Lockdown Diary 15: The 1911 School Strike – “Youthful rebels” invade Reddish

This month’s blog is based on a meeting of Burnage Local History Group held in 2019.  It uses as its starting point a postcard in an exhibition at the People’s History Museum on The Most Radical Street in Manchester, curated by Dr Katrina Navickas.  But it was also inspired by the school climate strikes, begun by Greta Thunberg, which spread to Manchester and other British cities in the summer of 2019.  I was fascinated to find out that these were not the first school strikes to have occurred.

The postcard, dated to the early C20, shows a crowd of about 100 people and records a unique and enigmatic event in our local history.  In the foreground a group of boys and girls, dressed in their Sunday best, pose for the camera.  Behind them, a larger crowd have their backs to the photographer and focus their attention on a speakers’ platform.   A handwritten caption tells us that the gathering is at All Saints, Weaste (in Salford), and that the photograph shows the choir strike protest meeting.   It has not been possible to find anything more about the choir strike, although judging by the photo it must have generated a lot of local interest and support at the time.  But it is likely to have been linked to the school strikes that took place in various parts of the country in 1911.

Thanks to Katrina Navickas for permission to use the image – taken from the exhibition “The Most Radical Street in Manchester”

The previous two years had seen the Chancellor Lloyd George’s attempts to introduce a national insurance scheme for funding pensions temporarily blocked by the House of Lords, and wage cuts coupled with high living costs were creating devastating social problems.  The general feeling amongst the poorer citizens of the country was that those with landed wealth had little sympathy for their concerns.  The scene was set for widespread unrest throughout the country.  Beginning with a dockers’ walkout in Southampton, railway workers, warehousemen, colliers and many others joined them on strike during the summer of 1911.  On August 13th two protesters were shot dead after a rally of over 100,000 brought Liverpool to a standstill, while Salford was described as being under virtual military occupation at the time.   The atmosphere was very unsettled and, with revolutionary activity occurring in other parts of Europe in the early C20, there was fear of revolution in Britain.  

Cavalry congregate at the J. Hulse works, Ordsall, 1911
Cavalry armed with lances and rifles on the streets of Salford, 1911

By September 1911 strikes were breaking out in schools, and given Manchester’s radical heritage it is hardly surprising that the city and surrounding towns were centres of pupil unrest. In Miles Platting boys labelled their school caps with “picket” and marched to the Municipal school on Holland Street “the object being to induce the scholars there to declare a sympathetic strike.  These endeavours, however, were futile, and the presence of the teachers at the gates prevented the pickets from entering the school grounds to carry out their programme of ‘peaceful’ persuasion.”    By the time the strikers had reached Corpus Christi school, on Varley Street, they had apparently “assumed quite a militant attitude” and were armed with sticks, and “an even more terrifying display was made by others who were the possessors of toy pistols”. (Northern Daily Telegraph, 9th September)

On the 11th, “the strike was brought to the doors of Ashton… two or three hundred lads ‘came out’, most of the elementary schools in the borough being affected”.  There was considerable concern in the town and “so serious did the situation become that policemen were stationed in the vicinity of some of the schools, and officers in plain clothes were on special duty”.  (The Evening Reporter, 13th September)  The Ashton boys clearly knew how to organise strikes, probably from observing the adults, and some “had pinned to their coats pieces of cardboard on which the word ‘Picket’ was written”, and they “went to various schools and induced the lads to come out”. (Birmingham Daily Mail, 13th September)

The strike came closer to home as “a contingent of youthful rebels from Ancoats and other parts of Manchester invaded Reddish”, approaching the area via Gorton.   These may have been the same boys who “congregated in the vicinity of Oldham Road railway station, where a lively tattoo was kept up on the hoardings and the tin advertisement plates”.   When they got to Reddish they visited all the schools.  “Though failing in their object at the North Reddish Council School, they were successful at the Houldsworth School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School, where most of the boys accepted the invitation and left the playground.” (Northern Daily Telegraph, 13th September)

Houldsworth School, designed by Alfred Waterhouse

In total there were school strikes in 62 towns in Britain.   The Birmingham Daily Mail of 14th September blamed the trouble makers of the “Truant Class” for the strikes, but it is clear that the young strikers were well organised with committees, banners, marches and meetings.  It is also possible that the “Truant Class” contained the schools’ rebels – they may have been labelled as delinquents, but they were also perhaps more keenly aware of the injustices and were more likely to make a stand against them.

What are we to make of this wave of student unrest?  While in other parts of the country striking pupils called for longer holidays, shorter school hours, free stationery, and an end to the strap, in Manchester, Ashton and Stockport their demands are not stated, but they must have had similar aims.  They were also probably inspired by their striking parents, and the presence of the army on the streets appears not to have deterred them – in fact it may have made them more defiant. 

The reports in the papers probably exaggerated the menace of the school strikers for dramatic effect – describing their “menacing display”, “terrifying attitude”, the “toy pistols” and how they “invaded Reddish”.  At the same time they also trivialised the pupils – the “lively tattoo” at Oldham Road railway station sounds more like a carnival than a threatening protest.   Looking at reports of other protests at the time this seems to have been a common way of undermining activism.

The aftermath of the school strikes was brutal.  The children inevitably returned to the classrooms, and ringleaders were punished.  Some were beaten in front of the rest of the school while others were sent to the workhouse, and it is not known whether they achieved any of their aims.   

An earlier school strike in London – 1889

As to the Weaste choir strike, we can only speculate about their demands, but the choirboys were probably demanding payment for their singing.    The Church of England was, and indeed still is, a very wealthy institution, and during this period there was strong resistance to the payment of tithes (essentially a tax) to the Church.  It might have seemed unjust to the choir that they were not being paid for their labour.  Like the school strikers, the Weaste choir show young people taking an active role in asserting their rights, inspired by the actions of the adults.

Lockdown Diary 14 – Shadow Walls

Thanks once again to Toni Hunter for additional research on the Gytes of Byrom House.

For the last 6,000 years or so, give or take a few hundred, people in Britain have been enclosing space and buildings with walls and fences, using whatever material was locally abundant.  Before that, although they might have recognised the idea of a territory, our ancestors were basically nomadic, and had no need to divide space.  They lived in temporary camps and shelters before moving on to the next hunting ground – this was from about 700,000 BCE, so for most of human existence.  Around 4,000 BCE people began to settle down to farm the land and domesticate animals and at the same time they built divisions – field boundaries, walls around their settlements to keep out wild animals and intruders.

For some time I have been interested in why we build walls, why we feel the need to mark out space and to keep things and people in or out.  Walls send out signals – perhaps as a warning not to enter private space, or announcing that you are entering a place with a particular function. During lockdown I became interested in walls that no longer enclose anything, where the building or space they once surrounded has disappeared, walls that have lost their purpose – what I call shadow walls.  I mentioned one them in an earlier blog – the circular wall outlining the demolished Christ Church Chapel in Ancoats – and this blog is about another three, in Levenshulme, Portwood in Stockport, and Gorton.   

Looking across Barlow Road from St Mark’s Church in Levenshulme is a stretch of pale sandstone wall.  The wall is solidly built and quite unlike anything nearby.  It surrounds the garden of house built in the 1950s or 60s, but the wall is clearly older.  The clue to its origins is found in the nearby Byrom Parade – the wall is all that remains of Byrom House and its land, a substantial property that from the 1830s to the early C20 covered Byrom Avenue, Field Bank Grove and Bourneville Grove and stretched between Green Bank Park and Mount Road, then called Back Lane.  

Byrom House Wall – junction of Barlow Road and Byrom Avenue
OS map from 1894 showing location of Byrom House
Byrom House Wall

Photographs from the late C19 show a house with prosperous owners.  The tea party in particular shows a snapshot of the class differences at the time, with two expensively dressed women taking tea, served by a uniformed maid, while a younger woman fixes her stare on the camera.  The gardens are extensive and well maintained and the house itself is covered with climbing plants.  Another picture of the garden shows rustic pathways with branches bent to form arches. 

