Mike Royden's Local History Pages

Medieval Roby - From the 10th to the 14th Century

Frank Green

The settlements of Roby and Huyton are aligned on an axis of almost directly East/West, with Roby consisting the Western part. Both occupy sites on low hills, which rise gently from the surrounding countryside. Certainly in the case of Roby, the hill must have presented the most obvious place for settlement - not for any strategic or defensive reason, but probably more for practicality. Much of the area seems to have been marsh or bog, and so, as relatively better drained land, the higher levels would have made the natural choice for habitation. With virtually no written records for reference, our knowledge of early Roby has been derived from place names (which in many instances give an insight into the landscape and its usage). We know from later records that the land in this area was regarded as of poor quality. Indeed, the existing road and place names - which have survived from not long after the earliest settlement - confirm this to be so.

To the north of Roby is Woolfall Heath and Page Moss, indicating a waste land or moor, and wetland or peat bog, respectively. Leading to the south, is Carr Lane, a name possibly evolved from kjarr - old Norse for brushwood or scrub. We can deduce from this information that the locality was hardly a lush prospect, and is probably why, with it's sparse potential for wresting a living from it, there are no indications of permanent habitation or settlement before the Dark Ages.

The oldest evidence for human activity in the area is a Bronze Age arrowhead, which apparently was found in a modern Roby garden. There are at least two references to this artefact.

A. King writes:

'Although some archaeological evidence has been found of a prehistoric and Roman presence in the area - a Bronze Age arrow head was found in Roby in 1925, and a Roman coin hoard in Tarbock in 1838 - there is as yet nothing to suggest any kind of settlement from those periods at Huyton or Roby.'

In his reference to the same item, Derek Whale very briefly mentions it, and says:

' the oldest "find" in the area is a finely-shaped flint arrowhead, recovered fairly recently from a garden in Roby.'

This, as stated, does not constitute settlement evidence. It could well be interpreted as an indication of pre-historic hunters simply passing through the locality, in pursuit of prey. It would appear that the area was settled at least a century or more before the Norman Conquest. Possibly, Roby's beginnings were about the reign of Edward, son of Alfred the Great, who styled himself 'King of the English', and which would place the settlement's origins at some time between 905, and the death of Edward, in 925.

The name 'Roby' - in keeping with its sister township 'Huyton', indicates Dark Age origins. Huyton is apparently an Anglian derivation, the 'ton' part typically for a settlement, and the 'Hy' prefix possibly a corruption of 'Hyp' which would indicate a 'landing place'. Roby though, is generally accepted as having Norse origin. In his Notes on the History of Huyton with Roby, R. H, Johnstone says,

In the name of Roby we are not faced with the same conjectural difficulties of whether to interpret it as a pure Scandinavian derivative, or as the Anglo Saxon name of the village eventually inhabited by Scandinavians: there can be no doubt that Roby was both a Scandinavian name and settlement. It is practically identical with the name of Raby on the opposite side of the Mersey, the 'Rabil' of the Norman survey doubtless being a copyist's error for Roby, the spelling for which figures in the Domesday Book for the Wirral.

For Roby, the 'Ro' component quite possibly means 'border' while 'by' is the usual Norse word for settlement. Bearing in mind Roby's close proximity to the neighbouring parish of Childwall, or perhaps the nearby village of Huyton, this seems a reasonable assumption. There is though, at least one other variation we know of, in the interpretation of Roby, and this one infers that it could be simply describing 'The place of the Roe'.

Making reference to the phonology of South Lancashire place names, F. Walker concludes:

'It seems, therefore, that though South Lancashire was probably under Northumbrian control for a great part of the early medieval period, the influence of Mercia was fairly considerable and Ekwall sums up the place-name evidence by saying:

"The conclusion is that the place-nomenclature of South Lancashire shows Mercian as well as Northumbrian characteristics. The Mercian ones are especially certain dialectal peculiarities that must date far back, whilst the Northumbrian ones consist of certain unmistakable name types. We must assume that both Mercians and Northumbrians took part in the colonisation of the district South of the Ribble."

Huyton seems to be consistently regarded as the 'elder' (in more than one sense) of the two villages. Alison Cassidy speculates that Huyton could have been settled as early as the Fifth Century. Giving more weight to this, and also commenting on the subject of place names and their origins, Andrew G. Colwell states:

'As both Huyton and Roby are adjoining parishes, the fact that Roby is of Scandinavian origin (ending in by) would confirm that both parishes were settled long before the Norman Conquest. In fact, at the time of the Conquest, Huyton seems to have been a very thriving community, for the land around the present church and village site was said to be worth ten shillings (50 pence), a very high amount in those days.'

