William Lancaster Alexander (1821-1910)

William Lancaster Alexander

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupations: Landowner and Philanthropist

Ancestry and early life

William Lancaster Alexander was born on 15 January 1821 at Toxteth Park in Liverpool, the elder son of William Alexander (1787-1884) of Mount Vernon Green, Edge Hill, Liverpool, surveyor of shipping to the Liverpool Underwriters and later to the Liverpool Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. His mother was Margaret (1798-1871) the elder daughter of Joseph and Mary Hutchinson of Shatton Lodge, Embleton, near Lorton, Cumberland (married at Embleton in 1817).  Her sister Eleanor Hutchinson married Richard Harbord of Lorton Park, Lorton, another family with Liverpool connections. Joseph Hutchinson, was a Liverpool merchant and Mary Hutchinson, his wife, was the daughter of Lancaster Dodgson (d.1815) of Shatton, whose elder brother was the Revd Lancaster Dodgson (d.1828), incumbent of Embleton 1803-1818, then vicar of Brough, Westmorland from 1817.  From this family William Lancaster Alexander derived his second Christian name. As a boy William often visited his maternal grandparents at Shatton Lodge, a house which he later inherited and which had been in his maternal ancestor’s ownership since 1721.He lived there from the late 1850s until in 1870, he moved, with his wife, to Oakhill, High Lorton, a house owned by his wife’s family, the Armitsteads ( see below). In 1902, after her death, he bought Oakhill and continued to live there for the remaining eight years of his life.

The Alexander family originally came from Dumfriesshire but William Alexander senior was born in      Whitehaven, where his father John Alexander had married Ann, daughter of John and Elizabeth Kelsick of Whitehaven in 1786. The Kelsick family were a prominent merchant family with involvement in shipping and the West Indies. At the end of the 18th Century this family was of considerable importance and influence in the Whitehaven area.

William Lancaster Alexander was brought up in Liverpool and was educated at the local Vernon House Academy before being bound apprentice for seven years from 1836 to the Liverpool firm of Messrs Molyneaux, Taylor and Co, who were immensely wealthy brokers dealing in cotton, sugar and produce from the East Indies. As an example of their financial dealings, in 1868 the Molyneaux family was owed £55,000 (about £5 million today) by the bankrupt former mayor of Liverpool Robert Hutchinson (1861-2) who may have been related to the above-mentioned Hutchinsons of Lorton.  They were sufficiently wealthy to have weathered the crisis. It is unclear what William did immediately after he completed his apprenticeship in 1844 but he immediately became a freeman of the City of Liverpool. He may have remained with Molyneaux, Taylor and Co. for a time before either joining a rival firm, assisted his father or branched out on his own.  In 1851, William was aged thirty-one, unmarried and living with his parents in Liverpool. His younger brother Kelsick Alexander (1825-1890), and his sister Mary (1824-1908), both then unmarried, were also living there. Both brothers were described as ‘unemployed’ but at this time this probably simply meant that they were of independent means.

The move from Liverpool to Cumberland

By 1861 the two brothers and their sister had moved permanently to Cumberland and were all married.   In 1857, W.L. Alexander had married Frances (1815-1890), a daughter of the Revd. Richard Armitstead (1765-1821) JP, DL of Whitehaven, whose wife was Agnes (1769-1853) eldest daughter of William Lewthwaite (1740-1809) JP, of The Cupola, Whitehaven (later the Town Hall) and Broadgate, Millom.  They had no children. Frances's brother, the Revd William Armitstead (1799-1870), a bachelor, was the incumbent of Lorton from 1825 to 1864 and lived at Oakhill, Lorton which he shared with his unmarried sister Mary. This house had been built in about 1860 by John Wilson of Birkbank, Mosser but he sold it soon afterwards to the Armitsteads and built himself another substantial house called Fairfield, where he lived for the rest of his life. Both houses were important enough to be mentioned by name on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey for the county in the 1860s and in subsequent editions.

