Lockdown Diary 19: Way markers and Coaching Inns – An A6 Story Part II

Sitting in plain view, but easy to miss, in front of a row of terraced houses on the A6 near the junction with Cringle Road is a weathered milestone.  I have passed by many times over the years without noticing it, still less thinking about its story and the hidden history of the road.  This post looks at the stretch of the A6 between this way marker and another in Longsight, and considers the evidence of what was once one of the most important long distance roads in England.

Why was the A6 an important road?

A clue to road’s importance can be seen in Stockport where an early twentieth century signpost shows that London is 182 ½ miles in one direction, while Carlisle is 118 ½ miles to the north.   The A6 was for centuries one of the key routes linking London to the north of the country.  The road, and others leading to the capital, grew in importance during the later 1600s.  By 1700 London had a population of about half a million and, as it grew, was becoming increasingly dependent on supplies from the provinces, the north included. 

The Stockport Signpost – junction of Wellington Road South and Edward Street

What does the Levenshulme milestone tell us?

Although the milestone in Levenshulme is weathered and damaged by pollution it is still possible to make out some of the lettering on its two sides.   On the side facing Stockport, for travellers heading towards Manchester, the words “Miles” and “Manchester” can just be deciphered.  The other side, for travellers heading south, is too badly eroded to make any sense of the letters, but it would have once shown the distance to Stockport.

Levenshulme Milestone – near the junction of Cringle Road
Detail of the milestone

The way marker comes from a time when travel was very different from now and when the landscape of the area was unrecognisable.  The ordnance survey map from 1845 reveals a stretch of countryside with few familiar landmarks.   This part of the A6, then called the Manchester and Stockport Road was obviously there, as was Broom Lane, forking off to the right as you travelled to Manchester.  The railway linking Manchester to Crewe was being opened in stages from 1840, representing the future of travel, and Black Brook is still visible south of McDonald’s and KFC.  But all around were fields, cottages and farms, so the milestone would have stood out to those travelling in stagecoaches or on horseback. 

Ordnance Survey map (1845) – copyright HMSO

The map marks the milestone (MS), showing its importance and telling us that it was 4 miles to Manchester and 2 miles to Stockport.  Way markers served a crucial function for travellers.  For long journeys by coach or horse the milestones told travellers of the next town where they could rest, get food and drink, and a change their horses for the next stage of their journey.

What is the story of The Packhorse pub?

The Packhorse – 1959

A mile to the north The Packhorse pub, now Jandol Restaurant, was for hundreds of years an important coaching inn.  The current impressive building was constructed in 1907, but it was first licensed in 1587, when Levenshulme was little more than a collection of cottages, so it wasn’t built just for the locals.  We can’t be sure what the original pub would have looked like, but a photo from about 1890 shows The Packhorse as it would have appeared from probably the early 1800s –a large coaching inn, for both long distance and more local travellers.  At the front was the mounting block, a set of stone steps to help riders get on their horses and the gates at the side, kept in the 1907 rebuilding, led to the stables.  Apparently the mounting block survived until very recently.   The other clue is, of course, its name – the Packhorse.  Packhorses were the simplest and cheapest way to move goods at a time when roads were notoriously potholed and difficult for travel.  So, no doubt, the stables would have seen a mix of packhorses and stagecoaches during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Packhorse – detail of façade
The Packhorse c.1890 – the mounting block is between the barrels at the front

How did the Midway pub get its name?

The Midway – early C20 (image courtesy of Manchester Libraries)

At the other end of Levenshulme stood another grand Edwardian pub, The Midway.   The Midway was also licensed early, in 1604, and this coupled with its size and location might indicate another coaching inn.  In fact, a photo of the Midway House, as it was then known, in the late nineteenth century, shows a very modest hostelry – more of a country pub than the grand Packhorse.   The Midway was also rebuilt in 1907, and is more of a reflection of the changes that were taking place in the area at the time, with a massive expansion of housing and industry.  The name comes from its location.  Looking at the OS map from 1845 it is very close to another milestone (now lost), showing that it stands at the midway point between Manchester and Stockport, three miles in each direction.

