The Ainsworth family of Halliwell were a rich and powerful dynasty of bleachers. This page tells of their steady rise in fortune and the impact they had on the locality, followed by what is still to be seen on the ground from their time.
Peter (I) Ainsworth
The first of the Ainsworth family that we know was involved in the bleaching process was called Peter. (There are going to be three Peter Ainsworths in this story, so they will be numbered to avoid confusion). Peter (I) took the lease on a piece of land called ‘The Moss’, at the site where Moss Bank Park stands today. He used this extensive open area for bleaching cloth. This was a lengthy process where the fabric was first chemically treated and then laid out in the open air for the sun to bleach it. The bleaching could take as little as a couple of weeks, or as long as a couple of months, depending on the weather. The cloth was vulnerable to theft, and Peter formed a Prosecution Society that enabled smaller bleachers to take on the expensive process of prosecuting thieves.
In 1737, he married Alice Calland and they moved to a large house, which still stands near Moss Bank Park, called Lightbounds. When he died in 1780, he passed the business and house on to his son, Peter (II).
A Father and Son Partnership: Peter (II) and Richard
Peter (II) and his son Richard would become the real powerhouses of the Ainsworth bleaching business. They expanded both their business empire and their land estates throughout their lifetimes. Peter (II) decided to build a modern, Georgian house for Richard at Moss Bank. By 1796, Moss Bank House was complete. It was four storeys tall, brick-built and had 100 windows in total. The home was expensively furnished with a large library, pictures and ornaments. The surrounding buildings consisted of domestic offices, a coach house, stables and dog kennels.
The Ainsworths moved their bleaching croft from The Moss to the area that now takes up the north-east corner of Moss Bank Park. Keen to embrace new techniques, they worked with the Vallettes, a French father and son team. The Vallettes had devised a new method of bleaching that did not involve laying the cloth out on grass for weeks. Instead they used ‘chloride of lime’ and this enabled them to move the whole production process indoors. This technique did not prevent theft though. It is recorded that William Benjamin Jones broke in and stole muslin cloth and was sentenced to transportation (probably to Australia) for seven years.
Victor, the younger Vallett, went into business with the Ainsworths, and two large factories on what is now Valletts Lane were constructed. However in 1800, Victor became bankrupt and the Ainsworths took over the whole business.
Because The Moss was no longer needed for laying out cloth, it was now freed up for the creation of an impressive garden. Joseph Kefford, who had worked at the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, became the head gardener and planned the whole design. New lawns were laid out and conservatories and fountains constructed. The large high-walled kitchen garden that was created still exists today, and is well worth a visit.
In 1801, Smithills Hall and its estate came up for sale and Peter (II) and Richard paid £21,000 for it. This made them the largest landowners in Halliwell. It’s thought that they were particularly interested in the water catchment the estate land could provide them for their bleachworks.
After Peter (II) died in 1807, Richard continued the tradition of expanding the estates and business interests. He took advantages of local bankruptcies, buying up the lands of the adjoining Dewhurst family, and also Lord’s cotton spinning mills in the Barrow Bridge area. He also spent a good deal of money bringing Smithills Hall into good condition for his son Peter (III) to live in. Richard was not without his setbacks though, as, in 1812, a spark from a candle fell onto dry cloth in a store at the bleachworks, which resulted in part of a large building and its machinery being badly burnt.
Richard died in 1833 and left his business to his two sons, Peter (III) and John Horrocks. Peter (III) was bequeathed Smithills Hall and John Horrocks received Moss Bank House.
Two Contrasting Brothers: Peter (III) and John Horrocks
Peter (III) was not a typical Ainsworth and was not interested in the bleaching business. He rapidly extricated himself from the partnership with his brother John Horrocks. Instead, he concentrated on running his Smithills estate. As well as farmland, his Smithills holdings included a coal mine and quarries. Stone from his quarries was used to build the extensions to the Ainsworth bleachworks, the nearby mills at Barrow Bridge and the older houses that can still be seen today on Smithills Croft Road.
More important to Peter (III) though was to enter politics as one of the first of Bolton’s two MPs in 1835, following the Parliamentary Reform Act. (For more on this important democratic milestone see our page on the Parbold Monument here). As a member of Parliament, he cared passionately about the plight of poor people in Bolton. His speeches paint a grim picture of families sleeping without blankets or even a bed, of high prices for everyday staple goods and of people not having enough bread to eat and instead consuming animal feed.
His brother John Horrocks had a very different attitude to the poor, as we shall see shortly. He is remembered locally for the large number of buildings he had erected, and there are still reminders of his work in the Smithills and Halliwell areas today. These are in the form of date stones on numerous houses with the initials IHA carved on. (I is the latin letter for J (John), H for Horrocks, A for Ainsworth). He was also a keen builder of schools and churches. He was responsible for a school on Colliers Row (now a private house), Markland School and a school attached to St Paul’s church on Halliwell Road. As a governor at Bolton School, he raised hackles amongst staff by personally questioning the pupils about their lessons and insisting on an annual examination for them.