Although fairly consistent in name and it's spelling since the twelfth century, the written name in earlier times could vary somewhat. According to David Mills, in his Place Names of Lancashire, the sequence seems to be:

Rabyr - pre Domesday, Rabil - Domesday Book, Rabi - c.1185, and Roby - c.1210

The first mention we have of Roby in written record is from 1086, in the Domesday Book. Both the Huyton and Roby settlements are described within the West Derby Hundred, as 'townships', but this term should not be regarded in the modern sense. It was in fact a part of a system, which had been long established since Saxon times, for sub-division of areas of land. Whole shires or counties were broken down in order through Hundreds and Townships. Baines's Lancashire describes the system thus:

'During the Saxon dynasty, England was divided into counties, hundreds, and tithings. These divisions, as they now stand, according to Mr. Justice Blackstone, owe their origin to Alfred, who, to prevent the rapines and disorders which formerly prevailed in the realm, instituted Tithings, so called from the Saxon, because ten freeholders, with their families, composed one. These all dwelt together, and were sureties or free pledges to the King for the good behaviour of each other. Tithings, Towns or Vills are of the same signification in law, and had each of them originally a church and celebration of divine service. As ten families of freeholders made a town, so ten tithings composed a superior division called a Hundred, consisting of ten times ten families. The hundred is governed by a high constable or bailiff, and formerly there was regularly held in it a court for the trial of causes, which is now fallen into disuse. An indefinite number of these hundreds make a county, or shire, the government of which is confided to the shire-reeve, or sheriff, upon whom it's civil administration devolves. South Lancashire was first parcelled into three hundreds, Blackburn, Derby, and Salford, which had afterwards taken from them Newton, Warrington, and Leyland hundreds, the two former of which have since merged in the hundred of West Derby.'

At that time, 'township' referred to both a village and its surrounding lands as far as the adjoining townships, e.g. Knowsley, Tarbock, and so on. Each of these townships were a part of the Parish of Huyton - Roby and Huyton consisting the middle of that parish. Baines also states:

'Soon after the introduction of Christianity, this county and the other counties of the kingdom were divided into parishes.'

Therefore, from the introduction of Christianity, the breakdown in order, would then be: Hundred, Parish, and Township.

The Domesday entry, with another spelling variation for 'Robye', gives us the first name of a local area Lord, who held the land at the time of the conquest. He is 'Ughtred* or 'Uctred1, the holder of several manors - including Rabii (Roby), which is already seemingly an established township of the time.

'Uctred held vi manors. Rabil, chcnulveslei, cherchebei, crosbei, magele,achetun. There are ii hides, the woods are ii leagues long and the same broad, and there are ii hawkes aeries. Dot held Hitune and Torboc'

After the conquest, William had commissioned the Domesday survey (1085-86). This enabled him to assess the value of his newly acquired realm, and calculate the taxes he could levy. William also proceeded with - even by the standards of those days - a ruthless vigour to subdue and control a truculent and potentially rebellious population. As reward for their support in his successful military venture, large tracts of land were allocated between his Knights and Nobility, and these were expected to pursue his policy within their domains at a local level. No doubt these Lords made their own appointees as lesser nobility for sub-divisions within their land and estates. Each would presumably exact local taxation, in turn paying tribute to their patron. But although Ughtred had been clearly identified as the pre-conquest Lord, the Domesday records are not exact in giving us the names of those who were immediately allocated the local lands.

There are no specific records of who held Roby after the Conquest. Domesday is vague, and gives a hint only by general reference. It says -

'Rex Wilhelm us holds all that land between the Kibble and the Mersey, which Rogerius Pictavensis (Roger de Poictou) held.'

The above entry probably refers to the time around 1072. While in Lancashire Past and Present, Baines makes further reference to Roger de Poictou - a man apparently not content with his considerable lot.