Tea party at Byrom House c. 1900
A rustic path in the garden at Byrom House c. 1890

It is possible to piece together some of the story of the house from a variety of other sources.  It may have been built as early as 1838 by a Mr Gyte and remained in the Gyte family until at least 1906 – some of the women in the tea party photo are from the Gyte family.   By 1911 the house was occupied by a builder called Thomas Mattinson, who was almost certainly responsible for the construction of the terraced housing on his land and he presumably eventually demolished Byrom House.  By then Levenshulme was sharing in the changing from a semi-rural village to a suburb of Manchester with a number of factories and mills.  Families like the Gytes would no longer have been living in the area. 

Byrom House c. 1890

The Gytes made their money as corn merchants in partnership with Thomas Lomas of Alderley Edge.  Lomas and Gyte were based at 102-104 Oxford St in Manchester, and although George Gyte left the partnership in November 1883, George was presumably wealthy enough to retire or perhaps move on to other business ventures.  In the photo from 1890 George is the elderly man (in fact only in his early 60s at the time) sitting outside Byrom House with a long white beard, so perhaps retirement was more likely.  George died aged 78 on 17th March 1906, leaving the considerable sum of £2,950 3s 11d in his will (approximately £360,000 in current value).  An account of his funeral, which was unusually held in both St Andrew’s Church (probably St Peter and St Andrews) in Levenshulme and Fairfield near Buxton (where he was buried), provides a more colourful picture of his character and life.  “Mr Gyte was for a period of about sixteen years a member of the old Levenshulme Local Board, and was its chairman for three years.  He fulfilled almost every lay appointment in the church and schools, having been churchwarden, school manager, treasurer of the day and Sunday schools, and trustee of the patronage of the church.  He was also president of the local Sick Nursing Association.”  George’s connection to the church would explain why there is a memorial window to the Gytes in St Peter and St Andrew’s.  We also learn about George’s political affiliations.   “He was an ardent Conservative, proud of the fact that he possessed a copy of the first issue of the ‘Manchester Courier’, and had never failed to obtain a copy of the paper, weekly and daily, since.”  George was clearly man of some local standing and shows the middle class sense of duty to the community, and the paper notes the “crowded congregation at the service”, with members of the local District Council in attendance.

Byrom House c. 1890 – George Gyte is on the left

The second shadow wall is marooned in the middle of the Portwood roundabout.  The building that once stood in the middle square enclosure must have been substantial, but now nothing is left apart from the low, well-made, stone walls – the empty space inside is filled with scrub and weeds.   The walls can be reached through the underpass, and although neglected there are display boards that provide some of the story of the site.

Brunswick Chapel Walls – Portwood
Brunswick Chapel Walls – Portwood

Between 1848 and 1955 the Brunswick Wesleyan Methodist Chapel stood inside the walls.  When the chapel was built the area was densely populated with rows of terraced housing, and mills crowded the banks of the nearby rivers Tame and Goyt, providing ample employment.  As the  aerial photograph shows, the area was decimated by later developments – most of the housing is long gone and both Brunswick chapel, plus its adjacent school, and  St Paul’s Church (shown in the aerial photo) were demolished.  The walls of St Paul’s are also still visible, and what remains of the its churchyard is relatively well maintained.  Sadly the  graveyard at the chapel has been neglected, despite attempts to raise money for its restoration.  

Brunswick Chapel from the air – the dotted line shows the location of the roundabout (early C20)

A postcard from the late C19, complete with the local people posing for the camera leaning nonchalantly against the wall, shows us the original appearance of the chapel.  The chapel was built in the Victorian Gothic style and was described in the 1870s as being “an ornament to the locality”.  The walls are topped with iron railings which were presumably melted down, perhaps during World War II, when it was common to use railings to make munitions.  In the graveyard many monuments are visible.  The site is home to about 2,600 burials, but the monuments went with the chapel in 1955, probably broken up and turned into hardcore for building. 

The chapel was built at a cost of £2,530 in 1848 and opened for worship in March 1849 with seating for 770 – the chapel was certainly serving a local need.  A detailed account of the background to the building of the chapel and its opening, was written by Rev H. Jutsum in 1876 to celebrate the jubilee of the nearby Tiviot Methodist chapel (Jubilee memorial being the historical sketch read by the Rev. H. Jutsum at the celebration of the jubilee of Tiviot Dale Wesleyan Chapel, and including a brief history of Methodism in Stockport – 1876).  Tiviot Dale Chapel served a wealthy Methodist congregation who felt that “in order to provide for the children of all the schools being taken to public worship in some chapel every Sunday, as well as to supply the spiritual necessities of the inhabitants of these localities in general, it was proposed to build a good chapel in Portwood”. The aim was to raise £6,000 for three chapels in Stockport, but “the first in importance was Portwood, which, with the contiguous district of Newbridge Lane, included a population of upwards of five thousand souls; but which, except a small chapel built by the New Connexion [a Methodist splinter group], was then destitute of a regular place for public worship”.

The laying of the foundation stone on 8th May 1848 was marked with great ceremony, the 1876 account again giving a detailed list of those processing to the site.  “It was arranged that those friends who felt desirous of being present should meet at Tiviot Dale School, where a procession was formed which moved to the ground in Portwood, in the following order: – Manorial Beadle, Borough Police Constables, Manorial Constables, Superintendent of Police, the Mayor and Magistrates, the Circuit Stewards, Ministers and Stewards, Trustees of the Chapel, Church Extension Committee, local Preachers and Leaders, members and friends of the Society, three abreast, officers, teachers, and scholars of Tiviot Dale School, officers, teachers, and scholars of Newbridge Lane School…”  The sense of precedence, class and power give the impression of an almost feudal retinue leading its way to the chapel site!

The foundation stone was laid by one of the Aldermen, James Marshall of Brinnington Mount who received “a splendid silver trowel in the name of the Trustees” as a souvenir.  Hymns were sung and the meeting was addressed by the local MP James Heald and the mayor.  Finally “a tea meeting was afterwards held in the Portwood Wesleyan School room, at which five hundred persons were present.”  

Visiting the site now it’s hard to picture what it was once like.  Little of the original housing has survived and Portwood is now dominated by a retail park and cut through by the M60.  But 170 years ago it was thriving community, and the opening of the new chapel must have been an event of great importance to the local people.

Brunswick Chapel graveyard – St Paul’s Church in the background

Finally, a wall in Gorton.  A few months ago we hosted some visiting speakers from the Manchester and Stockport Canal Society.  They gave an interesting talk about a now lost waterway that connected the Ashton Canal to Stockport.  Built in the 1790s, the canal passed Houldsworth and Broadstone mills, ending up near   Nelstrop’s Albion mill at the top of Lancashire Hill.  When it was built none of these mills had opened, so there was an element of speculation behind the project, but in time it must have become a valuable asset to the local entrepreneurs.  Generally the canal would have been used for ferrying goods to and from the mills, but it was also used for more unconventional purposes.  William Houldsworth, during the building of St Elisabeth’s Church in Reddish, transported the marble columns by canal – for the last part of their journey, from the canal to the church, they were carried on wagons pulled by elephants from Belle Vue zoo!  It was also possible to take a passenger boat down the canal from Stockport to Manchester, but as the journey took two hours it seems unlikely to have been particularly popular.  By the 1960s the canal, like so many others, was in a state of disrepair, and it was since completely filled in.

Stockport Canal Wall – Gorton
Footpath in Gorton showing the line of the Stockport Canal

One of my trips of local exploration during lockdown was to find remnants of the canal.  A few weeks ago I mentioned Broadstone Bridge, built in the early C20 over the canal.  And in Gorton, near the cemetery and parallel to the top of Gorton Road, is a stretch of the old stone wall that separated the canal from nearby housing.   Within the wall the line of the old canal is clearly visible and is now a footpath.  Like the other walls described, there are few clues to its original purpose, but all were markers of space, visibly displaying what were once important divisions.  All three now seem almost out of place, but although they are not of wide historical importance they tell stories,  adding to our patchwork understanding of the community in which we live and illuminating the changes it has gone through during the last century and a half.

