Situated among the trees of Curwen Park, on Workington’s eastern outskirts, are the compelling 14th century stone ruins of Workington Hall. The sad ruins speak of elegant past times. The large quadrangular structure began as a crenellated fortress built around a Pele tower, its license granted by Richard II in 1379 to Sir Gilbert de Culwen. The Hall is named after the Lords of the Manor of Workington, the Curwen family. It was embellished several times over the centuries, especially in the 18th century by John Christian Curwen. But, in 1929, the family vacated the Hall. Neglected, it fell into decay and soon became a ruin. In 1970’s the ruins were made safe for visitors.
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The Curwen family was descended from Gospatrick, Earl of Northumberland. Their surname originated by agreement with Culwen, a family of Galloway, into which they married. The name was mistakenly spelled Curwen in public records during the reign of Henry VI and stayed that way.
The family moved to Workington in 1250 and played an important role for the king, providing from their ranks 28 High Sheriffs of the County of Cumberland and 18 terms in Parliament. The infamous member of the family, Henry Curwen (1661-1725), was a Jacobite Rebel. He experienced a mysterious death, and his ghost can apparently be seen wandering among the ruins. Rumour has it that his death was partly caused by a French woman dragging him down the stairs before stealing his jewels. While the Hall still stood, strange banging noises on the steps were attributed to his ghost.
Another interesting owner was John Christian Curwen, cousin to the celebrated Fletcher Christian of Bounty fame. John was the guardian and later husband of his other cousin, Isabelle Curwen (b.1765). He purchased Belle Island in Windermere Lake for her, naming it in her honour. The family moved there, and the descendants occupied the island until 1993.
It was at Workington Hall that Mary, Queen of Scots, sought refuge after the defeat of her forces in May 1568, not knowing it would be her last day as a free woman. While staying here, she wrote to Queen Elizabeth the letter that is now in the British Museum. The room in which she stayed is open to the elements, a sad reminder of her own tragic life. When she was here she gave the Curwen family an agate cup said to ensure good luck for the family as long as it wasn’t broken.
Across from the Hall is an 18th century house turned into the Helena Thompson Museum where a model of the Hall in its heyday can be seen. The main entrance was on the southwest front of the building, where a gateway opened into a courtyard. Over the entrance door was placed a shield bearing the arms of Curwen with quarterings and the date 1665. Also on display in the museum are pottery, jewellery, silver, glass, and furniture dating from Georgian, Regency and Victorian times, 18th to early 20th century dresses and accessories. One section relates the social and industrial history of Workington.
On A66, eastern outskirts of town of Workington ½ miles southwest of Maryport, 6½ northeast of Whitehaven.
Tel. 0 1900 64040
Helena Thompson Museum
Park End Road
On A66, eastern outskirts of town of Workington across from Workington Hall.
Open: Sun-Wed, 1.30-4.30pm
Tel: 01900 64040
© by Barbara Ballard