Ford Bank House is probably the largest house that ever stood in Didsbury. It was built in 1823 by Joseph Birley on the existing Ford Bank Estate:
Whilst the house has been gone now for nearly 90 years, it did encompass a substantial part of Didsbury by the Mersey, and as the name suggests Ford was a crossing point in ancient times. Prince Charles’ army built a bridge there to traverse the river in 1745. The crossing was difficult as it was not a straight route, but the hapless traveller had to wade 500 feet along the river from one bank to another. That was even more difficult during one of the Mersey’s regular floods. Henry Simon’s bridge in 1901 was built for a reason.
Joseph Birley (1782-1847) was the father of Thomas Hornby Birley of Highfield in Heaton Mersey and brother to John Birley of Platt Hall. You can read of the Hornby and Birley history there or in even more detail here. He was the son of Richard Birley (1743-1812) and Alice Hornby.
Joseph was born in Blackburn in 1782.
Joseph was in partnership with his brother Hugh Hornby Birley¹ in a cotton mill on Cambridge Street in Manchester. This was extremely lucrative, and allowed him to buy the Ford Bank Estate and construct Ford Bank House. In the Birley way, he married his cousin Jane Hornby (1788-1858) in Kirkham on 22 August 1809.
He became deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire in 1815, and was a founder member of the Blackburn Savings Bank in 1818, but by 1820 he is in Manchester and moved into Ford Bank in 1823. Whilst already wealthy enough to by Ford Bank, he made even more fortune by entering into partnership alongside his brother, Hugh Hornby Birley, with Charles Macintosh who had discovered the process for softening india rubber.
Macintosh’s process involved dissolving the rubber in naptha, a by product of the emerging gas industry. The resulting product was waterproof (a boon in Manchester) but stank. However, the army and navy, the main market, were more interested in keeping dry than attending to personal hygiene. In 1824 he persuaded the brothers to erect a factory next to their Cambridge Street mill, and business thrived, the factory eventually being taken over by Dunlop, and still standing today, even though no longer involved in the production of rubber, but as luxury apartments.
Joseph lived at Ford Bank from 1823 until his death on 24 January 1847. Four days earlier he had been returning from his mill in his gig when he suffered a stroke on the 20th, and despite being taken back home, he died a few days later. Jane stayed on at the house until 1858, when she died on 9 August that year.
Being a big house it had sufficient room for the Birley breed, and the couple had fourteen children. Jane (1810-1888) remained a spinster, dying in Chester. The eldest son, Richard (1812-1875) took over the family business and died at Seedley Terrace in Irlams O’Th’Height in 1875. Thomas Hornby Birley (1815-1885) lived at Highfield.
Hugh Hornby Birley (1817-1883) headed up Birley, Corrie & Company , East India Merchants, as well as being involved in the family cotton business. He served as Conservative MP for Manchester between 1868 and 1883, dying at Moorland in Didsbury.
As with her sister, Cecilia Birley (1819-1890) did not marry, nor it appears did Henry Birley who practised as an Engineer and moved to Brentwood in Pendleton, dying in Wigan on 1 May 1894.
Herbert Birley (1821-1890) maintained the family inbreeding by marrying his cousin, Cicely Margaret. He was also involved in the India Rubber Business, but took a keen interest in education chairing both the Manchester and Salford Schools Board.
Elizabeth Birley (1823-1898) did not marry nor did Robert (1825-1897) and Alfred Birley (1827-1827) died in infancy. Louisa Margaret (1828-1906) married the reverend Richard Tonge, one of the first rectors of St John in Heaton Mersey. Adelaide (1831-1915) was another spinster, and Alfred (1832-1908) became rector of Bolton Le Sands. Finally Arthur (1834-1912) was a director of the India Rubber firm.
Ford Bank was put up for auction in 1858, and the advertisement describes it as well suited for a large family, the grounds covering 65 acres and picturesque views of the surrounding countryside.
It was Thomas Ashton (1818-1898) who moved in and lived there for the next 40 years with his wife Elizabeth Gair (1831-1914). Elizabeth was the daughter of Samuel Stillman Gair (1789-1847) who was born in Boston MA, and came over to Liverpool as partner in the Liverpool branch of Baring Brothers.
Thomas was the son of Thomas Ashton and Harriet Booth of Hyde. Thomas senior had established a cotton mill in Hyde and his son followed him in that business. However, the Ashton family had been involved in the cotton trade since the time of his great grandfather, Benjamin Ashton, who entered the business, whilst farming at Gee Cross.
In 1851 he was living at Flowery Field in Hyde, employing 576 men, 927 women, 149 boys and 69 girls as well as acting as a JP. He married Elizabeth in 1852 in Liverpool and by the end of the 1850s they were living at Ford Bank, after living briefly at Ashfield in Withington.
His business links with Hyde meant that the town remained close to him, and in 1881 he became first mayor of Hyde and High Sheriff of Lancashire two years later. Politically liberal, he was a great friend of Gladstone, and fittingly when Gladstone visited Manchester in December 1889, it was at Ford Bank that he stayed.
Gladstone arrived at Central Station and was received at a grand reception at the Free Trade Hall where he reinforced his support for Irish Home Rule, promising a Liberal Majority at the next General Election (which he didn’t get, but managed to gain a coalition making him Prime Minister). Promising more local government he wooed the crowd, speaking for 90 minutes. After this he stepped into Thomas Ashton’s carriage and was conveyed to Ford Bank accompanied by large crowds and cheering. In order to give a better view, owners of carriages along the route were selling vantage points at 6d (2½p) a go, allowing people to stand on their vehicles. Thomas was awarded freedom of the City of Manchester in 1892.