Lockdown Diary 13 – The Life and Times of Socialists, Pacifists and Anti-War Agitators: J. Allen Skinner (1890-1970) and Phillis Skinner (1874-1950)

For the latest blog we are very excited to have a guest contributor – Dr Ali Ronan!  Ali is very generously sharing her latest research in a fascinating study of two neglected radical activists, both of whom had many links to the area, in particular to Burnage Garden Village and its inhabitants.

I first got to know about socialists Phillis and Allen Skinner when I was researching anti-war women in Manchester during WW1. Both had come to Manchester from London. They lived at 193 Mauldeth Rd in Ladybarn and they will have known many of the other socialists in Burnage Garden Village. Phillis Skinner joined the Central branch of the Independent Labour Party in March 1914. Allen Skinner was the first ILP (Independent Labour Party)man to be arrested under the Military Service Act in late 1916. The Skinners were part of the local No Conscription Fellowship, a group committed to challenging conscription and supporting objectors.  

Phillis had been married before when she lived in London and had been divorced by her first husband optical lens maker, Ernest Watson in 1912, citing her co-habitation with Allen Skinner in Manchester as grounds for divorce. Allen Skinner was a young postman and moved from Camberwell, to work for the GPO in Manchester in 1912. The Skinners married in November 1912 once Phillis’ divorce absolute come through. Allen was 22 and Phillis was 37, although she put 33 on the marriage certificate.  In 1915, Phillis and Allen had a baby Jack, who was born in London. Phillis was 41.

Allen was imprisoned in December 1916 after a court martial at the Prees Heath training camp in Whitchurch and sentenced to 2 years hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.  In the summer 1917, Phillis and her friend Maud Hayes went to Prees Heath to hand out leaflets as part of the Women’s Peace Crusade campaign. The women were planning to walk to London to see Allen Skinner and Maud Hayes’ sweetheart, Edwin Rodway who had been sentenced to 1-year hard labour at the Scrubs in early 1917.  Both women were arrested in Market Drayton later and charged for contravening the Reg 27 of Defence of the Realm Act. Both women were sentenced to 3 months imprisonment in Strangeways.  I am not sure what happened to baby Jack although he was back with Phillis in Manchester by 1918.

It is from this point that Phillis became known to the surveillance service. Allen, Phillis and Maud were released from prison in late 1917 and Allen was admitted to a sanatorium in Manchester with arthritis and TB in his leg and arms. His life hung in the balance for at least a year. The Skinners moved back to London in 1920. There is little trace of them in the archives during the 20s, but they were still politically active, Skinner worked with the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW). He soon became assistant editor of the union’s journal, The Post, and wrote numerous articles for it, some of which came to the attention of Special Branch.  He stood unsuccessfully as the Labour Party candidate for Hendon at the 1924 United Kingdom general election, and for Clapham in 1929.

Allen Skinner

Recently I decided to look up a reference to Phillis in the National Archives KV2/685. I imagined it would only hold material about Phillis’ arrest in 1917, so I was astonished to find over 50 pages of surveillance notes about both Phillis and Allen taken during the 30s and WW2. I was also able to track Allen’s anti- nuclear activism after Phillis’ death in 1950.

I bought a copy of a book written by dancer Joy Carter who was married to Phillis and Allen’s son, the dancer Jack Emerson Skinner (1915-1995) and the book gave some more, albeit brief, biographical and personal details about both Phillis and Allen. There is one blurred photo of Allen in his old age in Joy Carter’s book, but Phillis was almost impossible to trace, and she remains a shadowy figure. Joy Carter described Phillis as ‘diminutive’ and as ‘charitable and kind, [was] very small and ran everywhere, turning up at the most unexpected moments. I was terrified of her!

Some of the comments made by the M15 surveillance in the 1940s enabled me to see Phillis in a more three-dimensional way. In 1940 Special Branch described her as ‘an ardent pacifist, helping her husband in clerical work connected with the Peace Pledge Union and similar pacifist organisations. She is a strong-willed woman who, to a great extent, directs a policy which her husband expounds in his public speeches. Mrs. Skinner is not a public speaker.’ Special Branch also describes the Skinners’ flat in Putney, London, in 1940 as ‘lined with books of reference on war, anti-war and pacifism.

Phillis was interested in the theatre too, and once the Skinners moved back to London in the early 20s, she enrolled 5 year old Jack into the experimental school started by dancer Margaret Morris (1891-1980). Phillis volunteered in the school and this will have brought her and Allen into a wider artistic and bohemian milieu. Jack Skinner went on to dance with the radical and experimental anti-Nazi Ballet Joos based in Dartington Hall in the 30s, touring with them in South America during the late 30s and the early years of WW2.  Jack came back to England in 1942 to attend a Military Tribunal and worked as a conscientious objector at Addenbrooks Hospital under the watchful eye of the pacifist, socialist Dr Alice Roughton (1900-1995).

Alice Roughton

Allen Skinner was a founder member of the No War Movement, founded in 1921, the successor to the No Conscription Fellowship. For the first two years of its existence, it was known as the No More War International Movement then renaming itself as War Resisters International. Chaired by the ILP member and conscientious objector, Fenner Brockway, it asked members to strive for revolutionary socialism but not to take part in any war.  From 1934 Special Branch kept a close eye on Skinner and tracked all his speaking engagements for the No More War Movement. At its peak, the NMWM numbered around 3000 members, many from the Independent Labour Party. The group published two journals: The New World and No More War.

Fenner Brockway – former resident of Burnage Garden Village

Skinner was also involved in the establishment of the Peace Pledge Union in 1932 and in 1933 he became involved in the Meerut Prisoners’ release committee which was also of interest to M15. The Meerut Conspiracy Case was a controversial court case initiated in British India in March 1929. Several trade unionists including three Englishmen, were arrested for organising an Indian railway strike. The committee for their release included the Mancunians Ellen Wilkinson and Harry Pollitt.

Ellen Wilkinson – “Red Ellen”

Skinner was also an active member of the ILP in Poplar and became increasingly prominent in the ILP and also served as secretary of the ILP’s London and Southern Counties division. He supported the ILP’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1931 and remained active in the smaller party. Skinner was also a member of the pacifist Research Bureau whose members also included former COs Harold Bing and Wilfred Wellock. One of the minutes of the Research Bureau, mentions that Skinner will contact an old Manchester contact the Quaker pacifist, Alexander Wilson from Whalley Range, who had established the underground Maintenance Committee during WW1 to support the families of COs.  Phillis had been an active member of this committee in Manchester.

From 1939, Roger Fulford of M15 kept a close eye on the Skinners, instructing the GPO to intercept and open letters.  In September 1940 the Metropolitan Police, in a letter to a Col Allen of the GPO, describe Skinner as ‘ an active pacifist and has come under the notice of Special Branch on a number of occasions. He is a speaker and chairman at Peace Pledge Union (PPU) meetings, he is member of the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors, he is in close touch with several the leading members of the ILP, FoR and the No Conscription League. There is no doubt that he is opposed to the policy of the present Government and neither he nor his wife, hesitate to express their views on pacifism and the British Government.’

Allen Skinner was involved with the Peace Pledge Union from its inception in 1934. In 1938 the PPU opposed legislation for air-raid precautions and in 1939 campaigned against military conscription. By 1941 PPU members Reginald Reynolds and Skinner had ‘started a kind of chain letter arrangement’ to get information to a group in West London who were ‘setting ourselves to seek a way through the problem of fundamental social change without violence.’ A large part of the PPU’s work involved providing for the victims of war. Its members sponsored a house where 64 Basque children, refugees from the Spanish Civil War, were cared for. The PPU also encouraged members and groups to sponsor individual Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to enable them to be received into the United Kingdom.

