Lockdown Diary 17 – Joseph Chessborough Dyer: A Connecticut Reformer in Burnage

During one of the brief respites from full lockdown, I accompanied five of the local history group on a history walk around Heaton Moor golf course and the outside of Mauldeth Hall.  Thanks to Toni’s historical detective work this opened up the story of Joseph Chessborough Dyer, the builder of Mauldeth Hall and a fascinating historical figure, whose activities and breadth of interests reveal much about C19 Manchester.

Members of Burnage Local History Group outside Mauldeth Hall

On a fresh and sunny December morning, along with five members of Burnage Local History Group, I found myself standing in the wooded grounds of Mauldeth Hall.  Many people will remember it as the Hospital for the Incurables, a role it played until 1990, or they know it as the current residence of the Chinese Consul, or perhaps as the official residence of the Bishop of Manchester in the 1850s and 60s.  Less well known, but of greater interest, is the life of the man who built the hall, Joseph Chessborough Dyer (1780-1871), and his contribution to so many aspects of life in Manchester and beyond. 

Mauldeth Hall

In a life that spanned nearly a century, Dyer was a truly modern man by the standards of the time, promoting technological change, a free press, and political, economic and social reform.   In an engraving from about the 1830s, a middle-aged Dyer gazes confidently at the viewer with pen in hand, looking the epitome of a learned Victorian gentleman.  But Dyer’s journey to Mauldeth Hall and then to a number of other substantial houses in Burnage was highly unusual and reveals a restless man with very wide interests.

Joseph Chessborough Dyer – c. 1830

Dyer was in fact originally an American citizen, born in Stonington Connecticut on 15 November 1780 in the heat of the American Revolution.  Five years earlier the colonies had rebelled against British rule over what they saw as unfair taxation, and war between the colonies and the British continued until 1783.  Dyer’s father, Nathaniel, was a captain in the Rhode Island Navy, in reality a small flotilla of ships, but nevertheless historically important as the first independent navy in North America.  He would have seen active service in the struggle against the British. 

Dyer’s mother was also deeply affected by the revolution.  Less than a year after Joseph’s birth, as his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) recounts, she died as a result of the storming and burning of New London in September 1781.   In what was the last British victory against the colonies, Benedict Arnold, originally a revolutionary commander led the British troops that burnt the town and slaughtered many colonists.

So how did an American citizen, born during the revolution, end his life as a British gentleman in the north west of England? The answer lies in the transformation taking place during the Industrial Revolution and the opportunities it gave to a young man like Dyer, who was ambitious, inventive and good at seizing opportunities. His particular skill was in engineering.  According to the DNB “he had a turn for mechanics and when quite a lad constructed an unsinkable lifeboat, in which he and his father took excursions along the coast”.  From 1802 Dyer was regularly making business trips to England, settling permanently in 1811, initially in Camden Town, and then from 1816 in Manchester, where he became a very wealthy man.

Despite the tensions between the newly independent United States and its former overlord, British industrialists were keen to get their hands on American technology.  Dyer was an important cog in this relationship, introducing machinery and techniques into the heart of the Industrial Revolution.  These included a steel engraving process (1809), machines for fur sheering and nail making (1810), an improved carding engine (1811), and plans for a steamboat (1811).   Although not their inventor, Dyer often made changes to these inventions and was awarded their patents (the carding engine was the first to be patented in this country), showing a wide interest in technological change.  This was a time of dizzying innovation, and many of these machines were met with opposition from the skilled workers.  They believed, probably rightly, that at best their wages would be forced down and at worst they would lose their jobs as a result of the changes.

In 1825 Dyer was awarded a patent for a roving frame used in cotton spinning.  Again Dyer was not the inventor but he simplified and improved the frame, making spinning far more efficient, and it was probably a significant turning point in his career.  Since Manchester was at the centre of the cotton spinning industry he was well placed to make money from the patent.  He was listed as owning a works at 17 Dale St in the same year, and he acquired a seven-storey mill on the south side of Store Street for manufacturing machinery at around the same time.   By 1825 Dyer had built Cringle Lodge, one of a group of substantial properties at the top of Burnage Lane.

