Feniscowles Hall stands as ruin today but was once the opulent home of the Fensicowles branch of the Feilden family. Their history in the area accounts for many of the buildings around Feniscowles, and there is still much to see on the ground today for those interested in a bit of history hunting…
Feniscowles Hall was built in 1808 by William Feilden as his family seat, on land he had bought ten years earlier from Thomas Ainsworth, lord of the manor of Pleasington. On the ground floor were the drawing, dining, music and billiard rooms as well as those for the house keeper and butler. It also had “nine principle and sundry chambers” including a Lady’s boudoir, dressing and servants’ rooms. It was decorated with a wealth of paintings both of the family and by leading artists, including a Van Dyke portrait of Charles I.
Outside were stables for 12 horses, a carriage house and harness room. The house itself was set within eight acres of meadow land with ornamental gardens, conservatory, vinery, melon pits, forcing houses and walled fruit trees in the kitchen garden. (For an explanation of some of these features, have a look at our post on the newly restored Worden’s Walled Garden here). A deer park was constructed in the wider grounds with herds of red and fallow deer. The main road between Blackburn and Preston cut right through the deer park, and there is still access to some of the park today (as will be discussed later). This was not the only grand house constructed by the Feildens in the Blackburn vicinity. William was the brother of Henry Feilden who built Witton House in what is now Witton Park (see our page here).
William was a wealthy calico and cotton manufacturer. As a friend of Richard Arkwright he was also one of the pioneers of the factory system. This saw workers living in close proximity to the mill, with shift work patterns to enable the machines to run throughout the day time and workers having specialist, repetitive jobs. He had spinning mills in Blackburn from 1818 onwards and they were known as Feilden’s Factories on George Street West. An 1833 report on his weaving mill at the site shows that it employed 194 weavers all of whom were women and children- except for four men. The youngest employee was an eleven and a half year old girl.
William was one of the first two MPs for Blackburn after the 1832 Reform Act which gave seats in Parliament to areas that had previously had none. (See our page on the Parbold Bottle Monument for why this was so important for the northern towns). He was a liberal MP from 1832-41 and then swapped sides to be a Conservative one from 1841-47. His philanthropic work included supporting the Blackburn Strangers Friend Society which gave financial assistance to those in extreme poverty. As well as his political, social and business interests he was very keen on the latest farming techniques winning prizes at agricultural shows, including best crop of mangle wurzles and turnips.
When he died in 1850 a memorial monument was set up for him nearby his house at Immanuel Church in Feniscowles. He had given money to have the church built and it still stands today, with his monument outside in its very small churchyard.
His eldest son William Henry Feilden succeeded him, and his second son Montague Joseph followed in his footsteps by becoming a Liberal MP. After his election in 1853 there were riots by people unhappy with the outcome, and soldiers were called to restore order. Montague was also a mill owner in Blackburn and as a progressive he supported the Ten Hours Act which restricted the length of the working day to ten hours – which was seen as generous ! A colourful character, he got involved with smuggling brandy in Guernsey, home of his second wife Alice. After retiring from politics he had a change of mind and stood again in 1868, only to be beaten by his Conservative cousin Joseph of Witton Park.
His brother William Henry did not take part in public life, but was a Captain in 17th Lancers and then a Major in the 1st Lancashire Militia. He inherited Feniscowles Hall and estates from his father, but was not to have a happy time with the place. The River Darwen, which flows extremely close to the house had become very polluted, so much so that the smell from it was making it difficult to live there. On two occasions he tried to rent the hall to tenants but with no success.
In 1866 the River Darwen at Witton was described ‘black as ink and stinks abominably’ and that same year William Henry took legal action against Blackburn corporation over the River Blakewater to prevent sewage being dumped into it. The Blakewater flows into the River Darwen (to the east of present day Witton Park), and clearly any pollution in it would end up flowing past Feniscowles Hall. The legal action resulted in plans for a sewage treatment works at Wensley Fold, which would come to pass eventually. However, pollution was also added to the Blakewater from mills, including ironically those owned by the Feilden family. These would remove water for condensing, but return it back both contaminated and heated up. This combination of heat, industrial contamination and sewage would create anerobic conditons in the water, killing plants and animals that lived in it and creating the very bad smell.