Elizabeth Ashton also made important contributions to society. Her brother in law, William Rathbone (1819-1902)² of Liverpool had seen the excellent nursing care administered during the long illness suffered by his first wife Lucretia. He worked alongside Florence Nightingale to establish district nursing networks throughout the British Isles, Elizabeth took up the mantle of this work establishing the first district nursing provision in the poor areas of Manchester and Salford.
Thomas died at Ford Bank on 21 January 1898, and Elizabeth died in Tonbridge, Kent on New Year’s day 1914.
They also had a large family between them, nine in all, and they rose in social status. Harriet Gertrude (1853-1888) married into the Arthur Greenhow Lupton of Leeds in 1882. Elizabeth Marion Ashton (1854-1889) married the Right Honourable James Bryce, the first Viscount Bryce (1838-1922). Bryce was like Ashon, a liberal and served as MP for Tower Hamlets and South Aberdeen between 1880 and 1907 when he went to Washington with Elizabeth to serve as Ambassador to the United States. Returning to England in 1914 he was elevated to the peerage.
Alongside her diplomatic duties, Elizabeth was president of the Central Bureau for Women’s Employment, which did much to promote the employment and advancement of women. She died on 27 December 1939 at Hindleap in Sussex.
The eldest son was Thomas Gair Ashton (1855-1935), first Baron of Hyde. He became MP for Luton between 1900 and 1910 and following that he entered the peerage as first Baron of Hyde. He died on 1 May 1933 at Vine Hall, Robertsbridge, Sussex.
Margaret (1856-1937) did not marry, and Samuel Edgar (1857-1880) was drowned whilst swimming at Cromhall in Gloucester. Katherine (1859-1940) married Sir Charles Lupton. Grace Mary Ashton 1860-1948) married a Philip William Kessler who was a shipping merchant, operating from Bradley House on Dale Street in Manchester.
Charlotte Jane (1861-1924) married Sir Edward Tootal Broadhurst (1858-1922), who was the driving force behind Tootal Broadhurst, we have already briefly met the Broadhursts when Alfred Orrell married Sarah Broadhurst. The youngest son, William Mark (1858-1895) cemented the links with the Kesslers by marrying Maria Mary Leitita Kessler.
Moving into Ford Bank at the end of the 19th century we have John Manasseh Gledhill (1861-1941) and his wife Edith Anna Baerlein (1877-1905). Sadly Edith’s short life meant that this time the house was only occupied by two children, Cecil Bertram John Manasseh Gledhill (1899-1995) and Edith Nora Dinah Gledhill (b1902)
John was the son of Manasseh Gledhill (1826-1898) and Dinah Hill (1831-1903). Manasseh was born in Slaithwaite, Yorkshire and entered Curtis, Parr, Madeley and Company where he served his apprenticeship before becoming a foreman at Whitworth and Company in 1853. He married Dinah on 23 April 1853 and rose up the Whitworth ladder – becoming foreman in 1858, works manager in 1863 and worked closely on Whitworth’s armament testing rising to Managing Director of Sir Joseph Whitworth³ and Company in 1880 until it merged with Sir William Armstrong’s company to become Armstrong Whitworth, Manasseh was a director of the merged company, but stayed on as MD of the Openshaw works.
His most important contribution was the perfecting of hydraulic forging allowing for the easier manufacture of large ordnance. John followed in the footsteps of his father, but whilst he made valuable contributions to Whitworth, he was describing himself as a Gentleman, late mechanical engineer in 1911.
The final inhabitant of Ford Bank was Dr Herbert Levinstein MSc, FIC (1878-1956). He was the son of a Berlin born German chemist, Ivan Levinstein (1845-1916). Ivan came to England in the mid 19th century after his father fell foul of Bismarck. Ivan studied at the Royal Prussian Gymnasium and the Gewerbe Institut in Berlin, specialising in aniline dyes. He came to Salford in 1864. He took advantage of a patent for Magenta being declared invalid and set up a dyeworks at Hilton House in Blakeley, expanding the works into Crumpsall Vale. This establishment evolved into ICI’s Blakeley Works when the British Dyestuffs company was one of four companies that merged to become ICI in 1926.
Ivan became an active partipant in public life, involving himself with the management of the Manchester Technical school and sitting on Manchester Education Committee, becoming a governor of Owen’s College. He chaired the Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition in 1887. Ivan became a British subject in 1873 and the following year married Hedwig Abeles (1858-1909) of Vienna. He died at Park Field in Hale on 10 March 1916. He also saw the danger of Industrial Germany and was instrumental in setting up what became the Patent Amendment Act of 1907 which prevented German companies setting up in Britain without a patent.
Herbert, his son succeeded in his father’s business and took over the sequestered Ellesmere Port Indigo dye works in 1916. Novocain was also produced here. During the WWI the Blakeley factory manufactured mustard gas, and Levinstein sat on the Chemical Warfare committee.
However he was highly critical of the merger forced on him by the government with the Huddersfield based British Dyes Ltd and was forced off the board. He went on to found the Neura Art Silk Company to manufacture the artificial silk that is Rayon. He also maintained his involvement with the Murgatroyd Salt Company, in which predecessor his father had held an interest.
He married Isabella Forrest Crawford Stirling in 1914 and the couple lived at Ford Bank until 1937, when they moved to Berkshire, then Pinkneys in Maidenhead. Herbert died at the King Edward Hospital in Berkshire on 3 August 1956.
The estate was then sold to the Ford Bank Estate Company who built housing on the grounds.
Let’s have a look at Didsbury’s biggest house.
¹ Hugh was the man who lead the charge at Peterloo.
² Whose mother was Samuel Greg of Quarry Bank. There’s a statue of William Rathbone behind St George’s Hall in Liverpool.
© Allan Russell 2020