Three Lancashire Museums to Reopen!

Good news at last on the fate of three of the four remaining closed Lancashire Museums. Lancashire County Council has announced that Helmshore Textile Mills, Queen Street Mill in Burnley and Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster will open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from April through to October. This will continue for two years until 2020 while talks are ongoing with unnamed cultural organisations, with a view to the running of the buildings and their collections being taken over from the council. The unnamed organisations could be museum trusts, or historical charities.

This reprieve is welcome news and a positive step in the right direction.  Many of us may have despaired as to what their fate would be as there has been little information released to the public about what was happening to the museums when they were closed two years ago.

This limited re-opening is still a way off from the full opening times that existed before 2016, but now must be the moment when we show our appreciation for these three wonderful Lancashire assets. So here at Lancashire Past we are saying: visit the museums, pay the modest entry fees, sign the visitors’ books, buy something in their shops. If you are on social media then let your friends know about your visit and encourage them to go too! If you are a Trip Advisor writer, visit and give them a great review! We have to show that these museums have a future, and that they are much loved by the public.

Here are the preliminary opening dates, but do check as they have not been set in stone:

Helmshore Mills: 26th May 2018

Queen Street Mill, Burnley: 7th July 2018

Judges Lodgings, Lancaster: 21st July 2018

The remaining closed museum is Preston’s Museum of Lancashire. There are no immediate plans to re-open it, but a spokesperson for the council said talks were ongoing with an unnamed consortium and a decision will be taken in the next few months. Let’s hope it is a positive one. The Museum of Lancashire has been in receipt of large amounts of Heritage Lottery funding in the recent past, and had undergone a major refit a few years before it was closed. It remains an important asset, and houses the excellent Silverdale Viking Hoard (see our page on this amazing find here).

The fifth museum that closed back in 2016 was Fleetwood’s Maritime Museum. This was the first to reopen (as we detailed back in October 2017), when their volunteer group completely took over the running. It really is a fantastic place to visit, so do go and see the excellent work they are doing; it also has a really good café too. It’s open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Their website is here

Thank you to everyone that has lobbied to have the museums re-opened. Lots of people have signed petitions, contacted their councillors  and MPs and written about the museums on the web. Also a big thank you to the various museum friends groups for their hard work in bringing us to this positive moment.




Posted in Georgian Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , ,

Robin Hood’s Well, Helmshore near Bury


Robin Hood’s Well, Helmshore

On the Helmshore side of Holcombe Moor stands Robin Hood’s Well. It would have been a welcome place for pilgrims to rest and take a drink on their way to Whalley Abbey. This medieval route is marked by the nearby Pilgrims Cross or at least the modern stone that rests in its original place. Later, after Whalley Abbey was dissolved (see here) and the pilgrims no longer passed along this path, the well found new users. These would be drovers and packhorse men on their route to Haslingden.

Today the well is in good condition. Water comes out of a central plastic pipe, and a look over the drystone wall, that the well is built into, shows that a modern grid provides access to the spring. Most intriguing of all is the very large, old stone cap. This has many irregular cup shaped marks on it, as if parts of the stone has been scooped out. On the right hand side of the cap stone is a big void, as if this was carved to hold something. The rest of the well looks more modern, with a trough and a central carved opening  allowing excess water to drain out down small steps and across the lane.


The question arises – why the name Robin Hood’s Well ? The Robin Hood ballads were becoming popular in the 1400s and the first printed versions appear in the early 1500s. There are stories about the outlaw in Wakefield, Barnsley, Kirklees and of course Nottingham, but not in Lancashire. However, a quick search of the modern day version of Henry Taylor’s The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire lists six other places where there is a Robin Hood’s Well in our region. These are Briercliffe, Downham, Higham, Spotland, Mawdesley and Trawden.

We think that this name did not refer to the famous outlaw, but has morphed into it. It probably derives from  Robin Goodfellow, a fairy figure now best known to us as Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Robin Goodfellow is an old name locals gave to a fairy and many rural landmarks had fairies associated with them. Belief in fairies was once widespread, and these same magical folk were also referred to as hobgoblins or boggarts (for instance see our page on Hob Cross here).

Nearby to the well is the Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn. Below we give a route up to see the well and cairn, and an indication of where you could park.

Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018


The site is open access and is at Grid Reference 777 195. The spring is marked on the West Pennine Moor map, although not quite at the precise point (Explorer 287- formerly Explorer 19)

DSCN7608If you’d like to go and see the Robin Hood’s Well  and Ellen Strange’s Memorial and Cairn, here’s our suggested route. There is a lay-by for parking on the Helmshore to Holcombe Road, marked on the West Pennine Moor Explorer Map with a ‘P’. Close by this the  footpath leads up to Chatterton Close Farm (also marked on the map). Head up the steep footpath to Chatterton Close Farm. This is a National Trust property and is currently  boarded up. It has the biggest buttress we’ve seen on a farm building, plus some pretty large ones on the farm walls (click on the photo to enlarge it and have a look – the one on the barn at the end is a giant!) Turn right in front of the farm and follow the well worn path. In a while you will come to an eroded area, but ignore the  path on your left that goes up onto the hill , and continue heading in the Helmshore direction. You know you’re close to your destination when you see the path go through a gate to Stake Lane and start to descend towards Helmshore. Head straight through the gate to see Robin Hood’s Well on Stake Lane. (Grid Reference 777 195). Alternatively turn left at this point and go a little way up the side of Beetle Hill to see the Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn  (Grid Reference 778 195).


Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume III Blackburn Hundred, Volume Editor A.J.Noble (2004) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume IV Salford Hundred, Volume Editor  A.J Noble, (2005) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume VI Leyland Hundred, Volume Editors J.A. Hilton, A.J Noble, M. Panikkar, W.A. Varney (2007) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

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

Holcombe Moor on site interpretation boards – on the route we’ve described are some boards that give a potted history of the area, plus what to see in terms of wildlife as you go up onto the moor.

Posted in Ancient Wells,, Medieval Lancashire | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Cuerdale Viking Hoard Returns To Lancashire !

The Atkinson Museum in Southport currently has a Viking Exhibition that brings the Cuerdale Hoard back to Lancashire. Normally it is only on display in London, so why not visit and take this rare chance to see it on your doorstep? It is the largest Viking Hoard ever discovered in Europe and yes, it did come from Lancashire! It was found in Victorian times on the banks of the River Ribble, close to Walton-le-Dale near Preston.