In 1879 William Henry died and his son William Leyland Feilden succeeded him. The family had recently moved to Scarborough, presumably thinking the pollution problem would not be solved. They named their new Yorkshire residence Feniscowles House, but by then had effectively cut their links with Blackburn for good.
For the next seven years the hall was rented out to a Reverend Father Quick who used it as a school to train Catholic boys for the priesthood. The new residents must have continued to suffer as in 1884 a dry spell exposed part of the river bed and the local newspaper the Blackburn Standard commented on the bad stench, connecting it to an outbreak of typhoid at the vicarage close by.
In 1903 attempts were made to sell the hall, but no buyer was found. By 1911 the hall was described as dilapidated- an unheated building without an occupier or a use will soon start to deteriorate.
In 1921 the Feilden family sold nine acres of parkland to the parishes of Feniscowles and Pleasington for a minimal amount of money. The land was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the First World War. It was called the Feniscowles and Pleasington War Memorial Recreation Ground. A charitable trust was set up in 1963 to hold the land for the local people. In 1993 land lying adjacent to memorial ground was awarded Biological Heritage status by Lancashire County Council and Lancashire Wildlife Trust. In 2002 the trustees bought this land, some 10.4 acres being part of the original deer park estate and joined it together with the memorial land. The whole area was renamed the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Biological Heritage Site, with the aim to further preserve it for generations to come. It is well worth a visit.
Access and seeing the sites today- a mini tour: Park on the road called Enoch Brow just after Pleasington Golf Club. Head down the hill towards the bend in the road that leads towards church. On the bend is the first of the lodge houses, with gate posts (and a locked gate) and a carriage way to the hall. Cross the River Darwen at the bridge and head up Pleasington Lane towards Immanuel Church. In the small churchyard is the memorial to William Feilden. The Feilden coat of arms is over the door of the church. (We visited on a Saturday and the gentlemen tending the churchyard asked us if we wanted to have a look inside, which of course we did. The stained glass windows are well worth seeing and there is a small medieval stoop found on Pleasington Lane now serving as the font). At the busy junction of Pleasington Lane and Preston Old Road, turn left and go up to the old smithy (now an antiques shop). Across the road is the Feilden Arms pub (with a painted Feilden heraldic shield above the door).
Retrace your steps and head back down Preston Old Road, passing the Pleasington junction on your right. Note the exposed timbers on the side of Sun House. Keep on going downhill past the church hall. The main road cuts through the deer park and you can see the steep escarpment with a beech woodland on your left, and the grounds of Feniscowles Hall on your right. Through the trees you will start to spy the ruined hall, and as stated before the best time to see it is in winter when it is not obscured by leaves. The front part of the hall is the largest part still standing, but if you compare the current view with the historical you can see that much of the side wing is now gone (see the top two photos above). Keep going until you reach the second lodge house, gate posts and carriageway. This is a more substantial building than the first and a glance over the wall will reveal what looks like lower stories and a slipway to the river.
Cross the road and head back up the hill to find the public footpath into the wooded area on your right. This is the other part of the deer park, and a modern path will take you on a short loop up through the beech woods to an open area with excellent views of the countryide. (Good views of the hall are also afforded from the path). This is the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Biological Heritage Site.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
Nearby, just a short drive away is another branch of the Feilden family at Witton House site, Witton Country Park
The Feildens of Witton Park (undated circa 1980-90s) R.D.S. Wilson, Borough of Blackburn, Department of Recreation, Parklands Divison
Cotton Town website specifically:
On site interpretation at Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Biological Heritage Site
Immanuel Church website http://www.immanuelfeniscowles.org/History.html