During World War II, Skinner served as an adviser to the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, and in the early years of the war from 1941, Allen and Phillis often went to stay at a cottage that they had bought to hide conscientious objectors, in Saltash in Cornwall. The police there were watching them, noticing that a quantity of PPU literature was delivered there. The police were also watching their London home in Putney which was used for PPU meetings and mock tribunals for prospective COs.

In 1950, Phillis died in Exeter, perhaps on her way to Saltash? She was 76. And Allen now 60, retired from the UPW. From then he devoted more time to Peace News, including a period as editor from 1952 to 1955. Allen was also increasingly involved in anti-nuclear campaigning, becoming a member in 1957 of Direct Action Committee (DAC) against Nuclear War. The Peace News offices were used as a base for the committee, which originally comprised Hugh Brock (editor of Peace News from 1955), J Allen Skinner and Arlo Tatum (War Resisters’ International). Tatum had moved to London in 1955 to be general secretary of War Resisters’ International. He wrote peace and protest songs, some for the Aldermaston marches.

Aldermaston March

In late 1958, the DAC began a prolonged campaign against the construction of Thor rocket bases in Britain. The most significant of these protests were at North Pickenham, near Swaffham, on 6 and 20 December 1958, and at Harrington, near Rothwell, on 2 January 1960. In 1960 Skinner was sentenced to two months in prison for protesting at Harrington, spending his seventieth birthday there. The DAC continued as an active campaign group until well into 1961, with its last project a major march from London to Holy Loch, culminating in direct action at the Polaris submarine base. However, the cost of organising the march contributed to the DAC’s financial difficulties and led to the decision to disband the Committee in June 1961. The formation in October 1960 of the Committee of 100 was seen by many as taking over the role of the DAC, with its aim of creating a mass civil disobedience movement against nuclear weapons. By this time Skinner seems to disappear largely from activism. Perhaps another spell in prison had been just too much. He died in 1970.

I am working through various archives to build up a much more nuanced picture of the Skinners after they left Manchester in 1920. But I hope I have given you enough material for us all to remember Phillis and Allen Skinner – the forgotten agitators of the twentieth century. I have become very fond of the strong-willed woman and the quiet but determined man.

Lockdown Diary 12 – George and William Nelstrop : Flour and Plug Riots

Once again, thanks to Toni for additional research for this blogpost.

In the last blog I wrote about Shore’s Fold hamlet at the junction of Nelstrop Road North and Marbury Road.  A hundred years ago most people would have known the name Nelstrop – but, like many road names, Nelstrop probably means little to those living nearby.  For this blog I’ve been looking at the stories behind the name, starting with George Nelstrop and then rewinding in time to his father William (1801-1877).

One of the first places I saw George Nelstrop’s name was on a pair of handsome polished granite plaques on either side of Broadstone Bridge in Reddish – I’m always impressed by the Victorians’ and Edwardians’ attention to decoration and detail in their public works.   The plaques commemorate a new bridge over the Stockport branch of the Ashton Canal which “was declared open to public traffic on the 16th day of July 1910”, and replaced an earlier bridge built in 1793.  The canal was filled in during the 1960s but the line of the waterway is still clearly visible.  George was certainly a well established local figure.  He had been the Conservative mayor of Stockport from 1905-1906, he was a JP and remained an alderman of the borough in 1910 – as Chairman of the borough extension committee he seems to have been instrumental in the bridge’s construction and, along with the other grandees, was keen to have his contribution permanently remembered in stone.   George even managed to appear above the mayor in the list, making him appear even more important!

Plaque on Broadstone Bridge, Reddish
Plaque on Broadstone Bridge, Reddish

So who were the Nelstrops and how had they managed to become such an important local family?  The story begins nearly a century earlier with George’s father, William Nelstrop, who comes across as a more complex and interesting figure than his son.   While George was born into a wealthy manufacturing family, William appears to have been the driving force behind making their wealth.  The source of their prosperity was the Albion flour mill at the top of Lancashire Hill – the mill is still owned by the Nelstrop family, now in its sixth generation.  It was originally founded by William in 1820 when he was only 19 years old, an ambitious thing to do at such a young age, and showing immense self-confidence.  Brought up on a Yorkshire farm, William may have chosen the site because of its earlier links with milling flour – recent work unearthed a millstone, suggesting that Albion Mill was built on the site of windmill.  It certainly would have been a good spot for a windmill – its exposed and elevated position would have caught the wind from all sides.

Nelstrop’s Mill

Like other successful manufacturers, William entered local politics and was elected mayor of Stockport for 1842 – and it was then that his story took an unexpected turn.  The 1840s was a troubled time in the region and indeed throughout the country.  Chartists were gathering regularly in Manchester and locally in their Bamber’s Brow meeting room in Stockport, demanding radical political change (votes for all men, annual parliaments, no property qualifications for MPs, amongst other things), while most of the manufacturers were supporters and members of the Anti-Corn Law League. 

The Anti-Corn Law League had been set up to campaign against the laws which kept corn prices at an artificially inflated level , and while these regulations most affected the poor,  mill owners also had a variety of reasons for opposing them.   The Corn Laws favoured the traditional landowning class, who tended to look down on manufacturers as parvenus, and the laws threatened the stability of the industrial areas – hungry mill workers were clearly less reliable, and high corn and bread prices could make them demand higher wages.  The religious views of the manufacturing class probably also had an impact on their stance.  Many were non-conformists (the Nelstrops were Wesleyan), and they may have also seen the laws as unfair to the poor – as we will see there is some evidence that William had sympathies with the poor of the borough.  The Anti-Corn Law League was very strong in the town, and in 1841 both the borough’s elected MPs were members, including the founder of the League, Richard Cobden.

Richard Cobden’s statue, St Petersgate, Stockport

William’s biggest challenge as mayor came in August 1842, during what became known as the “Plug” riots – so called because the protestors removed the plugs from the mill boilers to close down manufacturing.  The 1830s and early 40s was a period of immense hardship.  Wages had fallen by about 12% in less than a decade, cost of basic foods had risen and there was a growth in unemployment.  Given that people’s living and working conditions were already difficul, these must have been bitter blows.  Then in February 1842 the manufacturers of Stockport announced a wage cut of between 10% and 20% – the result was widespread and understandable unrest.  Joseph Harrison, a local radical preacher and Chartist, highlighted their problems at a meeting in Stockport on August 20th.  “The first cause of this discontent and disorder is to be found in the wretchedness and misery of the manufacturing population, whose wages are not sufficient to supply their families with the common necessaries of life, and whose social condition has become so unbearable that many, very many, have been known to lift up their hands to the Most High, and beg that He would release them from their awful sufferings by calling them out of existence.”  As a Chartist, Harrison didn’t believe there could be a resolution to the crisis “until the labouring classes be fully and fairly represented in the House of Commons”.

Workers rapidly organised themselves and attempted to unite against the changes – a newspaper at the time noted that “if they were divided they would be like a rope of sand”.    But the aims of the protesters seem to have been mixed – some would certainly have been Chartist members with radical Chartist demands, but most were simply campaigning for the restoration of their January 1840 wages. 

As early as July, William had announced that “he would not be responsible for the peace of that borough”, indicating a reluctance to intervene and his role in the unrest was ambiguous.  But seeing unrest breaking out in nearby Ashton, Hyde and Stalybridge, three troops of the Cheshire Yeomanry marched into Stockport, a detachment of the 72nd Highlanders was barracked in the town, and 2000 special constables were sworn in – these preparations must have brought back unpleasant memories of Peterloo, 23 years earlier. 

Unrest broke out in Stockport on 11th August, as between 10,000 and 20,000 protestors entered the town and went from factory to factory to bring the workers out on strike.  An account from the Quarterly Review (1842/1843) tells us that “they paraded the market place in procession under the eyes of the magistrates, and proceeded from thence to turn out the mills and to stop labour of all kinds in the town”.  The smoke stopped rising from the mill chimneys.

