Archive feature: Rebel with a cause

Rebel with a cause

Archive: February 2017 by Maggie B Dickinson

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Lanty Slee’s baptism certificate reads: “Lancelot natural son of Jane Slee of Hallsteads Baptized the 6th day of February 1802 By me Thos. Pearson, Vicar of Kirkby Irelyth”

Little Langdale, in the heart of the Lake District, is exceptionally pretty. Long ago, when its charms were relatively unknown, its secret hollows and disused quarry caves were perfect hidey holes to accommodate whisky stills, for those so inclined. Enter Lancelot Slee, who bucked the system with a lucrative niche for distilling and retailing his own brand of whisky, bypassing the costly import duties of its Scottish counterpart.

Without exception, articles on Lanty have stated that Lakeland’s most infamous but likeable bad lad was born in Borrowdale, near Keswick. Records reveal, however, that he was born on February 2, 1802, to the young unmarried Jane Slee, in a poorhouse called Hallsteads at Chapels, Kirkby Ireleth, in the Furness area of what was then Lancashire.

When Lanty married Mary Anne Richardson, a woodcutter’s daughter from Satterthwaite, on June 3, 1839, at St Mary’s in Ulverston, the couple were living at Tilberthwaite in Little Langdale. He worked as a quarryman and Mary was in service. The pair produced seven sons and three daughters, and would move house many times within the area.

It was probably the stigma of his poor start in life that drove Lanty to provide well for his large brood. Apart from his day job farming, on the side he tended whisky stills that were hidden under various flagged kitchen floors or in secret places such as a graveyard tomb. To access isolated caves to tend his stills, including one in Bessycrag Quarry on the slopes of Wetherlam, he morphed into a rock-climbing gymnast.

Low Arnside, where Lanty was betrayed by William Pattinson (photo courtesy of Sykes Cottages)

Lanty’s sought-after product sold for a modest ten shillings a gallon, which attracted loyal consumers from all walks of life, including magistrates and the gentry. The password for his popular poteen was to ask casually if “he’d had a good crop of ’taties this year”.

Not content with local trade he would use the cover of darkness to trek over Wrynose and Hardknott passes – two of the hairiest roads in the country – either leading a single packhorse with bulging panniers or among a group of smugglers, for the old Roman port of Ravenglass. There, he exchanged whisky for foreign goodies such as rum, brandy, tobacco and sugar. With him ‘‘there were allus twa girt black dogs with curly tails and thin heads that would guard him frae owt”. The description fits cunning lurchers, which would know how to keep their mouths shut, but give a quiet warning of approaching danger, like that of the customs and excise officers.

On risky journeys Lanty’s whisky was frequently carried in pigs’ bladders, rather than bottles. It is from that practice that the expression “he’s had a skinful” came about. When his dogs gave the signal he could split the skin and rid himself of the evidence. The round trip from Langdale to Ravenglass on foot, of almost sixty miles, was arduous and life-threatening in inclement weather, and poses the question of when Lanty found time to sleep.

Lanty’s last surviv ing child, son Adam, who lived to be more than a hundred years old. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnson

On November 12, 1963, the noted Lakeland writer A H “Harry” Griffin visited Lanty’s only surviving child, Adam, who was celebrating his hundredth birthday at his home in Matson Ground Cottages, Windermere. He described Adam as “an alert, active dalesman who won’t hear a thing said against his dad” for whom he was full of praise. His portrayal of Lanty was “middle-sized, stiff-built, and very strong” and he added that the whisky was “grand stuff – capable of rendering a person legless after a couple of glasses”. Adam passed away on January 26, 1965.

Several of the homes Lanty and Mary shared are in enviable locations. They belong to the National Trust and are available for self-catering holidays through the trust’s website. The most famous address, Low Arnside, Little Langdale, is on a working farm and can be booked through Sykes Cottages. According to legend it was here that Lanty had a still under the kitchen floor, from which a pipe led to a hedgerow a field’s length away so that the tell-tale exhaust steam was transferred into the atmosphere.

In the 1840s Lanty faced the bench on at least a couple of occasions and was briefly incarcerated for his crimes. During one court appearance the chairman of the bench declared: “We are told that you are able to furnish your friends with a glass of spirit at any time, but I think we’ve broken the spell this time.”

“M’appen ye’re wrang,” replied Lanty, and whipped a bottle of his best hooch from his pocket. “Will your worships hev a touch?”

Lanty’s son Joseph, born in 1850. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnson

An argument with a former partner, William Pattinson, led to the betrayal of his activities at Low Arnside. On May 9, 1853, he was convicted, his still was impounded, and he was fined the enormous sum of £150; equivalent to £189,000 today. Dr Dawson and his colleagues on the bench, however, may well have been customers of Lanty: not only was the fine reduced to £100, his popularity was reflected in the generous contributions made by sympathisers.

Over at least a decade Lanty’s misdemeanours received wide press coverage in Cumberland and Westmorland but the 1853 case caught the attention of the general public in newspapers across the entire country: Bell’s Weekly Messenger in London; the Dumfries and Galloway Standard in Scotland; and the Monmouthshire Beacon in South Wales, to name a few.

After his release from Carlisle prison, it is said Lanty bought a field in Little Langdale and built Ivyhowe, where he ran a still, with another at Red Tarn near the Three Shires Stone on Wrynose. Finally he built Greenbank, where Mary and he died in 1874 and 1878 respectively, being buried at Holy Trinity Parish Church, Chapel Stile.

Lanty’s great-granddaughter Laura Johnson, with her own daughters Matilda and Eleanor
(photo by Maggie B. Dickinson)

My research into Lanty unearthed fascinating and previously-unpublished information but the highlight has been the privilege of meeting four generations of his descendants.

Lanty’s will mentions sons Joseph, his executor, and Richard and Adam, who became tenants in common of his estate. Through Adam, Lanty’s closest living relative is his great grandson Arthur Slee, an octogenarian who lives in Kendal. His daughter Helen Slee-Haworth is an avid researcher into her family history, and she and her father are proud to be descended from this famous Lakeland character. “Lanty’s business acumen was sound, yet it’s not unknown for him to be portrayed as a dim yokel,” said Helen. “We take exception to this, for while he might have been illiterate, as most people were in those days, he made up for his lack of formal education with a sharp mind and clever marketing skills.”

Laura Johnson and her daughters Matilda and Eleanor, aged two and five years, are third and fourth great-granddaughters of Lanty through his son Joseph. Laura has a large portfolio of memorabilia and photographs, including Lanty’s original certificate of baptism dated 1802 from St Cuthbert’s in Kirkby Ireleth. “This has been passed down my branch, from Joseph, still in the wallet of hi son [also] Adam Slee,” said Laura. “I am delighted to be part of this family that has left its mark on Cumbria’s history, and thrilled to have roots in such a beautiful area of the Lake District.”

Hallsteads, in the Furness area of what was then Lancashire, where Lanty Slee was born in
February 1802 to unmarried Jane Slee (photo by Maggie B. Dickinson)


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