Although not a coaching inn, the Midway was a stopping point for the omnibus to Manchester.  A very evocative description of the inn, and the rural atmosphere of Levenshulme in the 1860s, can be found in the writings of the Rochdale poet Edwin Waugh. “I went up to Levenshulme, to spend the afternoon with an old friend of mine, a man of studious habits, living in a retired part of that green suburb…  After tea, he came with me across the fields to the “Midway Inn,” on Stockport Road, where the omnibuses call on their way to Manchester. It was a lovely evening, very clear and cool, and twilight was sinking upon the scene. Waiting for the next omnibus, we leaned against the long wooden watering-trough in front of the inn. The irregular old building looked picturesque in the soft light of declining day, and all around was so still that we could hear the voices of bowlers who were lingering upon the green, off at the north side of the house, and retired from the highway by an intervening garden.”  (from Home-life of the Lancashire Cotton Folk during the Cotton Famine, 1862 – reprinted from the Manchester Examiner and Times)

The Midway House – late C19 (image courtesy of Manchester Libraries)
Ordnance Survey map (1845) – copyright HMSO

The Waggon and Horses – another coaching inn?

A few miles further to the north, on a stretch of the A6 that in 1845 was called the London Road, stood a large pub called the Waggon and Horses until its demolition in the 1990s.  I used to drink there as a student in the early 1980s, and remember its mock Tudor exterior and a cavernous interior, by then rather sparsely populated with customers.   The black boarding on the outside and leaded windows were probably an Edwardian attempt to give the building an ancient patina, even though the pub dated back to 1690 anyway. Comparing the photos from the 1890s and 1970s, the original building appeared pretty much intact until it was demolished.

Waggon and Horses c.1970s – note the worn mounting block next to the Birch Lane sign

The Waggon and Horses shared many of the same features as the Packhorse, indicating that it too was a coaching inn.  A worn and well used mounting block stood at the front, visible on the photos and still there until the 1990s.   At the side on Birch Lane was a large gate leading to stables, its name made the link to transport and goods, while its location, on the main road from the North West to London, supports the idea of a staging post for travellers.

The Waggon and Horses late C19 – complete with a waggon and horses!

A final survival of the historic importance of the road is another stone way marker, very close to the site of the Waggon and Horses.   Like the Levenshulme milestone, this is also badly damaged, but it is possible to make out “The [Town]ship”– either referring to Manchester or Stockport.

Longsight milestone – in front of flats near the site of the Waggon and Horses
Detail of the milestone

Was the Levenshulme to Longsight section of the A6 a turnpike road?

As transport expanded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the growth of London and industrialisation, the need to improve the roads also increased.  In theory the maintenance of roads had been the responsibility of the local parishes and communities, but in practice they had been neglected and some were virtually impassable.  Turnpike trusts, established by acts of Parliament, were set up to upgrade and repair sections of the roads, using tolls as a way of recompensing private investors.  This led to a speeding up of road transport – the journey from Manchester to London by road fell from 90 hours in 1700 to 24 hours in 1787.

It is unclear whether our section of the A6 was a turnpike.  Certainly many sections from Carlisle to London were, and the existence of coaching inns and milestones, suggests that this may have been the case.  Another compelling piece of evidence is a property boundary map that came with our house deeds in the post a few weeks ago, drawn up in 1893, that clearly marks the “Turnpike Road”.

Property map 1893 – the north boundary of Barn Meadow roughly follows the line of Cringle Road

Although only covering a short section of the road, careful observation and detective work has revealed a lot of hidden history.   The milestones and coaching inns show its importance, both before the industrial revolution and during its early years, while the siting of rail and road, side by side, illustrates the changing nature of transport during the C19, from the slow travel by horse and stagecoach along the “Turnpike Road” to the speed of the new steam trains.   It would not be long before industry and dense housing followed, changing Levenshulme from open countryside to what we know today.

With thanks to Jez Hall for alerting me to Edwin Waugh’s comments on the Midway.

 

Lockdown Diary 18: The Levenshulme Landgrabbers of 1906

The Levenshulme landgrabbers at work on the cabbage field – the houses in the background are probably on Manor Road (Illustrated London News, July 28th, 1906)

For a few weeks in the hot summer of 1906 Levenshulme caught the attention of the national and even the international press.  On the afternoon of Friday 6th July 1906 a dozen men walked onto 6 acres of unfenced church land near Matthews Lane and began growing cabbages.  It was an act described by one paper as “the historic Levenshulme land grab” and lasted for 6 weeks, inspiring similar land occupations in other parts of the country. 

