Lockdown Diary 5 – The Aviator: An A6 Story

For a while I’ve known about the links between aviation history and the Burnage/Levenshulme borders.  Louis Paulhan, the first pilot to fly from London to Manchester, landed in a field in Burnage, and Fairey’s Aviation on Crossley Road produced bombers and fighter planes during World War II.  But a chance comment from a friend alerted me to another connection with one of the great pioneer aviators.  He had been cycling down the A6 and spotted a plaque on St Thomas’ school, Heaton Chapel, saying that the school was attended by Sir John Alcock in 1899 – the first pilot to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.

With the help of Toni from the group I’ve pieced together the story of an immensely confident, brilliant and driven young Manchester man, from a very humble background, who seems to have thrived on danger.

Sir John William Alcock – Ambrose McEvoy (1919)

John Alcock was born in 1892 at the lodge or cottage of Basford House on Seymour Grove in Old Trafford.  His father worked as the coachmen at the house and later as a horse dealer.  The family seems to have been quite peripatetic.  For a while they lived in a small terraced house on Firswood Road in Fallowfield, perhaps when John attended school in Heaton Chapel.  Between 1900 and 1905 the family lived in St Anne’s, but by 1909 they were back in Manchester again, John working as an apprentice mechanic at the Empress Motor Car and Aviation Company, at 180 Stockport Road on the Longsight/Ardwick border, another A6 link.

In 1910 John watched the arrival of Louis Paulhan in Burnage.  He went with his father and thousands of others to witness the early morning landing of French winner [of the London to Manchester race] Louis Paulhan. As the crowd raced across the grass to greet the Paulhan, Alcock marvelled that the French man`s Farman [plane] was just like the one he had been working on. He informed his father “one day I am going to fly”.  That single-minded determination characterised his short life…   

While working at the Empress Motor Car and Aviation co, John helped make an engine for the pilot Maurice Duqroq, and when he delivered the engine to Brooklands in Surrey he persuaded Duqroq to take him on as his engineer.  By 1912 he had qualified as a pilot and when World War I broke out he enlisted as a pilot.  In September 1917 John was shot down over the sea near Turkey and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.  He recounted his experience of being shot down in a letter to his uncle:  I had the rottenest luck in the world, my propeller and reduction gear burst about 1 ½ hours after I started on a raid, I tried to get home but unable to, I landed safely in the sea, with some effort, sat on the machine for over two hours making signals why I wasn’t picked up is a mystery to me.  At last I had to leave the bus [i.e. plane] which was sinking to get ashore was in the water for well over an hour.  After all this I spent the night on the rocks shivering, and was made prisoner 10 o’clock the next day.

Ditching his plane in the sea clearly didn’t deter him from adventure, and even while a prisoner John wrote that I shall be ready for any big stunt after the war.  That “stunt” was to be the first Atlantic crossing, a challenge set by the Daily Mail in 1913, with a £10,000 prize and three other competing teams.  John’s partner on the flight was another Manchester man, Arthur Brown, whose well-to-do American parents had moved from Glasgow to Oswald Road in Chorlton when he was a child.  Arthur was a much quieter man than John, and a brilliant navigator, capable of complex calculations under pressure.   Although both lived in South Manchester, the two men had only met a few weeks before the flight, but their personalities seemed to complement each other very well.

Arthur Brown and John Alcock

John and Arthur set off on their night flight on 14th June 1919 at 16.10 GMT, carrying their lucky mascots.  Their plane, a Vickers Vimy, was a large aircraft carrying 865 gallons of fuel.   From a modern point of view it’s hard to fully grasp the risks involved.  This was still the very early days of aviation technology – Paulhan’s flight from London to Manchester in 1910 had taken 12 hours, and it was only 15 years since the Wright brothers’ first ever powered flight.  In addition Arthur’s navigation was partly dependent on clear skies.

John’s mascot – “Lucky Jim”

During the flight John and Arthur encountered many problems.  The wireless transmitter broke and part of the exhaust fell off, and what was supposed to be a clear night ended up being cloudy for some sections of the flight.  The most dangerous time was when the engines stalled in thick cloud in the early morning of the 15th June.   The plane nosedived and spiralled towards the sea – when they emerged from the clouds they were 100 feet above the water and John only managed to restart the engines about 50 feet from the waves.

