In the early 1400s a Pele tower was built on a high commanding spot in Turton. It was a three storey rectangular defendable structure, with four foot thick walls and narrow windows. This was a turbulent time with the possibility of raiders coming down from Scotland being a pressing danger. This style of fortified buildings is common in Cumbria and Northumberland (for example see our page on Dalton Castle). The towers at Turton and Radcliffe (see our page here) are amongst the furthest south these buildings are found. However, it wasn’t just the Scots or Reivers that this tower was built to defend its inhabitants from…

The Pele tower at Turton

Elizabeth de Tarboc inherited the estate at Turton and married William Orrell, bringing the land into the Orrell family’s ownership. There was an active dispute with her side of the family, the Tarbocs, who still held claim to the area. This may have been part of the reason why the defendible tower was built by the Orrells, in that it offered strong protection. The de Lathom family also staked a claim as they were the original Lords of the Manor of Turton. The quarrel with the two other families was to be a long standing one.

Originally the tower would have had farm equipment stored on the ground floor (and possibly cattle too). The first floor was the dining hall and the top floor would be sleeping accommodation.

The Orrells owned it through Tudor and early Stuart times and began to expand the site. They built two large cruick framed buildings alongside the tower. The smaller one was used as living quarters and the longer one as a farmhouse. These were later bonded together into an  L shape and then the smaller one was connected to the tower itself, to form wings. The  large oak cruick beams from both these extensions can be seen within two of the rooms today. The exterior of the buildings were later clad in stone, hiding their wooden frames and giving them a higher status look. These wings are still in existence and visitors can view the rooms, which have had various functions over the years.

Humphrey Chetham takes possession

By the time of King James I the Orrells were in financial trouble. They had spent much on improvements to Turton Tower, and faced repeated fines for being practicing Catholics. The mounting debt led William Orrell to take out a large loan from Humprey Chetham, a local wealthy cloth merchant. On William’s death the debt could not be repaid, so his brother sold the tower and its land to Chetham. William’s widow Alice Orrell was allowed to stay on, living there as a tenant.

The Pele tower is bonded on to the once free standing wings

In 1628 when Humphrey Chetham bought the tower, he also took possession of  many acres of estate land, the local chapel and Turton water mill. He was in business with his brother George who presided over the London end of their venture. Bolton was the centre of the fustian trade, this being a kind of imitation velvet made from flax and cotton. Flax was grown locally and also imported from Ireland, cotton was brought up from the London docks to be woven in with it. Humphrey sent the finished cloth back to his brother, who sold it in London. Their huge financial success meant that they were able to lend money to the formerly wealthy landed aristocracy, at a rate of about 8%. They jointly purchased Clayton Hall in Manchester and after George’s death, Humphrey became sole proprietor.

Humphrey Chetham was clearly very astute with money. He was the ‘Farmer of the Manchester Tithes’, collecting money for Manchester’s Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral, see our page here); he brought in lots of Ship Money (an arbitrary tax imposed by King Charles I); and in the Civil War was the County Treasurer financing the Parliamentary war effort against the same king. He also garrisoned parliamentary troops at Turton while the Royalist Orrell family were still living there.

It is his philanthropy that we remember him best for today. When the Collegiate Church was dissolved he bought the buildings of College House and the cloisters to set up a residential school for poor boys. This was known as Chetham’s Hospital, which eventually morphed into the now famous Chetham’s School of Music. In his will he also set up Chetham’s Library, the first public library – another Lancashire first ! The library is still open to visitors today and some of his chained books are on display at the tower. (For more on the school and library, see our page here).

In the 1700s and 1800s the tower passed from the Chethams to their heirs – the Bland, Greene and Frere families. They rarely stayed at Turton, but rented it out to farming tenants, and it entered a period of decline.

Flax Spinning Entrepreneur James Kay

In early Victorian times, the tower’s fortunes were revived when it was purchased by the successful inventor and entrepreneur James Kay, in 1835. Kay had pioneered a wet spinning process to enable flax to be spun more efficiently and produce a much finer and superior fabric. This gave a particular boost to production in Ireland, where the blue flowers of flax were a common sight until recent times. At aged 61 he was able to retire, buy Turton Tower and pass the business on to his sons.