'In the interval between the first division of property after the Norman conquest, and the Domesday survey, the lands between the Ribble and the Mersey were forfeited to the crown, by the defection of Roger de Poictou. This honour was, however, afterwards restored to him in the reign of William Rufus, but he was again deprived of it for joining in the rebellion of Tewkesbury, and this princely inheritance was then given to Stephen, afterwards King of England. The ample possessions of Roger de Poictou, which consisted before his first rebellion of 398 manors, enabled him to erect several stately edifices in the county of Lancaster; and the Castles of Lancaster and of Liverpool were both founded by this aspiring baron. Stephen, on ascending the throne of England, presented his son William de Blois, earl of Montaign and Bollogne, with the honour of Lancaster, and on his death, says Camden, Richard I. gave it to his brother John, the granter of Magna Carta.'

Elaborating further on this period, F. Walker gives a background to the make-up of the area, and explains why it may not have suffered the full fury of William's suppression. His notes give an overview of who held sway until the twelfth century.

'It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that on the eve of the Norman Conquest, South Lancashire must still have been a very thinly peopled and poor area, whose inhabitants were of mixed Anglian, Norse and British origin and whose social, political and economic organisation almost inevitably took the form of an amalgam of the Celtic, Anglian and Scandinavian usages which had been adopted at different stages of the region's history. This very complexity of population types and of political history, together with the topographical conditions outlined above, marked off the area between the Mersey and the Ribble as a distinctive region, and it is important to notice that after being detached from the kingdom of Northumbria by the English kings in the early tenth century this region was not absorbed into the earldom of Mercia but remained a part of the royal demesne and therefore distinct and separate from both that earldom and from Northumbria.

The immediate result of this separateness of South Lancashire was that the actual military and political events associated with the Conquest affected it only in an indirect way, since it had no connection with the fortunes of Edwin or Morcar and therefore was not punished in the way that Chester was in 1070, when Chester was taken, nor included in the areas laid waste during the subjugation of the earldom of Northumbria. In fact the only direct and immediate consequence of the Conquest in South Lancashire was a change of overlord, brought about when the area between the Ribble and the Mersey was handed over by the crown to Roger of Poitou, though such a change would scarcely affect the majority of the inhabitants and in any case was only temporary, since by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 control had once more been resumed by the crown, either forcibly or as a result of a voluntary exchange of lands by Roger, and though restored to him by Rufus it was forfeited again by his brother's rebellion in 1102.'

The first identifiable and recorded Norman Lord of post-Domesday Knowsley, was Robert de Lathom, who founded the Augustinian Priory at Burscough in 1198, and who held the constituent lands Knowsley (which were Huyton, Roby, and Tarbock) before 1200. The records - with regard to dates - now become somewhat more specific. But the truth of the matter is however, that we don't really know how the Lathoms acquired their lands.

We know that Robert had two sons - Robert and Richard. Of these, Richard, around 1220 was granted,

'a land in Roby on the west side between four crosses.... And to Richard, the man of the said canons, and his heirs, mast of Roby for their pigs and similarly in the wood of Huyton.'

Records show that Roby had a market as long ago as 1251, this was initiated by Sir Henry de Tarbock - a descendant of the original Robert de Lathom - but apparently it was not a success. In 1304, another Robert de Lathom (the third, and son of the second) obtained a Charter from King Edward I for another weekly market and also a fair at Roby. The weekly market to be held on Fridays, and the annual fair on the eve, feast, and morrow of St. Wilfrid. Roby was granted a Borough Charter in 1372 (this granted to the second Thomas de Lathom) a part of the Charter suggests that the market was still extant, but from then on, no further records make mention of this. These separate efforts to establish markets and a fair were obviously an attempt to generate economic activity. The strategy adopted, if successful, would have produced benefits both in the short and long term. Most immediately, the purpose was to increase local trade, thereby boosting income, and elevating Roby's status as a community worthy of such an event. For the landowner of course, his hopes would revolve around the potential to enhance revenue from a greater economic pool. In a sense, it could be interpreted as an attempt to kick-start growth over a period of time to a point of 'critical mass', after which it must have been hoped that the area would continue to grow, becoming a recognised local centre.

In this, we see no change in comparing those efforts to the practices of today, where local authorities and national governments encourage inward investments, or allocate regional funding - the aim is no different to that of the Lathom family.

In any case, these well-intentioned aspirations foundered and the markets appear to have petered out, possibly before the end of the thirteenth century. This was probably due to competition from the attractions of existing well-established markets in the area. Those markets would almost invariably be in larger centres of population and commerce, and accessible by more direct and perhaps better routes. Roby's position as a relatively small isolated hamlet, surrounded by forest and reached only by little more than woodland track, was no doubt a contributory factor for the market's failure.

