going on the next day, but perhaps more importantly, the people of Fishlake made a direct living from the river. The most common occupation associated with the river was boat owning and transporting or carrying goods for hire from place to place. Although the medieval evidence is lacking for this, by the 16 th century wills do show a number of prosperous watermen such as William Trimingham who describes himself as a shipman, a term which suggest a standing higher than that of a boatman. John Parkin who died in 1558 is described as a mariner, as is John Wood who died in the same year. In 1578 William Brown's will described him as a keelman.

However, it would be wrong to see the river as the only source of income which possessed. It is not always realised that Fishlake's township has had quite a large acreage, both in the township itself and in the detached portion in Thorne and Hatfield. The total acreage today 3,127, is a reduction from 1801 acreage of 3,909. Much of the land is and has been pasture, but there has always been arable land available, some of it good quality. Certainly there was good arable land to support the village at subsistence level, though there was probably never a saleable surplus. Compare this with 1086 at the Doomsday Survey shows that there were several hundred acres of arable land worked by four ploughs. This survey would of course include Sykehouse.

There has been much confusion and misunderstanding, both in the past and at present, as to exact position of Fishlake in relation to flooding, land drainage and the problems associated. Clearly this has had a bearing on the kind of farming practices carried on there. Firstly, Vermuyden's drainage attempts in 1627 and subsequent operations by the Commission of Sewers, had nothing to do with Fishlake. It was the catastrophic results of Vermuyden's attempts at draining the lands of adjacent parishes which caused the biggest problems for Fishlake and Sykehouse, not finally resolved until 1947. The post-Vermuyden flood problem concerning Fishlake is amply discussed elsewhere.

The problem of land drainage before 1627 has of course always been present. The very low-lying nature of the countryside, the proximity of several major rivers and the predominantly clay soil have created a drainage problem from the earliest times, resulting in the land being cut by large numbers of field dikes, indeed most fields in Fishlake which are not in cultivation show signs of medieval and post medieval ridge and furrow. This form of cultivation enables the land to be adequately drained. There are numerous references in the pre 1627 accounts in the parish Byelaw book to land being "gripped and groited", that is cut and drained to improve surface drainage. The parish Pinder was not only required to collect stray animals, but also to view the town fields and report any standing water on them. This was to ensure that remedial work could take place, usually within a few days. The river banks were also inspected regularly by the Bankmen which until 1632 were elected at the Byelaw Court. They inspected the condition of the banks for breaks and collapses so that repairs could be done before serious damage ensued.

The picture then is of a very well organised system to keep the township lands as free from surface water as possible. It is important to remember that by 1500 the four major draining dikes in the township were already in existence and serving a useful function. (See plan).These ancient dikes are the Clay Dike, Taining Drain, Green Dike and the Sour Drain (in the 17th Century known as Trundle Dike giving its name to the present road that adjoins it). Clearly the bulk of the land a Fishlake, and in particular those lands adjacent to the river, are more suitable to pasture farming. This gives rise to a pasture farming regime which has existed at Fishlake from ancient time. There was the usual range of stock represented in medieval Fishlake with particular emphasis on sheep and cattle. This is evidenced by the agisting or stinting of the commons and town fields is a major feature in the bye-law account books from 1680 to1800. These show the election of the Grassman, a parish officer who organised the stinting on the common and pasture belonging to the town of Fishlake. From the operation of his office it becomes clear that there is a premium on good pasture land, so that a very tight control is held by the Grassman at all times.

Sheep and cattle are the dominant pasture animals from the medieval period onward. However it might be an exaggeration to say that Fishlake church was built on the wealth from local wool industry. Evidence for expensive sheep-farming has yet to be found, but there was a wool-sorting mill (molendin stapuland) recorded in 1324. In addition, the 17th and 18th century records show sheep-farming on a moderate scale. The inventory of John Moore, dated 1721, shows him owning 150 sheep, and in addition the large number of sheep stealing incidents indicates that sheep farming was not on a small scale.

Wool has its place, but cultivation of flax and hemp must also be considered as an important local industry. Fax and line was grown and then retted into strands for the making of linen cloth. Hemp was also grown and a similar retting process produced strong fibres for making ropes and sail cloth. The growing and spinning of these fibres took place in medieval times, but the evidence is only slight, However, in the 17th and 18th centuries is ample, and this occupation continued well into the 19th century.