This view shows the Medieval Pele, some Tudor woodwork and later Victorian Dutch façade on the right hand side

He and his descendants set about restoring the hall using the Tudor and Stuart period as inspiration. They bought a huge amount of Stuart oak panelling from Middleton Hall before it was demolished. This panelling has been used extensively in the Dining Room (bottom floor of the Pele), the Drawing Room (first floor of the Pele) and in the Morning Room of one of the Cruick wings. Although from the same period it is in differing styles and is still in place today. The very top floor of the Pele was converted into a bedroom and billiard room. These are long gone and the space has been stripped back so that you can see the original architecture. Just outside this top room, the Kays restored the stone spiral staircase of the Pele and this can still be viewed through a clear panel set in the floor.

In the 1890s the Kays left and sold the tower. A little over a decade later it was bought by Sir Lees Knowles to use as a hunting base and for entertaining guests. In 1930 it was given by his widow Lady Nina, along with eight acres of parkland, to Turton Urban District Council. The council used it as a town hall, with the present day Dining Room being the Committee Room and Drawing Room used as the Council Chamber. In 1952 it opened as a museum and has continued as such right up to the present day.

Bradshaw Hall lives on at Turton

Bradshaw Hall was demolished in 1948 and its owner Colonel Henry Hardcastle moved many of its antiques to Turton Tower, so today a little bit of his hall can be found here. There are suits of armour from the 1600s in the original Entrance Hall. In the Drawing Room can be found a large 1600s chair with ‘Comfort ye one another’ inscribed upon it, as well as some pewter plate. There is a dedicated space in the Bradshaw Room which contains a fireplace, an impressive elaborately carved tester bed and cradle, all donated by the colonel from his former residence.

Perhaps the most intriguing artefacts from Bradshaw Hall are the Timberbottom skulls. Their eerie story is as follows….Discovered in Bradshaw Brook, they were kept together at a small farmhouse called Timberbottom. If they were separated or removed from the house, ghostly goings on would be said to ensue. Stories were told of them being put back in the river or buried in Bradshaw churchyard, causing the disturbances to begin again. After the demolition of the farm they were brought to Bradshaw Hall and placed on the family bible in the study where they produced no more disturbances. It is very common idea in folklore that skulls must not be removed from a house. Westwood and Simpson in The Lore of the Land cite numerous examples throughout Britain. The motif of skulls being buried or thrown in a pond (or in our case a river) always brings disturbances or bad luck to the house in these tales. Explanations for the existence of the skulls often involves stories of thwarted love, murder or both.

Today, upon examination one appears to  have been pierced by a sharp implement. This larger one is very dark brown, showing that it has lain in peat for many years after burial. The other skull is little more than a small curved piece of bone, mounted on a metal stand by Colonel Hardcastle. They are both still resting on the Bradshaw Hall bible today, and are on display after many years of being hidden away in a storeroom at Turton.

Blackburn with Darwen Council now own and run Turton Tower for the benefit of all of us, so why not take some time for a visit and enjoy what was only once for the privileged and the few?

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018

Access and Opening Times

The tower is open from March to October, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is an entrance fee, but children are given free admittance with adults.

See their website here or visit

There is also a Friends group – see their information on the main Turton Tower website.

Have a look around all the Victorian curiosities in the grounds, see our page here

Find out more about nearby Bradshaw Hall here

Nearby, just a short distance away Turton Cross and Stocks, Chapeltown

There is a very well preserved Pillbox at Turton. For more on this see our page on Lancashire at War here

A local beauty spot is Jumbles Reservoir

A monument to a watermill Black Rock Waterwheel

A rare surviving bridge Pack Horse Bridge, Turton Bottoms


Turton Tower and Its Owners, W.G Sharples revised edition (2014), Friends of Turton Tower- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

Turton Tower: A Guide, Martin Robinson Dowland (1991), Lancashire County Museums- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

Lancashire’s Historic Halls, David Brazendale (1994), Carnegie Publishing

Holcombe Moor Heritage Group Winter Newsletter February 2018 : James Kay of Turton Tower- summary of a talk by Professor Richard Horrocks of Bolton University to the Holcombe Moor Heritage Group

Lancashire Halls, Margaret Chapman (1990), Printwise Publications Ltd, Salford

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, Jennifer Westwood and Jaqueline Simpson (2005), Penguin Books

North Country Folklore, Jessica Lofthouse (1976), Robert Hale

On site interpretation at Turton Tower- paddle information boards in the rooms and large display board in the Chetham Room