As if that is not a good enough reason to go, the exhibition also has the Vale of York Hoard, plus excellent examples of Viking jewellery and weaponry.

To go to the Atkinson website click on the link here or type ‘Atkinson Vikings’ into your search engine. There is a charge for the exhibition, and it finishes on Saturday 7th July.


Posted in Saxon and Viking Lancashire | Tagged , ,

Grants Tower, Ramsbottom, Bury


Grants Tower, Ramsbottom near Bury

Grants Tower is built at Top o’ th’ Hoof, Ramsbottom. It stands on the spot where the Grant  family are said to have first looked down on the Irwell Valley, on their arrival in 1783. They had embarked on an epic trek in search of work from Morayshire, in Scotland, to Lancashire. The tower they built is a well known local landmark but in recent times it was about to fall into absolute ruin. However it has just had a last minute reprieve. Before we get to that, a little history…

The family set up the firm William Grant and Brothers some time around 1800, and became a very successful calico printing business. (Calico is a plain-woven textile made from unbleached cotton). The four brothers William, Daniel, Charles and John were all involved in the running of the firm. In 1806 they bought Peel, Yates & Co. Printworks (owned by the future Prime Minister Robert Peel) and just six years later purchased Nuttall spinning factory, which they extended. They also had a warehouse on Cannon Street in Manchester.

By 1827 they had accrued enough money to buy the Park Estate on which they would construct Grants Tower. Here are the facts: built 1829, 50 feet high, 800 feet above sea level, 4 flights of stairs, 84 individual steps, 8 turrets at the top (two of which were disguised chimneys for fireplaces below.)

The day the tower opened there was a fair-like atmosphere, with their employees given the day off. Refreshments were laid on and entertainment took the form of races, games and singing. From then on the tower was regularly opened on Good Friday and other special holidays.


View from Top o’ th’ Hoof, towards Peel Monument, Holcombe

In 1838 Charles Dickens published the novel  Nicholas Nickleby. In the book are two characters called the Cheeryble Brothers, good hearted and kind employers of Nicholas. There has long been speculation that they were based on William and Daniel Grant. In 1893, Reverend W. Hume Elliot of Ramsbottom published The Country and Church of the Cheeryble Brothers to put the case forward. You can see a link to this book and read it for free at the excellent Internet Archive website here. There is also plenty of discussion as to whether the Cheerybles were really based on the Grants on the Ramsbottom Heritage website here. It would be nice to think that these local factory owners were like the Cheerybles in“…liberal charity…, noble nature and unbounded benevolence”, in a time when so many owners were fairly ruthless exploiters of the people they employed.

The tower has also been lived in as a house. In the 1850s, the steeplejack James Wright stayed there with his family. He had a unique method of setting up his ropes that did not involve ladders or scaffold, but by flying a kite in order to fix them to the top. It was said that he could descend his ropes at 100 miles an hour. Something of a showman, his perilous drops would draw large, appreciative crowds. He was much in demand not just nationally but as far afield as Belgium and America. Perhaps our most famous Lancashire steeplejack Fred Dibnah would have had something to say about his methods! (See our page on Fred’s statue here).

In 1880 it was lived in by the family of Mr. Nightingale, a forester who worked for the Grants. After a severe storm one night they thought it would collapse, and so were forced to abandon it, not to return. The last person to live there was Edwin Waugh, the dialect poet, sometimes referred to as the Lancashire Robert Burns. Whilst convalescing from illness at the tower it is claimed that he wrote Little Cattle, Little Care with the refrain “Lie thee down, laddie !” in which he is speaking to  his dog at the end of the day. Here’s a snippet: “We never owned a yard o’ ground/ We’n little wealth in hand/ But thee an’ me can sleep as sound/ As thi’ richest folk it’h land”. Read the full text here


Zinc roof in place, repairs still on-going. Note the telecommunications tower behind – a site for good for views is also a good site for radio waves transmission.

By 1914 it was in need of restoration and so a fund was set up. By then the local farm at Top o’ th’ Hoof had become a pub called the Tower Inn and no doubt Grants Tower was still a draw. It was used by the Home Guard during the second world war as a look out point, but during the war years the council closed it as it badly needed repairs. They also entered into negotiations with Peter Grant Lawson to buy it. This was all in vain, for on 21st September 1944 the tower suddenly collapsed. No efforts were made to restore it and so it has lain, falling more and more into ruin as the decades have passed.

When we visited the site recently, we wanted to photograph what was left and from what we had seen in recent pictures, there really would not be much to see in a few years hence. However, we were surprised and  delighted to see that the owner Mr. Buckley has decided to restore the building. The aim is to make it a partial but stable ruin. Much of the stonework on the site has been sorted, cleaned and put back into place at the ground floor level. This has been repointed and the windows restored on the front and side. There will now be only one ground floor room and this has had a new zinc roof to cover it to prevent further water damage to the remaining structure.

In the sole remaining room a wood burning stove will be fitted to the pre-existing fire place. The original flag floors have been restored, and the original staircase has been repaired leading up to the first floor. Although this will all presumably be for the owner’s private use, Grants Tower is on a public footpath so passing ramblers will be able to inspect the restoration work, and see a piece of local history that could have all too easily have been lost for good. It will never reach the heights of its former glory, but we’ll settle for a picturesque ruin that will last for years to come.

A final word on the site. Top o’ th’ Hoof is very like some Iron Age hillforts we have visited, similar shape, similar aspect. We’re not saying it is one, but a good site is a good site. This one has a prominent folly on, and now has a telecommunications mast. It would have been an excellent look out point in prehistoric times, and a defendable position too. Not so very far away is the Iron Age site at Burrs, which will be the subject of a future page on

Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018


Grants Tower is at Grid Reference 803 157. It is on a public footpath. The quickest way up to it is to park in the small layby (more of a little scrape that can fit two cars in) on Manchester Road and head up to Top o’ th’ Hoof farm.


Manchester Oddities, Keith Warrender (2011) Willow Publishing

Ramsbottom Heritage Society News Magazine No.53 Autumn/Winter 2017

Posted in Lancashire Mills,, Monuments, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Turton Tower, Chapeltown, Near Bolton

In the early 1400s a Pele tower was built on a high commanding spot in Turton. It was a three story 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.

