Ayton's Maryport circa 1815


Richard Ayton, early 19th Century traveller, continues his description of life along the West Cumberland coast in the year 1813-14. This sixth and final extract describes the town of Maryport, and makes some pointed observations on the careless excavation and neglect of the remains of the Roman encampment there.


'Maryport: a very small harbour ill-suited to its wealth and commercial importance'

The largest and most respectable part of the town of Maryport is very pleasantly situated on the high ground, beneath which are a few streets on a flat bordering the harbour at the mouth of the small river Ellen. This place has risen up entirely within the last sixty years, supported by the coal trade, and now contains full five thousand inhabitants. The upper town is well built, and regularly laid out, the houses neat, and the streets airy and spacious; but the lower division is as wretched as may be, betraying a condition of more shabbiness and filthiness than one should have supposed it could have fallen into in half a century. The town has no concern in any manufacture of cotton, and a large factory was raised, the first seen in this part of the country; but - the building now stands with broken windows, empty and deserted, a melancholy memorial to the badness of the times.

Ill-suited harbour
The harbour of Maryport is very small and ill-suited to the wealth and commercial importance of the place. The channel is so narrow in parts, that two vessels can scarcely lie in it abreast; and the ship-builders are obliged to launch their vessels into the water sideways. It is protected against the swell of the sea by two wooden breakwaters, constructed at the entrance, which shew by various gaps and fractures of power of the body they have to withstand, and the insufficiency of the materials of which they are composed. Violent remonstrances have been made to the lord of the manor by the ship-owners concerning the inconvenience and insecurity of the harbour, but he has not attended to them, and some of them have consequently deserted - the port.

I heard but, a whisper of these matters, and cannot pretend to decide between the parties. Mr Senhouse is lord of the manor, and the sole shipper of coals from Maryport, and it is certainly not very probable that be would refuse to comply with any reasonable requisitions, so much involving his own interest.

143 vessels
The port has a hundred and forty-three vessels, of 16,840 tons burthen, belonging to it; twenty-one of which, bearing 4125 tons, are employed in t b e West indian. North American, and Baltic trades, but do not return with their cargoes to Maryport. There is depth of water sufficient in the harbour in spring tides for. a vessel of two hundred and fifty tons; but one of that burthen would scarcely venture to approach it in its present condition, except in the very finest weather.
M a r y p o r t derives some dignity and interest from its situation close to a Roman station, the Volantium of ancient geographers, though there are doubts concerning the correctness of this name - playthings for more punctilious antiquarians than myself. The spot was judiciously chosen combining many natural advantages to recommend it as a military post. The town is flanked on the south side by a lofty hill called the Castle Hill, which stands detached and rises abruptly on all sides. There are no remains of any building upon it, but an artificial mount has been raised upon it, guarded by a wide and deep fosse at the base. The area of the summit is about an hundred yards in circumference, and divided into two parts by a trench. It commands the harbour, and an extensive view along the coast and over the country.

Roman encampment
Whether this simple fortification was the work of the Romans, I cannot say, and I know not that anyone else has said; but on the high ground to the northward of the town there is indisputable a Roman encampment, and mere distinctly mark than any that I have every seen. It is a square inclosure, about eighty yards in diameter, surrounded by a low bank and a ditch. The bank is now covered with earth and grass, but is strengthened, I believe, by a foundation of stones.

There is an entrance to each front, in one of which some walling is discovered, the stones of which are of great size, and laid together without cement, but squared and smoothed, and very nicely - and regularly arranged. There are no traces of any regular building within the enclosed space, but it is covered with heaps of stones recently dug up, among which a rich store of curious remains was discovered.

Careless excavation
It is to be regretted that this interesting ground has been opened in a very coarse and bungling manner - with as little care for consequences as is manifest by a schoolboy when he breaks his top to pieces with a puerile curiosity to see what it is made of. It was not an Herculaneum or a Pompeii that was to be brought to light, but it was something at least which was the work of the same illustrious people, equally venerable on the score of antiquity, and particularly recommended to our estimation from its creation in our own soil. No extraordinary caution was required in removing the earth and extricating the ruins, but the little that was necessary was not bestowed, the business having been submitted to the pickaxe of a common labourer, who rooted up altars and columns with no consideration, as was natural enough, for their value, or the injury that they might suffer under his rough hands.

Rude sculpture
Most of the remains are deposited at Nether Hall, the seat of Mr Senhouse, about a mile to the east of Maryport. The house was undergoing some repairs and alterations when I was there, and the fragments of Roman art lay tumbled about the premises: altars and inscribed tablets, and scraps of sculpture, mixed in singular confusion with stones and mortar and other litter of modern masonry.

Pennant has prevented the necessity of my giving any particular description of the remains. They consist principally of altars and tables of stone, some square and some columnar, with inscriptions, all composed of white freestone. I noticed some rude effort in sculpture, representations of men on horseback, resembling, in point of truth of design, the figures which one sees cut on the benches in public walks. These were probably done by the common soldiers; and who could look a them without interest, on adverting to the state of this country when these trivial works were first left in it, to their living down to this distant age, and being brought to light at this period of our grandeur and power, to be contemplated like the most magnificent works of their genius and industry, as the memorials of a people who live only in history!

Elegant altars
Some of the altars are of very elegant forms, and there are some specimens of sculpture of a better kind than those which I have just mentioned; I remarked particularly a warrior on horseback tramping on a fallen enemy, slightly finished, but with spirit and considerable force of effect. Though none of these works give us any idea of Roman art in its highest style of excellence, yet they must surely be regarded as valuable relics, and are worthy of being carefully preserved. The British Museum opens its cabinets to curiosities of a less interesting description and might spare a corner for some of these slighted remains without any violence to the purposes of its institution.