Where does the name Morecambe Bay come from?

What is the origin of the name 'Morecambe Bay'? And what does it mean?

Well, there are two Morecambe Bays, ours and one (spelled Moricambe ) up near the Solway. 

Both of them ultimately, but indirectly, owe their origin to a name first recorded by an astronomer called Ptolemy, working in Alexandria around 150 AD.  He wrote there was a place called Morikambe eischusis  (a Greek word which seems to mean something like ‘tidal flats’) somewhere on the west coast of Britain. The problem is, he gave no detail as to where it was, other than that it lay between Solway and the Ribble.

Scholars from the sixteenth century tried to locate it – and the most influential of them, William Camden, decided it must be that small bay near Silloth on the Cumbrian coast.  However, in 1732 the antiquarian John Horsley published an English translation of Ptolemy, in which he wrote ‘Moricambe estuary must be that in the northern part of Lancashire, into which the rivers from Kendal and Ambleside empty themselves’.  At that date our bay didn’t have a name:  the sands were just known as Kent and Leven Sand as shown on this map - Hutchinson's 'Correct Map of Lancashire' from 1748.  

However, the Manchester historian John Whitaker enthusiastically accepted the Lancashire identification in 1771, and a few years later, in 1774 a map appeared, accompanying Father Thomas West’s Antiquities of Furness, upon which the name Morecambe Bay appeared for the first time. 

The first 'modern' reference to Morecambe Bay, from Thomas West, The Antiquities of Furness, London, 1774. 

The general acceptance of the name for our Bay seems largely to have come about as a result of the popular success of William Yates’ map of 1786, the first map of Lancashire on the scale of one mile to the inch.  By 1844, when the Ordnance Survey mapped the area, not only is our bay called Morecambe Bay, but there is also a hotel called Morecambe Hotel about a kilometre or so to the north east of where the Midland Hotel now stands, in Poulton by the Sands.  In 1846, a new railway company was formed, the Morecambe Bay Harbour and Railway Company, and from the 1850s a sea-bathing resort grew up at the railway terminus to which the name Morecambe was given informally at first, but officially adopted in 1889. 

Camden had thought the name ‘Moricambe in the British tongue signifieth a crooked sea’, while Fr West thought the name came ‘perhaps from two British words, Moreb, a haven and Cain, White or Beautiful; and so called from the white rocks on the Cartmel Coast’.   Modern scholars think it probably originally meant ‘a curve of the sea’: in other words, all it means is The Bay!

Our thanks to Dr Bill Shannon who wrote this feature, 16 November 2013.

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