Storming of the Stockport “Bastille” – Union Workhouse, Shaw Heath

The best known episode during the rioting was the assault on the Union Workhouse at Shaw Heath, sometimes referred to as Stockport’s “storming of the Bastille”.   Workhouses were much feared by the poor, and since the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), many people were forced into hard labour in prison-like conditions.  Although defended by cavalry, infantry and special constables, wielding cutlasses, the protesters broke into the workhouse and took £7 in cash and 700 loaves of bread.  40 people were arrested and a rescue party was organised, armed with sticks and pistols.  Perhaps not surprisingly when confronted by cavalry with swords drawn ready to charge, plus infantry and special constables in the workhouse yard, they retreated.    Some of the older protesters had probably been at Peterloo in 1819 and would have remembered the violence that day.

Union Workhouse, Shaw Heath

The account from 1842/43 quotes one of the ring leaders, Booth, providing another interesting insight into William Nelstrop.  Booth addressed the crowd at the workhouse and told them “that they might, if they choose, do as the Mayor of Stockport said ‘Go to the stores and help themselves’… I don’t advise so, but when a great man like the Mayor of Stockport advises so, I think all would be right.”  For William to have said this would have been an extraordinary and genuinely radical act – but even if it was just a rumour, people considered it possible, perhaps showing his concern for the poor.  The Quarterly Review reinforces the point by noting that “Booth is one of those with whom the Mayor fraternized when he presided over the meeting in February, in which the [Anti-Corn Law] League adopted the Chartist resolutions”.

The Quarterly Review also insinuates that the manufacturers and local authorities (including William) colluded with the protestors up to the attack on the workhouse.  It notes that “the mayor, and nearly all the magistrates thus assembled, were members of the League”, and that in July Stockport’s MP and founder of the League Richard Cobden had said in Parliament that “the people would be JUSTIFIED [sic] in taking food for themselves and their families” in the event of unrest.   However, historians now think it unlikely that the protestors were manipulated by the League – it would certainly have been a risky strategy which could have ended very badly for the employers. 

By August 19th William’s sympathies with the protestors seem to have waned.  As mayor he publicly announced that  “the magistrates of the borough of Stockport having observed with regret that the people assembled this morning on Waterloo-ground, and proceeded from the meeting in a riotous and tumultuous manner to turn out the hatters employed in Messrs. Christy’s works, do hereby give public notice, that all future assemblages of the people in or near to the borough of Stockport during the present disturbed state of this district are illegal; and that the magistrates are determined to suppress and put down the same, hereby cautioning all parties at their peril from attending any such meetings”.

Although there were some attempts at negotiation and compromise, the plug riots achieved very little.  The workers were all back in the mills by the end of September, and their demand for a return to 1840 wages was not met.   Ultimately they probably were a “a rope of sand”, with the division between the Chartists and those who simply wanted fair wages splitting their cause.  After weeks without pay, many would have had little choice but to return to work.  Some of those arrested at the workhouse were sentenced to either hard labour or transportation to Australia for life.   What was in effect a victory for the manufacturers is vividly reflected in the Manchester Times and Gazette on 24th September.  “Those seditious demagogues who are continually poisoning the ears of the better disposed must be weeded out; that pestilential lazar house in Bamber’s Brow [the Chartist meeting room] must be vigorously cleansed, and the working classes protected from such fatal infections. How can we expect a resumption of labour while those idlers – the refuse of socialism, Chartism, and anti-corn-lawism – are allowed hourly to hold their infernal orgies, and with impunity to preach the deadliest and most dangerous treason?”

And what of William?  He continued to serve as Mayor until the end of his year of office and was offered a knighthood for his relatively peaceful resolution to the rioting.  William turned the knighthood down, a very unusual move at the time.  Does this perhaps show his sympathies lay with the rioters?  Or did he refuse in order to keep the peace with the workers in the town?  Whatever his motives he continued to build up his business, dying a wealthy man in 1877.

William Nelstrop

Lockdown Diary 11 – Echoes of Country Life

Although lockdown has eased since I last blogged, I’ve decided to keep the name of these posts the same for a while.  They’re still mostly based on walks and cycle rides I took during the strictest period of the lockdown, so the name still seems appropriate.  This post is based on some very early observations I made during the spring – and many thanks to Toni Hunter for her help with the research.

The starting point is a cluster of old houses at the junction of Nelstrop Road North and Marbury Road on the Levenshulme/Reddish border.  When I moved across Levenshulme last August I was surprised to find what appeared to be cottages and farm houses in an area of much more recent housing.  Two are white painted and slate roofed, with substantial gardens, the third is a pair of low adjoining cottages, while the fourth, at the bottom of Nelstrop Lane, is a brick built house dating from about the mid C19.  With a little research (thanks Toni!) I was able to piece together aspects of their stories, while some of the other observations I made add more.

Shore’s Fold – Cherry Tree Cottage on the right, Shore’s Fold Cottage on the left, Shore’s Fold Farm concealed by the trees on the left

The various Ordnance Survey maps from the mid nineteenth century clearly mark the houses.  The 1848 map shows an area of farmland with field boundaries, trees and ponds, surrounding what is in effect a small hamlet, Shore’s Fold.  To the east of Shore’s Fold, Houldsworth Mill would not be built for another 17 years, although the canal had been dug 50 or so years earlier in the 1790s to connect the industrial centres of Stockport, Ashton and Manchester.  The map also names the houses – Shore’s Fold, Cherry Cottage, Yew Tree Cottage and Pink Bank (cottage or farm). 

Shore’s Fold in 1848

The names are linked to ownership or are descriptive.  The most substantial house is Shore’s Fold Farm which was probably named after an owner of the farm – a “fold” is a fenced off area of pasture.   The cottages take their name from their most distinctive features or locations – cherry trees are obviously dramatic when in blossom, and yew trees are very long lived and rich in folklore and legend.  To my mind, most evocative of all are Pink Bank Cottage and Farm, located on what was then Pink Bank Lane (Nelstrop Road North).  Even now, with the Rosebay willowherb in July bloom, the banks of the lane are pink – 150 years ago, before intensive farming, there would have been campion, cranesbill, mallow to add to the colour.  With the exception of Yew Tree Cottage, which had disappeared by 1894, the houses and their names have survived to the present day.

Nelstrop Lane North

Shore’s Fold Farm is a grade 2 listed building and Historic England provides more information about its date and significance.  I had assumed it was eighteenth century at the earliest, but in fact it probably dates from about 1670.  It is an unusual example of a small house with a rectangular, almost double-depth, plan and is linked with the smaller Shore’s Fold Cottage, probably of a similar date and likely to have been built for farm labourers.

Shore’s Fold Farm c. 1670

The 1881 census tells us a little about the people living on the farm.  The head of the household was the 55 year old Samuel Smith, who was originally from Wirksworth in Derbyshire.  Samuel farmed 50 acres, probably a mix of arable and pasture land, and employed two labourers.  He lived at the farm with his wife, Mary, and his two unmarried daughters and son, who would have also helped on the farm. 

The census also lists the splendidly named Joseph and Fanny Claret and their one year old daughter, Martha, living at Shore’s Fold Farm – they were almost certainly living at the adjacent cottage.  The young couple reveal how the area was becoming increasingly industrialised at the time, shifting from simply farming – Joseph worked as a manufacturing chemists’ labourer, and Fanny was an unemployed cotton jack tenter.  The job of a tenter was to stretch dyed or bleached cloth on wooden frames so that it didn’t shrink, using tenterhooks to attach them – hence the phrase “on tenterhooks”.  Fanny may have once worked at Houldsworth Mill, a short walk across the fields.

Shore’s Fold Cottage in the early 1970s
Lane leading to Highfield Farm and House – the houses were located on the right
Highfield Farm – c. 1900

Moving north from Shore’s Fold along the old Pink Bank Lane (Nelstrop Road), you soon arrive at an imposing pair of stone gate posts on the left, more clues about the area’s rural past.  These once led to two substantial houses, Highfield House and Highfield Farm, both still standing in the 1970s and 1980s.   The lane from the gates to site of the houses is lined with mature chestnut, beech and sycamore trees, dating from time of the houses, and an ornate iron gate still marks the entrance to the farm.  Another connection to the farm is the pets’ graveyard concealed in woodland not far from the site of the farmhouse.  The earliest is dedicated to Jim (“1st” was probably added later), who lived from 1925-1936 – presumably a dog.   A later grave is for Jimmie, Farm Dog, born April 4 ’42.  A very recent arrangement of stones and flowers suggests the tradition has continued.