I’d like to thank Jez Hall for setting me on the trail of the landgrabbers and to Toni Hunter for her tireless search for information!   The extracts are from a mix of local, national and international newspapers – articles on the landgrab appeared in the San Francisco Call (August 13th 1906) and the Zeehan and Dundas Herald in Tasmania (August 16th 1906).

What happened in the landgrab?

On a hot summer’s afternoon in July 1906 a dozen men, led by Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Stewart Gray, crossed Matthews Lane and pitched a tent on 6 acres of unfenced glebe land belonging to the Holy Trinity Church in Hulme.  According to The Manchester Guardian (Monday July 9th) Smith announced that they would “till it and hold it against all comers”, adding that “if the unemployed were removed from this spot they would flee to another.” 

OS map from 1904/5 – the squatted land was on the unoccupied area of land enclosed by Lonsdale Road, Manor Road, Matthews Lane and Brook Avenue, top left of the map (copyright HMSO)
The Levenshulme landgrabbers with families and visitors (Illustrated London News)

The landgrabbers soon began removing turf, preparing the land for thousands of cabbage plants “for the benefit of the unemployed” (The Manchester Guardian).  On the Friday and Saturday nights some of the men slept in the tent.    Jack Williams, one of their leaders, sent a telegram to the Liberal cabinet minister and former trade unionist, John Burns, with this stirring message –  “Comrade John Burns, M. P.—Manchester’s unemployed have taken your advice of twenty years ago and gone back to the land for food, for wives and bairns. Congratulate us. Jack Williams, Outlaw”.  (San Francisco Call)  

As the protest progressed the “outlaws” built “a stone fireplace and built a grass-sod hut after the fashion of Ireland”, perhaps reflecting the level Irish immigration to the city.(San Francisco Call)  Flags were placed to mark the boundaries of the cultivated land and a red flag was placed at the centre, demonstrating the landgrabbers’ socialist principles.

Irish style turf hut under construction with young helpers on the right – the flags in the foreground mark out the cabbage field (Illustrated London News)
A turf sod hut, County Mayo, Ireland – c.1905
The original landgrabbers with the three leaders of the occupation. Note the tent in the background with a red or blue ensign flag. Posing with their spades, with Captain Jack Williams at the centre, they give the impression of a well organised and disciplined group of men.

How much support did the landgrabbers get?

 The leaders of the protest claimed the support of the Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Social Democrats, and the Independent Labour Party (San Francisco Call).    We don’t know if Burns replied to Williams’ telegram, but Keir Hardie and other leaders of the newly formed Labour Party, set up in February, apparently distanced themselves from the landgrab –perhaps reluctant to be associated with this type of direct action.

Despite the lack of mainstream political backing, the landgrabbers rapidly gained a lot of local attention and support.   The Manchester Guardian reported that on the first Sunday of the occupation “there were thousands of visitors to the camp… The place was like a fairground. The occupiers held three meetings and made collections [of money and food or seeds]”.    The same picture is repeated in the San Francisco Call – “Crowds of curious Manchester people daily visit the camp and the collections to date have been pretty good. The men are orderly and strict discipline is maintained.”   Police were present “merely to regulate the crowds”.  The paper notes wryly that “they have only made one mistake, and that was to boil and eat a sackful of prime potatoes sent for them as seed by a sympathizer”.

Young Landgrabbers

The landgrab soon inspired the interest of local children.    The Teesdale Mercury of July 25th 1906 reported that, following “the example of the Levenshulme squatters… A party of youngsters annexed a piece of land near the Levenshulme Free Library”.  Borrowing tools from the main camp, “the juvenile land grabbers set to work to cut the turf, which was stacked to form a hut.   A pole was obtained and fixed, and an oil-cloth covering added.   The children then set to work to make a little garden, and fetched Mr Smith to admire their work.  Only parental pressure prevented the more daring of them from staying there during the night.”  The Illustrated London News added that “finally their mothers took the little rebels home”. The photo below shows the children at work on their turf shelter.  It is interesting how well dressed the children are, in their caps, Eton collars, frocks and hats, perhaps in their Sunday best for the photographer.

The young landgrabbers in their Sunday best – note the borrowed tools and the toy wheelbarrow (Illustrated London News)

Who were their leaders?

The three main organisers were Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Steward Gray.  Arthur Smith, described by the San Francisco Call as the protest’s “commander in chief”, was one of the leading campaigners against unemployment in Manchester at the time.  Press reports indicate that he was the most directly involved of the three leaders, and he is referred to most frequently in the papers both during landgrab and after the occupation finished.    In one of his speeches, Smith pointed out that the land occupied in Levenshulme had been “given to the Church for the benefit of the poor” as justification for the landgrab.

