Wednesday, 8 November 2017

NEW BLOG: Addiction, prescriptions and deaths, drugs and the Victorians

Our brand new blog post takes a look at drugs in Victorian Britain.

Discover how common place drugs were at the time and how even children were given very strong narcotics in medicine!

Check out the post here -

Monday, 6 November 2017

NEW BLOG: Ten Weird Things the Victorians Did

Our brand new blog post takes a look at ten weird things the Victorians did.

From body snatching to hosting mummy unwrapping parties they really could be an odd bunch!

Check out the post here -

Monday, 6 March 2017


9th April 2017, 10am - 5pm.

Discover what life for peasants living in Northumberland was like in medieval times at this brand new event!

Wander our living history camp within the walls of the castle, immerse yourself in the sights and smells of medieval life and enjoy our varied displays from weapons display to mummers play.

This event is brought to you by Iron Shepherds Living History with the support of English Heritage.

9th April 2017, 10am - 5pm.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

How to have a Victorian Christmas

Christmas. What a wonderful time of the year! So many heartwarming traditions we all revel in and enjoy. But did you know that many of these traditions started in the Victorian era here in Britain?

Before the Victorian period Christmas was rarely celebrated. The traditions of celebrating the mid winter and the coming of spring had faded and this time of year was nothing particularly special. There were celebrations around the new year to rejoice in the coming of another year and to reflect on the passing of the proceeding year. But Christmas wasn't a thing. That of course was all set to change.

With the industrial revolution creating wealth and happiness across the country the rich were pressured to share their wealth and happiness. People started to celebrate Christmas more, they stated to give gifts and books like Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol' were produced giving new vigor to the holiday.

Soon Christmas was popular across the land and each year around the 25th December peoples homes would be transformed and happiness was spread across our fair isle.

What follows are just some ways in which you could inject a little Victorian flavour into your Christmas:

1. Pop up an Indoor Christmas Tree

A staple of any modern Christmas has to be the tree, erected inside and decorated with a variety of items but that didn't come about until the Victorian era.

Before the 1800's no-one brought trees into the home although they were important symbols. Outside trees were often decorated with apples, especially by the church, but no-one ever thought to bring a tree inside. That all changed in the 1840's. Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, brought a tree to Windsor Castle in this time, something which was popular in his native Germany. This brought the idea to the attention of the nation and soon the Christmas Tree started to gain popularity.

At the time the trees would be decorated with ribbon, shortbread biscuits, paper cones (for treats), oranges pierced with cloves and of course candles for light. The trees would have looked stunning and would have created a focal point for any room in the festive season.

2. Crack a Cracker

We've all popped a cracker haven't we? Well if it wasn't for the Victorians we wouldn't have crackers!

A sweet maker from London called Tom Smith invented the cracker in 1846 following a trip to Paris. He came up with the idea of wrapping his sweets in a twist of paper, this was the humble beginning of the Christmas cracker.

Over the period it developed and by the close of the era they resembled the cracker we know today. The crack or snap now synonymous with the cracker was added as were the paper hats and treats. 

3. Bring Some Nature into the Home

During the Victorian period people were fond of decorating their homes but instead of tinsel, baubles and fairy lights, like today, they would use nature as their decoration. Holly and ivy were popular plants to bring inside the home to provide some colour and decoration.

Holly with berries would be sought after as the bold red of the berries against the green of the leaves would create a warming Christmas feel. Ivy could also be colourful with a variety of different colours from greens to yellows. Another brilliant addition to the decorations!

4. Give Presents

The giving of gifts has a long history and at the start of the Victorian age gifts were generally given to celebrate the passing of a new year. As time went on though and Christmas became more prominent and popular as a celebration the giving of gifts was moved to Christmas day.

Children were especially showered with gifts, a way of rewarding them for good behaviour. Rich families would spoil their children with special, and expensive, handmade toys. The poor on the other hand generally would give their children stockings filled with fruit and nuts, still a rare treat. The tradition of giving both toys and stockings at Christmas stuck and it is common place today.

5. Send Weird Christmas Cards!

It was during the Victorian period that the tradition of sending friends and loved ones a card at Christmas became popular. What is better than sending a heartwarming gesture of love and friendship during the festive season, a token to show that you are thinking of the recipient at this joyous time. Of course it wasn't quite like how it is today!

No, instead many Victorian Christmas cards were well and truly weird! Take these fine examples for instance:

Lovely hey? There certainly seems to be a fascination with death in many of these type of cards and a fascination with frogs and other rather un-christmassy animals. Who knows why!? They also quite liked to have cards featuring strange root vegetables adorned with either human clothes or with human appendages. What doesn't say Christmas more than a root vegetable? The Victorians are often renowned for their dark humor and these cards are a great example of this.

