Carnforth Town Council

Carnforth History


Carnforth has had an unremarkable history and its development has almost entirely been shaped by its location as a natural junction, initially and most recently for roads both large and small and for a hundred years or more from the mid 19th century, for railways. There is some dispute regarding the derivation of the name Carnforth with some authorities claiming it is a corruption of “Keer ford” or ford over the river Keer whilst others believe it is based on the Anglo-Saxon “Chreneforde”, derived from a stretch of water frequented by cranes.


Carnforth is situated on higher ground at the South end of a wide valley running North to South.  The valley was gouged out between the limestone hills to the East and to the West by glaciers from the Lake District at the end of the last Ice Age.  

This topography underlies the industrial development of Carnforth.  The glacial debris consists of various gravel and sand deposits which contributed, with the native limestone, to an active extractive industry.  

The valley forms an ideal North to South communications route but the wetness of the valley floor caused the early roads from the South to keep to either the East or the West after leaving Carnforth, until construction technology improved.  The town is thus a natural junction. 


Early human development was based on the River Keer which was navigable with settlements just to the North East of the modern town.  These areas later became gravel pits.  In the medieval period Carnforth was a farming village in the more developed parish and settlement of Warton.  The western road to the North led down Hawes Hill over Keer Bridge by a mill, through Warton and Yealand Storrs.  The eastern road took advantage of the high ground along North Road to Borwick and Burton.  Another eastern road went through the Kellets.  

In the 17th century the town developed both as a convenient halt for travellers with several inns and as a small market town to service the local agricultural community.  The oldest remaining houses date from this period and are situated on these old roads. 


The industrialisation of Carnforth began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when more modern transport links developed.  The Lancaster to Kendal canal which opened in Carnforth in 1797 and was used to export limestone southwards in return for coal from the Lancashire coal fields.   Over a period of two decades in the mid 19th century the railways brought coal from the East and iron ore from Furness, thus allowing Carnforth to develop an iron industry that survived into the 20th century.

The iron works which first opened in 1846 brought in experienced workers from across the country and terraced houses were built to house them.

The railway system also expanded with servicing facilities and more characteristic terraced housing being constructed.  The mineral extraction industry also developed but was more dispersed with many small quarries and gravel pits and smaller housing terraces.  Many of the abandoned quarry sites left level areas which have been built over and largely forgotten. 

Modern Carnforth

In the late 19th century the structure of the town centre changed with the construction of a new road North from the original junction of Hawes Hill and North Road (now the A6 Lancaster Road / Scotland Road), enabled by the draining of the Levels by the railway.  The centre moved to lower Market Street from the A6 road junction rather than near the Shovel Inn. 

The provision of professional services and shops expanded apace after the establishment of a local Co-Operative Society and was followed in the early 20th century by the building of a cinema and the opening of an auction mart in the centre of the town. 

In the 1980s, following the closure of the auction mart, the opportunity arose to develop a retail outlet (Booths) to serve the growing population and the numerous self -catering holiday sites and leisure parks around the town.

The construction of the M6 motorway gave an impetus to local quarrying but then the activity soon moved to the larger Kellet quarries and the cement works on the A6 closed.  The 20th century also saw large housing estates being developed at Highfield, Whelmar, and Crag Bank and there are new residential developments currently planned for the former Lundsfield quarry site and on Scotland Road.

A growing population in the 20th century also led to a significant educational development. Although Carnforth had had several elementary and primary schools since the 19th century, the opening of a dedicated secondary school in 1959 ensured that pupils no longer needed to travel to Lancaster or Morecambe to complete their academic careers.

One noticeable by-product of local quarrying and the construction of the motorway has led to a different phase of development around the periphery of the town.  Many of the exhausted gravel pits developed into lakes over time and this has enabled the creation of leisure parks with holiday homes that are easily accessible by visitors to the area.  Better transport links, particularly the motorway network, are also providing a stimulus to the expansion of light industry and transport services in Carnforth and, after a recent period of relative inactivity, the future is looking bright.