Jack Williams was the London born leader of the Socialist Labour Party, and a well known political activist at the time.  The picture below shows him in court in the 1880s.  He was also a powerful political speaker, the San Francisco Call noting that “Williams is allowed to give full swing to his oratory, write telegrams and proclamations, and is therefore happy”.  This flamboyance is further suggested by the photo of the “unemployed” land camp at Levenshulme, showing Williams sitting at the centre of the group of squatters.

Jack Williams in court, 1886

The third organiser, Alexander Stewart Gray, an Edinburgh trained lawyer, was the main intellectual force behind the protest.  Gray was partly inspired by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, utopian activists during the English Civil War who occupied and cultivated land in common before they were suppressed by the more conservative Cromwell – the San Francisco Call notes that “the leaders boast of having gone back to the days of Cromwell” following the idea of “Back to the Land”.  Gray had been arguing for some time for land reform and believed that it was a solution to the problem of unemployment.  He had proposed that each city should allocate £50,000 to fund the project – approximately £6 million in current value.  This idea was taken up by leading philanthropists of the day, including the American soap millionaire, Joseph Fels, who backed Gray’s proposals and had some influence on Lloyd George’s ground breaking land tax in the 1909 budget.  After the failure of unemployed marches of 1905, Gray and his associates planned land occupations, all of them on Church or glebe land.   Gray was also knowledgeable on agricultural theory, and was named as the landgrabbers’ “Minister of Agriculture” by the San Francisco Call.

Alexander Stewart Gray

How did the landgrab end?

There is some debate about the attitude of the Holy Trinity’s rector, Rev Hudson, towards the Levenshulme squatters.  In a letter to the press after their eviction, Arthur Smith stated that Hudson “definitely agreed to lend us your land for the purpose of helping the unemployed”.   But The Manchester Guardian reported that Hudson “smiled when he heard what had been done, but said that he did not intend to let the unemployed… make use of the land without payment”. 

What is not in dispute is how the landgrabbers were evicted.  Shortly before noon on August 14th or 15th, while the squatters were cooking their lunch, they were visited by solicitors, police and “a score of burly workmen, armed with picks and shovels”.  Mr Orford, the Rev Hudson’s solicitor, asked “are you men going to leave the ground quietly?”, and after a short discussion amongst themselves they decided to leave the land, taking their “cooking utensils and their scant furniture that had served them” during the occupation.  The workmen proceeded to dismantle the turf hut and burned the land grabbers’ straw bedding.   This was not what Smith had in mind when he said they would “hold the land against all comers”, threatening the police or army with “trouble like that which British soldiers had with De Wet [Afrikaans general during the recent Boer War]”.  (The Manchester Guardian)

In his letter to the press, Arthur Smith robustly criticised what he saw as the betrayal of the squatters “by a man who preaches the Word of God” and the destruction 2,500 “good strong plants ruthlessly torn up”.  Smith also contrasted the treatment of the squatters (“those who have proved their desire to work”) with the burly workmen who were “regaled with gallons of beer” for their destruction of the camp.

Mr Smith “ejected by the heels” (Illustrated London News). The eviction did not take place for another three weeks, so this must be a photo of an earlier failed eviction.

What was the landgrab’s legacy?

The landgrabbers were not so easily deterred.  Soon afterwards Smith returned to the site, carrying a large cabbage, and announced to a sizeable crowd that “he took possession of the land for the unemployed and the people of Levenshulme”, symbolically reclaiming the land by planting the cabbage.  But it seems that little came of this second occupation.

It would be easy to write off the Levenshulme landgrab as being of little importance.  The press at the time tended to ridicule any direct action of this sort, probably to undermine threats posed to the government, local authorities and landowners.  This was, after all, a time of great unrest in Britain and Europe, and the previous year the Tsar of Russia had almost been overthrown in a year of revolution.  One paper described the landgrab as having become “a public nuisance”, while the children’s camp had “naturally aroused a good deal of amusement in the locality”.  The Illustrated London News showed a photograph a wilted crop of cabbages, in clear contrast to Smith’s claims about strong plants.  The San Francisco Call went further, reporting that the “the ‘outlaws’ are merely looked upon as buffoons and their doings as fairly amusing comedy” and “that the movement belongs to the great ‘scrap pile’ of visionary impossibilities”.