Linked closely to the above and a matter important to the stability of Fishlake, is dual economy. This system of having more than one source of income seems common to this part of England. 17th and 18th century inventories show evidence of much an economy. William Clarke’s inventory dated 6th May 1702 shows he is dealing in a large amount of cloth including wool, linen, wolsey and harden, recorded together with his spinning wheels. In addition he was running a substantial farm with lands sown and pastured, together with animals and farming gear. There are others who farm or have other businesses, but who also work looms and linen wheels.

Another important factor to be considered is Fishlake's status as a market centre. This has been postulated a number of times, but a charter confirming such status is lacking. There is, however, some interesting circumstantial evidence the most obvious of which is the medieval stone cross, now called the Butter Cross, but known in the 17th century as Haven Cross,. Fishlake's position on the river, and as a village centre in a large area of relatively non-nucleated settlement to the north, makes this an ideal place for market centre. The plan of the village centre, and property boundary positions, do suggest the existence of a square for market purposes, but this is inconclusive. However the Poll Tax returns for 1379 reveals a fairly large population of 154 individuals above 16 years of age, but more significantly two merchants were recorded. The evidence is uncertain, but if Fishlake had a weekly market it had certainly disappeared by the 16 th century. The growth of Stainforth market (1348) and later Thorne market came to serve the area adequately.

To summarise, we have found that Fishlake has had a broadly based economy, never depending on one factor alone. To judge from the glorious, spacious architecture of the parish church, the prosperity of the village was very substantial. Until the early 19 th century the river was a highway, a provider of employment and a source of food. Pasture and arable farming, flax and hemp processing, each made a contribution, nor should it be forgotten that Fishlake people had peat-cutting rights on Thorne Moor and grazing rights on the adjacent Ditchmarsh.


Maps of Fishlake.


Educational Provision.
There is evidence from the 16th and 17th centuries that successive parish clerks, working in their own homes, provided some education for Fishlake children. The first reference to more formal education came in the year 1564 when William Robinson, parish clark, is examined by the Archbishop of York and found to be a licence school master. He taught elementary grammar but no Latin. In 1640 the Reverend Richard Rands, rector of Hartfield in Sussex, founded a charity school for "his friends and countrymen at Fishlake", as well as providing an almost identical foundation in his own parish. The master, who was to be a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge and was to be paid from an endowment of £300 which was to be laid out in lands and administered by elected feffees or governors. It was to be a free school for Fishlake and Sykehouse children, though its master was to be approved by the minister and churchwardens.

The endowment money was not laid out in lands until 1659, presumably because of the prevailing Civil War, but in that year 35 acres of farmland were purchased, the income from which enabled a salary of £14 per year. It was in not until 1664 that John Brogden was appointed the first master of the charity school, teaching the children either in his own home or in the church there being no school house at that time. Twelve years later in 1676 he was accused by the then curate of Sykehouse William Eratt, of not having graduated at either Oxford or Cambridge as stipulated by the founder. In fact Brogden had been to Cambridge for seven years but had not graduated. This action led the dismissal of Brogden by the Governors. He was also accused of frequenting ale houses, drinking and neglecting teaching 20 pupils a day. A Consistory Court case ensued in which Brogden brought counter charges against William Eratt for neglecting his duties as curate of Sykehouse. He did not read the service and no prays on these days; 30 January (the execution of Charles 1), 5 th May 29 th May (thanksgiving for the restoration of Charles 11 and did not communicate for 12 months. He would not travel to Sykehouse as the roads were too rough and difficult.

Furthermore, a Commission of Pious Uses set up a Wakefield to hear the case duly found that Brogden was not a graduate resulting in William Eratt, as a graduate of Cambridge, being appointed schoolmaster from June 1676. It was also discovered that only two of the school governors were still alive, they being Richard Doughty and Edward Cooke, who were both accused of misappropriating the school finances but only Doughty was found to be guilty.

In 1690 the school account book, now lost, tell us that £157 was raised from a fall of trees on the school lands, the timber being sold and £94 used to build a school house. The rest of the money was laid out in more lands. This was Fishlake's first purpose build schoool. We learn little more about the school's fortune until the mid eighteen century when the school was declining and reaching a crisis point. This period marks a general decline in a number of Yorkshire grammar school, Penistone being another example.