The entrance to Highfield Farm
Jim 1st 1925-1936
Jimmie farm dog born Apr 4 ’42
A more recent pet burial?
Ordnance Survey map 1911 – showing Highfield Farm and the Levenshulme Bleach and Dye Works

In a sense the change in Highfield is the reverse of what we might expect.  The 1911 Ordnance Survey map shows the Levenshulme Bleach and Dye Works right behind the farm, so it would hardly have been an idyllic rural spot at the time.   But while Shore’s Fold has moved from rural to urban, Highfield has reverted back to nature over the past few decades. 

One final discovery in the undergrowth was a well preserved and strangely shaped inscribed brick.  This is a firebrick, manufactured by Poultons of Reading, and would originally have been installed in an industrial kiln, probably for making pottery.  Poultons closed in 1908, so this is well over a century old.  The firebricks are relatively uncommon – one was recently uncovered while building Crossrail, the first to be found in London.  Our firebrick presumably ended up at Highfield when it was the local dump, and connects with Manchester’s industrial past. 

Poultons Kiln Brick – Highfield

Cities, towns, villages, and even the rural landscape go through a constant process of change.   This is particularly true of a city like Manchester – no sooner do we get used to the layout and buildings of the city than the demolition ball flattens them and the skyline is filled by forests of cranes, building taller and taller towers.

But the past resonates in the present with echoes of how life used to be.   These echoes from the past remind us how, although nothing is permanent, the present intersects with the past and much of what we see (and often take for granted) is a physical dialogue between different times.

Lockdown Diary 10 – Dukinfield, Non-Conformism and Slavery

With this week’s blog and I’m cheating a bit as it starts with a trip I made with a friend during last year’s heritage open days in September, rather than during lockdown.  It looks at Dukinfield’s unique role in the history of English non-conformism, but it also takes us on a journey from Dukinfield to Jamaica, and shows some of the intersections of history.

Dukinfield Old Hall Chapel

Tucked away on an industrial estate in Dukinfield is a ruined chapel.  The 2* listed remains are in desperate need of repair, but they are also of great historical significance – they are all that is left of the first independent church in England.  The chapel was once part of Dukinfield Hall, and in the middle of the C17, the lord of the manor was Robert Dukinfield.  At the age of 24, Dukinfield (1619-1689) was a leading commander in Parliament’s forces against Charles I in the Civil War.  Before he reached 30, he had served as a colonel, as MP for Chester and as a member of the Council of State.  Robert was also a fervent non-conformist and patron to radical preachers.  George Fox, the founder of the Quakers preached his first sermon at Dukinfield, but it was particularly Samuel Eaton who was associated with the hall.

Samuel Eaton, the son of the vicar of Great Budworth in Cheshire, followed his father into the Church of England.  However, both Samuel and his father were dissenters.  Samuel was suspended as rector of West Kirby in 1631 and imprisoned for his beliefs in before fleeing to Holland on his release.  In 1637, along with most of his family, Eaton left for Massachusetts and established the settlement of New Haven (Connecticut) after “buying” the land from the local Quinnipiack Nation with 13 English coats.  Samuel’s brother, Nathaniel, served as the first teacher and built the original school in Cambridge, Massachusetts – later to become Harvard University.

Samuel returned to England in 1640, and came to the attention of Robert Dukinfield because of his charismatic preaching at the siege of Chester.  He then became priest in residence at Dukinfield Hall, where he served for several years.  Eventually he seems to have been replaced by some other “gifted brethren” and withdrew to Stockport.  After the restoration of Charles II, Samuel was imprisoned on a number of occasions and excommunicated.  When he died in 1665 he was buried in Denton Chapel.

St Lawrence’s Church, Denton – formerly Denton Chapel

The journey from Dukinfield to Dukinfield Hall in Jamaica is a complicated one, but worth following, as it shows just how closely the history of the slave trade and English history are connected.  Robert’s son (also Robert – 1642-1729) prospered after the monarchy’s restoration, despite his father’s active involvement in the war that led to Charles I’s execution – he was appointed High Sheriff of Cheshire and was awarded with a baronetcy.  Robert junior’s son, John (1677-1741), moved to Bristol and became a prominent member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, and an active slave trader.  Organising about 23 voyages, he transported roughly 6,448 slaves to the Caribbean – horrifically nearly 1,300 died on the journey.  An older and more established member of the Society was a certain Edward Colston, who has featured in the news recently…  

John Dukinfield established a slave plantation growing sugar in Jamaica, and his son, Robert (the great grandson of Colonel Robert Dukinfield) settled in the colony at Dukinfield Hall.  Robert was a member of the Jamaican Assembly and had a relationship with Jane Engusson, described in the parish records from Kingston, as “a free Negro woman”.  Robert and Jane had three children together – two sons, William and Escourt, and one daughter, Elizabeth, all described in the baptismal register as “mulattos”.   In 1747 a private act, brought by Robert, was passed by the Assembly, granting them the same rights and privileges as children born to white parents.  This eventually passed into law after a lengthy legal process by the Lords Commissioners of the Board of Trade and Plantations in London in November 1752.  Jane and all three children were then baptised – this presumably was symbolic sign of their acceptance into free society.  

Baptismal Register, Kingston Parish Church, Jamaica

When Robert died in 1755 he left Jane and their three children with considerable property.  Jane was left £300 for a house and a chaise, 101 acres of land and 14 slaves.  William and Escourt both received £500, 400 acres and 4 slaves.  Elizabeth was left 417 acres, 7 slaves and a dowry of £1000 – but she would only receive her dowry if she married a white man.   Translating the legacies into modern money, Jane received about £54,000, her two sons £90,000 each and Elizabeth’s dowry would be worth about £180,000 – all four were left relatively well to do. 

Robert’s actions show the very strange contradictions of the time.  Robert’s father John was a ruthless slave trader, and Robert was a plantation and slave owner, but he didn’t see it as contradictory to grant Jane and their children ownership of slaves. In fact it was common custom at the time to reward the “mistresses” of white plantation owners by granting them slaves.   The passing of the act in the Assembly is, however, a much more unusual move.  His family with Jane was clearly very important to him and he appears to have taken active steps to have them accepted into Jamaican colonial society. 

There some further twists to this story.  William, the slave owning son of a plantation owner and an ex-slave, was part of the migration of white planters to Virginia a few years later.  But, ironically, the son of an English gentleman and an ex-slave was himself enslaved in Virginia.  In 2019, William’s direct descendant (and a direct descendant of Colonel Robert Dukinfield), Thomas Duckenfield, a successful US attorney, paid a visit to his ancestral home in Dukinfield, pledging to help with the restoration of the chapel.

Dukinfield Old Hall Chapel
Thomas Duckenfield with the statue of his ancestor Colonel Robert Dukinfield outside the town hall in Dukinfield

So, although the slave trade and the slave plantations may seem distant from England, in Jamaica and Virginia for example, they are a crucial part of English history. The colonies were under English rule, English merchants provided and financed the ships, established and managed the plantations, and reaped the financial rewards.  Colonel Robert Dukinfield was not involved himself but his grandson was very active.  In a final irony, George Fox, who preached at Dukinfield Hall in the 1640s and was actively promoted by Robert Dukinfield, established the Quaker religious movement which by the 1750s was one of the first groups to criticise and campaign against slavery in the colonies.

Lockdown Diary 9 – The Lost Racecourses of Salford: Exploring Broughton

Continuing last week’s sporting theme, this blog is about the lost racecourses of Salford, with a few digressions along the way.  Before the weather broke, I went on a very hot cycle ride to a part of Greater Manchester I’d never visited before – Broughton and Kersal. 

