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

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