Eventually, after 1,890 miles and around 16 hours of flying (the accounts give different lengths of time), land was spotted and a flat area in County Galway was identified for a smooth landing.  Unfortunately it ended in a bog, with the plane’s nose down in the peat!    Interestingly, the two men suffered from the first cases of jet lag.

John and Arthur had won the prize and they were welcomed by huge crowds wherever they went.   Both men were knighted a few days later at Windsor.  

Unfortunately John was to live for only a few more months.  At the age of 27 he crashed in bad weather on the way to the Paris air show and was buried in Southern Cemetery.  Arthur never flew again. 

John Alcock greets well wishers

Lockdown Diary 4 – Christchurch Chapel and William Henry Chadwick, “The Old Chartist”

This week’s diary takes us to a ruined chapel in Ancoats and a cemetery in Reddish and casts light on the radical history of Manchester and some of the unusual individuals involved… 

A few weeks ago, in what seems like a different time and place, Katrina Navickas visited the local history group and gave a fascinating talk about Manchester’s most radical street (which turned out to be Cropper Street in Collyhurst!).  One of the places Katrina also mentioned was Christ Church Chapel on Every Street in Ancoats – the chapel was at the heart of activism in Manchester in the mid nineteenth century.

Earlier this week I cycled into town to take a look at the remains of the chapel, now nothing more than a low circular wall, marking the shape of the building, enclosing a stand of silver birch trees.  Surrounding the wall a few gravestones lie on the ground. 

Circular wall showing the footprint of Christ Church Chapel

Christ Church Chapel, also known as the Roundhouse, was built in 1824 by “Dr” James Scholefield, a charismatic and eccentric preacher with the Bible Christian Movement, a non-conformist sect established in Salford.   Scholefield ministered to the working class community living in the neighbourhood, most of whom would have been working in the enormous nearby mills, such as Murray’s Mill which was built in 1797 and is still standing.   The founding of the chapel was commented on in a newspaper in far-away Ohio – “a new society of Christians has been formed at Manchester, England, who profess as one of their leading tenets to wear sky-blue stockings and orange coloured shoes”!

Scholefield was a non-conformist in many ways.  Like many contemporary preachers he was teetotal, probably after seeing the effects of alcohol on the poor, but he was also vegetarian and in 1851 published a pamphlet celebrating the virtues of vegetarianism.  Although lacking formal qualifications, Scholefield worked as a doctor with the poor, and patented the popular “Scholefield’s Cholera Mixture”.  Cholera was much feared at the time and in 1831/32 nearly 700 people in Manchester had died from the disease. Scholefield received no income for his ministry, but made money as an undertaker – there was a large graveyard at the chapel and he invented a safety tomb, which protected the burials from grave robbers!

Scholefield’s political radicalism saw Christ Church Chapel host the 1842 Chartist conference.  The Chartists were the largest national movement calling for democratic reforms at the time, inspired by the protesters at Peterloo in 1819 and disappointed by the very limited Great Reform Act of 1832.  Their main demands were votes for all men at 21, annual elections, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, no property qualification for MPs and equal sized constituencies. 

Henry Hunt’s monument – Christ Church Chapel in the background on the right

Scholefield was also involved in building a monument outside Christ Church Chapel to Henry Hunt, the main speaker at Peterloo and one of the most famous radical campaigners in early C19 England.   The monument was 30 feet high and was demolished in 1888.

Scholefield died in 1855, and it is unlikely that the chapel continued in religious use after his death.  Ever the eccentric, before he died he allegedly told his daughters “make what use you can of the chapel, girls.  Use it for a circus if you can – after all it’s round.  It has served its turn as a chapel.”  The chapel was used by University Settlement for many years and was demolished in 1986.

William Henry Chadwick – Willow Grove Cemetery, Reddish

Earlier in lockdown I was walking through the historic Willow Grove cemetery in Reddish, another local discovery for me.  One of the graves is a monument to William Henry Chadwick, “The Old Chartist”.   His epitaph is very inspiring and worth transcribing in full:


In 1848, at the early age of 19, he was

imprisoned for sedition and conspiracy

as a leader of the Chartist movement.

His whole life after was spent in

striving to extend the liberties of the

people and to promote temperance

justice and righteousness.