It seems that at Fishlake all the six governors had died, and the only person able to take responsibility was the Reverend John Gibson, vicar of Fishlake 1755-1784, whose father had himself served the village as school master. We hear that all the documents and deeds concerning the foundation and the school lands were missing and that John Gibson had little idea as to how to proceed. The parishioners were both angry and concerned accused John Gibson, senior, then deceased, late school master of collecting and misusing a large revenue which he received from the school lands. They related their grievances to the Archbishop of York alleging that "the parish children were and are strolling about the street cursing, swearing and behaving themselves irreverently both towards God and man", and that there were upward of 120 children to be instructed. They also told the Archbishop that their children played football in the town street instead of being in school. Gibson quickly defended himself and his late father in a letter to the Archbishop dated 28 th May 1769. naturally he refuted the parishioners' statement and blamed the whole affair on "the pride and malice of the Methodists", of whom, "two particularly have thrown our town into so much confusion they will neither hear reason nor give time for things to be regularly settled". The fact is that neglect and decline had set in so much that a solicitor from Thorne, Mr Dawson, was employed to go and make a search "for any wills, surrenders or writings whatsoever concerning Fishlake school".

The statutes provided that after the death of a Governor another should be elected but clearly this had not happened and this resulted in there being no Governors to run the school's finances. The old mater Mr John Gibson was clearly past his best as at his death he was said "to have enjoyed the school about 50 years". However, matters were taken in hand just in time. By 1780 the school lands had once again been cleared of trees and all the timber was sold to a Fishlake boatbuilder (this could well have been Mr Steamson) for £163. The money was used to build a house for the schoolmaster. This house still stands next to the school house of which it is part.

The custom of electing a master who was a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge ceased in 1816, since no such graduate could be obtained at such a small salary, at this time £50 per year. Therefore James Froggatt was elected the first non graduate master. As to the curriculum, Latin had been taught from time to time but the subject had lapsed by the late 18th century. It has always been argued, probably quite rightly, that it was basically an elementary school for teaching English, writing and accounts, but in the mid eighteenth century we also find the teaching of navigation and land surveying, though much depended upon the skills of individual masters and upon the requirements of the day.
During the 19th century the school was partly rebuilt, particularly after the Education Act of 1870, when £150 was sent upon it. In 1904, after much trouble, the school was accepted as an elementary school, subject to the Act of 1902, and then became eligible for grants, but it was still called the Grammar school by virtue of its foundation right up to its final closure.

The headmaster has always had a traditional standing at Fishlake Henry Brooks was head from 1862 for 43 years until his retirement. In 1904 the Governors then appointed the first headmistress, Miss Winifred M Gould. It was not a successful change, as in her four years' headship her progressive methods of teaching and standards of discipline seem to have caused problems. During her term of office she started to teach the Darwinian theory of evolution to the unprepared Fishlake youth, and perhaps not surprisingly the children, after hearing about the theory, went about telling everyone that they were descended from monkeys. In due course this reached the ears of the vicar, the Reverend Eliezer Flecker, who took great exception to this reflection on both his breeding and his understanding of the Old Testament. Feelings reached such a pitch that Miss Gould, a number of children and the vicar, ended in court, which caused a small scandal at the time and the whole affair has not been forgotten to his day. Miss Gould voluntarily resigned her position and went to Carlton Girls School near Snaith. Not surprisingly the school trustees vowed never to appoint another head mistress, during that episode a number for parent removed their children to a school on Stainforth where a headmaster was in charge. In a memorandum to a managers meeting in 1908 when they strongly object to the appointment and of a head mistress as they are convinced that the education and control of country boys can only be successfully carried out under the firm rule and strong hand of a master. After this affair the school continued to function as a local school under the control of the Local Education in conjunction with the school managers in 1911 until it finally closed in 1994. The old school buildings was finally converted into a dwelling house (2016).


Fishlake School and Headmasters House in the 1970's

[This is a revised article based on an original essay published in the Yorkshire Archaeological Society -Local History Study Section Bulletin in January 1980 by the same author Rob Downing].

Rob Downing 22 September 2016.

Rob Downings research at http