The Sorceries – and old traditions in Carlisle

An account, printed in 1842, of the rescue of notorious reiver Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle in 1569 includes: On the 13th of April, they crossed the Eden two hours before daybreak, “at the Stoniebank, beneath Cairleil brig,” and he halted his men on the banks of the Caldew, near the Sorceries. When they came to try their ladders, they were found to be too short; but they made a breach in some part of the wall…

The Sorceries was basically open space, used by the public and others for big celebrations, near Sheepmount where the athletics stadium is now.

Pasche eggs

At Easter 1841, children in the Sorceries took part in the ‘ancient custom’ of rolling their pasche eggs and exhibiting their finery. Older children found ‘ample amusement’ in the old game of ‘drop my handkerchief’.

The consumption of eggs was enormous, and in the evening, there was dancing.

As a child, I remember the custom of boiling eggs in water with onion skins, to create a marbled effect on the shell. I thought it was clever, but much preferred the chocolate ones I’d be given on Easter Sunday!

Sorceries, pasche egg, Wetheriggs pottery Penrith
This pasche egg didn’t turn out very well! The egg cup is Wetheriggs pottery

Drop my handkerchief’ wasn’t a game played in my school playground, though.

Rewind to Easter 1801 being celebrated in the Sorceries. A field preacher was reported to have climbed a tree, ‘in the middle of the field’, to address a potential audience. Only to be drowned out by the excitement of an impromptu game of football.

On parade

At the end of the year, the Carlisle division of the Edenside Rangers assembled on the Sorceries, ‘behind the castle’, for a shooting contest.

A list of lands and tolls to be let in Carlisle, in September 1805, includes the Castle Mill, and the Outer and Inner Sorceries. You could also bid for the manure (in lots) arising from the streets within the liberties of the city.


The Cumberland and Eskdale Wards Local Militia were put through their paces on the Sorceries in May 1810. The militia were a defensive force of able-bodied men balloted from lists compiled annually.

The Sorceries as an escape route

There was an exciting chase in 1816 when a thief called Robert Hamilton escaped from custody in a pub in Rickergate. When he legged it, passers-by Mr R Lowry of Stanwix, and John Steel of Cockermouth, gave chase across the Bitts. Hamilton tried to clear the dam dividing the Bitts from the Sorceries, but landed in the river.

One John Tweddle, fleeing arrest and pursued by a crowd, in 1822, ran into the Sorceries and into the River Eden. Where he stood, up to his neck for 15 minutes, till someone fetched a boat. By the time he was brought before magistrates, he’d been in the river almost an hour and was shivering dreadfully. It was November, not a great time for a dip.

He was luckier than debtor John Pattinson, who drowned in the Eden in a similar flight from justice in 1857.

The 1817 Easter celebrations refer to the Sorceries as being ‘several pleasant fields in the vicinity of this city, on the banks of the Caldew and Eden’.

Land ownership thereabouts seems to have been divided between ‘the corporation’ and the Duke of Devonshire, with the latter (I think this Duke) passing the Sorceries over to the former at some point

In 1819 two ‘hardened women’ – Mary Graham, and Jane Jackson Cowen – were cleared of picking the pockets of farmer William Hodgson while walking with him in the Sorceries. Hodgson had been too drunk to be sure how his £10 in banknotes had gone missing.

Tan pits, gravel pits and slaughterhouses

When debtor called William Sewell, of Irishgate, did a runner in 1849 (ending in the Caldew), he ran ‘past the castle and through the tan pits.’

In 1885, there are references to there being unsightly gravel pits on the Sorceries. And although these holes were being filled in with rubbish (lovely!), they naturally also filled with rain and perhaps ground water. In August 1885, a child named Percy Johnston, aged six or seven, fell in one and drowned.

In December 1885, a bunch of butchers petitioned the council to site a public slaughterhouse on the Sorceries. The site was deemed a good one because it was near the outfall of sewage into the river.

At that time, there were 12 slaughterhouses in Botchergate district, seven in the central district and four in Caldewgate.

Park life

The Easter celebrations weren’t all innocent fun. In 1846, ‘drunken fellows’ tripped up young folk playing a game of ‘ring’. The complainant blamed the presence of tents selling strong liquor, and the police for doing nothing. Two years later, the town council decided to act on the issue.

Fast-forward to the end of the century and it was decided to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee by turning the Bitts and the Sorceries into ‘something called a park’. Objectors felt the natural beauty of the meadow and surrounging walks would be ‘disfigured’ by ornamental shrubberies. Similar proposals in 1890 had fallen by the wayside, due partly to the Sorceries being let out for grazing, but also due to the fact the ground was feared too soft for constant heavy use.

How did it get its unusual name?

One theory is that ‘Sorceries’ was a corruption of the French word ‘saussaie’ – a plantation of willows.

Given that the name Willow Holme still exists in Carlisle today, it’s a decent theory, but I’d be interested to hear any other explanation. And why the Bitts is so called, come to that.

First published January 2018. Updated to remove broken link