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

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


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

Posted in Medieval Lancashire, Pele Towers, Stuart Lancashire, Tudor Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Melandra Castle, Roman Fort, Glossop


Ramparts and Gateway at Melandra Castle, Roman Fort, Glossop

About a mile and a half from Glossop, on a piece of high ground overlooking the River Etherow, are the earthwork remains of Melandra Castle. This was an auxiliary Roman fort. It’s now a scheduled ancient monument owned by the local council and open to the public. While there are no interpretation boards on the three and a half acre site, with a little detective work there is still quite a bit to be seen here. Lancashire has lost so many of its Roman forts buried under towns and cities, and with this one just a couple of miles outside the edge of our region, it is important to preserve it and to understand its function in the landscape.

We’ll start with the history of the fort, then conclude with a guide as to what you can see on the ground.

The First Fort – Timber and Turf

The timber fort was built around 78 AD as part of the British Roman ruler Agricola’s push into the north, to conquer the Brigantes tribe. It was called Ardotalia, meaning ‘Place of the High Dark Hill’ (the name Melandra is a much more recent one, as we shall see). It was set up to guard the road from Brough which comes over Snake Pass into  Glossop and then continues into the Manchester area. Excavation in one of the defensive ditches has uncovered oak tent pegs and part of a leather tent, showing that the first soldiers  camped here during construction, which probably took around a month.

The fort walls and all the interior buildings were made of wood. The only stone building was the bath house situated just to the north of the fort. These were never timber-built because of the danger of fire from the furnaces used to heat the water. The original baths had three rooms, aligned east to west. At the west end was the Caldarium (a room with a hot plunge bath). Next to it was the Tepidarium (or warm room) heated underneath with a hypocaust. Adjoining this was the Frigidarium (which contained a large cold pool). There was also a separate free standing circular building which was the Laconium (sweating room) close by the corner of Frigidarium.

This first fort was home to the 1st Cohort Frisiavones who were recruited from the Dutch and German coastlines. They included specialist masons and carpenters that could do the construction work. It’s known that they also had a presence at Manchester’s Roman Fort (see our page on it here).

The Second Fort – Partly Remade in Stone


Base of the southern tower, with distinctive Roman cut blocks

Around 108 AD the defensive walls were rebuilt in stone. Excavations have shown that the outer fort walls were probably 12 feet high and 4 feet thick. These stood on top of earth ramparts that were 16 feet wide and just over 3 feet high.  In front of these were deep and wide trenches. At each rounded corner of the fort stood a stone tower, just within the walls. There also were four stone double-tower gatehouses (one in the centre of each side) and each gate had a double door. The exception was the southern gate which was much narrower. It is thought that this was made smaller as it was the most vulnerable to attack with the approach to it being much easier, unlike the steep drops away on the other sides.

The Principia (or Headquarters building) was also remade in stone. This important building included an assembly hall and shrine for the unit’s altars and standard, as well as the records’ and commander’s offices. The rest of the fort’s buildings (commander’s house, six barrack blocks, granaries and stores) were still wood built. Five hundred soldiers could be stationed here at any one time.

In this second fort the exterior bath house was now extended, with two new rooms added against the existing walls of the three original ones. These additions were a hot room heated by a second hypocaust,  and a cold room. Later still two more rooms were built, one of which was a dressing room. Excavation has revealed that some of the tiles were being brought in from Grimsar near Huddersfield, and that the baths had plastered walls and glass windows – so this was now a large high status building.

The auxiliaries associated with the stone fort were the 3rd Bracara Augustani. These came from Braga in Portugal originally, and were attached to XX Legion Valeria Victrix at Chester. They were also stationed at some time in Manchester’s Roman fort.


Fantastic look out point from the eroding northern rampart

The Vicus

The vicus is the civilian settlement that often grew up around a Roman fort. This one had a protective stockade on top of a banked earthwork around its outskirts. Today much of the vicus lies under the Gamesley housing estate, but rescue archaeology has shown there to have been a variety of interesting features. Between the fort and the modern road was a Mansio – an official inn for government officials. This was unusually large for such a small fort, and consisted of a reception room, sleeping  and servants’ quarters, kitchen, dining room, latrines and stables.

A cremation cemetery lay 750 feet south of the fort close to the Roman road. From this,  five cremation burials inside urns were recovered and there would have been more that have been left undiscovered. To the north of the fort was a small industrial zone. Evidence from excavation of hearths shows that there was iron, glass and lead manufacturing occurring here.

Further out still were outlying farmsteads which may well have been owned by veteran soldiers. It was fairly common for those that made it through 25 years of service to be given a farm nearby, and these men could be relied on if there was any trouble in the area.

The last twenty years of the fort’s active life saw big changes in Britain. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122 AD and instructed the 80 mile wall that now bears his name to be built. This heralded a big reorganization of the country with troops moving up to help construct the wall. Sometime between 140-150 AD the fort was abandoned, as Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of a turf and timber wall north of Hadrian’s, much deeper within present day Scotland. This was not a hasty withdrawl from the fort though, as ever the Romans were meticulous in making sure it could not be reused by a hostile native force. Archaeological evidence shows that the gates were removed and burnt, and even the hypocausts in the bath block were destroyed.

After the Romans left…

The Romans never reoccupied the site. Interestingly though, someone did put other buildings in place here. In the bath block there have been found post holes with bracing sandstone blocks and slabs in, indicating that a building was erected – but how big and by whom was not revealed by the archaeology. It may well be that the reoccupation occurred in the 400s when the Romans left Britain and the country descended into a Dark Age. Society at this time was shattered and Iron Age hillforts were reoccupied by warlord bands.

Over many centuries the stone was robbed away and reused elsewhere in the vicinity. Blocks have been found, unsurprisingly, at nearby Melandra Farm and further afield at Mottram’s medieval church. Not just stone, but any building materials of use such as gravel and wall rubble were taken and used in local road construction during the 1700-1800s. A contemporary account by local history writer W. Thompson Watkin reports the fort’s stone being reused to strengthen the banks of the river. So much for the destruction – what about the preservation?