John Horrocks provided much of the funding for St Peter’s in Halliwell. He was very harsh on employees that did not go to church often enough, even sacking ones that did not attend.
His piousness did not extend to treating his workers well, and he was against any kind of government reform to improve the conditions in which his employees toiled. When Reverend Milton of St Paul’s Church spoke out against poor working conditions and child labour within the bleachworks, John Horrocks reacted angrily. He placed pickets on the door of the church and had them report back to him who was attending services. He managed to force the reverend out of his job, although Milton was later able to give testimony at a Parliamentary committee as to the conditions inside the works.
John Horrocks had the buildings and grounds of Moss Bank House improved. New ponds were dug, greenhouses, hot houses and a heated aviary for exotic birds constructed. A tower was built for his astronomical observations, and this still stands.
As he grew older, his sight was growing increasingly worse and he relied more and more on John Stanning at the bleachworks. Stanning had worked his way up the ranks from being young, and knew the business thoroughly. The bleachworks were increased in size and a massive new chimney was added in the mid-1800s. This stood separate from the factory buildings but was connected to them by a series of pipes. Visitors to Moss Bank Park can still see this impressive edifice today. It was the highest chimney in Lancashire at 306 feet and despite the fact it has been reduced three times, the last time to 246 feet, in 1995, it is still the tallest in Bolton. This last reduction was presumably done by Britain’s most famous steeplejack, as eagle-eyed visitors can spot a simple plaque part way up the chimney which has inscribed upon it ‘F. Dibnah and S. Warner 1996′. For our page on Fred Dibnah’s statue that stands in Bolton town centre see here.
John Horrocks died in 1865 and his brother Peter (III) in 1870. Their properties of Moss Bank House and Smithills Hall passed to their nephew Richard Henry Ainsworth, locally known as the Colonel.
Richard Henry Ainsworth: The Colonel
Richard Henry Ainsworth was educated at Eton and Oxford, and his inheritance made him a huge land owner in Bolton. After succeeding to the family business, he managed to get rid of his uncle’s chief support, John Stanning, who had become a partner at the bleachworks. The Colonel took pleasure in catching workers slacking off, although his dog running before him would give fair warning of his imminent appearance. Even so, when he managed to find his employees doing something they shouldn’t be doing, such as playing cards, he would fine them. This consisted of putting a shilling in Mrs Ainsworth’s missionary box.
Over time, he began to take less interest in the bleachworks and eventually sold them to the Bleachers Association in return for shares. When the Colonel died with no immediate heir, the inheritance passed to Nigel Victor Combe, who would ultimately sell both Moss Bank House and Smithills Hall on to the Bolton Corporation.
The grounds of Moss Bank were opened as a public park in 1928. The grand house was used to sell light refreshments to visitors. Unfortunately though, it had no damp proof course, and developed dry rot. It was deemed too costly to repair and the building was demolished in 1951. The stables and other outbuildings continued in use by the parks department and some of these are still standing today, although they are not in great condition.
Visiting Moss Bank Park Today
Although Moss Bank House is long gone, there is much to see of historical interest at the park, which is very popular with locals. The original walled garden has been well cared for and has stunning displays in the spring, summer and autumn. There is also a recently restored rock garden nearby. The grounds of the park still have some landscaping features from its time as a garden for a private house. There are large mature trees along with the classic feature of Victorian planting, the rhododendron, which is still very much in evidence.
A café stands on the site of the house and this is run by the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside. They also run The Hive, a community nature and gardening area behind it. The stables and coach house have seen better days and look fairly dilapidated, but John Horrock’s astronomical tower looks in good condition.
The nearby tall chimney is an obvious remnant of the bleachworks. The car park next to it contains low walls that may have been connected to the factory, or may be reused sandstone blocks from it. There is a stone plaque that states ‘Opened by Sir Alan Sykes Bt, June 6th 1923’. The wooded area immediately around the car park contains some demolition rubble presumably from the bleachworks, gradually being covered by the mosses and grasses.
Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2019
The site is open access. There are two car parks for Moss Bank Park. There is one close to the A58, but for a far larger one go down Moss Lane onto Barrow Bridge Road to find it close by the chimney. The car parks are free.
Nearby, just a short drive away
The Ainsworths of Halliwell, W.D. Billington (2008), Halliwell Local History Society. This book has provided much of the information on this webpage. It is available from Smithills Hall, or from Halliwell Local History Society here
Smithills Hall, W.D Billington and M.S. Howe (2010) Halliwell Local History Society. This book is available from Smithills Hall or from Halliwell Local History Society here