The George Washington connection to the north Lancashire village of Warton
PUBLISHED: 00:21 09 September 2013
The tiny Lancashire village of Warton has a major trans-Atlantic claim to fame
Every village has its tale to tell, but few can match Warton near Carnforth in terms of the names involved. It’s a quiet sort of spot with some pretty stone cottages, a few dating back to the 17th century. Warton’s name probably signifies that a watch was kept here in more troubled times, but where Reivers once rampaged day-trippers now pass through heading for Silverdale. The layout retains reminders of the medieval past: long thin gardens behind some homes once burgage plots.
The ruined rectory – effectively a manor house – draws some visitors, as do the two sizeable pubs, walkers and nature lovers heading for or returning from the reserves at nearby Warton Crag slaking their thirsts.
But every July 4th those visitors may spot an incongruous sight: an ancient English parish church flying the US flag. Shifting from spiritual to spirituous they’ll notice the pub opposite has an uncommon name, The George Washington. This is Warton’s big story: it was for centuries home to the Washington family.
‘The Washingtons were good beneficiaries to this building, they are said to have funded the tower in the 15th century,’ says Father Damian Porter of St Oswald’s in Warton. ‘Several generations of the family lived here.’
One John de Wessington ventured into Lancashire in the mid-13th century, the family previously having been associated with County Durham; Lawrence Washington in 1300 was apparently the first to live in Warton. Evidence of their residence includes a Washington seal on a Duchy of Lancaster document from 1401 to be found in the Public Records Office.
On my visit a party of blue badge tourist guides from Cumbria was touring the church as part of their continuing professional development: ‘When you are coming up the motorway, especially if you are meeting a cruise liner in Liverpool, or bringing American visitors up from Manchester Airport, it is something you can talk about, the Washington connection,’ says one of their number, Valerie Abraham.
They ask after the Washington crest, a much-eroded stone now kept inside the tower whose outside it previously adorned. In heraldic terms the shield contains three mullets in chief and two bars, or in layman’s language three stars above two stripes – the supposed origin of the American flag. The stars can still be easily discerned on the weathered stone, the stripes however are barely visible.
Over the road from the church within its beautifully kept graveyard – that thoroughfare with the fittingly American name Main Street – are the ruins of the vast 13th century rectory where doubtless many Washingtons were welcomed in its heyday, when Warton was a local market centre. It’s a lovely backwater these days, the streets of grey-stone cottages little troubled by traffic.
The family connection lasted long after George Washington’s direct ancestors left the village for Oxfordshire, and in 1659 for Virginia. ‘Thomas Washington was rector here in the 19th century, he died in 1823 and you can see his gravestone outside,’ says Father Damian. What must Thomas have thought of his distant rebellious cousin after whom a capital city was named? The stone is shared with his aunt, Mrs Elizabeth Washington, whose death in 1751 spared her the dilemma of pride in or prejudice against The Father of His Country who humiliated hers.
‘We get quite a few American visitors who come here partly because of the Washington link,’ continues Father Damian. ‘It’s a local tradition that we put out an American flag on Independence Day – it was sent over from the USA as a gift and it’s flown every year on the fourth of July.’
Local legend has it that the flag was flown over the White House, or possibly the Capitol Building, before it crossed the Atlantic.
Malcolm Brown, one of Father Porter’s parishioners, said: ‘In the Second World War American servicemen made pilgrimages here to see the place.’
And Father Damian added: ‘On significant anniversaries we get American visitors in numbers.’ The visitors’ book provides proof of the interest, most recently with travellers from Boston and Philadelphia. They cannot be disappointed with the fine old church, nor too the quaint village it serves and the countryside surrounding it, the limestone cliff of Warton Crag a dramatic counterpoint to the green landscape.
‘A few have said they would send a donation on their return to the USA, but sadly we have yet to receive any money,’ says the priest. ‘If any wealthy Americans did wish to donate to the upkeep of the church it would be most welcome.’