In 1772 John Watson, the Rector of Salford, sent a paper to the Society of Antiquaries in London giving a description of the fort. We know from this that the defensive stone walls were still visible, as was the Principia and some of the structures in the vicus. It’s possible that Watson was the one who named the site ‘Melandra’. However it was not until 1899 that a real effort was made to save the ruins for posterity. John Garstang was the first archaeologist to try to systematically work on the ruins. He was a Blackburn archaeologist famous for his excavation of Ribchester Fort and from Egyptian digs (some of his mummy artefacts can be seen in Towneley Hall, Burnley). His work finished in 1906 and, ignoring unauthorized digging in 1920, it wasn’t until 1935 that another official excavation began. This was done by the Manchester Classical Association, who carried out four years worth of work. During World War 2 the only excavation done was by the Homeguard who dug defensive trenches into the north rampart and established a machine gun post in the southern tower base ! The Ministry of Works carried out archaeological digs during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and their metal signs are still in place.


With the Gamesley Housing estate being built in the early 1970s there was an effort to record what was in the vicus area (which now lies under the houses). The local council bought the fort and did work to consolidate it for display. The Manchester University Archaeological Department, in conjunction with the Melandra Field Group, then took over excavation from the early 1970s to almost the end of the 1980s. They did important work on the ditches and ramparts, the Principia, Mansio and exhaustive year after year meticulous recording of the extensive bath block. It’s really down to them that we know so much about what happened here during Roman times.

Some of the finds give a snapshot of everyday life. These include dress fasteners, the decorated sole of a woman’s sandal and a large wooden stirrer (that looks like a table tennis bat). Evidence of the Roman army (apart from numerous dropped coins) includes the centurial stone stating that the Frisians built the fort, five small altars and leather slings and stones – presumably part of one of the two occupying garrisons’ weapons kit. You can examine the finds at the superb Buxton Museum (see their website for opening times here).

On the ground today

Visiting today we can still see the earth ramparts of the fort on all four sides. The spaces for the gateways are also visible, set in the middle of each side. The two main streets through the fort are kept mown. The Principia building base still shows some Roman blocks, but this is being taken over by vegetation. There  are only two courses of  wall left, so it’s not of any great height. Have a look at the aerial photograph below and you can clearly see some of these features. We’ll then do a brief tour of the fort and beneath this we’ve amended the aerial photograph to show where things once were.

Melandra Castle

Melandra Castle Roman Fort from the air using Google Earth. Note the two streets can clearly be seen emanating from the gateways on each side of the fort.

Take this little tour around – it can be boggy after rain, so best to wear boots. The car park is just off  Melandra Castle Road. Neither the fort or car park are signposted, but the car park is pretty obvious when you get there. The site is open to the public. You are parking at the southern corner of the fort (it is orientated like a diamond, the southernly tip being closest to the car park.)

Head left and follow the ramparts all the way around first. These are very obvious, and though no longer imposing, give a sense of how large the fort was. Immediately you should see the base of the southern most defensive tower. Keep heading left, keeping the ramparts on your right. As you turn the corner and head up the western side of the fort wall you will see the earthworks most clearly here, with some hawthorn trees growing out of them, and the first of the gaps where the gateways once were. Carry on to the northern rampart, which is eroding to reveal some of the rubble core it contained. There are great views at this point. Continue along the ramparts, looking out for the northern tower base. At any time if you head in through one of the entrance ways this will bring you to the middle of the fort, where the small block remnants of the Principia or Headquarters building can just be made out.  Two streets pass through the fort, running at right angles to each other from each gate and are kept mown and so are very clear.

Melandra Castle_LI (7)

Key (very approximately): b – Bath House; BBB BBB – the six barrack blocks;                    HQ –  Headquarters or Principia; CO – Commanders house; g – granaries; C- cemetery;       P – modern car park; note also the vicus area just outside the fort (this carried on under the modern housing estate). The Mansio (not shown) was somewhere between the fort and the modern road. Information for this key has been collated from two separate sketches from the 1970s by Tom Garlick and Mike Brown (see references below)

The views over to the Peaks and the Pennines are tremendous, and with a little imagination you can visualize the Romans looking out, keeping an eye on the native Brigantians – the largest tribe in Britain, and one with a history of rebellion. There had been a northern uprising shortly before Hadrian ordered his wall to be built – perhaps his intention was to stop them making common cause with the Picti in what is now Scotland.

There are good sketches of what the fort buildings would have looked like at the Glossop Heritage website here

Have a look at an excellent aerial sketch of the fort layout here


There is public access to this site and a free car park just off Melandra Castle Road.



Roman Derbyshire, Tom Garlick (1975) Dalesman Books

A History of the Peak District Moors, David Hey (2014), Pen & Sword Books Ltd


Posted in Roman Bath Houses,, Roman Forts,, Roman Lancashire | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Kersal Cell and Kersal Moor, Salford

Kersal Moor

Kersal Cell and Kersal Moor have long, interesting and sometimes intertwined histories. The moor today is a nature reserve and there is open access for visitors. The Kersal Cell building is now split into private houses, but good views of it can be seen from the road. We’ll start by examining the history of the moor and then move on to Kersal Cell which has been the site of a Medieval Monastery and then a Tudor manor house.


Kersal Moor

This was the site of the first horse racecourse in Manchester, beginning in 1687. The London Gazette advertised the races stating that there would be three heats on the 18th and 19th May and each race was 4 miles long. John Byron, the famous Manchester author (and owner of Kersal Cell – more about him below), objected to the racing and wrote a pamphlet condemning it. Although the races were stopped in 1746, within just a few years they had started up again and ran until 1846. This was not the only sport on the moor. During the 1700-1800s it was a popular site for archery practice and in 1818 the second golf course outside Scotland was set up by local business men. It was only 5 holes big to begin with and it lasted for almost 50 years.


The double spire of St Paul’s, through the mist

The moor also has a tradition of being a meeting place for those pursuing social justice. In 1818, local coal miners met to call for greater pay and raise awareness of the dangers they faced. The most famous meeting occurred in 1838 when the Charitists held a huge assembly to elect delegates to the Chartist national convention and as a show of strength. They met initially outside Manchester’s Collegiate Church  (see our page on it here) and then walked the four miles to the mass meeting on Kersal Moor. In total there was a crowd of 30,000 present and hopes must have been high that they would achieve their main goal, namely that all men were able to vote in Parliamentary elections, not just those that owned property. However, within two years, most of their leaders would be in prison.

