Currently Completed Counties – East Riding of Yorkshire

This week we review the evidence for deserted settlements in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Although the Beresford’s Lost Villages website is reviewing and writing descriptions for each village by county in alphabetical order, Yorkshire (East Riding) was taken out of sequence as it is home to the project and has a long history of study of deserted settlements. It has proven to be one of the most searched counties on the website.

Yorkshire as a whole was one of the counties to have separate lists of deserted villages produced in the early years of study, with the list for the East Riding appearing in 1952 (Beresford 1952). As such in 1954 Beresford only published some of the key sites ‘intended as a guide for visitors’ (Beresford 1954: 392). The 1952 list noted 123 sites, although in the introduction Beresford hints at 99 (Beresford 1952: 44). He suggests that around 40-50 were a result of sheep farming depopulations and 20-30 were earlier desertions due to the Black Death (Beresford 1952: 4). A number of settlements had also been lost through coastal erosion. By 1968 the number of settlements had risen slightly to 129, with three of the 1952 listing having disappeared in the meantime.

Deserted settlements listed in 1968
Deserted settlements listed in 1968

The East Riding of Yorkshire has remained a focus for attention, with the research project at Wharram Percy being a catalyst for other studies elsewhere. The continued investigation of medieval settlement in the area has resulted in the increase of known sites and the listing of many shrunken settlements. Research has included detailed local studies. One of the key examples of this is the PhD thesis of Susan Neave that looked at settlement contraction during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, with particular examples from the Bainton Beacon division of the county (Neave 1990). This revealed that many of the ‘classic’ deserted settlements of this area such as Rotsea and Sunderlandwick were late depopulations and that for many villages the end was a long drawn-out process. Also new forms of evidence occasionally appear which allow clearer pictures to be painted of settlements and their road to desertion. A recently discovered survey from 1723 of the village of Menethorpe has allowed the pre-desertion settlement to be viewed in new light, the families of farmers to be traced, with the final desertion of the village placed in 1872 (Cookson 2010-2011).

Deserted settlement remains at Sunderlandwick. Copyright Google.
Deserted settlement remains at Sunderlandwick. Copyright Google.

The landscape of the East Riding is characterised by nucleated settlements and this is one of the reasons why we see so many villages initially identified in the county as the picture was much clearer than areas of dispersed settlement. There have been numerous studies of settlement development in the different zones of the East Riding with ideas of planning in village design and the origins of open-field systems (e.g. Harvey 1980, 1982, Sheppard 1976).

Deserted settlements as classified by the website
Deserted settlements as classified by the website


For information on the long-term project at Wharram Percy please look under the Beresford pages of the Beresford’s Lost Villages website as this provides a summary of the work undertaken between 1950-1990 as well as the more recent topographic and geophysical surveys. It also discusses the impact this project had on a generation of archaeologists.

However Wharram is not the only site to be investigated in the county. Numerous excavations have been carried out, some on a small scale and never fully reported such as at Auburn and Wauldby. Other small projects have included that at Arras, where fieldwork in 2004-05 to the west of the farm found a large quantity of pottery dating from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries (Phillpott 2005). It also potentially located the position of the chapel.

At Hilderthorpe, to the south of Bridlington, an excavation on the main street in 1954-5 found a fifteenth-century pot sherd in a re-cut and sealed ditch, confirming that the street was in use in the medieval period. Other features uncovered included a number of walls from toft boundaries and possible buildings (Brewster et al. 1975).

The site at Riplingham can be clearly seen from with road. A hollow way runs east-west with crofts and tofts to the north and south. Excavations in 1956-57 were undertaken to the west of Riplingham House. The first house excavated was found to date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century with phases of reconstruction up to the middle of the eighteenth century (Wacher 1966). The second house excavated was built in the thirteenth century and rebuilt twice before becoming completely ruined in the late fourteenth century (Wacher 1966). A further house site was excavated in 1966 (Wilson and Hurst 1967).

Riplingham, East Yorkshire. Copyright Google.
Riplingham, East Yorkshire. Copyright Google.

