With a hosepipe ban on the horizon Barry McCann looks back at the Lancashire community submerged under a reservoir
Lancashire’s history is certainly awash with tales of drowned villages swallowed up by an incurring sea, particular along the county’s coast.
However, there was an inland hamlet near Kirkham which has similarly since found itself under water, though in very different circumstances. The tiny village of Westby Mills stood near adjacent of Great Plumpton and the junction of the A583 Preston New Road and B5260 that links Weeton with Wrea Green. It comprised of the Roman Catholic Church of St Anne and its adjoining school, the Clifton Arms Inn, a couple of farms, a few cottages, and the remains of two mills which presumably gave this particular settlement its name and distinguished it from the nearby Westby.
The village stood on elevated land, which reputedly had been a sacred site in ancient pagan times and initially founded by Norse settlers. Early Christians erected a stone cross on its slopes, which was later dismantled and the base hollowed out as a water trough for passing horses.
Practically all the land in the area had been owned by the ancient seat of the Clifton family and, during the 17th century, Squire Clifton decided its high ground was ideal for catching wind and two wooden post mills were erected. Having become the main route from the Fylde coast to Preston running between the two mills, one of the cottages became a popular ale house for those traversing the country lane, which the Clifton Estate then replaced with the purpose-built Clifton Arms Inn.
St Anne’s Catholic Church was designed by E W Pugin and erected in 1860-61, replacing a contiguous Catholic chapel which was then converted into a farmhouse. A presbytery and graveyard were later added and, in January 1869, an adjoining school was opened, having been built by subscription.
Initially, it was a single large classroom under the headship of Martha Bradley and for which attendance cost two pence a week until it later became a free school.
By the later 1800s Westby Mills consisted of a row of three cottages in addition to the church, school and inn. One of the mills had fallen into decay and the other used only sporadically. They later became part of a 40-acre farm and used to house dairy stock. The farm also had an orchard which came down to a bowling green.
In 1873, the Fylde Water Board considered installing a reservoir to supplement the one at Weeton built 10 years earlier. The Westby Mills site was chosen because it was on high ground, which meant the village would largely have to be demolished to make way, and bought the site from Clifton Estates.
The sheer cost of such an undertaking at the time brought plans to a halt. So things remained business as usual but, with the Water Board remaining as landlord, it was to prove a stay of execution. During 1889-90 the church was declared structurally unsafe and 12 buttresses were added to its exterior as support while iron columns cast in Gothic style added to the inside.
Six stain glass windows were installed in the church sanctuary in 1894, while a new cloakroom and additional classrooms added to the school in 1896.
The village continued into the early 20th century and the Clifton Arms Inn, under landlord Henry Beesley, found itself lucrative new trade during the First World War as a drinking den for the soldiers from Weeton Army Camp. However by 1923, it had become clear that water supplies to the Fylde coast’s expanding population had to be improved and this necessitated the reservoir first mooted 50 years earlier.
A meeting was called between members of the community and the Water Board, with spokesman Father Duffy recognising the need for a reservoir but why destroy a hamlet to build it? The engineer representing the board stated it was due to the lay of the land and there was no alternative site.
With the villagers given notice to quit, the inn called time in 1924 and was dismantled along with the rest of the village, save for the church and school which stood just outside the planned reservoir. The reservoir was completed in 1929 with a capacity of 650ft in diameter to hold 38m gallons. It was originally open air and a full time seagull scarer had to be employed. During the 1960s, it was covered over, along with its neighbour at Weeton, and both remain to this day.
The school finally closed its doors in 1977 and was turned into a private house. However, the church continues, even surviving a major fire on New Year’s Day 1965, and remains the last vestige of a village lost in time.