Soon after, Friedrich Engels declared Kersal Moor to be the Mons Sacer of Manchester, in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England. (Mons Sacer was the hill the poorer citizens in Rome withdrew to in 494BC in an act of civil protest against the ruling rich). Engels, best known for being the co-author with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, had conducted first hand research in Manchester on the terrible conditions of the working poor. The wishes of the Chartists for all men to have the vote was not achieved until 1918, and for women it was 1928. Whatever Marx and Engels’s view on government may or may not have been, communist countries that were inspired by their writings never allowed citizens to vote in democratic elections.

Our Salford correspondent Jim, who introduced us to this site and accompanied us on the walk, noted that when he used to work in the area the moor was mostly just open grassland. In recent years we can see the ecological process of ‘succession’ happening. This is where new plant species move in and displace the old ones. First to displace the grass species on sandy soil is Heather and Gorse, and we can see both of these in abundance now. Once these are established then trees start to grow, with Silver Birch always the first to colonize. Other broadleaves have already started to follow, including Oak. If left ungrazed and uncut, the trees will become the dominant species in the next two decades, turning the moor into a woodland. The moor has already been designated a Site of Biological Importance and a Local Nature Reserve, with a Friends of Kersal Moor volunteer group (see their webpage here ).

Kersal Cell

Kersal Cell had grazing rights on the moor

This small monastery of Kersal Cell was founded by the Earl of Chester, Ranulf Gernons, around 1145. It was dedicated to St Leonard, with its mother house being the Cluniac priory at Lenton, near Nottingham. Its right to exist was reaffirmed by King Henry and his son King John, and during John’s time we know that there was a hermit there called Hugh de Buron. A former Crusader, he gave up his worldly life to live at the monastery when his wife died. The cell had the rights of fishery in the River Irwell as well as grazing and improvement of the ‘waste’ i.e. Kersal Moor. A History of County of Lancaster states it received “grants of two parcels of land in the parish of Ashton-under-Lyne; Matthew son of Edith gave a portion of his land in Audenshaw, and Alban of Alt half Paldenlegh”.

In the 1200s there was a dispute between the cell and the Rector of Manchester, Albert de Nevill. This was over the right to collect tithes, offerings and payments given to the cell’s chapel and cemetery. An agreement was reached whereby no parishioners could be buried or make offerings at Kersal without paying compensation to the Rector of Manchester’s church. The cell also could not admit parishioners to the sacraments given by the monks, which were carried out once a day. Finally it had to give the Rector a gift of two candles of one and a half pounds of wax every year!

The cell never grew very big, and probably only ever had a monk and a prior in residence at most (hence it is sometimes referred to as Kersal Priory). In 1535, at the start of King Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries, it was valued by the king’s commissioners to be worth £9 6s 8d. Three years later it was dissolved and the crown took the building and the land. The land was leased to John Wood for 21 years and the building itself was sold to Baldwin Willoughby.

The later Tudor house- also called Kersal Cell

Kersal Cell- the Tudor house built on the site of the original priory cell

There is good evidence that the house we see today is built on the site of the original Cell, pretty soon after Willoughby bought it. (Thirty sandstone blocks were discovered in a recent excavation that would have come from the priory.) It is a ‘cruick-framed’ construction (like so many medieval halls and barns were) and the roof timbers date from the early 1500s.  Inside is a plaster wall painting from the same century. This has been described by a local newspaper as featuring “many weird creatures, notably a lion’s head in the centre, and two grinning faces, one on either side. Toads, fish, snakes, and several unknown creatures are also represented”.

Its most famous resident was the writer John Byron. He’s best known for inventing a form of shorthand writing and for his hymn Christians, Awake. He also wrote poems in local Lancashire dialect. Here’s a snippet where one of his characters gives his views on what makes a good sermon…

But I ha’ thou’t sometimes haooever good/ A sarmon meeght be better, if it wou’d /

‘At if it cou’d no’ make folks e’en to weep/ It sartinly m’t keep ‘um aw fro’ sleep. /

Yet I ha’ seen ‘um nodding toimes enoo,/ Not only childer, but churchwardens, too.

The house has been a boarding school, country club and pub. Its later large extension has now been demolished, leaving us with the oldest, Tudor parts of the house. It has now been divided into three private residential properties on Whitewater Drive. Viewing the outside today we can still see the essential historical character of this Grade II listed property, with its mullioned windows and wood and plaster construction.

Before we leave Kersal Cell, it’s worth just mentioning the local folklore about hidden underground passages. There is a claim that a passage runs from the house to Manchester Cathedral. There are many such stories connected to old houses and old churches, all around the country, and little evidence that any of them are ever true. However, there is good recent eyewitness testimony that Kersal Cell does have an underground passage – but not to the Cathedral. The tunnel was constructed sometime around 1750 and is said to run from under the stairs to the nearby banks of the River Irwell. For more details on both these claims see Keith Warrender’s excellent Underground Manchester book (details below).

Site visited by A. and J. Bowden 2017


Kersal Moor is a local nature reserve and is open access. Park on Moor Lane.

Kersal Cell is now private houses. You can get good views of it from the road on Whitewater Drive in Salford, but please respect the privacy of the residents.

Just a drive away, Brindleheath and Old Jewish Cemeteries, Pendleton


For Kersal Moor

Friends of Kersal Moor Facebook page

For Kersal Cell

House of Cluniac Monks: Kersal Cell in A History of the County of Lancaster, Volume 2, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London 1908)

Pastscape webpage for Kersal Cell this website pdf contains a scrapbook of newspaper clippings including:  City News February 26th 1916- This gives and eyewitness tour of the inside of the house from a hundred years ago and is well worth a read. Also Manchester Weekly Times May 8th 1896 which includes discussion of John Byrom’s work

Underground Manchester: Secrets of the City Revealed, Keith Warrender (2007) Willow Publishing




Posted in Medieval Lancashire, Medieval Monasteries,, Tudor Lancashire | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Holker House and Darwen Heritage Centre, Darwen


Holker House : Darwen Heritage Centre

Holker House was built in 1871 for Dr. George Hindle who named it after his family home in nearby Hoddlesden. It is a grand structure, built of finely cut stone in the ‘Italianate’ style. However, the site of the house was initially less appealing. Today it overlooks Darwen Marketplace (soon to be part of a big redevelopment for outdoor events). Back then though this space was dominated by bleaching factories and a contemporary account describes the area as “full of mouldering buildings and malodorous lodges”. George had begun his working life as an apprentice pharmacist and went on to study to be a medical doctor, practising in Darwen. The fact that five of his seven children died in infancy is a mark of how tenuous life was then, even for middle class families.

