Kersal Cell and Kersal Moor have long, interesting and sometimes intertwined histories. The moor today is a nature reserve and there is open access for visitors. The Kersal Cell building is now split into private houses, but good views of it can be seen from the road. We’ll start by examining the history of the moor and then move on to Kersal Cell which has been the site of a Medieval Monastery and then a Tudor manor house.
This was the site of the first horse racecourse in Manchester, beginning in 1687. The London Gazette advertised the races stating that there would be three heats on the 18th and 19th May and each race was 4 miles long. John Byron, the famous Manchester author (and owner of Kersal Cell – more about him below), objected to the racing and wrote a pamphlet condemning it. Although the races were stopped in 1746, within just a few years they had started up again and ran until 1846. This was not the only sport on the moor. During the 1700-1800s it was a popular site for archery practice and in 1818 the second golf course outside Scotland was set up by local business men. It was only 5 holes big to begin with and it lasted for almost 50 years.
The moor also has a tradition of being a meeting place for those pursuing social justice. In 1818, local coal miners met to call for greater pay and raise awareness of the dangers they faced. The most famous meeting occurred in 1838 when the Charitists held a huge assembly to elect delegates to the Chartist national convention and as a show of strength. They met initially outside Manchester’s Collegiate Church (see our page on it here) and then walked the four miles to the mass meeting on Kersal Moor. In total there was a crowd of 30,000 present and hopes must have been high that they would achieve their main goal, namely that all men were able to vote in Parliamentary elections, not just those that owned property. However, within two years, most of their leaders would be in prison.
Soon after, Friedrich Engels declared Kersal Moor to be the Mons Sacer of Manchester, in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England. (Mons Sacer was the hill the poorer citizens in Rome withdrew to in 494BC in an act of civil protest against the ruling rich). Engels, best known for being the co-author with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, had conducted first hand research in Manchester on the terrible conditions of the working poor. The wishes of the Chartists for all men to have the vote was not achieved until 1918, and for women it was 1928. Whatever Marx and Engels’s view on government may or may not have been, communist countries that were inspired by their writings never allowed citizens to vote in democratic elections.
Our Salford correspondent Jim, who introduced us to this site and accompanied us on the walk, noted that when he used to work in the area the moor was mostly just open grassland. In recent years we can see the ecological process of ‘succession’ happening. This is where new plant species move in and displace the old ones. First to displace the grass species on sandy soil is Heather and Gorse, and we can see both of these in abundance now. Once these are established then trees start to grow, with Silver Birch always the first to colonize. Other broadleaves have already started to follow, including Oak. If left ungrazed and uncut, the trees will become the dominant species in the next two decades, turning the moor into a woodland. The moor has already been designated a Site of Biological Importance and a Local Nature Reserve, with a Friends of Kersal Moor volunteer group (see their webpage here ).
This small monastery of Kersal Cell was founded by the Earl of Chester, Ranulf Gernons, around 1145. It was dedicated to St Leonard, with its mother house being the Cluniac priory at Lenton, near Nottingham. Its right to exist was reaffirmed by King Henry and his son King John, and during John’s time we know that there was a hermit there called Hugh de Buron. A former Crusader, he gave up his worldly life to live at the monastery when his wife died. The cell had the rights of fishery in the River Irwell as well as grazing and improvement of the ‘waste’ i.e. Kersal Moor. A History of County of Lancaster states it received “grants of two parcels of land in the parish of Ashton-under-Lyne; Matthew son of Edith gave a portion of his land in Audenshaw, and Alban of Alt half Paldenlegh”.
In the 1200s there was a dispute between the cell and the Rector of Manchester, Albert de Nevill. This was over the right to collect tithes, offerings and payments given to the cell’s chapel and cemetery. An agreement was reached whereby no parishioners could be buried or make offerings at Kersal without paying compensation to the Rector of Manchester’s church. The cell also could not admit parishioners to the sacraments given by the monks, which were carried out once a day. Finally it had to give the Rector a gift of two candles of one and a half pounds of wax every year!
The cell never grew very big, and probably only ever had a monk and a prior in residence at most (hence it is sometimes referred to as Kersal Priory). In 1535, at the start of King Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries, it was valued by the king’s commissioners to be worth £9 6s 8d. Three years later it was dissolved and the crown took the building and the land. The land was leased to John Wood for 21 years and the building itself was sold to Baldwin Willoughby.
The later Tudor house- also called Kersal Cell
There is good evidence that the house we see today is built on the site of the original Cell, pretty soon after Willoughby bought it. (Thirty sandstone blocks were discovered in a recent excavation that would have come from the priory.) It is a ‘cruick-framed’ construction (like so many medieval halls and barns were) and the roof timbers date from the early 1500s. Inside is a plaster wall painting from the same century. This has been described by a local newspaper as featuring “many weird creatures, notably a lion’s head in the centre, and two grinning faces, one on either side. Toads, fish, snakes, and several unknown creatures are also represented”.
Its most famous resident was the writer John Byron. He’s best known for inventing a form of shorthand writing and for his hymn Christians, Awake. He also wrote poems in local Lancashire dialect. Here’s a snippet where one of his characters gives his views on what makes a good sermon…
But I ha’ thou’t sometimes haooever good/ A sarmon meeght be better, if it wou’d /
‘At if it cou’d no’ make folks e’en to weep/ It sartinly m’t keep ‘um aw fro’ sleep. /
Yet I ha’ seen ‘um nodding toimes enoo,/ Not only childer, but churchwardens, too.
The house has been a boarding school, country club and pub. Its later large extension has now been demolished, leaving us with the oldest, Tudor parts of the house. It has now been divided into three private residential properties on Whitewater Drive. Viewing the outside today we can still see the essential historical character of this Grade II listed property, with its mullioned windows and wood and plaster construction.
Before we leave Kersal Cell, it’s worth just mentioning the local folklore about hidden underground passages. There is a claim that a passage runs from the house to Manchester Cathedral. There are many such stories connected to old houses and old churches, all around the country, and little evidence that any of them are ever true. However, there is good recent eyewitness testimony that Kersal Cell does have an underground passage – but not to the Cathedral. The tunnel was constructed sometime around 1750 and is said to run from under the stairs to the nearby banks of the River Irwell. For more details on both these claims see Keith Warrender’s excellent Underground Manchester book (details below).
Site visited by A. and J. Bowden 2017
Kersal Moor is a local nature reserve and is open access. Park on Moor Lane.
Kersal Cell is now private houses. You can get good views of it from the road on Whitewater Drive in Salford, but please respect the privacy of the residents.
Just a drive away, Brindleheath and Old Jewish Cemeteries, Pendleton
For Kersal Moor
Friends of Kersal Moor Facebook page https://en-gb.facebook.com/Friends-of-Kersal-Moor-1018147854876362/
For Kersal Cell
House of Cluniac Monks: Kersal Cell in A History of the County of Lancaster, Volume 2, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London 1908) http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol2/pp113-114
Pastscape webpage for Kersal Cell http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=45104
http://www.newmillshistory.org.uk/sbook/sbook9_004.pdf- this website pdf contains a scrapbook of newspaper clippings including: City News February 26th 1916- This gives and eyewitness tour of the inside of the house from a hundred years ago and is well worth a read. Also Manchester Weekly Times May 8th 1896 which includes discussion of John Byrom’s work
Underground Manchester: Secrets of the City Revealed, Keith Warrender (2007) Willow Publishing