The flatness of much of Manchester lends itself well to horseracing, and the earliest races took place on moors.  Racing may have taken place on Barlow Moor as early as 1647, a racecourse that was certainly in use from 1697 to 1701.   The aim of my trip was to reach Kersal Moor, a disused racecourse in Higher Broughton that I’d long heard about.  But I didn’t know about the Manchester racecourse, situated in a loop of the river Irwell – in fact, initially I thought I’d already arrived at Kersal Moor.  As the photo shows, the racecourse is now little more than a vast expanse of flat grass – but if you look carefully it is possible to see the sloping banks all around the racecourse where the seating and stands would have once been located.

Site of the Manchester Racecourse – looking towards the towers at the end of Deansgate

The Manchester racecourse was established in 1847 in an area known as Castle Irwell, named after the crenellated house of John Fitzgerald, the owner of Pendleton colliery.  The racecourse soon became one of the most important in the country, hosting races such as the St Leger Stakes, the Manchester November Handicap (now raced at Doncaster as the November Handicap) and the Lancashire Oaks (now raced at Haydock Park).  In 1888, the winner of the Lancashire Chase was awarded £10,000, at the time the highest prize money in the country, reflecting the confidence of the regions’ wealthy industrialists.  A new stand was built in 1961, but by this stage it was already facing financial difficulties and in 1963 the racecourse closed, with Lester Piggott riding in one of the last races.

Crowds at the Manchester Races in the early 1900s – a pickpocket’s paradise!

Leaving the Manchester racecourse behind, I rode up towards a church that I could see at the top of a steep hill.  After wandering around St Paul’s graveyard for a while I finally found Kersal Moor next to the church.  The Moor is a very atmospheric place to visit, but it is hard to conjure images of its former life as a racecourse.  The land is very rough, sandy, and covered in gorse, and it is pitted with hollows.  Although it certainly doesn’t have the pristine flatness of Castle Irwell, this was the site of Greater Manchester’s main racecourse from 1681 to 1847.  In 1745 the racecourse was closed for a few years because of church disapproval – probably because of the gambling – but support from the local gentry meant it was reopened in 1760.   I discovered a second sporting link on a plaque – in 1818 the Old Manchester Golf Club, England’s second oldest, played its first game on Kersal Moor.

Kersal Moor – St Paul’s Church in the background

As well as the horse racing, a variety of sideshows added to the festive atmosphere on the Moor.   Cock fighting would take place before the racing and visitors could buy “obscene prints” or gamble with dice.  On occasions there were also nude male running races, based on the ancient Greek practice.  Although it may sound strange now, apparently the practice was not uncommon and was also found in other parts of the country.  Between 1777 and 1811 there were 35 documented nude races at Kersal, and, according to the Lancashire novelist Walter Greenwood, they took place “so the lasses can weigh up form”

Plan of Kersal Moor Racecourse – early 1800s (note the Turf Tavern)

In 1780 Elizabeth Raffald, the author of The Experienced English Housekeeper, posted an advert announcing “The ladies’ stand on Kersal Moor will be opened on Wednesday next for the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood of Manchester, where coffee, tea, chocolate, strawberries, cream etc, will be provided every Wednesday and Friday during the strawberry season”.   This provides a rather more genteel image of a day at the races in Georgian Kersal, although perhaps this was where the ladies would watch the nude races…   I like the reference to a “strawberry season” – we are so used now to buying strawberries at any time of year. 

Racing at Kersal in 1830 – the grandstand on the right of the print is on the left side of the plan

But my main reason for wanting to visit the Moor was because of its links to Manchester’s radical history.  Because of its size and openness, it became an important meeting place for large gatherings.  In June 1812 30,000 troops camped on the Moor ready to crush Luddites, groups of hand loom weavers who were smashing the power looms to try and protect their livelihoods.   In 1818 striking miners met on the Moor to call for better conditions.  The most famous meeting at Kersal was a mass gathering of Chartists on 24th September 1838, campaigning for political reform.   The precise numbers of people attending are difficult to gauge – the Manchester Guardian said 30,000, while the Morning Advertiser spoke of 300,000, a sizeable margin of error!  But there were certainly tens of thousands gathered on the Moor to hear the great leaders of the Chartists, Feargus O’Connor and Joseph Rayner Stephens, call for votes for all working men and a fairer political system.  William Henry Chadwick, the “Old Chartist “ I blogged about a few weeks ago (Lockdown Diary 4) was only an 11 year old boy in 1838, still living in Compstall, but when he joined the Chartist cause in the 1840s I’m sure he would have heard the more experienced activists reminiscing about this great meeting.

Leaving Kersal Moor on the way down Bury New Road I stopped briefly at what appeared to be a magnificent Greek or Roman temple, complete with Corinthian columns.  Appropriately, the Church of the Annunciation is a Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1860-61 by the growing Greek and Cypriot community, and was the first purpose built orthodox church in the country.  The church is still in use, and Higher Broughton is a fascinating place to visit, with its large orthodox Jewish population.  Cycling down a side street of small terraced houses, all seemed to be lived in by Jewish families, with washing hanging from the railings and small children, the boys with ringlets in their hair and yarmulkes on their heads, playing on the pavement, I felt transported back to Victorian Manchester.

Church of the Annunciation – Higher Broughton
Church of the Annunciation – Higher Broughton

Lockdown Diary 8 – Skiing for Refugees in Reddish Vale

As the sun beats down on a glorious June morning I’ve chosen to write about something very unseasonal – skiing in Reddish!  At first it seems an unlikely story.  But looking at the incline of the slopes along the Tame valley you can see why two Norwegian students at Manchester University were inspired to stage one of Greater Manchester’s more unusual sporting events over two days in early March 1960.

1960 was World Refugee Year, and Lars Eie and Erik Hoff, members of the Manchester University Skiing Club, came up with a novel idea to raise money for the cause.  With the help of the Students Union, they combined their desire to help refugees and their love of skiing by organising an international ski jumping competition.   

The obstacles to their plans were considerable.  Firstly they had to find a suitable site with large slopes – Reddish Vale was chosen because of the steep sides to the valley, on the Denton side of the river.  They also needed to extend the height of the jump an extra 40 feet – this was done by constructing a scaffolding platform.   In a nice touch, Stones the scaffolders proudly put an advertising hoarding at the top of the run.  The final slope measured over 100 feet, allowing for a maximum jump of 130 feet. 

Finally, the biggest problem – they needed to find the snow.   It was very unlikely to be snowing in Reddish in March, so 10 tons were dug from Devil’s Elbow in the Scottish Cairngorms and immediately transported to Reddish in sealed lorries.  The snow had been treated with ammonium chloride to stop it melting and extra artificial snow was brought from Chester.   The Saturday was a very sunny day, and an army of volunteers spent two hours laboriously spreading the snow on the run.  This provided a thin and rather narrow covering for the ski slope, enough for the competitors but not for the bottom of the jump, which had to be covered with cut grass for a soft landing!  It looks like vegetation was also put at the side of the ramp in case the jumpers skied off target.

The event attracted huge crowds over the weekend of the 5th and 6th March.  15,000 people crowded into the Vale, each paying 2/6  to watch skiers from Norway and Britain compete on what was at the time the largest artificial ski slope built in Britain.   In addition to the main competition the crowds were entertained with “acrobatics and fancy jumping”.  What the “fancy jumping” involved isn’t clear, but the whole event must have been a completely new and exotic experience for the spectators, very few of whom had probably ever been skiing or even been abroad. 

According to local news reports “none of the British skiers did outstandingly, but at least one of them earned commendations from the Norwegians when they learned how little practice they had had” – memories of Eddie the Eagle come to mind!The winner, in the second round, was the Norwegian Arve Johnsen, who “swept forward and into the air with arms spread like wings, and came down with perfect balance knee deep in the grass at the bottom.  He had jumped 106 feet.

