To mark American Independence Day historian Dr Sam Edwards traces the family history of the first president of the USA to a small Lancashire village
On the very northern edge of Lancashire, beneath the cliffs of a rocky crag once quarried for its stone, sits the small village of Warton.
On a clear day, the views stretch far and wide, to Ingleborough in the east, to Morecambe Bay in the west, to the Bowland Fells in the south, and to Farleton and Hutton Roof in the north.
People have lived here for centuries – in the scrub on the summit of the crag sits the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.
The village itself is a little more recent, but some of the houses are of a venerable vintage, whilst across the road from St Oswald’s Church – built in the late 15th century – stands a ruined medieval rectory, now maintained by English Heritage.
It is a place steeped in the history of region and county.
But it is also a place steeped in another history – of the United States and the United Kingdom, of what Sir Winston Churchill famously called the ‘special relationship’.
The story reaches back to 17th century Virginia, when two brothers with ties to Purleigh in Essex, John and Lawrence Washington, stepped ashore to make a home in the New World.
Beyond the perilous journey they braved across the Atlantic, the brothers were not remarkable.
Thousands of English migrants sailed west in search of a future; John and Lawrence were just two among the multitude.
Yet their journey did assume new significance a century and a half later. For in addition to their hopes and dreams they also took to Virginia their name – Washington. It was one of their descendants who later led the American colonies into rebellion against the British Empire. This was George Washington, first President of the United States of America.
Washington himself knew little of his English ancestry.
When asked about his pedigree he was heard to say that he thought his family ‘came from some one of the northern counties of England; but whether from Lancashire, Yorkshire, or one still more northerly, I do not precisely remember’.
Without knowing it, Washington was close to the truth. This was soon revealed by a man named Sir Isaac Heard, who trawled through dusty documents in the 1790s and discovered that the first President did have ‘northern’ roots.
By ancestry he was a Lancashire man, with family connections going back several centuries to Warton-in-Lonsdale. In time, the other pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The father of John and Lawrence, it was revealed, had been Rector of Purleigh, but their family ties were to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. In turn, this branch of the Washington family was shown to come from Warton and nearby
By the 1890s, the lineage of George Washington had been confirmed: the family had moved from Warton, to Sulgrave, to Purleigh, to
These discoveries came at an important moment in Anglo-American relations. After the War of Independence and then the War of 1812 (during which British troops burned the White House), there remained lots of tensions between the former colonies and ‘mother country’.
Some of these tensions lingered into the 19th century. Even during the American Civil War (when cotton still tied the American South and Lancashire) disputes remained, and British
intervention seemed possible at one point. However, as the 19th century drew to a close, tensions gave way to a new age of friendly relations. This was an era of change – of industrialisation, the growth of cities, and of the emergence of new rivalries, especially an increasingly powerful Germany.
And so this was also an era in which Britons and Americans looked for new allies. Many among them liked to say that they were all ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and all of the same ‘family’. Into this moment came the confirmation that, by ancestry, George Washington was English, and his family Lancastrian.
Even the very buildings of Warton proved the point. On the main street, looking out on the road which runs north to the Yealands, stands ‘Washington House’, a plaque above the door declares the fact. And on the church tower at St. Oswald’s, workmen making repairs in the mid-1880s discovered a carving of the Washington coat of arms when a chunk of plaster fell away.
As more than one commentator later remarked, the details of the family crest (featuring stars and bars) even suggested it might have inspired the very flag of the United States, an idea frequently revisited in later years.
By the early 20th century, therefore, the connections between Warton and Washington were well-established, although not sufficiently to the liking of one energetic antiquarian – Thomas Pape.
A schoolmaster by profession, Pape’s main hunting ground was Newcastle-
under-Lyme. The only other place he explored with the same zeal was Warton, around which he often tramped in the years before the First World War.
In 1913 he published his findings in a small volume titled Warton and George Washington’s Ancestors.
This was a timely work, for the great and good in both the United States and Britain were becoming increasingly interested in Washington’s ancestry. In London, plans were afoot for a statue to him (it was finally unveiled in 1921).
In Northamptonshire, a specially formed organisation purchased Sulgrave Manor, the Washington home, and opened it as an Anglo-American ‘shrine’.
By 1932, the Bicentennial of Washington’s birth, these various links ensured there were lots of commemorations in Britain. Warton even played host to a visit by expatriate Americans living in the north of England, together with consular officials from Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool.
They were conducted through the churchyard by the vicar, placed flags by the Washington coat of arms, and laid wreaths on the tomb of Warton’s last Washingtons.
According to Corabelle A. Holland, the wife of the American Consul General in England, the ‘pilgrimage was a great success’.
Just a decade later, such pilgrimages became increasingly common: the Second World War brought tens of thousands of Americans to Lancashire (many based at Warton’s namesake to the south, near Preston). By 1944, groups of American GIs were turning up in Warton each and every Monday to see the Washington relics.
Once there, many were also enlightened by the redoubtable Thomas Pape, who later published a new history in 1948.
By then, he had added an important piece of information further deepening Warton’s links to the United States.
It turned out Warton was not only the ancient home of the Washingtons, it was also the old abode of the Kytsons, ancestors of a family by the name of Churchill. By the 1940s, as one of that very name – Winston – strove to build the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, Warton therefore found a new
This was the village where the Washington, Kytson and Churchill clans became joined. This was the village where the roots of the special relationship grew deep into the very soil.
Such was the background to the events of July 1976, the Bicentennial of American Independence.
As Britons burned in a now legendary heatwave, residents of Warton spent 10 days celebrating American Independence, with hundreds of visiting Americans contributing to proceedings.
Even today, the connection remains important. The stars and stripes flies atop St Oswald’s each July 4, and American tourists still call in to pay their respects.
And this year, with President Trump set to visit Britain just nine days after the July 4 celebrations, the various ties of the ‘special relationship’ will no doubt again be the subject of close attention.
* Dr Sam Edwards, is senior lecturer in American History at Manchester Metropolitan University and director of Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage.