The Twisletons of Craven and elsewhere

Revd. Dr. John Fiennes Twisleton
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

From the point of view of genealogy the name Twisleton is easier to research than that of a Brown or a Smith. Its frequent mis-spellings are a balancing debit. Sometimes your own family research has a wider implication which is why I am sharing something of my family research over the last thirty years.

Naming the land

Many names tell a story about the way the land lies. Twisleton is such a name. The word means a settlement (Old English ’tun’) on either a fork in a river (’twisla’) or a boundary (Scandinavian ’twistle’). There is no surviving settlement called Twisleton but a browse of the name on the internet demonstrates its association with Twisleton Scars. These are part of the descent towards Ingleton from Whernside, the highest of the Three Peaks in the Yorkshire Dales, near to the Lancashire border.

Alongside Twisleton Scars lie Twisleton Lane and the former Twisleton Hall. The latter is the mid-point on the popular five mile circular Waterfalls Walk that starts from Ingleton. This walk also follows the River Twiss, most probably named by association with the historic community of Twisleton rather than vice versa.

One other claimant to the Twisleton homeland is Twiston, possibly abbreviated from Twisleton, a few miles on the other side of the Lancashire border near Blackburn.

The West Riding Victoria County History mentions William of Twyselton holding lands near Ingleborough in 1316. This takes my association with Craven back over 25 generations to the troublesome reign of King Edward II when the inhabitants of Twyselton saw the Scots descend upon them.

Proving your pedigree

Genealogical research has many returns. It lights up community history as you pursue it. I can follow my family’s lineage over 700 years in the same part of Yorkshire but the hard evidence of continuity goes back less than 250 years. A search at the Family Record Centre took me back to my great-great grandfather Thomas Twisleton of Stainforth (1777-1841). Parish church records took me back with certainty another two generations to my great-great-great-great grandfather, Robert Twisleton of Horton who died in 1766.

Giggleswick, Horton and Clapham parish records show Twisletons in Craven right back to the beginning of these records around 1560. Wills and rentals show the Twisletons to have been a force in that land for seven centuries or more. Properties give further evidence concerning the Twisletons of Craven. Sherwoodhouse on the brow between Stainforth and Horton has RAT 1703 inscribed over the front door, almost certainly referring to Robert and Alice Twisleton whose marriage ’sexdecimo die Maii 1694’ is recorded in the Giggleswick church registers. Thomas Brayshaw’s history of Giggleswick tells of Twisletons living there before 1600. The 17th century Twisleton Hall outside Ingleton, now a farmhouse, has a name more associated with the historic naming of the land than any of my known forebears.

Twisleton’s Yard in Settle is listed as being built around 1832 for a James Twisleton and Twisleton residence there is confirmed in census records. Winskill farms above Langcliffe also housed Twisletons at that time. My grandfather had a shop in Settle Market Place where my father was born and my widowed mother still lives just off the same Market Place.

Telling the human story

Genealogical study provides a clue to the continuity of life across generations and to unchanging human nature. Well-documented 14th century historical conflicts in the north of England come alive to me through a 1398 petition for the arrest of Thomas de Twysylton with others for forcible entry into Millom manor in Cumberland. Robert Twisleton’s 1513 enrolment as a bow man and his possible involvement in repelling the Scots bring the battle of Flodden alive to my imagination.

When parish registers start in the 16th century they show Twisletons concentrated in both the ancient parish of Giggleswick and east of Leeds. A recent examination of Twisleton births, marriages and deaths 1837-1913 recorded at the Family Record Centre showed that of 541 entries 38% were in Northamptonshire, 21% in Craven and 12% around London. The Leeds Twisletons were no longer much in evidence by the 19th century.

Though my research has yet to connect substantially with either Northampton or New Zealand Twisletons my family have compared notes with the southern Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes branch centred at Broughton Castle near Banbury. The present Lord Saye and Sele’s late cousin, David Fiennes and I agreed years ago that there is a link between our families. One of my namesakes, John Twisleton, came down from Yorkshire to London in 1488 and made money as a goldsmith. He became an alderman of London and bought land near Selby. David Fiennes’ research showed that he was the great grandfather of Colonel John Twisleton (died 1682) who married Elizabeth Fiennes. Since it is pretty certain that the first Yorkshire Twisletons derive from the Ingleton area we can suppose that John Twisleton (died 1525) and his descendants trace back with my family to Craven.

The ownership of Broughton Castle near Banbury and the associated Barony of Saye and Sele descended through Broughtons (14th century), Wykehams (15th century), Fiennes (16th century) and Twisletons (17th century), with these historic surnames being merged then into Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. Martin Fiennes, son of the present Baron, Nathaniel Fiennes, notes on their website family tree: “my father gave up the Twisleton-Wykeham bit by deed poll at a cost of 5 at the Post Office in the late 1960s on the basis that it was a bit unnecessary - and hard to fit the whole lot on school name-tapes”. How amusing that my own father who knew the present Baron’s father, added my middle name - Fiennes - to associate me with the illustrious southern branch just before that branch contracted its own name!

