In 1595, Adam Mort bought the sixty acre estate of Damhouse and acquired the right to be Lord of the Manor shortly afterwards. There was a pre-existing half timbered manor house on the site, and this survived for almost another 300 years. However, Adam wanted a new residence, so he proceeded to build his modern Tudor home in front of the old one. It is this later building that we see today, an imposing structure three storeys high with large bay windows and gables.
Adam was a wealthy man from Bolton. He owned a range of businesses throughout the Wigan, Bolton and Warrington areas. These included shops, farms, rental cottages and a fulling mill. He was married to Janet, daughter of Thomas Mort (the families were not thought to be related). Together they had three sons named Thomas, Richard and Adam.
Adam Mort died in 1631, over 90 years old. An inventory of the house taken at the time gives us a snapshot of how it was. Rooms listed include the kitchen, buttery, milk house, parlour, a chamber over the parlour, loft, clock loft containing a clock and bell, Adam’s Chamber, a little chamber and a chapel within the house. There were also substantial outbuildings including a “horse house, turf house, cart house, fold, mill, pig coates, ruins of a large timber and stone barn”. Adam left money in his will for the church and school that he had founded, and also for the poor of Astley and Bolton.
Thomas succeeded his father and became Lord of the Manor of Astley. However, he did not live at Damhouse, but instead resided at Peel Hall in Little Hulton. He also owned Wharton Hall, which he had jointly bought with Adam. A wealthy lawyer, he married Margaret Smith and they had seven children the eldest of which, Adam II, would in turn inherit Damhouse. Thomas’s two other brothers inherited Peel Hall and Wharton Hall.
Adam II Mort Inherits Damhouse
Adam II Mort renovated Damhouse, and added the porch which bears his and his wife name. The inscription over the entrance doorway reads ‘Erected by Adam Mort and Margaret Mort 1650‘. However, that same year Margaret died, leaving Adam with four very young children, the oldest of which was just four years old. Eight years later, Adam himself died and his son Thomas inherited the estate as a minor in 1658. On his death, the house and grounds passed to the Sutton family.
The Suttons Take up Residence
In 1734, Thomas Sutton, a relative of the Morts, bought Damhouse and its manorial rights. He employed school master Richard Hodgkinson of Leigh Grammar to design new flower beds, lawns and walks. Hodgkinson’s work as a landscape gardener was enjoyed by many of the neighbouring wealthy families, who also had their gardens worked on by him.
During Thomas Sutton’s time, Dr John Byrom of Kersall Cell was a frequent visitor. A non-practicing medical doctor, he was a celebrated poet and invented a form of short hand that earned him money for its copyright from the government. On one visit to Damhouse he was prevailed upon by the family to dissuade Fanny, one of the Sutton family’s relatives, from joining the Quakers. Byrom put it to her that the Quakers were a religion no older than Damhouse itself. It’s not recorded as to whether his rhetoric had the desired effect.
When, in 1752, Thomas Sutton died, at the age of 69, he had no immediate heirs but the house was passed to a relative in the Froggatt family.
The Froggatts and the Wetheralls
Three generations of the Froggatt family went on to own Damhouse. During their time an east wing was added, constructed out of machine-made red brick. However, when the house passed to Sarah, the last of the Froggatts, it had become neglected. She moved in with her first husband, Captain John Adam Durie from Scotland, to find the chimneys had been filled with sticks from multiple jackdaw nests.
Her second husband, Malcolm Nugent Ross, was also Scottish and a captain. In 1844, to raise the money to restore the house, Sarah and Malcolm leased mines to John Darlington of the Astley and Tyldesley Coal Company. They did this on the proviso that the company did not have any workings within 60 yards of Damhouse, or dig underneath it. With the money they raised they added a single storey west wing, along with much needed renovations.
Sarah’s daughter from her first marriage, Katherine, became the heir. Like her mother, she also married twice. Her second husband was Sir Edward Robert Wetherall, Under Secretary for Ireland. When he died suddenly in Dublin in 1869, their son George became the heir. Unfortunately, he ran up huge personal debts and neglected the estate. George tried to rent out Damhouse, but found no takers. When one of the main mortgage holders appointed a receiver in 1886, the writing was on the wall. Just three years later, the whole estate, including the house and all its contents, had to be sold.
The Great Estate Sale
Records from the auction shows the amount of luxury the residents of Damhouse were living in as the 1800s drew to a close. There were 1032 lots in total, and the contents took four days to all be sold. Damhouse was described as having five reception rooms, along with twenty bedroom and drawing rooms. The lots included 120 pictures and engravings by “rare and modern masters”. There was also “a full sized Spanish mahogany state bed… Chippendale chairs…brussels and velvet pile carpets” along with “walnut and rosewood drawing room suites”. Other items included a collection of military books, armour, and weapons including “swords, rapiers, claymores, partisans” and an “early English crossbow”. Also on offer were“600 bottles of rare old wine” and a “four wheeled closed carriage that seated four people”.
