The Selkirk’s home town
Beckermet is a small village in West Cumberland, just south of St Bees Head. Today it is overshadowed by the neighbouring village of Sellafield or Calder Hall, site of Britain’s first atomic power station and atomic fuel reprocessing plant, so that Beckermet has become virtually a dormitory village for the workers at Sellafield.
The centre of the village is the church of St John. This was rebuilt in the 19th century and when it was rebuilt, carved stones of the Viking era were found in the foundations and are now preserved in the church. These are much studied by students of Anglian sculpture and this is how Beckermet is best known.
Here is a view of the village street from the churchyard showing also the main village shop.
The churchyard contains many interesting tombstones of the Selkirk family from which something of the family history can be worked out. This is the principal Selkirk tombstone, that of Isaac Selkirk who was William’s father, and his wife Betty, who lived at Coneygarth, the Selkirk family home (as we shall see below).
Several of the children died early. My grandfather Joseph was the youngest and is therefore right at the bottom, but my father remembered going to Beckermet in his youth and staying with auntie Ruth, four from the bottom, who was then living at Coneygarth.
There is a bit of a mystery as to why Uncle William’s name was not added on the tombstone. I suspect that for some reason or other he did not want his name there, but that after his death, two lines were added to the plinth at the bottom recording his name and that he is buried at Slaugham in Sussex.
However the most interesting name is that of John Gunson Selkirk, who also has a separate memorial stone to the side. This says that he died in Spain and was originally buried out there at Rivadella, on the north coast. Now family mythology says that Uncle William got his big break when his elder brother, who was a mining engineer, died in Spain, and Uncle William went out there and took his place. However John Gunson Selkirk died in 1900; yet the article in Lords and Commons quoted on a separate page, was published in 1899 and tells us that by this time Uncle William had already spent 20 months as a geologist in East Africa, and before that had spent several years in Spain, had ridden across Mexico in search of gold, and had twice visited West Africa. When he describes the Victoria Falls he also lets out that he had seen the Niagara Falls, so he had also been up on the American and Canadian border: not bad achievements for a 30-year old! But it does mean that when John Gunson Selkirk died, William already had plenty of practical experience? Were his early visits to Spain as an assistant to his brother from whom he learnt to be a mining engineer? Did he, on the strength of this, go out as a geologist to the Cape to Cairo railway? And when John Gunson unexpectedly died, did Uncle William hurry back to Spain (as the article suggests), to take over from John as a fully fledged mining expert?
Incidentally the middle name Gunson is interesting as there are many other Gunsons buried in the churchyard: I think his mother Betty was a Gunson, and clearly the Selkirks and Gunsons often intermarried.
And here is a photo of Coneygarth, the name clearly written over the door. It was clearly the Selkirk family home, and was one of the better houses in the village. Today it is very spick and span, and beautifully maintained. The atomic power station has made a great deal of difference to the area, having bought work and money and a new influx of highly trained scientists which have made a great difference in bringing wealth and liveliness to what had been a somewhat forgotten area.
According to my father, the discovery of iron ores in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a boom in West Cumberland, with the towns of Workington and Maryport becoming leading manufacturers of railway rails at Workington and ships at Maryport. (Whitehaven was a coal-mining town). However they declined in the 19th century following the discovery of the Bessemer iron smelting process. The advantage of the West Cumberland iron ore was that it was very pure, but the development of the Bessemer process removed the impurities from other sources, so West Cumberland lost its competitive advantage and because of its remoteness, it declined from the early 19th century onwards. The advent of the atomic power station has done something to revive it.
On to William Selkirk in Spain