Overall the weekend of skiing was a great success.   Despite the weather being sunny, and the fears of the people attending, the snow didn’t melt.  Money was raised for World Refugee Year and the competition even made the national newspapers, with an article and photo in The Times.  The event was never repeated, but the possibility of further skiing in Reddish Vale re-emerged in the 1990s, with plans for a snow dome being discussed.   By then the area had become a very well used country park and there were widespread objections, so the plans were shelved.

The local press account from the time shows how doubters were challenged by the enthusiasm of the two students. “Not a few local cynics scoffed at first when the scaffolding was going up and the snow had not yet arrived.  But by the time the jumpers began to take off, the two young Norwegian students had shown that bad weather – or rather the wrong sort of weather for a skier – need not stop anybody… This example would leave British Industrial cities with no excuse for much of their dullness.”

Lockdown Diary 7 – Medieval Heaton Moor: Moats and Field Systems

Back to a more obviously historical theme this week.   When the lockdown relaxed I went for a socially distanced evening walk with Dave from the history group around Heaton Moor golf club.  I already knew about the site of Peel Moat, which Dave was planning to show me – but what we also saw was a much more extensive medieval site, as far as I know not recorded elsewhere…

Peel Moat itself is the site of a moated medieval hall, built at some point between about 1250 and 1450.   Described as a “pleasant and breezy spot” by the members the Cheshire and Lancashire Antiquarian Society who visited in 1885 (see online – Proceedings of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarians Society, May 17th 1899), it is now at the beginning of the 15th hole!

Peel Moat – looking across the moat from the north east corner to the platform in the middle

The hall would have stood on the raised, roughly square, platform of land, 24 by 26 metres.   This platform is surrounded by a sizeable moat, which varies in width from 6 metres to a considerable 18 metres on the east side.  It’s hard to make all this out from the photos, but the first one is taken from the north east corner looking over to the central area where the hall was built – you can see a wide area of lilies and waterlogged land in the dip of the moat.  The platform of land in the middle is the teeing off point for women players and they have to clear the moat and not hit the trees to get to the hole.   Historic England mentions that the waterlogged land is full of interesting organic remains – Dave noted that it is also full of golf balls!  If we’d had more time he was keen to root around in the lilies to retrieve them…

Peel Moat – looking across the moat from the central “island” platform

The interpretation of the site is a little confusing.  Historic England describes it as a moated site, which are quite widespread (there are about 6,000 in England), and are found particularly in the central and eastern parts of the country.  They tended to be symbols of power rather than serving a defensive purpose. 

But taking the name as a clue, it was perhaps more likely to have been a peel tower, square sided stone towers found from Cheshire to the Scottish borders, in increasing numbers the further north you travel.  These were generally built from the 1400s onward.  There is a good example in Fenney Bentley in Derbyshire (Fenney Bentley Old Hall) which has been incorporated into a farm house.  The fact that so many were built along the Scottish border suggests that they also had a defensive purpose – in addition many of those further north look like small castles.  However we interpret Peel Moat, it would have been the home of someone of considerable social importance in the area.

Fenney Bentley Old Hall, showing the peel tower at the front

There is some evidence of a building in the middle and foundations were still visible in the nineteenth century, but the fate of the tower is uncertain.  The antiquarian visitors in the 1880s and 1890s noted an entry in the Didsbury parish registers for May 4th 1748 – “buried John Hulme of Didsbury from ye Peel”, suggesting that the site was still inhabited at this point.  An old man in the 1890s stated that “Owd Oliver” [Cromwell] had destroyed the tower during the English Civil War, while an old woman said that “the place was let in by a storm… or by an earthquake”.  But the most likely thing is that the building was simply abandoned and gradually fell into disrepair.  If it was built of stone the stone blocks would probably have been removed for other building work. 

The account in the 1890s of mentions a similar moated site in Rusholme “in the margin of the Rush Brook”, in a place called Castle Hill, which was probably on Moss Lane East.  The level of housing development during the nineteenth century would probably have destroyed any evidence of the site.

Ridge and Furrow field system – near the 15th hole

Walking away from the moat, the most noticeable thing in the low evening sunshine was the shadows cast across the golf course.  These revealed that, far from being flat as I would expect, much of the golf course is patterned with low parallel ridges, not unlike the texture of corrugated iron sheeting.  These are evidence of ancient farming methods and are known as ridge and furrow – they are also evidence of the open field system which existed before the enclosures of the late eighteenth century.  They were formed by continuous horse drawn ploughing along the same lines, with the earth from the plough creating the ridge and the plough itself the furrow.   There would also have been ploughing along the ridge, but the main build-up of soil along the ridge was not affected by this.  The diagram explains it a little better!  The shape of the ridges provided good drainage for the crops, with the water running off into the furrows.

Ridge and Furrow formation

We can’t be sure of the dates of the fields.  The earliest ridge and furrow survives from about 800, and it was still being used in places as late as early nineteenth century, but it is most likely to date from the Middle Ages or, perhaps, the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. 

The survival of the field system, and that of Peel Moat, is probably mainly thanks to its location in the grounds of Mauldeth Hall and the golf course itself, which would have protected the area from development for housing and industry.  Even in the countryside most of ridge and furrow has been destroyed by modern farming techniques. The golf course is accessible to the public, with footpaths passing next to Peel Moat and across the ridge and furrow – I would recommend an evening walk to catch the lengthening shadows across the ridge and furrow.  I’m not aware of any reference to this field system, so if anyone has any information please send a message. Finally, thanks to Dave for showing me around.

Lockdown Diary 6 – Shelters and Common Land

Walking through the woods in Highfield Country Park and Reddish Vale, I’ve been struck by how this edgeland, at the margins between city and country, has become real shared space.    People walking dogs, families looking at nature, musicians playing in the open air… they are exercising their rights to the common land, in areas that were once industrial and have now been reclaimed by nature.

Hidden in clearings, camouflaged by the trees, are shelters and the remains of campfires, the embers sometimes still hot, with benches and seats circling around them.   The combination of schools being closed and the beautiful weather has led to children and their parents (and possibly adults?) actively playing, building huts and enclosures.  Some of them are quite ambitious, with sticks woven into roofs, but more often they are sticks leaning against trees forming a sort of wigwam.   What they all show is that, given the opportunity, people like to play outside.  Last year the local history group was visited by two groups from Green End School and we talked about how playing has changed between the generations.   There were obviously differences – children now have games consoles and TVs – but assumptions about children not playing outside were partly wrong; most still enjoyed the open air.

Timber wigwams – Highfield
Substantial shelter – Highfield

The hunter gatherers who lived in the region during the Mesolithic, 10,000 years ago just after the last Ice Age, would almost certainly recognise the shelters built in Highfield and Reddish Vale.  They were not settled in one place, but moved in small collective tribal groups, taking regular routes and returning to the same places in different seasons.   A hazel nut tree I spotted in Highfield would have been an autumn attraction, and they would probably gathered blackberries at the same time, much like people today.   The animals from the period haven’t survived, but they would have hunted deer, wild pigs and aurochs (wild cattle), while hoping to avoid wolves and bears!  The shelters that these Mesolithic people built would have been simple, temporary and rapidly built, using the materials around them.  They would have sat around outdoor fires, sharing their experiences and making tools.  In some parts of the country archaeologists have found the remains of fires from this period, with the debris of stone tool making still on the ground, behind where they sat in a circle.

Reconstruction of a Mesolithic Camp
Campfire – Highfield (unfortunately by the time I took the photo the mobile made of cider cans hanging from the trees had been removed!)

Another shelter I found in Reddish Vale is more like a shrine.   Made from woven wood, the branches are festooned with messages of hope, ribbons, toys.  It reminded me of a tree I saw at a Hindu temple in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago, weighed down with small wooden cots and ribbons, given by people hoping to be blessed with fertility by the gods.   It is also very similar to shrines in Catholic countries.   At some point these may be of interest to future historians, but for now they show a simpler ways of doing things, and people playing and working together, sharing our common land.

Covid fairy tree – Reddish Vale