In 1873 he was appointed as Darwen’s first Medical Officer of Health and conducted a survey of the town, warning that the poor sanitary conditions left it vulnerable to the outbreak of diseases. Unfortunately the next year his warnings proved true and the town faced a devastating typhoid epidemic. The severity of the outbreak was so great it was even reported in America in the New York Times.  In 1887 while preparing one of his  annual reports for the town he became ill and left to recuperate in Morecambe. Although he managed to finish the report it was to prove to be his final one, as he died the following year. His wife Alice sold Holker House and moved away to Ilkley to work as a housekeeper for her uncle, and later remarried.


Holker House overlooks Darwen Market- soon to have the open space in front of it made into an events area

Dr. James Todd Ballantyne  bought Holker House from Alice and was to remain there for almost 30 years. He had begun his working life as an apprentice carpenter, then studied art at Glasgow University before switching to medicine. A successful doctor, he had three medical surgeries in Darwen and also became the mayor in 1898. During his time as mayor he was instrumental in the electrification of Darwen’s  tram network. (For more on Darwen’s tram system see our page here).

James died in 1917 and his wife stayed on in Holker House for a couple more years, before selling it to Darwen Council. For over six decades it was used as the council’s education offices, right up until 1974. For the next ten years it was the Education Architect’s Office and was then taken over by Blackburn College for twenty years. This continuous use had kept the building well maintained, but once the college left in 2005 it became in rapid need of maintenance and repair. Fortunately this was done in 2007 and the house was converted into office space. Most recently, in 2016 The Livesey Foundation Charity purchased the building so that the people of Darwen can use it as a community hub to promote history and the arts.

Holker House is now the home of Darwen Heritage Centre. The aims of the organization are to educate and engage the public on the history of Darwen, and support local community groups. It has exhibitions on the local history of the area, as well as space for artists to display their work. The building can also host space for meetings and conferences, and is the regular venue for Darwen Local History Society every third Monday of the month at 7.30pm. The centre is still in its relatively early days as an organisation, but is already achieving much. The volunteers at the centre had a very successful time during the annual Heritage Open Days (each September) and are actively looking for more people to become involved in their important work to preserve and promote Darwen’s legacy. When we visited on a recent open day on Easter Saturday the members were very friendly and welcoming, and had organized a self guided quiz to really get you to look carefully at the exhibits and photographs they had on display. There is also a small shop that sells booklets about the local area, as well as free leaflets on things of historical interest nearby.

Their current booklet Holker House: Darwen Heritage Centre (2016) by Tony Foster and Anne Hull was used to supply much of the information for this blog post.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018


Current opening times are Wednesday 10.00 -12.30 pm and Friday 10.00 – 4.00 pm

Also open on some Saturdays- check their Facebook site for details here

Their website is still under construction (at the time of writing April 2018) : or click here

Their Twitter account is here


Holker House: Darwen Heritage Centre (2016), Tony Foster and Anne Hull, available from Darwen Heritage Centre

Darwen Town Centre Local History Walk (undated), available from Darwen Heritage Centre

Darwen Heritage Centre: Community, Arts, Heritage (undated) leaflet available from Darwen Heritage Centre

Lancashire Not Forgotten: Darwen town centre heritage trail (undated) leaflet available from Darwen Heritage Centre

Darwen Days website!date=2045 BC-05-04_19:37:08!

Posted in Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Edisford Bridge, Clitheroe


Edisford Bridge, Clitheroe


Before the first bridge was ever built at Edisford this was an important crossing point of the River Ribble. Anyone visiting today can see how shallow parts of the river are here, and that there is a natural ford.  Rivers were often huge barriers in the landscape, and knowledge of the location of the relatively few fords and bridges was essential in medieval times. Foot and cart traffic could pass by fairly easily on the route out of Clitheroe to Lancaster via Edisford.

Fords were also important strategic points and this could be the reason it was the site of a medieval battle, during the turbulent  reign of King Stephen. Civil war gripped England in a period that has come to be known as ‘The Anarchy’. King Stephen’s forces fought a whole series of battles against those of his rival claimant to the English throne, Empress Matilda. The King of Scotland, David I, sided with his niece Matilda. He also sensed that he would be able to expand his own kingdom further into England. To this end he sent his nephew William fitz Duncan with an armed force down to raid the Furness and Craven regions. William came via the Trough of Bowland and on arriving at Edisford fought against an Anglo-Norman  force. He beat them resoundingly on June 10th 1138, this event becoming known as ‘The Battle of Clitheroe’. The victorious Scots went on to  join the rest of their massed ranks in Yorkshire, near Northallerton. Here they fought the Battle of the Standard at Cowton Moor- a much larger conflict, but this time they lost to Stephen’s troops.

River Ribble at Edisford, wide but shallow

Records show that there was a medieval leper hospital at Edisford close to where the bridge is now, dedicated to St. Nicholas. It came into existence sometime in the late 1100s to early 1200s and was built on land given by Roger de Lacy. It was still in existence in 1317 as evidenced in a cartulary (a charter) owned by the Towneley family of Towneley Hall. By 1350 though, just a few years after the first bridge at Edisford was built, it was stated that there had been “no lepers at Edisford for some years past” and its assets had been transferred to Whalley Abbey. By the time of the dissolution of the monasteries its buildings were said to be “ruined and decayed”. Leper hospitals were monastic institutions and so had attached chapels that were  important buildings in their own right. There is some evidence that the chapel here continued for perhaps another 200 years after the hospital was vacated. (For a good comparison, see our page about St Mary Magdalene’s leper hospital in Preston here.)  Local historian and author  Elizabeth Ashworth’s website has some discussion on a page about leprosy as to the whereabouts of the hospital (see her website page here). She believes it was located where the Edisford Bridge Inn hotel stands today. Two recent planning applications to Ribble Valley Borough Council discuss other possible sites- Edisford Hall Farmhouse and Roefield House. There is no evidence for the farmhouse being the location for the hospital (other than local tradition), but the Roefield House has a stronger case. The reasoning for this is that a 1700 map shows fields in its area called Chapel Ground and Far Chapel Ground, presumably named after the hospital’s attendant chapel.