Mauldeth Hall in the mid-Nineteenth Century

Business was going well for Dyer and in 1832 he extended his manufacturing interests to France, opening a machine making works in Gamaches (Somme).  At about the same time he began building his new home, Mauldeth Hall, an impressive neo-classical mansion with attractive landscaped grounds.  The Hall is noted for its innovative fireproofing built into the design.   Dyer probably moved into the hall with his family soon afterwards, where he would have enjoyed the life of a country gentleman.   In 1838 he added to his fortune by selling the “extensive machine works at Manchester” to Parr, Curtis and Madeley.  The sale of his mills was certainly well timed as all the machines in the mill were destroyed in a huge fire in 1842.  In May 1840, Dyer was admitted into the Institution of Civil Engineers, the supreme professional body for engineers in Britain, in recognition of his expertise and importance.   His admission documents have survived and note his reason for joining as “his great practical knowledge as a Mechanician”.

Dyer’s admission document for the Institution of Civil Engineers (1840)

During the late 1820s Dyer also became involved with one of the most famous engineering projects of the time – the Manchester to Liverpool railway, the first passenger route in the world.   His suggestion of using double headed rails and wooden sleepers was outvoted in favour of lighter rails and stone sleepers.  These had to be soon replaced.  Dyer again showed himself to be a more skilled and forward thinking engineer than many of his contemporaries.

Dyer only lived at Mauldeth Hall for a short while.   By the 1841 census he is listed as living at Burnage Lodge, and the 1840s saw a dip in his fortunes.  He had been an early shareholder and director of the Bank of Manchester, set up in 1829, and an expression of the city’s confidence at the time.  But the bank was defrauded by its manager, a Mr Burdekin, and crashed in 1842, losing Dyer £98,000, the equivalent of about £10 million in current money.  Dyer also had to give up his factory in France, due to mismanagement and probably partly as a consequence of the 1848 revolution, leading to the loss of a further £120,000. 

Brook House, Burnage Lane – image courtesy of Manchester Libraries

Despite these huge losses Dyer was still a wealthy man, owning extensive lands in Burnage.   By the 1851 census he had retired and in 1861 he was living at Brook House, another large property which he probably built, with his son and three servants.    Later he built The Acacias, which became the original building used by Acacias School.   Although less grand than Mauldeth Hall, both houses show that Dyer remained part of Manchester’s elite.

The Acacias (later Acacias School) – it is not known if Dyer ever lived in the house

At some point in the early 1840s Dyer built a tower in n the grounds of Brook House, next to what appears to be an ornamental lake surrounded by trees.   This was intended to be his mausoleum and must have been a significant structure, as it is shown on the OS map of 1848, marked as “Dyer’s Tower”.   Clearly Dyer wanted to be remembered, but this was not to be, and the tower was demolished – unfortunately no pictures survive. 

OS map of 1848 (surveyed 1845) – it appears to have been mapped before the building of Brook House, which stood in the blank space taken up by Burnage Lodge (courtesy of HMSO)

Dyer’s story so far probably differs little from many other Manchester industrialists, apart from his American origins and the breadth of his business concerns.  However he was also active in the world of political and social reform.  The DNB notes that when he retired he occupied himself “with science, literature and politics”, but in truth he had always held these interests.  Being brought up at the time of the American Revolution may have inspired his political interests, and arriving in Manchester in 1816 he was entering a city and a country in political turmoil.