“I have fought at good fight, I have finished my

course, I have kept the faith.”  II Timothy, IV, 7

This stone was erected to his memory by

some of those who shared in his labours

rejoiced in his triumphs

and loved him for himself

Chadwick’s story, like Scholefield’s, is an interesting one, with many twists and turns.  Born in Compstall in 1829 to working class parents, William and his family had moved to Manchester by 1842.  At the age of 14 he was already a Wesleyan preacher and by his late teens he was immersed in the radical politics of the time.  In 1848 William was arrested at a lathe shop in Fairfield Street where he was working as a mechanic, with the manuscript of a poem he had written in his pocket.  The poem presumably had a radical message, and he was tried in Liverpool and sentenced to 6 months in prison for sedition and conspiracy as a Chartist leader.

On his release William became a lecturer in science and developed an interest in magnetism and hypnotism.   He was linked to one of the great hypnotists of Victorian England, Annie de Montford, who performed as a mesmerist throughout the country.

Later in life he returned to his radical political roots, and in the 1890s he was involved in the campaign to get public access to Kinder Scout, stating that he was prepared to trespass and go to prison if necessary.   William also helped to found the agricultural workers’ union and in 1891 became a van lecturer for the National Liberal Federation.

Although we can’t be sure, it’s very likely that William would have known Scholefield.  He lived and worked relatively near to the Christ Church Chapel, and their shared politics would almost certainly have brought them together on many occasions.   One can even imagine William admiring the monument to Henry Hunt.

As we leave our Manchester Chartists, we’ll end with a description of William’s funeral in 1908 from the Stockport Advertiser:

After a strenuous life in which the old Chartist had taken part in many political battles, it was a singular coincidence that his remains should have been laid to rest in a severe thunderstorm. But so it was; rain fell in torrents accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder as the mourners stood around the grave.

Lockdown Diary 3 – Gorton Heritage Trail

Gore Brook

With the glorious spring weather I’ve been neglecting the lockdown blog (renamed diary!) because I didn’t want to spend time hunched over my laptop. Instead I’ve been out walking and cycling, gathering wild garlic and making home made pesto, and sorting out the garden. Now the weather is beginning to turn I’m catching up with some of my earlier trips….

A few weeks ago I went over to Gorton and walked the Gorton heritage trail, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. It’s a bit shabby in places and could do with some litter picking, but it’s still amazing how many buildings have survived from the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, in places giving the impression of a small village community. The picture above is of the Gore Brook, running behind Far Lane on one side and Brookfield Unitarian Church on the other. There are many legends about the Gore Brook. The most lurid is that the stream ran red with the blood of Danes when they attacked the Saxons in the area in the 900s. But the most likely origin is that gore means muddy in old English.

It’s interesting how often people love the idea of a violent origin to a name. I heard a similar tale a couple of days ago about the origin of Reddish – that the area was bathed in blood after a battle during the English Civil War – even though the name Reddish is much older, and probably derives from reed ditch, or red ditch (perhaps from the sandstone?).

Brookfield Churchyard

The path through Brookfield Churchyard is very atmospheric, with gravestones hidden by trees and fragments of broken masonry in the stream. It is a really peaceful place to walk, and on the afternoon I visited was full of early spring butterflies. Far Lane was the original road into Manchester and has a terrace of small cottages, one with the date 1782 above the door. These were probably either farm labourers’ houses, or were perhaps lived in by handloom weavers.

Fragments of broken graves in Gore Brook

At the end of Far Lane is the gatehouse to Gorton Hall, which stood near to Sunny Brow Park from the seventeenth century until its demolition in 1906. It was probably demolished as Gorton was becoming more industrialised and terraced houses were being built in large quantities – it seems unlikely that the wealthy owners would have wanted to stay in the area. Photographs show a grand mansion with extensive grounds, not unlike the villas of prosperous residents of Burnage.

Forgotten Gorton: Old Photos of Gorton Hall – Gorton, Manchester
Gorton Hall

Gorton Hall gatehouse

I walked back through Brookfield churchyard past the church itself and the very impressive tomb of Richard Peacock, an engineer and Gorton’s first MP (Liberal) MP, who paid £12,000 to have the church built between 1869 and 1871. Peacock was one of the main employers in the area, and was one of the founders of Beyer and Peacock locomotive manufacturers in Openshaw. The church was built on the site of an earlier dissenters’ chapel. The Unitarians were ostracised by the Church of England and the political elite at the time, but many were successful businessmen and industrialists, including Peacock and the Gregs of Styal Mill. Richard’s tomb is very imposing – it reminded me of the shrines of saints in medieval cathedrals!