The original medieval bridge was built in 1339 after a ‘Grant of Pontage’ was issued. It was widened in the 1800s but still contains much of the original medieval elements. The historian Jessica Lofthouse states that the medieval mason marks can still be seen on the underside of it. Made from finely cut sandstone it has arches of varying sizes. Its historic importance means that it is now recognized as a Grade II listed monument.

Soon after the bridge was built it was severely damaged in floods. To fund repairs a toll was set up. In her book The Bridges of Lancashire and Yorkshire, Margaret Slack gives the complete list of goods that carried a charge. Items crossing the river were individually priced, some high, some low depending on their rarity value. Pepper, wine, wax, honey and lead all carried a high tariff. Sheep and pigs were very cheap, literally as she notes “ten a penny”. Some indication of the industries that were being supplied can be seen in the charges for individual specialist items: for the woollen industry there were teasel flower heads (to knap wool), and woad (for dying it). Alum was also being transported and this can be used as a dye as well as for tanning leather.  There was even a catch-all category for “anything for sale, not yet specified, exceeding the value of 5 shillings”.

Until 1600s this was the only bridge crossing the River Ribble north of Preston. However, its importance didn’t stop the local authorities in Clitheroe from trying to wriggle out of their duty to maintain it. In 1657 they claimed that they had the right to be free of all dues and taxes levied on bridges, thinking that they should have no reason to pay towards its upkeep. Not only was this granted, but they also received a refund for money previously paid!

Today Edisford Bridge is still part of a vital route in and out of Clitheroe as well as being  a well loved  local ‘beauty spot’. For generations it has been known to campers, walkers and picnickers alike. It’s well catered for with a large visitor car park on one side of the river and the Edisford Bridge Inn on the other side. Next time you pass over the Ribble here perhaps take a moment to think of all the many people that have done just the same, in the past thousand years of history.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018


There is a very large pay and display car park by the bridge on the Clitheroe side. Then just follow the footpath down to the river for good views of the Ribble and Edisford Bridge. It is a popular picnic site and the pub, also called Edisord Bridge is on the other side of river.

Nearby, just a walk away :

Clitheroe Castle

Clitheroe’s Town Wells


The Bridges of Lancashire and Yorkshire, Margaret Slack (1986), Robert Hale: London

Lancashire Countrygoer, Jessica Lofthouse (1964), Robert Hale Ltd

Historic England Edisford Bridge entry

Wardell Armstrong : Land at Henthorn Road Clitheroe Archaeological Desk Based Assessment  (2010) availabe at

Edisford Hall Farmhouse Archaeolgocial Assessment available at

‘Townships: Clitheroe’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 6, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London, 1911), pp. 360-372. British History Online [accessed 5 April 2018].




Posted in Bridges, Georgian Lancashire, Medieval Lancashire | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Towneley Hall, Burnley


South Wing of Towneley Hall

The first hall was built at Towneley in 1380 and was a large open barn-like medieval building, similar to the ones still seen at Smithills in Bolton and Warton Old Rectory near Carnforth. Seventy years later the huge south wing with its very thick walls was constructed. The picture on the left gives some idea of the sheer scale. Careful viewing of the photograph to the left (click to enlarge) shows on the right hand side the ghost gable in the brickwork of the original medieval hall.

John and Mary Towneley

When Queen Elizabeth I ruled England the Towneleys like so many land holding families in Lancashire fell foul of the government’s anti-Catholic laws. John and Mary Towneley were determined to continue to worship as Catholics, but this had been made illegal (for the full range of anti-Catholic legislation have at look our the page on Stonyhurst here). John was known to have kept Catholic priests who performed Mass for the family. The couple were punished with heavy fines from the Protestant Inquisition Council. Despite the persecution, John refused to give up his faith and went to prison many times for his beliefs during the next thirty years. A family portrait in the hall lists the various places he was imprisoned which included Chester and York Castles, Blockhouses in Hull, Gatehouse in Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1601 after his last gaol sentence he was fined over £5000 and was ordered not to venture beyond five miles of Towneley.

Civil War and Jacobite Plots

Over the next few decades the family debt hugely increased. The first reason was their ambitious building program. Richard ‘The Builder’ Towneley had the Great Hall we see today constructed and eight years later the present North Wing was added.

Towneley Central Wing – the Great Hall

The second reason for the debt was because the family were frequently fined for recusancy (the refusal to worship as a Protestant). On the eve of the Civil War their debts were huge- three times their annual income. Charles ‘The Cavalier’ Towneley stored arms and ammunition for the King Charles I’s forces at the hall. In 1643 Charles was involved in defending Preston which was under siege from Parliamentarians. When the town surrendered he escaped, but his wife was taken prisoner. After hiding out near Towneley, he went on to fight at Marston Moor and died in the battle. For being on the losing side of the war, the family had a large portion of their estate seized at Cliviger and Hapton and put up for sale.

Through the rest of the 1600s and into the 1700s successive generations of members of the Towneley family were involved in plots to overthrow  whichever Protestant king was on the throne, and continued to worship as Catholics. In 1707 Ursula Towneley listed seven hiding places in the house (including priest holes). Five years later Richard Towneley cut down a woodland of oak trees at Parks Wood Fields to pay his expenses after his treason trial.

Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley

Charles ‘the Collector’ Towneley toured Italy several times, and collected gems, coins, pottery and statues. His collection of classical sculptures were purchased by the British Museum and his portrait surrounded by statues painted by Zoffany is now in the art gallery at the hall. He employed John Carr of York to make alterations to the house. Carr was the best known architect in the north of England during the Georgian period, over a career of 55 years, he modified more than 90 houses. In Lancashire his work can be seen at Lytham Hall (see here).

Charles’s son Francis was involved in the 1745 Young Pretender uprising to overthrow King George II. When Charles Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) marched down to Manchester, Francis helped muster 300 troops for his cause. After a service at the Manchester’s Collegiate Church they set out for Derby. However, when they received word of two large government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland and Marshal Wade heading to meet them, they decided to retreat back north. Holing up in Carlisle Castle, Francis was part of the group that held the town against the government forces while the Young Pretender escaped. Francis was executed for his part in this venture.

