At the highest point of Williamson Park stands the Ashton Memorial. Dubbed by the architectural historian, Nicholas Pevsner, as the “grandest monument in England”, it was paid for by just one man, James Williamson. His accumulation of enormous personal wealth, philanthropy to the town of Lancaster and subsequent bitterness at the criticism he received are all bound up with the story of this magnificent monument.
James Williamson took over his father’s successful textile business in 1875. It produced oil cloth, a tightly woven printed cotton with a waterproof coating on one side. His addition of printed linoleum to the firm’s repertoire, exported world wide, massively boosted the firm’s profits and led him to be dubbed the ‘Lino King’. To cope with demand he had huge new premises built, which he named ‘Lune Mills’ after the river they stood beside.
The area now known as Williamson Park was paid for in large part by James and his father, transforming it from open stone quarries and moorland into public parkland. James seemed ever willing to dip into his pockets for its improvement. In 1904, when his endowment was not enough to pay for a new bridge, palm house and folly temple, the corporation asked him to donate more, which he duly did.
James was very active in civic life, acting at various times as town counsellor, Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff. He was Lancaster’s Liberal Member of Parliament for nine years. Trouble began in 1895 when he ceased being an MP and was awarded a peerage, becoming Baron Ashton of Ashton. The Duke of Devonshire alleged that he had bought the title through his substantial contributions to the Liberal party. James angrily denied this, but for the next 16 years the criticisms persisted. Attacked in the local press and at odds with the Labour Movement that was trying to unionise his workforce, he would later withdraw from public life.
In 1904, Jessy, his second wife, died. Within a few days of her death, he rang the mayor of Lancaster saying that he had an idea for a monument to be placed at the highest point in the park. Herbert Hampson’s Queen Victoria statue (now in Dalton Square in Lancaster) had originally been planned to be placed on the spot, but James stated he had an idea for a different monument. In a letter sent a short time later, he confirmed that he wished ‘to erect a useful and ornamental structure in place of the Queen’s memorial’.
The Work Begins
Sir John Belcher, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, was commissioned to design it. He exhibited a wooden model of the monument in 1906 at the Royal Academy and work began the following year. He designed it in the style now termed ‘Edwardian Baroque’, distinguished by its use of towers and domes.
Stone was brought in on rail trucks to a work yard where it was unloaded and shaped. This was no easy process, and two electric cranes on gantries ran from one end of the yard to the other, to do the heavy lifting work. Diamond saws were used to split the harder stone, using a circular wheel seven feet in diameter encrusted with 170 black Brazilian diamonds. The blocks were sent on to the construction site in the park, where they were lifted into place by a 70 foot crane.
The construction work was carried out by the famous Lancashire firm of Waring and Gillow. The facades and staircases were made of Cornish granite and Derbyshire limestone, but the main monument is made of white Portland stone, in sharp contrast with the warm sandstone of the town of Lancaster. When the project started to run over budget due to the cost of trying to build the entire monument out of stone, compromises were made. Steel girders and load-bearing bricks were brought in, and large amounts of concrete were used beneath stone cladding, but these measures would lead to trouble in the future.
The monument was opened on 24th October 1909. Probably mindful of public attitudes towards him, James did not request an opening ceremony. The Cooperative News referred to James as ‘Croesus’ who squandered his workers’ earnings on a ‘gilded pinnacle’. At the time, his firm was employing a quarter of the working men in Lancaster.
In 1911, he withdrew from public life, making no further appearances or providing funding for events, charities or new buildings. He did, however, donate money to the monument in 1920, when cracks had appeared in the concrete. Rain had got in and reacted with the concrete, producing cracks and causing steel joists to rust.
A Continuing Legacy
James Williamson died in 1930 at Ryelands, his Lancaster home. His third wife Florence (Lady Ashton) and his daughter, Countess Eleanor Peel, continued to fund any ongoing required repairs of the monument. Various uses were found for it over the years, at one time the lower floor became a museum and the upper room a reading room. By the 1960s, it was open for the months of May to September and a charge for adults and children was levied. There were show cases of plants and stuffed birds and small animals. For a payment, the public could take in the views using an ‘automatic telescope’. In 1962, there was a serious fire and repairs were needed once again.
By the early 1980s, the monument was closed to the public. Water had once again got inside, leading to structural damage to the concrete and steel, and the outside was marred by graffiti. Lancaster Council began to look around for ways to finance the repairs. The majority of the money came from the European Regional Development Fund, with additional amounts from English Heritage and the Dowager Countess Eleanor Peel Trust. The restoration began in 1985 and took two years.
Shepherd of Manchester were employed as the contractors. The work involved replacing large amounts of structural concrete, waterproofing the roof, repairing the fountains, and replacing windows. The floors were relaid and for the first time electricity installed.
The monument can be seen from miles around and is familiar to the thousands that pass it every day on the M6 motorway. On entering the ground floor, the visitor is first struck by the black and white geometrical pattern of coloured marble. Frescos painted by George Murray feature on the domed ceiling representing Commerce, Art, History and Science. In between each one are figures denoting the four seasons. Suspended from the crown is a large chandelier known as an electrolier. Steps lead out to an outdoor balcony, with commanding views over the entire region. The outside is adorned by Herbert Hampson’s sculptures of figures, showing his representation of Commerce, Art and Science on the outside of the dome.
The monument is open every day and is free to enter. There are regular art exhibitions inside. Next door to it is a fabulous palm house which is inhabited by exotic butterflies.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2022
The Ashton Memorial is open every day and is free to enter.
Park at Wyresdale Road car park. There is a small parking fee. Head up the hill to the memorial.
A drive away
Williamson Park Lancaster: a brief illustrated history, Richard Danks (2021). Available from the visitors centre at Williamson Park.
The Ashton Memorial Lancaster: a reassessment of the monument, Contrebis, Michael Haslam (2019) Available for free online as a pdf document.
On site interpretation boards within Ashton Monument