With regard to Roby's size at about that time, Ron Cowell comments:

'Evidence for open arable in Roby is slight, but the application for Borough status in 1372 and the granting of a fair and market in 1304 (Refs), suggests that there was a settlement here in the 14 century of some importance and that it was presumably nucleated. Excavations by Liverpool Museum in 1990 strengthened this interpretation by producing traces of two superimposed buildings in a plot by Roby Road and several large rubbish pits containing 14th and 15th century pottery (R. Philpott pers. com in.).(1)

Plague reached Lancashire at the end of summer in 1349. There appear to be no statistics for Roby, but we do know that Huyton was affected and so it is reasonable to assume that Roby must have suffered too. The devastation wreaked by this calamity on a small community can only be imagined. Any mortality rate in such a tiny hamlet must have both seriously disrupted day to day activity, and left those who survived both traumatised and demoralised, it may have affected economic growth and activity for years after. The resulting reduction in population may have had a bearing on the decline of Roby's market and fair.

What may have ended Roby's future as a borough or town was the fact that the male lineage of the Lathoms died out quite soon after Borough status of 1372 (in 1384). According to R. H. Johnstone,

'In 1325 this second Robert de Lathom married Catherine de Knowsley. Their great grand daughter Isabella daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas de Lathom marrying Sir John Stanley about 1395. This alliance created the Stanleys of Knowsley, later Earls of Derby, and passed the L at horn's property in Roby and Knowsley to the Stanleys'

With the passing to the Stanley family by marriage, it is quite possible that the Stanleys may well have taken a very different view regarding the ownership and management of their lands. It could have been that they were reluctant to allow any degree of independence, which might result from Roby's eventual development into a centre of some importance.

Throughout it's long history, unlike many English villages or hamlets, Roby has been unable to boast little of the usual accepted landmarks, with which to identify as it's heart. Of an ancient place, the most ancient aspect, one, which has told us so much, is the name. But the very oldest physical feature - the one identifying constant, which has remained, unchanged - are the Roby crossroads. This cross layout, albeit one with a short northwest to southeast diagonal at the centre, is virtually unchanged since first settlement in the Tenth Century. It marks the heart of Roby. These roads mirror the four compass points. The Northern arm was the original Twig Lane (now Station Road). The East-to-West arms consist of Roby Road, while to the South is Carr Lane. Some changes have occurred within the last century and a half, particularly for Twig Lane, which was altered with the coming of the Railways in 1830.

Rather sadly, in a way this feature reflects what Roby has always been, and what subsequent history has underlined, it is somewhere where people have passed through, rather than arrived at. But in essence, the Roby crossroad is intact.

Roby has no ancient Inn, no surviving medieval Barn, nor Village Hall, no building as a pivotal point in it's community. The oldest standing structure is most likely what appear to be the remnants of either a village cross - or perhaps a boundary stone. This unassuming sandstone artefact is now a Grade Two listed monument. In referring to a 'Cross or Boundary Stone', R. H. Johnstone describes it thus:

'At the junction of Carr Lane and Roby Road there appears to be the remains of one of these crosses. It consists of a shaft four feet six inches in height and twelve inches square, closely fitted into a base two feet six inches square and twelve inches thick. Taylor (*) and Cox (**) consider that it is the remains of a village cross but though it may have been used as such it is probably also the remains of one of these old boundary stones. Taylor says that in April, 1900, a villager told him that this cross was also called the stocks, and old inhabitants remember seeing men in the stocks which were close to the cross and opposite an old inn long since pulled down.

(*) Henry Taylor, The Ancient Crosses of Lancashire, p65.
(**) Cox, in Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1985) Vol. XLVII, Page 237.

Originally this structure was sited (as the photographs show) on the south side of Roby Road in the southeast Roby quadrant, about twenty-five yards from Carr Lane. But it has been moved and now stands in front of the old Turnpike Toll House on the northern side of Roby Road, in the northwestern Roby quadrant.

More surprisingly, Roby - until relatively very recently, and the construction of St. Bartholomew's in 1850 - has had no church at its centre. This could very well reflect the consistently small size, and therefore limited financial capability, of the local community. With regard to religion in the area, as far back as 597, Pope Gregory had authorised St. Augustine's mission to England, and this saw Ethelbert, King of Kent convert to Christianity.