Kelsick Alexander married Deborah Slee (b.1834) in 1852, in Edinburgh.  She was the daughter of William Slee of Stainton, Penrith, yeoman (d.1854) and the couple settled in Papcastle, Kelsick later becoming the chairman of the Cockermouth Board of Guardians. Mary Alexander, the only sister of William and Kelsick, married in 1855 the above-mentioned John Wilson (1823-1917) JP of Fairfield, Lorton, a local landowner who left many descendants, some of whom are in Canada.  Their father, old William Alexander, was ninety-six when he died in 1884 leaving the equivalent of £4.8 million today.  Kelsick returned to live in Liverpool, where he was a ship-owner. When he died in 1890 he left a fortune of £60,304, now about £4m.  Between them, the Alexanders and Wilsons owned about 1,400 acres in and around Lorton and William Lancaster Alexander continued to buy up land until his death. William and his brother-in-law John Wilson became local magistrates as well as immersing themselves in many local, charitable and philanthropic works, strongly supported by their respective wives.

Philanthropic and public work

William Lancaster Alexander was a member of the Board of Guardians of Cockermouth Workhouse and was for nearly fifty years a trustee of Embleton School. As treasurer in the 1890s he raised £744 towards the building of the Master's house, contributing himself over £1,000 to this project and other school buildings. In addition, he was chairman of the Cockermouth and Papcastle School Board, gave most of the £1,800 to finance the building of Fairfield Girls’ School in Cockermouth and was also for fifty years the chairman of the managers and trustees of Lorton school, to which he also contributed a great deal of time and money. He and his wife regularly presented prizes to successful school children and, although they had no children of their own, they liked to have young children around them and each summer held a garden party for them at Oakhill. William’s brother-in-law John Wilson also played his part as chairman of the governors of Lorton School for fifty-six years and also as superintendent of Lorton Sunday School for thirty years.

From 1878 William Lancaster Alexander and John Wilson employed about a hundred professional navvies, many from Ireland, to construct an extensive and expensive drainage system in the northern reaches of the vale of Lorton and reclaim some two hundred acres of low-lying land. The Lorton main drain transformed the farmland through which it passed, including Alexander’s own property; he was the driving force behind the scheme and probably largely financed it. He persuaded all the landowners between Lorton and Stanger to agree on the construction of the drain, which was 36 inches in diameter and ran for 2,500 yards. The expense must have been colossal but it prevented seasonal flooding. It is still in use today, in the winter months sometimes carrying as much as eight million gallons of drain water each day away from the farmlands north of Lorton.  As part of the drainage works, Alexander built at his own expense a bridge over the ford at Embleton, installed at least fifteen drinking troughs on field boundaries in the area for cattle, sheep and horses and at least one trough at the roadside. Some of these had plaques and inscriptions on them which are still readable. He was an early advocate of national insurance contributions and old age pensions for all, long before they were introduced. He and his wife were great benefactors to Lorton and were known locally for their care of the poor and their generous contributions to the church and other local institutions. He was also chairman of Lorton Parish Council for many years and a strong advocate of legislation in local government, especially in education. He was fortunate enough to inherit considerable wealth from his father, as well as from his Hutchinson and Dodgson relations, ploughing much of it back for the benefit of the young and poor of Lorton. His wife who held her own property in both Cumberland and Yorkshire was also a generous local benefactress. The presentations and testimonials William received in his lifetime and his obituary in the local newspaper provide ample evidence that he was both a generous benefactor and a well-respected local figure in the community.

Mrs Alexander died on the 17 September 1890 at Oakhill, Lorton, aged eighty-five. Her will appointed her husband and ‘my friend John Stirling (DCB; q.v.) of Fairburn (Ross and Cromarty) and Ennismore Gardens, London’ as her executors and revealed that she owned one half of an estate called Winder in the parishes of Lamplugh and Arlecdon, together with its mines and minerals as well as land and premises at Arncliffe, Halton Gill and Litton in Yorkshire, the home of her Armitstead ancestors.