Illustrated London News

But many of the press reports show that there was a lot of support for the protestors from people in Levenshulme and the wider area.  People were donating money and food to the squatters and The Manchester Guardian’s reference to “thousands of visitors” suggests that they had captured the public’s imagination.  The fact that they trying to grow food for the wider community and were addressing the very real problem of unemployment must have helped their appeal.  The Levenshulme “outlaws” also inspired other land occupations, in particular in Bradford and Plaistow (East London) where the occupiers were “following the example of the Manchester ‘colonists’”.

Support for the landgrab also attracted the attention of those looking for solutions to the social and economic problems of the time.  Even the generally critical San Francisco Call commented that “it is realized that their intentions are good, that many thinking men of [the] moment are with them”. The year after the landgrab Parliament passed the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, making all parish, urban district and borough councils responsible for providing allotments and in 1908 a further act streamlined the previous legislation.  Earlier acts of 1845 and 1887 had unsuccessfully attempted to get local authorities to provide “field gardens” or allotments, and had met with considerable resistance from councillors.  It is very likely that the acts of the Levenshulme “outlaws” and other landgrabbers had some impact on the politicians in London and helped pave the way for the allotment movement. 

Manchester allotments

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! 

Lockdown Diary 16 – A Christmas Story: The Cinderella Clubs

With Christmas fast approaching this is seasonal blog with a fairy tale theme, but like all good fairy tales it has a twist.  It started life at a meeting of the Local History Group in December 2019.  So apologies to anyone who was there for repeating myself – but I hope I have added more to the story about the Cinderella Clubs…

At the heart of our Christmas story is a journalist called Robert Blatchford.  Blatchford was born in 1851 in Maidstone, Kent, and like so many people at the time had a difficult childhood.  When he was two his father died, leaving his actress mother to bring him up alone and he was apprenticed as a brush maker at the age of 14.   Largely self educated, Blatchford became a very successful journalist and writer, founding the socialist Clarion newspaper in 1891 and publishing a best-selling book, “Merrie England” (1893), which sold over 2 million copies.   Blatchford also set up the Cinderella Clubs in 1889, with the aim of providing meals, entertainment and clean clothes for slum-dwelling children.

What is Blatchford’s connection to Manchester?  It was while working as a journalist for the Sunday Chronicle in Manchester in 1888 that Blatchford had a chance encounter that led him to set up the Cinderella Clubs the following year.    Here we will let Blatchford himself continue the story, as he describes the meeting in an article in the “Labour Prophet” (May, 1893).  The description of a Victorian Christmas is almost Dickensian, and gives a shocking picture of the extent and impact of poverty in Manchester at the time.

Well it was just before Christmas in 1888, and just outside the Exchange Station a little girl came and asked me to buy a box of matches. And I had bought two boxes of matches already, and you know, even a big boy with a lot of money, cannot buy matches from every child. There are so many poor children in the streets, you see. … I said, “No thank you” to the little match girl. But she would not go. She ran along-side of men and said something like this “0h sir, please, sir, buy a box, sir.  Only got three left, sir.  Just one, sir. ” I said, “No thank you, my dear. ” and walked on. And the little girl ran on beside me and kept talking. “I’m going to a party tonight, sir. You might buy a box, sir. ”  When she said that, I looked at her very carefully. She was about eight years old, had reddish hair and blue eyes, and was clean, but not very tidy. But she had such an honest little face, and she looked so glad and so good-humoured, that I stopped and asked here where she was going to the party. It was at a Catholic school. It was threepence to go in. She had got nearly “all” the money, and then she said “Please, sir, buy a box. I’ve never been to a party before. ”  I said, “Oh! ” and give her a shilling or a sixpence, I forget which, and she said, “0h thank you.” and ran away as hard as she could run. I hope she enjoyed her party. I never saw her again.

Victorian match seller

Although Blatchford was clearly shocked by meeting the little girl, he did not immediately set up the Cinderella Clubs, and it took another three prompts for him to take action to help the poor children of the city.   He takes up the story again with a brilliant evocation of the children playing in the streets of Hulme and Ancoats.  He also pointedly mentions the responsibility of those with wealth and power to build better housing.