Richard Peacock’s mausoleum – 1889

I continued my walk along the trail by crossing Hyde Road and walking along the path behind Tanyard Brow, where I imagined the stink of tanning wafting up from the stream. It must have a noxious place in the late 1800s. I finally ended up at Gorton House, a sadly neglected eighteenth century mansion on Debdale Park, built by the industrialist Robert Grimshaw in the 1780s. It is grade 2 listed and the Historic England listing mentions “high quality late-C18 interior features, including an elegant top-lit open-well stair, moulded door architraves, six-panel doors with fielded panels, some fireplaces, cornicing, and stone floors” – but looking at the boarded up property I would have thought that many of these features are now severely damaged. Robert Grimshaw himself had a tragic life. He built a large mill in Knott’s Mill, Manchester, which was destroyed by arson in 1792 – probably by handloom weavers trying to protect their jobs. Robert took his own life in a debtors’ prison in London in 1799. Like Richard Peacock he was a Unitarian and was buried in the graveyard at the dissenters’ chapel, later Brookfield Church.

Finishing on a more positive (!) note, the Friends of Debdale Park are trying to raise money to turn Gorton House into a community centre and cafe.

Gorton House

Lockdown Blog 2 – Coppicing and Wood Hall, Reddish

Coppiced Sycamore Tree, Reddish

I’ve become slightly obsessed with Reddish Vale and the Tame Valley during lockdown. It’s a relatively wild strip of countryside, reaching to within a mile of Stockport town centre, and it’s looking glorious this spring, the woods carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. There are also many clues to the local history of the area – mysterious cobbled roads, fragments of masonry and walls half hidden by undergrowth. So expect many more posts about the Vale!

On a walk last week on the Reddish side of the valley I spotted this sycamore tree. It’s an unusual shape with a number of tall straight shoots growing from the original trunk and is good example of a coppiced tree. Coppicing is a very ancient form of woodland management. Trees would be cut down to just above ground level, allowing straight shoots to grow from the sides of the trunk. These were usually harvested quite young, the poles being used for fencing, handles, posts, thatching spars and for many other purposes. They were also used for producing wood to be made into charcoal, needed for smelting iron. There would be a constant supply of new shoots growing each year, so it was a very effective use of the resource.

The coppiced sycamore tree at Reddish has been left to grow, presumably when the practice went out of use, so the straight shoots are now the size of small trees. It is on the site of Wood Hall and Wood Hall Farm, and is interesting evidence of land management on the estate. The first definite reference to Wood Hall (“Wode Hall”) is in 1501/02 and it is clearly marked on a map of 1818/19. During the Civil War, Wood Hall was owned by Henry Stanley, a supporter of Charles I – Stanley had to pay to get his property back after it was requisitioned by Parliament. His brother was a staunch supporter of Parliament and died from wounds he received at the siege of Manchester in 1642, showing how the war often split families.

Johnson’s Map – 1818/19 (published 1820)

By the 1890s Wood Hall Farm had been built next to the Hall, but sadly neither have survived – the Hall had been demolished by 1960 and the Farm by the mid 1970s. The pond shown on the map has survived and contains a number of Koi carp!

Wood Hall Farm


When I was walking nearby yesterday I had a chat with an 80 year old local resident who reminisced about stacking the sheaves of corn on one of the farm’s fields. The field is now covered in tree growth.

Stook - Wikipedia

Lockdown Blog 1

Greetings on a beautiful spring morning! As the local history group isn’t meeting I’ve decided to write a regular blog instead. One of very few advantages of the current situation is that people who can leave the house are walking far more and exploring their neighbourhoods. Looking at buildings and places in a slow and more considered way opens up all sorts of historical puzzles. I’ve been revisiting places I haven’t been to for a long while and discovering many new nooks and crannies of history. I’ll share these on the blog over the next few weeks. A lot of the things I’ve seen raise questions – so if anyone has any information about them please comment on the blog.

