The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

In January 2021, Dr Diane Duffy ran a discussion session on the short story, ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ about a daring rescue on Morecambe Bay.  You can read her blog post about it.  We’ve since been contacted by Pauline Kiggins, a Gaskell Society member, who lives in Silverdale, in the area where the story is set. 

This is a follow-up to Diane’s recent excellent study session on ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ – I much appreciated the way that Diane opened up the subject of the story to include consideration of the wider aspects of heroism at that time.   

I was particularly interested in the information about the church in Silverdale –  Diane’s photo showed the church building which was erected in 1884-1886, so Elizabeth would not have known it (although I should say that Meta and Julia, whilst living at the Shieling later on would have attended there). But I feel sure that Diane would be interested in the earlier ‘church’ in the village, being the place William and Elizabeth would have known. It was then referred to as ‘chapel’, because it was a ‘chapel-of-ease’ and its story is told (and there are pictures) in our local history magazine (details later). The building is now two dwellings known as St John’s Cottages. To know the history of how the village actually had need for, and came to have, a chapel-of-ease, emphasises the ‘wild’ character of ‘the bay country’, which so fits in with Gaskell’s tale.

I have wondered about the opening of the story, set as it is overlooking the Bay. Can’t know, I think, Gaskell’s placing of the opening, because, given that there were a number of points of access which could have joined the main route across (and also a number of churches which look over the scene), it is difficult to decide. But I suspect that she probably had the village of Bolton-le-Sands in mind, being down the hill from Over Kellet, which was the point of departure of the wedding party. But of course the detail could have been developed by Gaskell for imaginative purposes.  All so interesting! 

I will just mention as promised the magazine details of the Mourholme Local History Society. If you go on to the website and look for Magazine 3, there is an  article outlining the founding of the chapel-of-ease; there are many more articles through the years. It is a terrific resource!

A response from Diane Duffy:

I absolutely agree that there is no clear picture of where the Sexton meets the two travellers in the churchyard overlooking the bay. My slides were merely to give a picture of the sort of scene there was in and around Silverdale at that time. 

A map of Morecambe Baymap showing Kent's BankThe Sexton’s family came from ‘above Kellet’ which is east of Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth. The Sexton and his story began in Lindale (Lindal as Gaskell names it) on the other side of the Bay near Grange-Over-Sands. 

The Sexton does say the journey across the sands is about six miles. 

When the Sexton, John, is in trouble, he is about two miles from the shore and we are told that Gilbert’s body was washed up in Flukeborough (as Gaskell spells it)  and the horse and shandry at Arnside Knot, some short distance up the bay from Silverdale. Another placing we have is the fact that they left the party to travel home from near Bolton-le-Sands, which would emphasise the likelihood that this was Hest Bank, one of the main routes across the Bay. Finally, the Sexton talks about walking up and down Cart Lane calling for Gilbert. Cart Lane is near Grange and Kent’s Bank which is where their journey, or rather nightmare, ended – see second map.

After that, the only thing Gaskell does is tell us is that the Sexton had come back to work on the Silverdale side of the bay. We do not know where the church is, apart from the fact that his relation, Jane, whose wedding party they attended, was buried there.

Gaskell, like Scott, gives us enough to make this area feel real, but it is fiction and she, even at best, is not good at geographical accuracy, so why should she be in her fiction!!!!!! This particular tragedy may not have happened but many like it surely did and she is certainly good at conveying those terrifying details.

So thank you again for writing to us about the area, it is lovely to hear about it first hand. I have spent many hours around the Lune in Caton with my children and many in Morecambe as a child, but I have never been to Silverdale. It is on my list……