It was months after that, in the spring, when I was going all through the poor streets of Manchester, so that I might write about them, and get the rich people to build the poor people good houses to live in that I began to notice the little children, in Hulme and in Ancoats, dancing round the piano organs, or playing in the gutters. And one day I saw a little baby girl nursing a doll. The little girl sat on a doorstep in a very narrow and very dirty street and her doll was made of a clothes-peg tied up in a duster. I am fond of children; and I have some children of my own. I knew how fond my little girl was of a doll. … I thought I should like to take a cart-load of dolls around Ancoats and give them to the little children of the poor. But – I still never thought of the Cinderella Clubs.

Children playing on the streets of Hulme, early 1900s

Eventually, in October 1889, after receiving letters from two members of the public, Blatchford founded the first of the Cinderella Clubs.   The second letter, from a woman in Liverpool, was the final prompt Blatchford needed – “You say it would be a good thing to have a child’s club, where children could dance and play and have dolls and fairy-tales; but why don’t you start one?”. 

Children attending a Cinderella Club meal in Manchester, early 1900s – note the girl at the front with the headscarf

The first Cinderella Club was an immediate success and soon clubs were set up in Hull, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, Salford and Birmingham.  One set up by the Salford and Manchester Labour Churches in 1892, served 3,164 meals during its first winter, and fed and clothed over 800 children from the impoverished Deansgate area of the city – it’s hard to believe now that the wealthy modern district renamed Spinningfields was a warren of narrow streets and courtyards 130 years ago!

Blatchford wrote that we started this club to amuse and please the children. We did not want to teach them anything; but we knew we could not amuse them whilst they were hungry, and so we made it a rule to feed them first and amuse them afterwards.  At Christmas special entertainment was provided.  The photo, from the Manchester archive, shows a Cinderella Club Christmas display in Manchester Town Hall in 1910, complete with Christmas tree, dolls house and toys. 

Cinderella Club event in the Great Hall at Manchester Town Hall, early 1900s

His description of such events reads at times almost like a fairy tale.  We had a Christmas tree, too, and dolls and toys and sweets, and oranges, and one day I thought we would give dolls and other things as prizes to the cleanest children; not to the best dressed but to the cleanest. Up to that time poor little Cinderella had not been very careful about being clean. But the week after the prizes were offered there was such a change that we almost believed there had been fairy godmothers about, with soap instead of pumpkins, and combs and towels instead of lizards and mice.

Over time the Cinderella Clubs gradually disappeared, although one has survived in Bradford.  Most were absorbed by the Socialist Sunday Schools, run by the Labour Churches, and the slow introduction of free school meals for the poor lessened the need for the clubs.  In 1904 Bradford became the first town to introduce free school meals, under the influence Councillor Fred Jowett, who was elected as a Labour MP for the city in 1906.  Many other cities followed suit, although it did not become a national policy until 1914.   

Blatchford himself was reluctant to take the credit for the Cinderella Clubs and in what should be the season of Christmas pantomimes we will leave him with the last words.

I should say that the Cinderella Clubs were started by — Who do you think? — By Cinderella! Yes, my dears, by Cinderella herself. Mind; I don’t mean the Cinderella of the story book, who got to be a princess because she had small feet. No I mean a real Cinderella, a Manchester Cinderella; a poor little girl, who had neither small feet, nor a fairy godmother, and so had to sell matches in the street. And the worst of it is I don’t know that little girl’s name.

A Manchester boy with presents from the Cinderella Club

Images courtesy of Manchester Libraries and TUC Library Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allen Skinner

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

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

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

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

Alice Roughton

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

Fenner Brockway – former resident of Burnage Garden Village

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

Ellen Wilkinson – “Red Ellen”

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

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

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

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

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

Aldermaston March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelstrop’s Mill

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

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

Richard Cobden’s statue, St Petersgate, Stockport

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union Workhouse, Shaw Heath

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

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

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

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

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

William Nelstrop

Lockdown Diary 11 – Echoes of Country Life

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

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

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

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

Shore’s Fold in 1848

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

Nelstrop Lane North

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

Shore’s Fold Farm c. 1670

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poultons Kiln Brick – Highfield

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

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

Lockdown Diary 10 – Dukinfield, Non-Conformism and Slavery

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

Dukinfield Old Hall Chapel

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

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

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

St Lawrence’s Church, Denton – formerly Denton Chapel

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

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

Baptismal Register, Kingston Parish Church, Jamaica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kersal Moor – St Paul’s Church in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Diary 8 – Skiing for Refugees in Reddish Vale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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