The Heskeths received their estate and manor at Rufford by marrying into the Fitton family. Maud Fitton brought the land and title in the late 1200 and early 1300s. This was to be the Hesketh’s main powerbase, although they had better quality land at Great Harwood. Back in medieval times Rufford was very marshy, with nearby Martin Mere and River Douglas making it an isolated place.
When Thomas Hesketh died in 1523, he left three daughters with the right to inherit. However, his illegitimate son Robert pressed his claim as heir. He had the support of his father-in-law Sir John Towneley (of Towneley Hall), Sir Thomas Southworth of Samlesbury and the powerful Stanley family. His bid was successful and he received the manor and land.
In 1530, to consolidate his claim, Robert built Rufford Hall, probably using the same craftsmen that had worked at Samlesbury Hall (see our page on it here). The impressive wooden Tudor hall with its rare hammerbeam roof is still there today.
When Robert died, in 1541, the house had not properly been completed, but was finished off by his son Thomas. Thomas rotated his time between his three properties of Rufford, Great Harwood and nearby Holmeswood Hall which overlooked Martin Mere. He had William Shakespeare in his company of actors, taking him on from Alexander Hoghton (of Lea Hall and Hoghton Tower) after Hoghton died.
In 1662, John Molyneux of Teversal, Nottinghamshire was acting as guardian to the young Hesketh heir. He had the huge three story brick wing built and this too still exists at Rufford. This was for family and servants, and consisted of a large new kitchen, service rooms and sleeping quarters.
In 1720, a later Thomas Hesketh did a major rebuild by taking a large part of Holmeswood Hall and re-using it at Rufford. The existing east wing was taken down and a six bay, two storey part of Holmeswood was erected in its place to create the four bay dining hall (the one we see today) and two bay ante-room and first floor drawing room (also on view today).
By the mid 1760s, the Heskeths wanted a more modern home, and so had a brand new neo-classical mansion built nearby called Rufford New Hall (now converted into houses). The old hall was leased to Thomas Lowe, a gardener. With the family no longer in residence it was probably very easy for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Company to put a canal right next to the hall. Its function was to link the canal at Burscough with the River Douglas near Tarleton.
In the early 1800s, the Tudor Great Hall was used as the village schoolroom. The Heskeths employed a schoolmaster at 52 pounds 10 shillings a year. In 1825, a new school opened in the village and parents that could afford it paid fees for their children to attend. There was a clothing fund which poorer parents contributed to (instead of fees) and which poaching fines also paid into.
With the school out of Rufford Old Hall, Thomas Henry Hesketh was able to refurbish it to his late Georgian tastes. He employed local architect John Foster to add a mock Tudor look. Foster took the 1720 Holmeswood Hall wing, enlarged it , and added brick and plaster on the outside in an effort to make it look like timber framing. The main entrance was relocated into the 1662 brick wing, entering into what would have been the kitchen. This had a Tudor style gothic entrance door put in place to make it look more grand. The Great Hall had a lantern roof added to act as a skylight for the billiard table!
The hall was ready for reoccupation in 1826 and Hesketh and his wife Annette collected carved oak traditional Lancashire furniture to fill it (much of it still on show today). They also added stained glass and a collection of mostly German and Italian armour and weapons in the Great Hall, a craze at the time amongst the gentry.
Forty years later, the Heskeths inherited an estate in Northamptonshire and decided to relocate there permanently. In 1872 their land agent occupied the hall, and began to sell off their many Lancashire estates. The old hall was briefly reoccupied by Thomas Fermor Hesketh and his wife Florence, but in 1936 he decided to give the house to the National Trust, who have run it ever since.
For the visitor today there is much of interest. The original high status wooden Tudor Great Hall with its hammer beam roof, mass of carvings and original unique moveable screen are all in superb condition. The impressive 1662 wing with its converted kitchen is still the main entrance hall. The surviving parts of Holmeswood Hall live on in the ante, drawing and dining rooms.
The estate yard features Philip Ashcroft’s museum of local life. Concerned that local rural customs and practices were slipping away, in 1936 he started a collection of everyday objects for work, home and play which the National Trust later took over. The Victorian five acre garden features a variety of rhododendrons, a woodland and an orchard with old northern varieties of apples.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017. This text written 2018
There is an entrance charge and it is in line with most large National Trust properties (i.e on the more expensive side. However, it is well worth it).
Open most days (but NOT Thursdays and Fridays in most months) – best to check their website here
Rufford Old Hall, Richard Dean (2007), National Trust
Rufford Old Hall Lancashire, (1998) National Trust
Lancashire’s Historic Halls, David Brazendale (1994) Carnegie Publishing