Entrance to Tiviot Dale, Reddish – Spring evening walk with wild garlic

My first observation is a stone halfway up a building on Barlow Road in Levenshulme – located at the Cromwell Grove end of the road, opposite the old swimming pool, next to a row of shops and at the beginning of the cobbled entry. It looks like a foundation stone which has been relocated in Levenshulme on a more recent building, hence the different dates – 1904 relates to the date of the block of shops, 1845 is the date of the original location of the stone. Toni from the group found that Rev Richard Bassnett (1800-1865) was the rector of St James’ Church in Gorton from 1831. He also baptised a Richard Bassnett Preston in 1855, probably a relative through his mother’s family, who went on to become a church architect. Preston designed many local churches, including St Andrew’s Levenshulme and St Werbergh’s, Chorlton, and his designs were described as “impeccably correct in detail, built to last until the Day of Judgement, and very, very dull!” .

St James’ was originally a chapel which existed from at least 1562. Bassnett clearly organised its rebuilding, probably as Gorton grew during the industrial revolution – he presumably didn’t pay for it himself! The current church of St James was built in 1871, so it looks like Bassnett’s church didn’t last very long – I haven’t been able to find any prints or photos of it.

But there is a puzzle… Why did the stone end up in the wall of a block of shops in Levenshulme? There is a gap between the demolition of Bassnett’s church (probably about 1870) and the building where the stone is currently located (1904). Perhaps the stone was saved as an object of curiosity and randomly placed in its current place? Or perhaps there is another reason. In 1904 a certain O.H. had their initials carved into the stone. Who was O.H.? Any suggestions gratefully received…

Foundation Stone of St James’ Church, Gorton

The Home Front and Evacuation – visiting speaker (Peter Heaton) Tuesday 10th March

On Tuesday 10th of March we have a visiting speaker to the group. Peter Heaton will be sharing his memories as an evacuee during World War II and also talking about the home front.

If you would like to attend, meetings are free and are held between 2.00 and 4.00 pm at Burnage Library. Please feel free to bring any memorabilia from the war to show to the group.

Image result for evacuation ww2

Mapping the Shops on Burnage Lane

The group recently spent the afternoon mapping the shops on Burnage Lane. The recall of some of the members was truly remarkable and, between us, we managed to locate most of the shops and other commercial buildings from the later 1940s onwards. This led to much reminiscing about the the variety of shops and what was available in Burnage. There were different blocks of shops (i.e. the crossroads at Mauldeth Road, the crossroads at Grangethorpe Road, Green End roundabout etc), but each one had a grocer, a greengrocer and a newsagents. This meant that people didn’t have far to go to buy their basic necessities. Locals could also buy children’s clothes, shoes, medicines, hardware and many other things in Burnage, although Alison noted that there was no fishmonger. It was also interesting that people’s shopping was confined to a very narrow locality – no one was able to remember the shops on Lane End even though it borders Burnage/Didsbury.

Trip to Stockport – St Mary’s Church and Staircase House

On a very cold January afternoon, after a morning flurry of snow, the group braved the elements for visit to the old heart of Stockport. We began our visit to St Mary’s Church, located on the edge of the market place of the old medieval town. The large parish church was originally medieval, but only the original chancel survives, and the rest of the church dates from 1813. Apparently the locals were ringing the bells with such enthusiasm after the victory at Trafalgar that the tower and church were in danger of collapsing and had to be demolished.

We spent a fascinating hour at the church and, in particular, the heritage centre in the vestry. This contains a remarkable collection of local photos and exhibits and can be recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of the area. The volunteers at the centre were very helpful and well informed.

Roberta studying hard in the heritage centre

After fortifying ourselves with hot drinks we continued our trip with a tour of Staircase House, a rare survival of a merchant’s house that spans the centuries from the later middle ages to the Victorian period. The house is a warren of rooms, each dressed for the different eras with period furniture and fittings. It provides an illuminating insight into the evolution of a domestic building, its building materials and functions, and you feel as if you are stepping back in time as you pass through the rooms. Some of the group found the uneven floors and the audio guide tricky to navigate (particularly the audio guide set to German!), but overall it was an excellent trip and can be heartily recommended! Many hadn’t visited before and are planning a return trip.

Enjoying a well-earned rest
Engaging with new technology…