Celebrities who add colour

The discipline of genealogical research seems a drab pastime to some. What is it that lures people into hours of research through long boring lists of names and places? For myself I recall the first stirrings of interest when my father explained something in the family deed box. It was a cutting from The British Workman of 1861 showing what father called ‘The Craven Giant’, a sketch of an imposing figure campaigning for temperance, located in a pub and captioned: Mr. Francis Twistleton, The Giant Yorkshire Farmer (Weighs 22 stone). The study of family history suddenly got some colour and purpose to it.

The 1861 cutting about my forebear inspired me - and humbled me: “In the earlier years of his life, when a working man, he was accustomed, like many of his comrades, to drink freely, believing that hard work could not be performed without the aid of stimulating drinks. He was, however, induced to abandon both the pot and the pipe, and by God’s blessing on his sobriety and industry, he has risen, step by step, from the ranks of the labouring classes, until he can now be truly regarded as one of the largest farmers and cattle-dealers in Yorkshire, having reference both to the bulk of his person, but also to his extensive crops and herds. Mr. Frank Twistleton of Horton-in-Ribblesdale …. is constantly attending cattle markets in the North of England, and seeking, by the distribution of tracts, and conversations with his fellow farmers and cattle-dealers, to induce them to follow his example. We have reason to believe that hundreds of persons have been induced by the example and entreaties of Mr. Twistleton, to abandon their habits of intemperance, and are now sober fathers, and good husbands.” Francis, ‘late of Winskill’, died in 1875, aged 63 and is buried in Stainforth Churchyard.

The article contrasts with a vignette from research into the southern branch of the family. William Fiennes (1798-1847) 15th Lord Saye and Sele cuts a rather less devout profile. A friend of the Prince Regent, he seems to have shared the hedonistic attitude of the Regent’s Court. One day he left this message for his valet: “Put six bottle of port by my bedside and call me the day after tomorrow”!

Coming back to Craven Twisletons, when I was a lad my father, Greg Twisleton (1900-1974) used to take me on walks up Penyghent. On the way he would point out to me the Winskill farms where our Giant’s two sons Tom and Henry, (my father’s uncles), the so-called “Craven poets”, were born and brought up. Like me and my father they attended Giggleswick Grammar School as day-boys. Their joint volume Poems in the Craven Dialect is still read. Tom Twisleton (1845-1917) writes in a captivating, down-to-earth dialect. Take this stanza from his poem Brass reflecting on the importance of having money:

“Oh! the chap without brass! as a thousand fooak knahs,
Is as helpless in t’world as a cat without claws…”

Tom’s Craven dialect contrasts with the polished English of his brother Henry Lea Twisleton (1847-1905) as in this stanza from his poem Catterick Foss which reflects on the waterfall near Winskill:

“The budding ash perchance is bending
Its bows above the rocky rift:
Where mountain-born, the beck descending,
Is white as Winter’s gleaming drift…”

My father’s favourite poem from their joint work was Tom’s Lines composed on Seeing a Woman Intoxicated in Settle Streets on a Market Day. This poem paints a picture that anyone coming to the market town of Settle on a Tuesday will recognise to this day:

“Yan day, it was Tuesday, an’ Settle was thrang,
For fooaks to an’ fro in the market did gang;
There were warkmen an’ tradesmen, an’ farmers, an’ squires,
An’ some com as sellers, an’ some com as buyers;
Some med thersels thrang amang hampers an’ crates,
An’ some stood i’ clusters an’ held girt debates;
Whal others, who seem’d to hev nowt mich on hand,
Wi’ ther hands i’ ther pockets at t’ corners did stand.”

Tom Twisleton was involved in so-called penny readings of his dialect verse all over Yorkshire and Lancashire. A century later my father was once asked to read his uncles’ poems in dialect on the radio but declined. Henry Lea Twisleton emigrated to New Zealand around 1875 and so became the founder of a far more southerly branch of the family than that at Broughton Castle!

Priests, entrepreneurs and adventurers

The Revd. Arthur Twistleton was one of the so-called “Cambridge Seven” who went out as missionaries to China in 1885 to labour for the spread of Christianity. As currently a Sussex cleric myself, it has been interesting to see through my genealogical research evidence of Twisleton clerics through the ages:

Bro. John de Thytelton (Vicar of Sheffield 1307), Adam de Twyselton (Canon of Worksop Priory 1351), Thomas Twisleton (Curate of Swillington near Leeds 1724), D. Twisleton (Curate of East Ardsley 1755), Revd. Mr. Twizleton (Vicar of Huddersfield 1734, 1739), William Twisleton (Cleric of Sherwoodhouse 1768), Frederick Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (1799-1887: Archdeacon of Hereford related to Jane Austen).