The Later Towneleys

North Wing

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that all the anti-Catholic legislation was abolished. When it was Peregrine Edward Towneley was able to hold high office, becoming High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. He was seen as a shy and generous man, and his dressing in rough tweed clothes often made people think he was not part of the local gentry. Very much interested in local charities and civic organisations, he was involved with the building of St Mary’s Church in Burnley and was the first president of Burnley Mechanics Institute. Changes to the hall he instigated during his time included employing the architect Jeffry Wyatt to remodel the south wing Regency Rooms into the appearance that we see today. He oversaw a huge amount of trees planted- almost 10,000 were put in, including oaks, larches, firs and problaby much of the rhododendron cover that is still visible in the grounds.

The last Towneley at the hall was Alice Mary, known as Lady O’ Hagan after her marriage at 25 years old to Thomas Baron O’ Hagan, aged 59. In their fourteen years together they had seven children. She was a patron of the local blind and deaf societies, helped fund a military hospital in South Africa, was a keen campaigner on votes for women and set up mother and child welfare schemes. She was the driving force behind a new convent to “rescue young girls from bad surroundings and train them to be thorough domestic servants”. She broke with the family tradition of Catholicism and joined the Unitarians, and also changed political parties from being a Unionist (Conservative) to become a Liberal. After the death of her husband, much of the Towneley estate had to be divided between the remaining extended family, and she only retained the hall and 62 acres around it. It became clear that the estate could not be self sustaining anymore and in 1901 she sold the building and grounds to Burnley Corporation.

The Hall Belongs to the People

The park and hall were then opened up to the public. The hall had hardly any furniture or pictures left behind by Lady O’ Hagan, but the vision was for it to be a museum and art gallery. Edwards Stocks Massey, a wealthy local brewer, donated money for purchasing pictures and his bequest is still active in funding displays today. Lady O’ Hagan gave a mummy and mummy case from an Egyptian expedition she had funded. These are now in the Collectors’ Room along with other original donations from the people of Burnley. Gradually the rooms were refurnished and today it houses an excellent selection of furniture contemporary to different periods that the rooms represent- from Tudor to Victorian.

Italian Garden

The uses of the grounds over the decades has been very varied. Parts of the park have been variously: small holdings, plant nursery, tennis courts, bowling green,  greyhound course, speedway track, golf course, playing fields and a bird sanctuary.

In more recent years there has been an emphasis on developing the historic and nature value of the park. In 1986 it was designated by English Heritage as a Historic Park and Garden. ‘Offshoots’ permaculture (an organic, no dig approach to gardening) can be seen in the walled garden and Wilson’s Smallholdings Wood was created in 2000 as part of the Forest of Burnley.

Visiting the Hall Today

The entrance hall we see today was constructed in 1726 in the baroque style. The plasterwork is by Francesco Vassalli and his assistant Martino Quadri. They include portraits of Roman Emperors, six flying infants, a statue of Venus and a dancing faun. All these are mimicking the Italian style and subject matters that the Towneleys would have seen on their trips to Rome.

South Wing on its more modern side with the Regency Rooms inside

The South Wing originated in the 1400s, but the two rooms inside, the green and red Regency Rooms, were designed in the 1820s by Jeffry Wyatt . They are now hung with paintings and numerous life sized human sculpture stand at the large Georgian windows. Upstairs is the Long Gallery dating from the 1600s. It features extensive wood panelling from this time and acted as a lobby or meeting area for the guest bedrooms that lead off from it. The family portraits have long gone, but interestingly the names associated with these are still painted on the walls. The bedrooms are now furnished with an excellent selection of furniture from the 1600s typical of the local Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire styles of that time.

The art gallery permanently opened in 1907 and occupies the place where the family bedrooms once were. There is a large collection of Victorian paintings including the      Pre-Raphelite artists J.W. Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones. Other highlights include a Turner view of the hall and a portrait of Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley with his sculptures.

Entrance door to the Great Hall- note the carvings

Links back to the family’s very strong Catholic faith can be seen outside the chapel. Here are housed the incredible Abbot’s vestments from Whalley Abbey, dating to the early 13th century. They came into the ownership of the Towneley family when the abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII (see here). As well as displaying scenes from the nativity they are decorated with embroideries of strawberries, and are said to be some of the finest English embroidery to survive from this period. The chapel itself dates from the 13th-14th century and features an altar piece installed by Charles ‘The Collector’ Towneley during Napoleonic wars, made at Antwerp around 1520.

The kitchen dates from the 1800s and appears completely frozen in time with its coal fire range, spits and all the latest Victorian paraphernalia. It seems almost untouched from 1901 when Lady O’ Hagan vacated the house. You can examine the kitchen in greater detail if you go on one of the guided tours (which are free once you’ve paid admission) or you can wander the house at will and talk to the guides in the room. The hall is so interesting and varied that you might want to do both !

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017 and 2018

Towneley is another in a long line of halls and grounds in Lancashire that were once the preserve of the privileged few, but are now held in trust by a local council for all of us to enjoy. To see more of these, many of which are now free to visit click on the Tudor & Stuart and the Georgian & Victorian tabs at the top of this site.


There is an admission charge to the hall (currently £5 adults and free for children), but it allows you to return as many times as you like during the year. There is also a small parking charge.

To see the opening times and admission charges follow the link to Towneley Hall website here or visit

There is a very active Friends of Towneley Park group. See their website here or visit

Nearby just a few moments away:

Foldys Cross

Sandy Holme Aqueduct, Thompson Park


An Architectural History of Towneley Hall, Burnley, W. John and Kit Smith (2004) Heritage Trust for the North West

Towneley Hall Burnley Art Gallery and Museums, Tony Kitto (2004) Burnley Borough Council

Towneley Hall: A tour of the outside, Tony Kitto (2004) Burnley Borough Council

Towneley Park: The Changing Landscape, undated leaflet from Friends of Towneley Park

Towneley Walkabout Guide, undated leaflet from Burnley Council and Towneley Hall



Posted in Georgian Lancashire, Historic Houses,, Medieval Lancashire, Stuart Lancashire, Tudor Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , | 10 Comments