They are somewhat playful and fun but also, sort of, hold sentiment. For instance the dead robin card (pictured above) does have the text "May yours be a joyful Christmas" which suggests the sender wishes the recipient to have a better Christmas than the poor dead bird. Well, one hopes anyway!

It's not all weird in the world of Victorian cards though, there were also many more traditional and beautiful cards that anyone would be happy to send:

The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 and the tradition became a popular one and we, as you know, still send cards today in large quantities.

6. Celebrate Boxing Day

Ah boxing day, another day with Victorian roots. Ever wondered why it is called that? What has boxing got to do with Christmas?? Well in the Victorian period the day after boxing day was the time that servants would open their 'boxes' of gifts. Boxes usually given to them by their employers. The day was a chance for them to relax a little and celebrate, something they couldn't do on Christmas day itself as they would have been working.

As the years went on the day became known as Boxing Day but eventually the idea of servants opening gift boxes waned as less and less households required servants and more people got to celebrate Christmas on the day.

Christmas truly is a magical time of the year and we really do have the Victorians to thank for many of our traditions and for even having Christmas as we know it! 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Victorian Mannequin Challenge

During the Dickensian Festival in Ulverston this past weekend we had a authentic Victorian yard set up. Because we had this unique setting we thought it might be fun to film a Mannequin Challenge. So we did and this is the result:

We hope you enjoyed it and please do share with others!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Iron Shepherds Turns Four!

Another year goes by for us here at Iron Shepherds and what a year it has been! From our very own living history festival to old favourites it has been a jam packed year full of fun and excitement.

The Winter, as it tends to be, was a quiet one. We had no events to attend but we did spend the time planning for our coming season and one of the big things we had planned was a brand new living history festival called Life in the Past. We had the idea of creating a series of events and talks which would cover different periods of local history but be held under the umbrella of a larger festival and we set about making it happen.

We soon managed to organise 6 living history events and 3 fascinating talks by archaeologists and specialists including one by a lecturer at Cambridge University. It was soon time to start the festival, which we did come May...

May 2016

Monks Life | Life in the Past Festival


This was the first in our Life in the Past series of events and it was a return to one of our old favourites: Monks Life.

We set up our display inside the cloister of Furness Abbey where us monks would be based all day discussing our daily life. We also had two visiting nuns on site over in the cemetery gate house, women were seldom allowed into the main Abbey complex in the time of the monks so our nuns had to keep their distance.

Brother Bertram also took two tours of the monastic site to give visitors a better understanding of the abbey and the lives the monks led.
It was a lovely day and a fantastic start to our Life in the Past Festival.

At the start of the festival, and throughout, we created several videos to introduce and showcase the events. You can watch all these videos here: 

Prehistoric communities and the changing face of the Furness Peninsula | Life in the Past Festival


As part of Life in the Past we held several talks by local archaeologists and experts and this was the first one by Dr. Craig Appley all about Prehistoric Furness. It was an excellent talk which really brought to life what the area must have looked like at the time.

There were many folk in the audience who all enjoyed the talk and Craig's delivery.

Medieval Law and Order | Life in the Past Festival


The second in our festival event series took place at Dalton Castle and delved into Medieval Law and Order in Furness. We created part of a court room set in the top room of the castle where our law breaker, held in the dungeon, would be put on trial throughout the day. We also had a few crafts on display to show how the locals were living in the 14th Century.

The trials were the highlight of the day giving visitors an idea of how a medieval trial might take place and for what crimes they might be undertaken. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the trials and we were really pleased with it.

June 2016

Holker Garden Festival


English Heritage invited us once again to set up alongside them at the Holker Garden Festival. This was our third year of attending the festival and as with every year it was lovely! It was super warm in the big tent but we enjoyed chatting to people, promoting our coming events and displaying some crafts.

We were saddened to hear later in the year that this turned out to be the last ever Holker Garden Festival as they have decided to bring it to an end after 24 years. Sad news for all.

Tudor Dissolver | Life in the Past Festival


Time for another Life in the Past event, this time we changed it up a bit and went Tudor! This event took place at Furness Abbey and took a closer look at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

We had a small set up in front of the great church at the abbey where we spoke with people throughout the day and also displayed pewter melting and casting to illustrate the melting of the lead roofs of the abbey.

A lovely, hot, day which went really well!

The Development of Medieval Ulverston | Life in the Past Festival


Another fantastic Life in the Past talk, this time by Daniel Elsworth of Greenlane Archaeology. Dan spoke about the Medieval period in Ulverston from the finds that have been found, although few in number, to the place names of the town. 

It was another successful talk with many showing up to watch and listen.

