The first hall was built at Towneley in 1380 and was a large open barn-like medieval building, similar to the ones still seen at Smithills in Bolton and Warton Old Rectory near Carnforth. Seventy years later the huge south wing with its very thick walls was constructed. The picture on the left gives some idea of the sheer scale. Careful viewing of the photograph below shows on the right hand side the ghost gable in the brickwork of the original medieval hall.
John and Mary Towneley
When Queen Elizabeth I ruled England the Towneleys like so many land holding families in Lancashire fell foul of the government’s anti-Catholic laws. John and Mary Towneley were determined to continue to worship as Catholics, but this had been made illegal (for the full range of anti-Catholic legislation have at look our the page on Stonyhurst here). John was known to have kept Catholic priests who performed Mass for the family. The couple were punished with heavy fines from the Protestant Inquisition Council. Despite the persecution, John refused to give up his faith and went to prison many times for his beliefs during the next thirty years. A family portrait in the hall lists the various places he was imprisoned which included Chester and York Castles, Blockhouses in Hull, Gatehouse in Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1601 after his last gaol sentence he was fined over £5000 and was ordered not to venture beyond five miles of Towneley.
Civil War and Jacobite Plots
Over the next few decades the family debt hugely increased. The first reason was their ambitious building program. Richard ‘The Builder’ Towneley had the Great Hall we see today constructed and eight years later the present North Wing was added.
The second reason for the debt was because the family were frequently fined for recusancy (the refusal to worship as a Protestant). On the eve of the Civil War their debts were huge- three times their annual income. Charles ‘The Cavalier’ Towneley stored arms and ammunition for the King Charles I’s forces at the hall. In 1643 Charles was involved in defending Preston which was under siege from Parliamentarians. When the town surrendered he escaped, but his wife was taken prisoner. After hiding out near Towneley, he went on to fight at Marston Moor and died in the battle. For being on the losing side of the war, the family had a large portion of their estate at Cliviger and Hapton seized and put up for sale.
Through the rest of the 1600s and into the 1700s successive generations of members of the Towneley family were involved in plots to overthrow whichever Protestant king was on the throne, and continued to worship as Catholics. In 1707 Ursula Towneley listed seven hiding places in the house (including priest holes). Five years later Richard Towneley cut down a woodland of oak trees at Parks Wood Fields to pay his expenses after his treason trial.
Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley
Charles ‘the Collector’ Towneley toured Italy several times, and collected gems, coins, pottery and statues. His collection of classical sculptures were purchased by the British Museum and his portrait surrounded by statues painted by Zoffany is now in the art gallery at the hall. He employed John Carr of York to make alterations to the house. Carr was the best known architect in the north of England during the Georgian period. Over a career spanning 55 years he modified more than 90 houses. In Lancashire his work can be seen at Lytham Hall.
Charles’s son Francis was involved in the 1745 Young Pretender Jacobite uprising to overthrow King George II. When Charles Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) marched down to Manchester, Francis helped muster 300 troops for his cause. After a service at the Manchester’s Collegiate Church they set out for Derby. However, when they received word of two large government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland and Marshal Wade heading to meet them, they decided to retreat back north. Holing up in Carlisle Castle, Francis was part of the group that held the town against the government forces while the Young Pretender escaped. Francis was executed for his part in this venture.
The Later Towneleys
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that all the anti-Catholic legislation was abolished. When it was Peregrine Edward Towneley was able to hold high office, becoming High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. He was seen as a shy and generous man, and his dressing in rough tweed clothes often made people think he was not part of the local gentry. Very much interested in local charities and civic organisations, he was involved with the building of St Mary’s Church in Burnley and was the first president of Burnley Mechanics Institute. Changes to the hall instigated during his time included employing the architect Jeffry Wyatt to remodel the south wing Regency Rooms into the appearance that we see today. He oversaw a huge amount of tree planting- almost 10,000 were put in, including oaks, larches, firs and probably much of the rhododendron cover that is still visible in the grounds.
The last Towneley at the hall was Alice Mary, known as Lady O’ Hagan after her marriage at 25 years old to Thomas Baron O’ Hagan, aged 59. In their fourteen years together they had seven children. She was a patron of the local blind and deaf societies, helped fund a military hospital in South Africa, was a keen campaigner on votes for women and set up mother and child welfare schemes. She was the driving force behind a new convent to “rescue young girls from bad surroundings and train them to be thorough domestic servants”. She broke with the family tradition of Catholicism and joined the Unitarians, and also changed political parties from being a Unionist (Conservative) to become a Liberal. After the death of her husband, much of the Towneley estate had to be divided between the remaining extended family, and she only retained the hall and 62 acres around it. It became clear that the estate could not be self sustaining anymore and in 1901 she sold the building and grounds to Burnley Corporation.