At Cowlam, a rescue excavation was conducted in 1971-2 in advance of ploughing (Hayfield 1988). A courtyard farm at the site was targeted for excavation which revealed four structures that were abandoned in the late seventeenth century. The use of each of these structures is unclear from the excavated evidence, and whether they originally formed two separate crofts as the village plan would suggest has not been confirmed (Hayfield 1988). The excavation did not reveal evidence for structures earlier than the fifteenth century but pottery from the site would suggest occupation from the eleventh century. The historical sources for Cowlam match the archaeological evidence with a suggested depopulation between 1674 and 1680. Fourteen households had been recorded in 1674, and it has been suggested that the settlement was depopulated due to either a change in landowner or the tenants consolidating holdings (Hayfield 1988).

Plough-out remains of Cowlam village visible as soil marks. Copyright Google.
Plough-out remains of Cowlam village visible as soil marks. Copyright Google.

A number of sites have also under gone detailed historic and topographic surveys. The earthworks at Rotsea were surveyed in 1989 and the plan published in the same year, with a larger scale plan appearing in 1990 (Cocroft et al. 1989, 1990). The main hollow way takes two routes and it is suggested that they be could be different phases with the more sinuous route replaced at a later date (Cocroft et al. 1989). The survey and combined documentary evidence has shown that the nucleated medieval village became reduced to a number of substantial farms and was finally deserted as dispersed farms were developed. It is suggested that the change from village to individual farms came about by the early sixteenth century possibly with the conversion to pasture. A map of 1784 shows the settlement had been completely depopulated by this time (Neave 1990).

Rotsea deserted village remains. Copyright Google.
Rotsea deserted village remains. Copyright Google.

The research undertaken at Eske shows how the physical remains can be matched to the documentary evidence (English and Miller 1991). This showed the re-planning of the site which occurred in 1300. Field walking produced a range of thirteenth to sixteenth-century pottery, but all the later fifteenth-century sherds were fine tablewares indicating that just the leading tenants remained in residence. A north-south street with a number of tofts and sunken yards is visible. The tofts to the east of the hollow way appear to have no crofts. To the south of this area is an east-west hollow way leading to the River Hull. This is suggested as the original focus of the settlement with the area to the north as a planned expansion sometime before the late thirteenth century (English and Miller 1991).

Eske village: Google image from 2003
Eske village: Google image from 2003

Since the publication of the 1968 list of deserted settlements many more areas of desertion have been identified – particularly areas of shrunken settlement and it is anticipated that the list for the East Riding will increase once the county as a whole is reviewed.


Beresford, M.W. 1952. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire Part II’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38: 44-70.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Brewster, T.C.M., P. Armstrong and P. Hough 1975. ‘Excavations at Hilderthorpe’, East Riding Archaeologist 2: 71-81.

Cocroft, W.D., P. Everson and W.R. Wilson-North 1989. ‘The Deserted Medieval Village of Rotsea, Humberside’, Medieval Settlement Research Group 4: 14-17.

Cocroft, W.D., P. Everson and W.R. Wilson-North 1990. ‘Rotsea’, Medieval Settlement Research Group 5: 19-20.

Cookson, G. 2010-2011. ‘Menethorpe: Rediscovering a Lost Village’, The Rydale Historian 25: 22-31.

English, B. and K. Miller 1991. ‘The Deserted Village of Eske, East Yorkshire’, Landscape History 13: 5-32.

Harvey, M. 1980. ‘Regular Field and Tenurial Arrangements in Holderness, Yorkshire’, Journal of Historical Geography  6: 3-16.

Harvey, M. 1982. ‘Regular Open-Field Systems of the Yorkshire Wolds’, Landscape History 4: 29-39.

Hayfield, C. 1988. ‘Cowlam Deserted Village: a Case Study of Post-Medieval Village Desertion’, Post-Medieval Archaeology  22: 21-109.

Neave, S. 1990. Rural Settlement Contraction in the East Riding of Yorkshire c. 1660-1760 with Particular Reference to the Bainton Beacon Division. University of Hull Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Phillpott, M. 2005. ‘A Landscape Study of a Deserted Medieval Settlement at Arras, East Yorkshire’, Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 20: 31-33.

Sheppard, J.A. 1976. ‘Medieval Village Planning in Northern England: Some Evidence from Yorkshire’, Journal of Historical Geography 2: 3-20.

Wacher, J. 1966. ‘Excavations at Riplingham East Yorkshire 1956-7’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 41: 608-669.

Wilson, D. and D.G. Hurst 1967. ‘Medieval Britain in 1966’, Medieval Archaeology 11: 262-319.

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