The later years

After his wife’s death Alexander continued to play a prominent part in local affairs. He was a JP on the Cockermouth bench from 1877, acting as chairman from 1907 and was still on the bench in his ninetieth year when he died on the 31 March 1910.  (In this long lived family, his father had died at 96). William left the equivalent in today's money of £5.4 million, together with land and farms in the Lorton area of some seven hundred acres.  He and his wife were buried together in Lorton churchyard, where their gravestone is still visible.

The Alexanders, with their relations the Armitsteads, the Wilsons of Fairfield and the Harbords of Lorton Park (Mrs Eleanor Harbord was the maternal aunt of W.L. Alexander), became the leading families in Lorton during the second half of the 19th century. William Lancaster Alexander was generally acknowledged as the squire of Lorton, being so described in a poem written by John Bolton, a local schoolmaster. Although the Dixon family of Rheda, Frizington, had bought ‘the big house’, Lorton Hall, in 1882, the primary social leadership in the village remained with William Alexander until 1910, when the Dixons became pre-eminent.

The long obituary of William Lancaster Alexander in the West Cumberland Times spoke of him as always unselfish, sympathetic and generous, every act of his life appearing to be due to his consuming desire to help and uplift humanity. Above all his passion for improving the lot of the poor and the education of the local children was backed up not only by practical help and advice but also by large amounts of his private fortune. He has been described as the archetypal Victorian improver and philanthropist, whose money, vision and guidance have left a lasting impression on Lorton and the immediate area. He certainly changed the lives of many local people and he is still remembered in the village. His fine oil portrait, by George Spencer Watson (1869-1934) RA, was presented to him in 1901 and is still hanging in Lorton School. The author possesses silhouettes of some of the Armitstead family, whilst the Cockermouth Heritage Centre holds photographs of him, his parents, his wife, his brother and sister and their spouses. Recently, McCarthy and Stone built a retirement complex called Lancaster Court, in Isel Road, Cockermouth, next to the new hospital, stating that the name ‘honours a local philanthropist William Lancaster Alexander who used his wealth to significantly shape and improve the lives of those in Cockermouth and the surrounding areas’.


  • My main source of information has been One man's life in the Vale of Lorton, by Mick Jane (2nd edn, 2010) who kindly allowed me to draw on his work and provided answers to further points.
  • Charles Lambrick, chairman of the Lorton and Derwent Fells Local History Society, has also been of great help by drawing attention to relevant articles in the Society’s Journals.
  • Census Returns for England and Wales, 1841-1901
  • Denman, Derek, Lorton Park in the Nineteenth Century, Lorton and Derwent Fells Local History Society, Journal no.45, Feb. 2010, 7-19
  • Lorton and Derwent Fells Local History Society, Journals, no.53, 19-20  ( re Lorton Vale drainage) and No 56, 3-7 ( re Lorton School)
  • Obituary of William Lancaster Alexander, West Cumberland Times, April 1910
  • Powell, Jim, Losing the Thread; Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War, 2021, 160
  • Return of Owners of Land 1873, Cumberland
  • T. Bulmer and Co., History, Topography and Directory of West Cumberland, T. Snape, Preston, 1883, 488
  • Walford, Edward, County Families of the United Kingdom, Chatto and Windus, London, 1904, 12
  • Whitehaven Archives, DWM/294, deposit from Waugh and Musgrave, solicitors of Cockermouth, 1645-1957, ‘The Alexander/ Armitstead family of Oak Hill, Lorton and Shatton Lodge, Embleton, 1847-1914’. Also see YDLEW 6/5 and DBH 23/2 for wills, probates and business records of both families.
  • Portrait of William Lancaster Alexander photographed by Charles Lambrick by kind permission of Olivia Harrison, head-teacher of Lorton School.