Family Fun Day at Gleaston 


June came and it was that time of year again, time for the Family Fun Day at Gleaston. This was our third time at this lovely event. We set up our Norman camp, displayed crafts and spoke to visitors. It was, as always, a most pleasant day thoroughly enjoyed by all of us. We will be returning to this event again next year so do come along on the 24th June 2017.

July 2016

Victorian Fun & Games


Once again a brand new event for 2016 created by us for our Life in the Past Festival! This time delving into Victorian Furness and the fun and games of the time.

Furness Abbey was our backdrop where we set up numerous tents, lots of bunting and many many exciting games and toys. Families came out in their droves to enjoy the entertainment from the games to the tours to the singing of the Furness Nightingale, a family singing group who are part of the Iron Shepherds.

The day was a huge success and we were are very pleased to say we will be returning to Furness Abbey next year for another day of Victorian Fun & Games on 23rd July! Do come along to experience a truly Victorian day out!

Sea-Kings and Saints: the Furness Peninsula in the Viking Age | Life in the Past Festival


The final of our Life in the Past talks and a fine end it was too! Dr. Fiona Edmonds of University of Cambridge came up to lecture on the Furness Peninsula in the Viking Age. The talk took place at the Forum in Barrow and the room was packed with people all excited to hear what Fiona had to say. The talk was wonderful and was greatly received by all attending.

Victorian Social History | Life in the Past Festival


Another chance to showcase our Victorian living history at another Life in the Past Festival event; Victorian Social History! This time we were at the Dock Museum in Barrow, a new location for us as far as events go, and a brilliant day was had by all.

We were based inside the museum in the main dock hall where we had crafts from the Victorian era on display as well as a few games to play alongside singing from the Furness Nightingales. The idea of this display was to give an idea of the lives and jobs of the varying social classes living in the local area. It was a great, if very warm, day which was a huge success!

August 2016

1920's Workmen | Life in the Past Festival


Ah, 1920's workmen! This was certainly a different event for us but a fantastic one! As part of the Life in the Past Festival we had decided to showcase the incredible work undertaken in the late 1920s by local men to underpin and stabilise large parts of Furness Abbey.

We have always been hugely impressed and inspired by the work done by those every day working men and were keen to share their achievements to others. To do this we dressed in period costume, set up shop in the old ticket office inside the ruins of the abbey and performed 3 tours throughout the day. These tours specifically looked at the work undertaken and showed areas of the site where evidence of their work can be seen, or in many cases can't be seen! We had great responses from this event and were so pleased to have put it on.

This event was also special for us as it was the final part of our Life in the Past Festival. The whole festival, from inception to completion, was a huge undertaking. There was so much organisation, promotion and creation required. It took a lot of time for us all and when it came to an end we were all so immensely proud and pleased. It had been a success and that was all we ever wished. We hope that anyone who attended any of our events or talks enjoyed them and learnt something from them.

The Life in the Past Festival will return in 2018!

September 2016

Medieval Fair at Furness Abbey


Back to our normal event schedule and it was time for the annual Medieval Fair at Furness Abbey.

We had worked on a new camp layout and site along with a new Norman invasion weapons display ahead of the event. Friday came and it was time to set up. All was looking great, the camp was the best it has ever looked and we were stoked for the event the next day.

Saturday came and the heavens opened! Heavy rain poured all day long. From about 10 minutes into the event we were already soaked to the skin. As is only right we carried on as usual, or at least as best we could.

Bertram tried to perform on his pole lathe but got absolutely soaked and eventually had to seek shelter. Our Furness Nightingales tried their best to perform from inside one of our large tents and Matilda endeavoured to cook on the open fire while the rain water filled up the stew. It was a real shame. Members of the public didn't want to stop for long and by the time mid afternoon arrived the decision was taken to bring the event to a close. Something or a relief for many of us! It wasn't the most ideal day but hopefully next time it will be fine and sunny...

October 2016

Appley Day


A lovely Norman event to end the year, Apple Day. We attended the Apple Day in Ulverston last year and really enjoyed it, so were delighted when we were invited back this year. We set up our Norman camp and displayed our crafts throughout the day. There was music from Aelswyth, cooking from Matilda and even a spot of bread making!

It was a cool but a nice day too. There were many visitors and we had many lovely chats.

That was it for our fourth year, and what a successful, enjoyable and interesting year it was! But, as they say, no rest for the wicked! We had a Victorian Yard to organise for the Dickensian Festival in Ulverston...

Oh, and also we updated our website during 2016, take a look here -

Friday, 14 October 2016

1066, the Year of the Normans: NORMANS IN FURNESS

Following the invasion by the Normans in 1066 Furness and what is now South Cumbria was left pretty much alone, free of Norman influence with little rule and a mix of varying cultures.