A celebrity Twisleton emerged in a BBC Radio 4 history programme on the Irish Famine. Edward Twistleton was the senior civil servant made responsible in 1845 for implementing relief strategies for the famine. This great entrepreneur - no obvious link with the Yorkshire branch - set up soup kitchens serving no less than 3 million cooked meals a day. The famine is remembered less because the government failed to provide such aid but because they stopped doing so.

The current Lord Saye and Sele’s grandfather, Eustace Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (1864-1946) gave varied and colourful service as Banbury MP, Winston Churchill’s Parliamentary Private secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty and Governor of the Seychelles and then the Leeward Islands. From the same lineage, most celebrated of contemporary Twisletons is the third Baronet of Banbury, Captain Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

True to the family motto: ask for a brave spirit (fortem posce animum) Ranulph’s list of exploits earned him the title of “the world’s greatest living explorer” from the Guinness Book of Records. Besides going around the world in the famous Transglobe Expedition, he is famous for hover-crafting up the White Nile, parachuting onto Europe’s highest glacier, discovering the lost city of Ubar and travelling overland to the North Pole. When you do a Twisleton (Twistleton or Twiselton) search on the internet Ranulph appears, alongside our Craven Poets Tom and Henry Lea Twisleton. It is very humbling for Twisletons though that the most popular figure on search lists remains fictional: Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton from the popular Uncle Fred books of P.G.Wodehouse! On his account, being a Twisleton (let alone one from Giggleswick) always has shades of the music hall about it!

Back to earth

Genealogical study may bring brief splashes of celebrity. Otherwise there is a humble charting of lives summarised by family relationships and occupations gleaned from census forms and parish registers. The records for the Twisletons of Craven, from 1560 to date, chart livelihoods made initially from the land that develop over the last two centuries with industrialisation.

The Stainforth parish history mentions the Twisleton family’s involvement in farming from the dissolution of the monasteries until the nineteenth century: “They were tanners and cattle dealers and, logically enough, also had an interest in tallow production and candle making. Not surprisingly with all this hard work going on, much refreshment would have been required, and .…there was a malt kiln operating through most of the 18th century”. The situation of Sherwoodhouse, set apart between Stainforth and Horton just above the River Ribble, evidently suited the smelly work of the slaughter, treating and tanning of animal skins with the production of tallow, as well as the brewing.

Twisleton occupations in Craven, listed in 19th century census returns and parish registers, include cattle jobber (John 1841), farmer of 235 acres (Francis 1871) and dairymaid (Nanny 1871). They also show involvement in the development of the Paper Mill at Langcliffe and Cotton Factory in Skipton as well as that of clerical and shop work: paper sorter (Mary 1838), cotton weaver (William 1881), tin plate worker (William 1861), attorney’s clerk (James 1859), bank clerk (Henry Lea 1871), railway clerk (John 1881), butcher (James 1829), dress maker (Alice 1851) and ironmonger (Robert 1861).

The fruits of genealogical study go beyond family history to light up its context in an evolving community. They enrich the community because any society that forgets its history loses its rooting and stability. My great-great grandma and great aunt gain a mention in the township occasional records following a snow cutting operation as the Stainforth history relates: “In January and February of 1842, there must have been very heavy snowfalls as many villagers lent a hand at a rate of one shilling (5p) a day. Even Nanny Twistleton, a widow 56 years old, living at what is now Fountain House and farming about 34 acres, was probably glad to earn 9d (4p), and her daughter Isabella must have struggled through the snow to get to Langcliffe Mill where she worked as a papermaker”. I myself worked at the same paper mill as a student!

Genealogy is a puzzle of a science. There are so many things to connect, which can be both stimulating and frustrating. My own experience so far on the Twisleton tale has put me in touch with my rural roots and their evolution. It has served to connect realms as varied as the lie of the land that brought about my name, the certain identification of ancestors in records stretching back 250 years, engagement with another famous family group and vignettes from the past that show me the courage, humanity and, yes, indulgence of my forebears. I will persist with the puzzle and the connecting - this is the game of the genealogist!

Sources of information

  • BBC Radio 4 The Long View programme on the Irish Famine 2002
  • Brayshaw, T. & Robinson, R.M. A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick 1931
  • Broughton Castle website
  • Fiennes, D. The Owner of Broughton Castle in 1729 Banbury Historical Society Autumn 1970
  • Smith, K.E. Dialect Poets of the Dales 1987
  • Stainforth History Group Stainforth - Stepping Stones through History 2001
  • Twisleton, T. Poems in the Craven Dialect with Henry Lea Twisleton’s Poems Sixth Edition 1907
  • Wodehouse, P.G. Uncle Fred Flits By 1935, Uncle Fred in the Springtime 1939, Uncle Dynamite 1948, Cocktail Time 1958, Service With a Smile 1961