But it was much later, during the reign of Alfred the Great (871-901) when significant swathes of England embraced the religion, that we can assume the eventual dominance and influence which Christianity must have had, on the people who settled in the Roby area. It would seem then, that before and after the Conquest, that the population worshipped in the established St. Michael's church in the larger neighbouring community of Huyton. The History of Huyton Parish Church tells us:

'The date of the original church foundation is not known, probably a church stood here in the Saxon period. Certainly a church occupied the site in the Twelfth Century, for it is recorded that about 1189, it was granted by Robert (son of Henry de Lathom) to the priory which he had founded at Burscough'

From this text we can see that there is a presumption that the present church is on the site of an even earlier one. This is one area in which Roby's inhabitants apparently came together with their neighbouring settlement. In many other aspects of life, they seem to have been content as a self-sufficient community.

Interestingly, these two settlements, in fairly close proximity, seem to support current opinion which suspects that the very earliest of Viking settlers, sweeping into England after the demise of Roman Rule and influence - although perhaps from different tribes - co-existed relatively peacefully.


Two photographs (taken from The Archive Photographs Series, Huyton with Roby), which illustrate the gently rising terrain which forms Roby hill. The top picture shows the diagonal at the heart of the settlement. In the foreground, left is Carr Lane, while right is Roby Road heading east. Further away, past the phone box and to the left Roby Road continues west. What was old Twig Lane went to the right, in front of the old Toll Cottage.

The picture shows Roby Road continuing westward toward Bowring Park Road.

Established as a Norse settlement in AD 925, Roby was granted a Royal Charter by King Edward I in 1304, but competed unsuccessfully against the Prescot Fair, which was along the Liverpool to Warrington Road. By the thirteenth century, Roby was, along with Huyton, in the possession of the De Lathom family. By 1380 it had passed into the ownership of the Stanley family through marriage.

(left) Roby Road looking from Toll Bar Cottage towards Liverpool, in the early 1960s.

Three more photographs below, all showing the old Roby Cross, or Boundary Stone on it's original site, before it was moved. In the top picture taken from The Archive Photographs Series, Huyton with Roby in this we can see the beginning of Carr Lane on the left. Now only little more than a pathway with bollards at it's entrance, it is evident that Roby Road sweeps past with out having access to the lane - note the kerb stones which form a continuous line away from us, westward. The lower right picture, from Lost Villages of Liverpool, Part Three, is another view of this Grade Two monument. Interestingly, noting the modern semi-detached houses in the lower left photo. It would appear the cross has been moved away from the edge of busy Roby Road. Possibly then, this is the latest of the three.

Roby Cross, 'The Boundary Stone'. This originally stood at the entrance to Lawton Road but when the latter was widened it was moved to this site. Although known as the Boundary Stone its original purpose is unknown and is perhaps the remains of an old cross. The old stocks once stood next to the stone. Edenhurst cottages, which were demolished during the road widening, can be seen in the distance.

This old Roby boundary stone, which once stood at the side of a country lane, still retains its dignified position at the edge of what is now a busy main road.

In it's original position, the stone bore no discernable inscriptions to the markings.
Now re-sited it bears a printed plaque, headed with the Local Authority logo - and already hardly legible - which reads:


This is believed to be the Village Cross of Roby
It originally stood at the junction of Carr Lane and Roby Road and was moved to its present position in 1979
In medieval times a market and fair were held in the vicinity of the cross, which may also have been a Boundary Stone.

Frank Green (18 April 2000)


1. Archive Photographs Series - Huyton with Roby. Compiled by Alison Cassidy.
2. Baines's Lancashire - Volume 1, David and Charles Reprints.
3. Beautiful Huyton with Roby. Andrew G. Colwell.
4. Historical Geography of Southwest Lancashire. Vol.103 New Series. F.Walker
5. History of Huvton Parish Church. Third Edition. The British Publishing Co. Gloucester
6. Huyton with Roby. A History of two Townships. Alan King. ISBN 0 947739 017
7. Knowsley Rural Fringes Report, unpub. Ron Cowell. Merseyside County Council/Museums
8. Lancashire Past and Present. Baines T. William McKenzie, Glasgow.
9. Lost Villages of Liverpool. Part 3. Derek Whale 1984. ISBN 0 901314 26 9
10. Notes on the History of Huyton with Roby. R. H. Johnstone.
11. Place Names of Lancashire. David Mills.
12. Victorian History of Counties of England - Lancashire reprint from Original Edition 1907. Dawsons of Pall Mall London 1966.l

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