Wray Castle historical research project

Visitors in the grounds at Wray Castle, Cumbria

We're got a research project underway at Wray Castle, digging deep into the history of the Dawsons, the building and what we think we know about it all so far.

Our volunteer research intern Sophie will be posting regular updates from her findings here so keep coming back to follow us on this exciting journey into history. Her discoveries are also on display in the Castle too

Latest updates

17 Jun 18

Summing up

The 2017 research project into James and Margaret may have come to an end, but there is still lots of work to be done. This is really encouraging and exciting, and hopefully we’ll eventually be able to form a concrete idea of this elusive couple. For now, it’s fair to say that the research has changed the way we think of both James and Margaret, mainly by challenging certain myths and rumours surrounding them as a couple. Most importantly perhaps – considering the National Trust’s 2018 focus on ‘Women in Power’ – the research has given Margaret a voice. Our new 2018 exhibition explores what we know of Margaret and helps to bring her to the forefront in the castle’s history, as well as allowing us to understand more about her involvement in how it was created. The concluding research report will make an appearance online soon – some final tweaks need to be made – and will reveal in more detail the project and its findings. Even though the project has finished, any knowledge or observations about Margaret, James or the castle itself are always welcome, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with any thoughts or questions.

Portrait of Margaret Dawson

07 Dec 17

'Feme sole'

These past couple of months have been spent mainly focussed on contextual research. After discovering that Margaret was meant to inherit her wealth as a ‘feme sole’ (meaning that she was legally in control of her inheritance, independent of her husband James), I was curious as to whether this was common or rare. Was Margaret’s father, Robert Preston, simply being pragmatic and wanting to protect his daughter and the family money? Or was he highly progressive and determined to undermine marital law at the time, which – as far as I understood – placed a wife under almost total control of her husband? As luck would have it, a book called ‘Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution’ by Hannah Barker had been published earlier this year, and couldn’t have answered my questions better. It appears that amongst trading families like Margaret’s, Christian values – duty, love and so on – were extremely important, since keeping good working relationships amongst family members was vital for both the functioning of the family and their business. Taking care of one’s own was crucial and leaving fortunes to female relatives was normal. This has shed a lot of light on the Preston family, and I have started to understand and imagine a clearer picture of the life Margaret may have led.

Wray Castle historical research project - update 7

09 Oct 17

A trip down memory lane

Research has been put on hold in order to update the Bridge Room in the Castle, but I did manage to get to Liverpool again as I was keen to see and get a feel for the area where James and Margaret Dawson lived, and where Margaret had been brought up. I hoped it would help me imagine the sort of lives they would have led. I parked on Mount Pleasant which is where James had his home and surgery, and where I believe the couple would have lived together once they were married. It was, sadly, a bit of a disappointment; the row of houses where theirs would have been now includes a pub, a betting shop and a kebab shop. Likewise, what I believe would have been Margaret’s childhood home on Vernon Street is now an empty space next to a Premier Inn. It was a bit frustrating – this couple seem determined to continue to be as elusive as possible! Regardless, I did manage to find a couple of clues which could help to put their story together – more work is needed, of course.

Vernon Street in Liverpool where the Dawsons lived before Wray Castle