Black and white chalk drawing of Dyer (1831) – William Brockedon (National Portrait Gallery)

A  majority of the population were unrepresented in Parliament, Manchester had no MP despite its size and three years after Dyer settled in the city the Peterloo Massacre saw the slaughter of protesters  at the reform meeting in St Peter’s Fields.  Even if he didn’t attend, Dyer would have been acutely aware of the meeting and the bloodshed that occurred.  We know from the DNB that “he engaged in the struggle for parliamentary reform” perhaps even before Peterloo, and “in later years was closely associated with the Anti-Cornlaw [sic]League, both in its formation and operations”.  As the Anti Corn Law League, led by John Bright and the Stockport MP Richard Cobden, became a national organisation in 1838, he must have been active at the height of his business success, while he was building and living in Mauldeth Hall.   Cobden refers to him as “old Dyer” in a letter of 1840, which also shows his opposition to Cobden’s ally Milner Gibson, who was standing to be a Manchester MP.   Cobden recounts that at a meeting of the “Corn law assoc.”   there was “a great blow up” between a former mayor of Manchester and Dyer, who stated that “as he [Gibson] had never addressed the public he [Dyer] could not view him as a candidate to represent Man”.   Dyer certainly held very strong political principles and believed that elected politicians needed to engage with their voters.

Meeting of the Anti Corn Law League, Newall’s Buildings, Manchester, c. 1838 – Dyer is probably one of the men present

As a leading figure in the Anti Corn Law League, Dyer was also an advocate of free trade.  We know that he was one of the vice-presidents presiding over a free trade banquet on 3rd November 1852 at the Free Trade Hall (an earlier hall on the site of the current building) – the menu included 4000 pies, 4800 meat sandwiches, and 2000 raspberry and strawberry tarts!  When he was in his 70s he was the chair of the Reform League, which campaigned for votes for all working men. 

Dyer’s political activities also took him abroad to France.  In 1830 he was a key member of a delegation to Paris, in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew Charles X and placed Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen King”, on the throne.  According to contemporary accounts, the delegation was “received with great distinction by the French government”.  Dyer brought with him contributions from the people of Manchester for the wounded of Paris, and the visit was important for the swift recognition of the new monarchy by the British government.  His comments at the time add to our picture of his reformist political views – “Mr J.C. Dyer said that it had been shown what might be the result when rich and poor formed one common union, in one common effort, for the overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of liberty”.  Dyer also seems to have taken the opportunity to extend his business interests, and two years later he opened his ill-fated engineering works in northern France.

Revolution of 1830, Departure of King Louis-Philippe for the Paris Town Hall – Horace Vernet

Newspapers were a crucial part of the changes that helped modernise nineteenth-century Britain and spread new ideas, so it’s unsurprising that Dyer was involved in their foundation.  In 1815 he helped set up the “North American Review”, a literary journal based in the US, and “he was also concerned in the foundation of the Manchester Guardian in 1821” (DNB).  It’s not clear exactly what his role was, as he wasn’t a member of the “Little Circle” of businessmen who were the driving force behind the new reforming paper.  But it shows that he was mixing in reformist circles at an early date and that he must have known John Edward Taylor, the industrialist who was so horrified by the bloodshed at Peterloo that he set up the paper.   Three years later in 1824 Dyer was also involved in the establishment of the Mechanics Institute, set up to provide evening classes for artisans and other young workers.

First edition of The Manchester Guardian – May 5, 1821

Like many of Manchester’s business elite, Dyer was one of 178 members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where he would have known leading figures in the city.   Here he spoke on a variety of topics including physics, politics and his various inventions.  He also published a number of pamphlets, showing him to be sympathetic to the abolitionist cause –  “Notes on the legalised reclamation of fugitive slaves from the free states of America”  (1857) and “Notes on the slave holders’ mission to England” (1860) seem to have been highly critical of the enslavement of African people.  He also published political pamphlets – “Democracy” (1859) and “Notes on Political Mistakes” (1860).

Dyer had travelled far from his Connecticut roots and early invention of the unsinkable lifeboat in the late 1700s, becoming a British citizen and making Manchester and, in particular Burnage and Heaton Moor, his home.  The cotton industry, railways, political reform, free trade, newspapers, education, abolitionism – Dyer engaged with so many of the issues and developments of the time.  In May 1871, at the age of 90, he died at Henbury near Macclesfield, but not before he had written a final pamphlet – “Longevity, by a Nonagenarian”.  Sadly the pamphlet is now lost, so we will never know the secrets of his advice, but I would expect that living a full and active life was part of it! 

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