The area had many Norse men (people of Viking descent), Celts and Saxons which provided an eclectic mix of cultures which must have made the area pretty unique. There was little to no Norman influence in the early years after 1066, the Domesday book of 1086 lists Earl Tostig as the lord of the area but this was not true as we know that Tostig was killed in September of 1066 at the battle of Stamford bridge in Yorkshire, just before the Norman invasion. This strongly suggests that the accounts of the Furness area in the Domesday book was actually a copy of an early, similar, document. This also shows how little the Normans had to do with the area, so little that they had no one to undertake the survey in the area and no one who could be bothered, or could face, travelling to the peninsula. At the time the area was known as the Manor of Hougun, Hougun is believed to derive from the Old Norse word haugr meaning hill or mound.

It was not until the early 12th Century, around 1107, that Furness gained its first Norman lord!

What remains of the the Norman Motte and Bailey at Aldingham (courtesy of Furness Hidden Heritage)

Michael Le Fleming, a Norman lord, was granted the lands lying eastward of Abbey Beck and southwards of the moors of Birkrigg and Swarthmoor by the then King, Henry I. This land became the Manor of Aldingham. Between 1107 and 1111 Michael set about building a brand new Motte and Bailey castle. Something the area had never seen. With this new castle Michael could then rule over Aldingham and start to bring some Norman law into the peninsula. (Find out more about this motte and bailey caste over at Furness Hidden Heritage with their blog post A Motte Without a Bailey and a Manor Without a Town) The rest of the "forest of Furness and Walney" was given by King Henry I to his nephew Stephen, Count of Boulogne and Mortain (later King of England).

Some 20 years after Michael Le Fleming moving to the area another, greater, Norman influence was set to arrive, an abbey!

The ruins of Furness Abbey in the mist

In 1123 some monks from the Order of Savigny, a French Catholic order, were granted lands at Tulceth near Preston. For some, unknown, reason the monks did not stay here for long, never really setting up a monastery as in 1127 they were granted land in the valley of Beckansgill in Furness by Stephen, Count of Boulogne. At this point the monks moved swiftly to their new lands and set about building a large, decorative, abbey in the valley floor. It is most likely that the reason for the move here was to bring another Norman influence to the peninsula and in turn bring further Norman rule. The lands of Furness needed to be controlled and needed to be brought in line with the Norman way or it could easily become a rebellious, rogue state.

The new abbey soon started to take hold. They owned much of the land near by so allowed the locals to farm it for a tithe, a small part of the produce, and they gained strong links with the community, especially at Dalton, the largest town in the area at the time and the only one that had continued to farm following the Harrying of the North. The Abbots of Furness became the lords of Dalton and ruled over it. The abbey also gained strong links with the Isle of Man and the strong Norse culture which lived there. In 1134 the King of Man, Olaf I, granted the abbey the right to appoint the Bishop of the Isles. A rare and remarkable privilege!

It was later in 1147 that the Cistercian order of monks took over at Furness Abbey and they took it on to become the second richest Cistercain house in the country!

It is worth noting that during the Norman period of history Furness was not always part of England!

In 1136 Stephen, now King of England, gave the entirety of Cumberland including Furness to Scotland. This was no-doubt a consiquence of the civil war between himself and Empress Matilda known as the Anarchy. Stephen giving away Cumberland was probably a way of keeping the Scottish happy and keeping them from making any trouble while the Anarchy was being fought. This didn't mean that the area was now ruled by Scotland though, there was no really rule from either Country. The Scots still raided the area and the English had nothing much to do with it. It also didn't mean that the Norman influence left the area, far from it. The abbey continued to grow in power and wealth and the motte and bailey at Aldingham still stood. Eventually Cumberland would be taken back by England, in 1157, following the end of the Anarchy.

In 1160, just after Furness is reclaimed back by England, Gamel de Pennington, a local lord living in Pennington, founded a hospital at Conishead for the poor of the Ulverston area. Augustinian Monks ran the hospital and lived within it. They also founded a school to help educate local children and later, in 1188, the hospital was raised to the status of a Priory. Another Norman institution in the area again helping to Normanise and educate the local inhabitants.

These small steps continued to happen across Furness making the area ever more Norman but it is debatable as to whether Furness ever did truly become Norman. The people of the area were certainly not Norman, they remained a mix of different origins and no-doubt had varying belief systems for many centuries.

Still the Normans had a stronger and stronger presence here and they certainly ruled over the area and tried to bring it under the Norman rule.

This year marks the 950th anniversary of the great Norman invasion of England and we at Iron Shepherds have been celebrating with this series of blog posts, a brand new weapons display and several events with our Norman encampment!

Our main period of interest is the 1140's, a period of time within the Norman rule of Britain.