Alston Moor is a bit of a one-off in many respects. In administrative terms, for example, it is mainly covered by Cumbria, but two other counties, Northumberland and Durham, have a hand in it. Within this anomalous area lies another anomaly - Priorsdale: At least it was so until the eighteenth century.
We think of Priorsdale as being - what - the highest inhabited house on Alston Moor - a farm at the head of Ashgill; but for centuries Priorsdale covered an area of between a quarter and a third of the whole of Alston Moor. In width it stretched from where Perry’s Dam above Nenthead is now, west to Cross Fell; and in length from Ashgill Force south to the border with County Durham. When the Normans finally moved into the north of England, the border with Scotland was still not very clear and in the 12th century the lords of the manor, the de Veteriponts, of Alston Moor held it from the kings of Scotland, although the de Veteriponts were Anglo-Norman and also subject to the kings of England, who retained the mineral rights. Priorsdale was granted to the Prior and Convent at Hexham by Ivo de Veteripont in the early 13th century. This gift was confirmed by Alexander II of Scotland (1214-1249), and Henry III (1216-1272) of England. The gift incidentally, included the right of the Priors and their tenants to cut timber in the woods of Alston Moor, “for building purposes, and for keeping their houses and fences in repair, and for all other necessary purposes,” which sounds like a licence for deforestation.
Sometime later the gift was disputed and a writ was issued against the Priors for usurping a franchise against the king. The pleadings, heard first at Carlisle and then at York, finally found in favour of the Priors and their convent. This legal action led to the definition of the boundaries of Priorsdale in the ‘Black Book of Hexham’, under the title of ‘The Liberty of Tindale with Presdale and Aldenston Moor’. Although the Black Book, which was the rent book of the Priors, was compiled in the 15th century, it refers to conditions that had been in existence from a much earlier date.
The Priors leased out Priorsdale in order to obtain revenue for Hexham Priory and it remained in their possession until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1537. When the threat of dissolution was imminent, the Priors attempted to influence certain people in positions of power to obtain a grant of Priorsdale from the Crown in trust for themselves in the hope that the old order would be restored. As we all know, this was not to be. The Crown took ownership of Priorsdale and continued to lease it to the tenants already in occupation, a family called Lawson. George Lawson was the first lessee, and he, “obtained a grant of it in fee”, which presumably means that he more or less bought it, then in 1588 his son Thomas divided Priorsdale into three ‘liberties’, conveying them to several owners. The Eshgill Liberty, the Hole Liberty, and the Hill Liberty, were each subdivided into two messuages, making six in all. The Eshgill Liberty was divided into High and Middle; the Hole was divided into Hole and Tynehead; and Hill was divided into Hill and Tynehead (rather confusing). The latter two seem to have been nearly always owned and treated as one. In 1588, the tenants of four of these messuages were Arthur Jackson, Anthony Walton, Nicholas Walton, and Henry Renwick, while the two of the Hill were held by John Whitfield, whose family was still in possession in 1616. The Whitfields, as well as owning Randalholme Estate, were lords of the Manor of Kirkhaugh, so because the Lawsons were tenants of the Hill Liberty and tenants of the Whitfields, they had to perform service at the manorial court at Kirkhaugh, not at Alston, where the Hiltons of Hylton Castle in Sunderland were lords of the manor.
Changes of ownership of the liberty are fairly well documented. In 1761, Tynehead and Hill messuages were separate, owned by Mr. Hodgson, and Mrs. Barton. In the 1884 Trade Directory, Tynehead was described as forming “a distinct manor from Alston”. In 1884, the two messuages were owned by E. Tuffnell Esq. and Col. Cranmer Byng, who was the sole lord of the manor in 1897. At the turn of the twentieth century it came into the ownership of Mr. R. Todd of Alston.
In 1761, Eshgill belonged to Mr. Evan Emerson and others. Much later, on 31st December 1883, the Ashgill Liberty, as it had become, passed into the ownership of the Nenthead and Tynedale Lead and Zinc Company Ltd. In the 18th century, one part of the Hole Liberty was conveyed to the Greenwich Hospital, who owned much of Alston Moor and in 1761 the other part of it was owned by Mr. Joseph Hopper.
The owners of Priorsdale seem to have been very independently minded, as the following incident shows: After the demise of the Earl of Derwentwater following the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, Alston Moor was taken by the Crown some years later, and not long after passed it on to the Greenwich Hospital. In order to assess what they had taken on, there was a perambulation of the boundary in 1721, and again in 1761. This was a huge undertaking, involving 81 men to walk and witness all or part of the boundary. There were ‘colour carriers’, or standard bearers, and musicians to help them along, and the process took three days in August 1761, in very rough terrain, along a boundary “at least seventy miles in circumference”. Most of the walk went smoothly except for Priorsdale, where, “the freeholders of Priorsdale seemed angry at being included in the Boundary of the Manor of Alston Moor, and insist that Priorsdale is no part thereof”. At Eshgill Mr. Evan Emerson objected, at Hole Mr. Joseph Hopper objected, and at Hill Mr. Hodgson objected. They all questioned the Commissioners’ right to be on their land, and insisted that the Commissioners had no right to include their Liberties in Alston Moor. The freeholders had a case. Their land had not truly been part of Alston Moor for at least five hundred and fifty years, and they cited the gift to the Hexham Priors as proof, and their subsequent freeholds. However, on taking legal advice, the Greenwich Hospital Commissioners carried on with their walk and did include it, their reason being that there had been no apparent objection when Sir Francis Radcliffe, brother to the Earl, had included Priorsdale in his boundary perambulation before 1715. The reaction of the freeholders was not recorded.
Since this time, thankfully, there seems to have been peace and quiet between Alston Moor and its independent enclave.