The surrounding grounds included tennis lawns, flower gardens, a kitchen garden and a collection of fruit trees. There was a wealth of plants within the heated greenhouses and four 130 feet long conservatories. The conditions in them had proved suitable for growing clematis, passion flowers, camellias, acacias, rubber plants, vines, ferns and mosses.
There were also the other properties for sale that the family owned. These included the Gin and Nook collieries, the Bull’s Head Inn and a blacksmith shop. Other offerings were the “enormous deposits of coal and minerals underneath the Astley estate”, part of Chat Moss “vigorously worked by Astley Peat Moss Co Ltd”, “several fertile farms” “eligible building plots” and “well secured ground rents”.
The estate was bought by a Leigh syndicate, that went on to form the Astley Estates Company. Damhouse was left unoccupied for three years.
The Hospital Years
In 1894, the buildings were brought into use as a sanatorium and within a year they were being run by the Leigh Joint Hospital Board. Housing infectious patients meant that the area had to be isolated from the public, so a brick wall was constructed around the grounds and the entrance was gated. As patients were not allowed visitors, any messages or gifts for them were left at the lodge house.
In 1896, two typhoid fever blocks and two scarlet fever blocks were constructed.
Six years later another typhoid block was added, along with a discharge ward and mortuary.
By the 1930s, the hospital was looking after patients with polio, meningitis and puerperal fever. During the Second World War red crosses were painted on the roofs in the hope of deterring German bombing. Off duty staff would shelter in the Damhouse cellar during air raids, while on duty staff would put patients under the beds until the danger had passed.
At the birth of the NHS the hospital became a general one, but also continued to treat infectious diseases. In later years it mainly dealt with chronic disease and the care of the elderly. When it finally closed in 1994 the most likely use of the buildings and grounds was that they would be converted for housing.
A Community Take-Over
However, some local residents were very keen to save the gardens, woodland and Damhouse itself for the community. John and Sylvia Tongue set up a campaign and circulated a petition to stop Damhouse from being converted into flats. Eleven locals set up the Morts Astley Heritage Group (MAHG). They then proceeded to organise every money raising activity that they could think of: concerts, quizzes, craft fairs, jumble, bingo, coffee mornings and hotpot suppers.
The MAHG became a Building Preservation Trust and this enabled them to apply for grants, which they did from the then newly formed Heritage Lottery Fund. Building developers Bryant Homes acquired some of the site for housing and agreed to sell Damhouse and its woodland to the trust. Just two years later, the Lottery awarded them an incredible £1.6 million. The European charity Rechar added a further £280,000.
The Heritage Lottery award was tremendous news for the trust. However, the timing must have been tinged with some despair, as on the day the volunteers found out that they had received lottery funding it was discovered that thieves had broken into the property. They had stolen historically valuable items including the studded front door, a fireplace, all the oak panelling from the entrance hall and some interior doors too.
In 1999, Morts Astley Heritage Trust took full possession of Damhouse, along with thirteen acres of woodland and one acre of garden at a total cost of £2.4 million. Renovation then began in earnest, but there were further setbacks. The building contractors went into receivership, and lead was stolen from the roof causing water damage to some of the oldest parts of the building. However, by December 2000 all was complete and the official opening occurred on Christmas Eve. The restoration project took two Lancashire boilers from the property and donated them to the Red Rose Steam Society that run the popular Lancashire Mining Museum at Astley Green (see our page on it here).
In April the following year the grounds and woodland were opened to the public. A Heritage Tea Room was set up within Damhouse itself, which continues to thrive today. There are now regular guided tours of the property for historical societies, and members of the public can view the interior on Heritage Open Days. Damhouse also offers rooms for community use and conferences.
Anyone visiting today can view the extensive grounds and the exterior of the house, and go inside to use the tea rooms. These feature an original inglenook fireplace.
There is still restoration work to do, most pressingly the attic space. This contains a long gallery, albeit an unusual one in that it does not have windows to look out on to the view. The original wattle and daub construction can still be seen in the attic, and must be over 400 years old. This space is shown on booked tours and on the Heritage Open Days. The conference room with its decorative roof trusses can also be seen. This had been built in the time of the Froggatts and had been previously a billiard room and then the hospital chapel.
The preservation and current flourishing of the hall is all down the volunteers of Morts Astley Heritage Trust, and they are to be congratulated for the work they have done in keeping this historical manor house and grounds accessible to all.
Author’s Note: Damhouse has often been called Astley Hall in the past and is on Astley Hall Drive. However, there is another hall with this name in Lancashire, which is Astley Hall in Chorley. To avoid confusion, Damhouse is used to refer to this one in Astley, in the modern county of Greater Manchester.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2019
There is a free public car park next to Damhouse.
Damhouse tearooms are open seven days a week. See their page here
The grounds and woodland are open access.
The Damhouse website is here
Nearby, just a short drive away
Astley Hall (Damhouse), John and Sylvia Tonge (2002). Superb book on sale at Damhouse. Much of the information on this page was sourced from this publication.
Dam House Astley, Elaine Hurst (undated) Morts Astley Heritage Trust. Free leaflet available from Damhouse.
On site interpretation in the attic of Damhouse on Heritage Open Day September 2019