Cumberland & Westmorland Ancient and Modern

Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern, written in 1857, is still of interest today.

Cumbrian Characters looks at its author, and Cumbrian place names.

A fascinating read

‘Human sacrifices were perhaps altogether unknown in Cumbria’. 

The intial reaction of ‘phew, that’s a relief’ is tempered by ‘hang on, he says PERHAPS’. 

The author of that line was J Sullivan, in Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern, The People, Dialect, Superstitions and Customs. A snappily titled book published in 1857.

J Sullivan also claims Cumbrian place names starting with ‘ewe’ or ‘hu’ imply a site where sheep were burned as a sacrifice. (Based on ‘the Celtic aodh, pronounced hu, is a synonym for sacred fire and sheep’). Though my reaction to that is that maybe the place names just relate to sheep!

Are the ‘bells’ in Cumbria from the festival of Beltane? The National Trust doesn’t THINK so in the case of Catbells .

Cumbrian place names – far from clear-cut

But then some pretty key places in Cumbria have controversy over their names.

Penrith sounds like the Welsh ‘pen’ (= head) and ‘rhyd’ (=ford). But as there was more than one Cumbric language, it’s said it could also mean ‘red town’.

As for Carlisle… ‘caer’ in Welsh = ‘fort’. So Caer… whose fort? Caerleyl? Leol? Luel?

The Romans called it Luguvalium (the ‘valium’ relating to ‘wall’). I’ve always imagined the Lugu bit was from the Celtic god. 

But I have also seen suggested that the ‘lugu’ bit was from another Celtic word for ‘fort’… so maybe it wasn’t anyone’s fort as such, but actually ‘Fort Fort’!

After all, Torpenhow is claimed be Hill Hill Hill!

See here for Carlisle. And here for Torpenhow.

J Sullivan, the author

So who was J Sullivan, the author of Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern (etc)?

Well, for a start, he was Jereremiah Sullivan. He was a polyglot and a teacher. I am sticking with ‘J Sullivan,’ though, to help internet searchers.

At Christmas 1854, J Sullivan advertised in the Kendal Mercury that:

J Sullivan has the honour of informing habitants of Kendal that at the close of the Christmas vacation, he will commence a day school for instruction in the usual course of English education, drawing, mathematics and the classical and modern languages, on moderate terms.

The day school was ‘in the room lately occupied as the library, in New Street, Kendal’. 

In March 1855, for the sum of one shilling, you could buy a copy of his The People and Dialect of Cumberland and Westmorland. Which had started out as articles he’d had published in the Mercury.

The full version was announced the following year. J Sullivan hoped to ‘collect all that can now be rescued from oblivion’ (on the topics or superstitions and customs) and create an interest for others to investigate them further. It came out priced four shillings.


The reviews of Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern were positive, if not exactly glowing. 

‘An interesting contribution to Cumbrian literature’ – Literary Gazette

‘There are several points on which we differ with Mr Sullivan, but as they are of minor importance, we shall not stay to question the correctness of his views… it cannot fail to become a work of reference, and on many points, an authority’ – Ulverstone Advertiser

‘It has something in it for both general reader and antiquarian inquirer, and what is written for the former is very well adapted to make him of the latter’ – Athenaeum.

The Gentleman’s Magazine chided J Sullivan for his ‘tendency to seek for derivations too exclusively in the Irish language’ (Catbells, anyone? And he also thought Temple Sowerby was named for some lost stone circle) But the Magazine otherwise considered it ‘a most suggestive and interesting book’.

J Sullivan’s untimely death

J Sullivan died in 1862. He was just 41. The Mercury’s obituary says his book was very popular, and had been reviewed by many of the leading periodicals and newspapers of the day.

These included Blackwood magazine, which has a global circulation and gave the book no fewer than 26 columns in its March 1858 edition.

‘Of course, the Press was not unanimous in pronouncing the work as one which evinced a marvellous profundity of philosophical research and linguistic science’.

The Mercury said it ‘believed’ J Sullivan had a considerable knowledge of ‘the ancient languages of the East’ and was ‘quite familiar’ with Hebrew, and the classical literature of Greece and Rome. He was well-read in Italian, French, and Spanish, and fluent in German. 

He also knew some of the ‘Scandinavian stock’ languages, and ‘Cossack and Hungarian had not escaped him’. He had also ‘attempted Chinese’.

He had worked for the ‘periodical press’ in London, before moving to Penrith, where he taught at a private school and gave outside tuition. This included being a private tutor to the children of a Dr Nicholson. 

When that came to an end, in 1855, he’d moved to Kendal. But his new school there (has to be the one in the former library) wasn’t an immediate success. So he returned to the private school and tuition in Penrith. 

Ill-health and modest means

Poor J Sullivan had ‘the misfortune to lose a leg’, seemingly while in London, and ‘was tortured’ by rheumatism.

His health had completely broken down (the Mercury reported) about a fortnight before his death.

The Mercury also thought that if ‘the many gentlemen possessing influence in high quarters and who knew his circumstances had put their shoulders to the wheel, it might not now be our painful duty to record his death in the prime of life.’

Meanwhile, the Penrith Observer said that remarkably, he’d only taken up modern languages in the mid 1850s, and had been limited by the time contraints of work, a paucity of libraries, and his poor health.

The funeral

The turn-out was said to be large and respectable – but would have been larger had news of his death been more widely known. 

The boys whom he had taught assembled in the schoolroom. When ‘the remains of their late teacher were brought out’, they walked two abreast, with his relations, to the church and to the grave. 

Mourners included R G Hindson, whose son and daughter were thought to have been the last private pupils J Sullivan had attended. And Miss Simpson, daughter of John Simpson, banker, who had also been one of his pupils. 

Jeremiah Sullivan was born in Ireland. He never married. In 1861, in Penrith, his married sister Joanna Hill was with him on the night of the census. 

There is a reference to ‘his poor bereaved mother’ in the Observer. 1861 lists her as Joanna Sullivan, 73 (former stationer).

In 1851, Johanna (sic) Shannon was at Townhead. With her were daughter Mary Shannon (‘poor relief, hawker’), daughter Johanna Hill, son-in-law Samuel Hill (labourer) and grandchildren John Shannon, 9, and Joanna Phelan, 9. 

‘A prophet without honour’

The Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, and Penrith Literary Chronicle, in May 1858, described J Sullivan thus.

‘Who is that pale, thoughtful, companionless man, with intellectual forehead and penetrating eye, that we so often meet on our way to Stag Stones, snatching half an hour at noon from the duties of his academy…?

It was, of course, J Sullivan, author of Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern:

‘a man that someday will be appreciated as he ought to be, even in these counties’

Cumberland & Westmorland, Ancient and Modern lives on.

Cumbrian Characters is happy to show some appreciation to its author.