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The Heritage Of Wilberfoss

Cecily Spall, Senior Archaeologist, FAS Heritage

Wilberfoss sits to the east of the Escrick moraine, a line of higher ground running across the Vale of York from near Escrick towards the Wolds. The moraine enabled navigation across lower-lying land likely to have been partly waterlogged seasonally. The moraine attracted early settlement with finds from the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods being found nearby. The village lies on the line of a Roman road with another to the east connecting to Stamford Bridge to Brough.

The name Wilberfoss was not recorded until c.1150, but place-name and archaeological evidence suggest settlement may have moved close to Foss Beck from as early as the Anglo-Saxon period. The village name may derive from ‘Wilburg’s ditch’, from the personal name Wilburg and fos, meaning ditch, possibly referring to the beck.

Wilberfoss is not mentioned in the Domesday Book when in 1086 it lay within the Manor of Catton, which descended through the Percy, Seymore and Wyndham families. Under the Percy family, a mesne lordship of five carucates was held by the Kyme family. In 1175, Margaret de Kyme is reputed to have married Ilgerus de Wilberfosse, one of the early members of the Wilberfoss family and her dowry included land reaching as far as Stamford Bridge.

Wilberfoss is a shrunken medieval village, though its plan can still be understood. Beckside was the old main street lined with crofts and tofts, leading to the church and priory beyond. A deer park was established in the 13th century at Catton and it extended towards Wilberfoss and included the area of The Pavilion and its sports fields.

Following the Dissolution, the priory was suppressed and its buildings cleared. A manor house was built where the priory had stood and survived until the 1960s when it had become derelict and was knocked down. The manor house was probably built by the Wilberfoss family.

Wilberfoss Heritage

History of Wilberfoss (Plan of Wilberfoss and environs)

Old photo of the church.
Wilberfoss Church, taken before 1948 as the Manor house to left still stands, it was demolished 1948/9
Old photo of the manor house.
The Manor House, photo taken from the top of the Church Tower. Believed to have been built in about 1630,also known over the years as The Priory, Hall Farm and Church Farm, it was demolished in 1948/9
Old photo of a windmill
Wilberfoss Mill,built in 1840 by Thomas Grey. John Bell lived here for 93 years and worked the Mill for 80 of them. Was used as an observer post in WW2

The Wilberfoss Family

One of the largest estates under the Percys in Wilberfoss, was that of the Wilberfoss family. The first member of the family to take that name was Ilgerus (also known as Ilger) de Wilberfosse, who had served with distinction in the Scottish Wars of Henry II and married Margaret, daughter of William, Baron de Kyme. Ilgerus was the forefather of the family whose members numbered William Wilberforce, the famous Slave Emancipator.

The sign of the Black Eagle

The Wilberfoss family Coat of Arms is an eagle displayed sable on a silver shield. Why a black eagle? It is thought to relate to the pedigree of the first ‘Lord’ of Wilberfoss, Ilgerus, who was descended from Osbert of Eggleston.

Eggleston is just across the border from Yorkshire in the County of Durham and is reputed to have been a conspicuous nesting place for eagles (Eggleston).

It is thought that approximately twenty generations of the Wilberfoss Family lived here. They obviously liked the place and according to the Torre Manuscripts at least five of them liked it enough to be buried here (the late Rev. Wilberforce suggests there may have been a family vault). Christopher Wilberfosse asked “to be buried within the Kirke of Sancte John Babtiste in Wilberfoss.” Roger (died 1662) was apparently buried in the chancel and William (d. 1776) in the south aisle. Another William (d. 1557) asked “to be buried in the church porch,” and it was Robert’s heartfelt wish “to be buried in my parish church so near as conveniently may to the stall where I usually sit” (d. 1638).

Christopher Wilberfoss’s will provides hints of the life of a country Esquire in the reign of Henry VIII. Proved in 1534 the preoccupation of the wealthy with matters spiritual is clear from the legacies given to the Prioress and nuns, outlined first before the testator turns his attention to the nuts and bolts (or should that be bridles, bucklers and brasse pots) of family provision:

“. . . to my Lady Prioresse of Wilberfoss 6s. 8d; to her sisters 3s. 4d.; to the mending of the organ for the maintaining of God’s service 4s . . . ; to Wm. Wilberfoss, my son, a counter, my greatest brasse pot, a Flanders Chest, a cistern of lead, and a pair of malt quorns, also a dunned horse, four years old, and he to give my son Henry 6s. 8d.; to Roger, my son, my second greatest brasse pot, with my best horse, saddle and bridle, sword and buckler and he to give Edward, Thomas, and Dorothy my childer, 6s. 8d. each, my son and heir to give yearly to my sister Margaret for life for her cattle one load of hay. To Elizabeth, my daughter, one cowe, my best whie (heifer), 2 young cattle, 5 yowes, and 5 lambs, two mattresses and all that belongs to two beds, and a horse; to Anne, my wife, a nag filly and £40 in money, to be paid by my heirs out of my lands at Wilberfoss in equal portions for the space of 6 years.”

In the 17th century the family acquired the site of the former priory and it is thought that one of the numerous Williams in the family was responsible for building the Manor House. This became the family home until 1757 when the house and land was sold.

One branch of the family (Thomas Wilberfoss) moved to Beverley and Hull and Thomas’s great-grandson, William, who was Mayor of Beverley in 1674, is thought to be responsible for the alteration in the spelling of the name from Wilberfoss to Wilberforce, possibly to avoid confusion with other members of the family.

William’s great-grandson, also known as William, was born in Hull in 1759 and was the famous Slave Emancipator. Educated at Pocklington Grammar School and later at St. John’s College, Cambridge, he became the Member of Parliament for Hull and then for the County of York. For several decades from 1787, he tirelessly devoted himself to the abolition of slavery. In the face of strong opposition it was twenty years before he and his supporters procured the legislation to abolish the trade in slaves but not until a few days before his death in 1833 that slavery itself was abolished in the British Dominions. The family home in High Street, Hull, is now the Wilberforce Museum.

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