In 1335 William de Radcliffe acquired the manor of Smithills. During the early years there would only have been the medieval Great Hall on the site, which still exists there today. It is a large rectangular stone building and in here the family and servants would take their meals and sleep. The Radcliffes were a powerful Lancashire family, with members acting as Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace and ‘Knights of the Shire’ throughout the 1400s. Their ancestral home was in the old centre of Radcliffe near Bury, and can still be seen at the ruins of Radcliffe Tower.
Johanna Radcliffe was the last of the Radcliffe family to own the hall and she married into the Bartons, bringing their family to Smithills. Her grandson Andrew Barton significantly remodeled the hall when he came into his inheritance and his father’s successful woolen business. Today we can see one of the real gems he had constructed- the large withdrawing room. It features oak wood paneling containing small carved portraits of the Barton family, all facing their spouses. Visitors today can see Andrew Barton and his wife Agnes in the carvings. He can be recognised by his large forked beard while she has a flower and a linked hearts design beneath her portrait. Andrew also had carvings of his initials ‘AB’ and a ‘rebus’ put into the paneling. This is a pun on his name and shows a piece of timber (a ‘bar’) across a barrel (called in the Tudor times a ‘tun’), so Bar-tun or Barton. As leading dignitaries of the area Andrew and Agnes both had carved misericords seats at Bolton Parish Church and these can still be seen (for more on this click here).
Their son Robert inherited the estate and he is remembered for his role in a dramatic piece of local history and folklore. In 1554 Queen Mary Tudor’s reign had led to an upswing in religious persecution. A preacher, Reverent George Marsh, was active in the area and some considered his views heretical. Robert as a JP was ordered to have Marsh arrested and brought to Smithills. He questioned Marsh before sending him over to the Earl of Derby who was the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire. It is claimed that when Marsh was being led out from being questioned by Robert, he stamped his foot leaving a footprint in the stone floor. Local folklore has it that a footprint shape can still be seen today at the entrance to the Withdrawing Room. The first written record of this account was in 1787, more than 200 years after it supposedly happened. Marsh was sent to stand trial at Chester. It didn’t end well for him as he paid the ultimate price for his beliefs, one of many people during the religiously turbulent Tudor period.
When the male Barton line was no more Smithills passed by marriage to the Belasye family from Thirsk. They did not spend much time there, so the hall was let out to tenants and entered a general decline. The medieval Great Hall was used as a brewery and many of the other room were used for weaving. Finally in 1723 the hall was sold again and bought by Joseph Byrom, a Manchester Merchant.
The Byron’s home was Kersal Cell in Salford, a building which still stands today. Joseph took the neglected hall at Smithills and built an extension to the west wing. The hall stayed with the Byrons for a couple of generations, and the last one to own it was Eleanor Byron. She preferred to live at Kersal Cell and so let it out to tenants. Once again parts were used for weaving, including the Great Hall and Josephs’s extension became a farmhouse. Eleanor sold it in 1801 to a father and son of the Ainsworth family who were wealthy Haliwell bleachers.
Following the 1832 reform act (as commemorated at the Parbold Bottle monument ) towns that had no representation in Parliament got MPs for the first time. Peter Ainsworth was elected as a liberal MP for Bolton. Under his ownership, Smithills once again underwent a period of construction and the Victorian extension we can see today – a dining room, library and guest bedrooms, belong to this time. Mock timbers added to the buildings to make them look of a similar age to earlier parts.
In 1870 Richard Henry Ainsworth inherited, known locally as the Colonel. His cousin Annabel, a frequent visitor to the hall, described him as “good, solid, Lancashire Squire… an English gentleman of the old school”. In 1896 the good squire tried to prevent public access to the local moorlands as he wanted to use the land for his grouse, partridge and pheasant shoots. A number of ‘mass trespasses’ took place- one had 10,000 locals turn up. But it was to no avail, as a Justice of the Peace the Colonel knew the law and made sure that many of the leaders were prosecuted. The moors remained closed to the locals for many years to come.
His wife Isabella was known for her evangelical faith. She ran a bible class for women and a Sunday school for local children. The Ainsworths also employed a chaplain who cousin Annabel said practically ruled the house, dismissing servants he took a dislike too. Annabel hated him and in her memoirs noted that he had an enormous hold on the Colonel and his wife. The Smithills Chapel services were only full when the pair were in residence – few members of staff or tenants attended when they were away.
On the Colonel’s death at age 87 the estate passed to his nephew Nigel Victor Combe, who took the Ainsworth name. At first Nigel continued the restoration of the hall, but by the 1920s he was falling on hard times as his shares in the bleaching business were returning little revenue. In 1931 he decided to close Smithills and the contents of the house were sold at public auction. Soon after Bolton Corporation bought the hall and many people petitioned for it to become a museum, but this did not happen until 1963. The older part was used as a museum and the newer Victorian section was converted first to a retirement home and then later to a day care centre.
In the 1990s Bolton Council did extensive restoration both inside and out and for the first time opened up the Victorian part of the house for all to see. Visitors today can enjoy all of the house including the highlights of the Great Medieval Hall of the Radcliffe family and the Barton’s stunning Tudor paneled Withdrawing Room. The Colonel and Mrs Ainsworth’s Victorian rooms are also well worth seeing, the latter decorated in the style of William Morris and his Arts and Craft style associates.
Today the estate, gardens and hall are all open to visitors, and are free to visit. What once was the preserve of rich and privileged families, is now available for everyone to enjoy.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
Access and Opening Times
Free admission to the hall and grounds. There is an excellent café within the hall.
Wednesday 10-4pm, Thursday 10-4pm, Friday 10-4pm and Sunday 12-4pm
Smithills Hall website: click here
The estate : The Woodland Trust has bought over a thousand acres of the Smithills estate with plans to buy more in the future. There are many walks on the estate, and you can enjoy the moors that were once barred to the locals.
Smithills Estate and Woodland Trust website: click here
Nearby, just a drive away Doffcocker Cross
Smithills Hall, W.D Billington and M.S. Howe (2010) Haliwell Local History Society
Your Guide to Smithills Hall, (undated booklet- currently available from the Hall shop) Bolton Museum and Archive Service
A Short History of Smithills Hall and its Families, (2015) Marie Mitchell (updated by David Williams), Friends of Smithills Hall booklet
The Ainsworths of Halliwell, W.D. Billington (2008), Halliwell History Society
Smithills Hall Museum Guidebook, (undated booklet, out of print) Bolton Museums and Art Gallery, Bolton Metro
On site interpretation boards at Smithills Hall