The Hall Belongs to the People
The park and hall were then opened up to the public. The hall had hardly any furniture or pictures left behind by Lady O’ Hagan, but the vision was for it to be a museum and art gallery. Edwards Stocks Massey, a wealthy local brewer, donated money for purchasing pictures and his bequest is still active in funding displays today. Lady O’ Hagan gave a mummy and mummy case from an Egyptian expedition she had funded. These are now in the Collectors’ Room along with other original donations from the people of Burnley. Gradually the rooms were refurnished and today it houses an excellent selection of furniture contemporary to different periods that the rooms represent- from Tudor to Victorian.
The uses of the grounds over the decades has been very diverse. Parts of the park have been variously: small holdings, plant nursery, tennis courts, bowling green, greyhound course, speedway track, golf course, playing fields and a bird sanctuary.
In more recent years there has been an emphasis on developing the historic and nature value of the park. In 1986 it was designated by English Heritage as a Historic Park and Garden. ‘Offshoots’ permaculture (an organic, no dig approach to gardening) can be seen in the walled garden and Wilson’s Smallholdings Wood was created in 2000 as part of the Forest of Burnley.
Visiting the Hall Today
The entrance hall we see today was constructed in 1726 in the baroque style. The plasterwork is by Francesco Vassalli and his assistant Martino Quadri. They include portraits of Roman Emperors, six flying infants, a statue of Venus and a dancing faun. All these are mimicking the Italian style and subject matters that the Towneleys would have seen on their trips to Rome.
The South Wing originated in the 1400s, but the two rooms inside, the green and red Regency Rooms, were designed in the 1820s by Jeffry Wyatt . They are now hung with paintings and numerous life sized human sculpture stand at the large Georgian windows. Upstairs is the Long Gallery dating from the 1600s. It features extensive wood panelling from this time and acted as a lobby or meeting area for the guest bedrooms that lead off from it. The family portraits have long gone, but interestingly the names associated with these are still painted on the walls. The bedrooms are now furnished with an excellent selection of furniture from the 1600s typical of the local Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire styles of that time.
The art gallery permanently opened in 1907 and occupies the place where the family bedrooms once were. There is a large collection of Victorian paintings including the Pre-Raphaelite artists J.W. Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones. Other highlights include a Turner view of the hall and a portrait of Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley with his sculptures.
Links back to the family’s very strong Catholic faith can be seen outside the chapel. Here are housed the incredible Abbot’s vestments from Whalley Abbey, dating to the early 13th century. They came into the ownership of the Towneley family when the abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII (see here). As well as displaying scenes from the nativity they are decorated with embroideries of strawberries, and are said to be some of the finest English embroidery to survive from this period. The chapel itself dates from the 13th-14th century and features an altar piece installed by Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley during Napoleonic wars, made at Antwerp around 1520.
The kitchen dates from the 1800s and appears completely frozen in time with its coal fire range, spits and all the latest Victorian paraphernalia. It seems almost untouched from 1901 when Lady O’ Hagan vacated the house. You can examine the kitchen in greater detail if you go on one of the guided tours (which are free once you’ve paid admission) or you can wander the house at will and talk to the guides in the room. The hall is so interesting and varied that you might wish to do both.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017 and 2018
Towneley is another in a long line of halls and grounds in Lancashire that were once the preserve of the privileged few, but are now held in trust by a local council for all of us to enjoy. To see more of these, many of which are now free to visit click on the Historic Houses category on the side of this page.
There is an admission charge to the hall (currently £5 adults and free for children), but it allows you to return as many times as you like during the year. There is also a small parking charge.
Nearby just a few moments away:
Lancashire at War websites features some anti tank blocks found at Towneley here
A short drive away:
An Architectural History of Towneley Hall, Burnley, W. John and Kit Smith (2004) Heritage Trust for the North West
Towneley Hall Burnley Art Gallery and Museums, Tony Kitto (2004) Burnley Borough Council
Towneley Hall: A tour of the outside, Tony Kitto (2004) Burnley Borough Council
Towneley Park: The Changing Landscape, undated leaflet from Friends of Towneley Park
Towneley Walkabout Guide, undated leaflet from Burnley Council and Towneley Hall