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 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 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

Milwain Road in the Nineteenth Century – A Rural Idyll?

One of the members of the group brought the deeds of his house to a session.  Amongst the deeds was an interesting map of the Milwain Road area prior to its development for housing.   The map provides a fascinating snapshot of the rural nature of the area bordering Levenshulme and Burnage in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Cringle Brook is clearly marked on the left hand side of the map (the top of the map is roughly west), and the names of the fields give us clues about the landscape at the time – Gorse Field was presumably named after gorse bushes.  The other fields have less original names – Far Pasture, Far Meadow, Long Pasture.  But the curiously named Widow Hole needs further research – it was probably owned by a widow at some point, but who and when is a mystery.  The neighbouring landowners are also shown on the map, James Bibby and Edward Rushton on one side, the trustees of the late Thomas Bibby on the other side.  The Bibbys were presumably the owners of Hyde Fold, but it is not entirely clear from which generation.  There was also a pond in Far Meadow, perhaps a horse pond to keep the farmers’ horses watered.