In its heyday Alkrington Hall occupied a large estate bordered by the River Irk to the North and Alkrington Wood to the West. The current hall was built by the Lever family, although there may have been an older residence on the site.
The manor of Alkrington was held in 1212 by Adam De Prestwich. In 1561, on the death of Robert Langley the manor was given to his daughter, Katherine. She married Thomas Legh of Lyme, but died in 1591 without issue. The Leghs held the manor until 1627 when Thomas and his wife Alice sold it to Robert and John Lever, who were probably the sons of Robert Lever of Darcy Lever (d 1620).
The Levers purchased several nearby estates and over time became one of the wealthiest in South Lancashire. It is these Levers who give their name to Lever Street in Manchester, not as is often thought the James Darcy Lever (1854-1910) of Lever Brothers. Confusingly, these Levers also came from Darcy Lever in Bolton, but I cannot find any direct connections with the Middleton Levers.
Our Robert Lever, the son, was a clothier who died without issue in London in 1642. John, his brother stayed in Alkrington. His son, Robert (1623-1710) married Ann Moseley of Collyhurst Hall, creating a link between the two houses. Robert lived until he was 87 and was buried at Middleton Church – he had built a crypt in Alkrington woods for his family, but this was never used.
His sons, Robert (1672-1699) and John (1675-1718) became barristers. Robert was murdered at Highgate in 1699, and John settled at Collyhurst Hall. He married Frances Foley of Buckinghamshire and was succeeded on his death by his son, Sir James Darcy Lever (1703-1778) who inherited Alkrington in 1718 and had Giacomo Leoni (1686-1746) design and build a new Hall in 1736.
Leoni came to England in the 1720s from Italy, and was responsible for bringing what we see has Palladian Architecture to England, and had a great influence on Georgian Architects. One of his earliest and most celebrated works was the transformation of Lyme Hall, which has been described as the boldest Palladian building in England.
Sir James became High Sheriff for Lancashire in 1736, was knighted the following year and married Dorothy Ashton (1704-1777), the daughter of the Reverend William Ashton, the Rector of Prestwich.
James and Dorothy had two children. The eldest, Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788) became a noted collector of natural history and amassed one of the largest collections in England, including live animals.
The museum was free to enter and as a result became such a popular attraction that he was forced to deny access to visitors without a ticket, or those not known to him.
He opened the museum at Alkrington Hall in 1766 to the public, moving to London in 1774 housing the museum at his house in Leicester Square. This time around he was a little more canny, and charged an entrance fee for visitors. Captain James Cook was so impressed with his collection that he donated objects brought back from his voyages. At its height there were 25,000 exhibits. The entrance fee was 5s 3d (28p) later reduced to half a crown (12½p), raising £2,353 in 1782.
However, a lifetime of collecting eventually bankrupted him, and he tried unsuccessfully to offload his collection with the British Museum and Catherine II of Russia, both of whom refused. He finally managed to sell the collection via a lottery, which he hoped would raise £37,800, but only yielded £8,800¹.
Sir Ashton married Frances Bayley in 1764 at St Mary in Prestwich, and they had a daughter, Dorothy, who married Peter Rasbotham of Prestbury in 1803.
On Sir Ashton’s death, the Hall was inherited by Darcy Lever (1759-1839), the son of the Reverend John Lever, Ashton’s brother. Frances continued to live at the Hall until her death at which point her possessions were sold off, including it seems some leftovers of her husband’s collection.
Darcy Lever was born in Buxton in 1759 and lived his early life at Alkrington Hall. He went to India after 1770 working for the British East India Company, returning a wealthy man. He published the Young Sea Officers Guide, a widely read volume on Seamanship in 1808, which became the standard text for officers of the Royal and Merchant Navies. Despite this expert knowledge, he never actually sailed himself, but instead based his book on extensive research. After this he lived in Pontefract and in his final days divided his time between Edinburgh and Alkrington Hall.
He married Elizabeth Murgatroyd, a rector’s daughter, on 7 November 1789 and died in Edinburgh without a male heir in January 1839.
In 2013 it was discovered that the young Darcy Lever had supported himself as a young man as an actor, being an accomplished flautist and singer, looking down on the poorer members of the cast, and styling himself as Mr Darcy. He travelled the country as a player, and it is possibly here when spending time in Ipswich and Bristol that he researched his book on seamanship. More intriguingly Jane Austen may have seen him on stage at Bath, giving inspiration to her Mr Darcy².
On Darcy’s death, the estate passed to Dorning Rasbotham, the grandson of Peter Rasbotham and Dorothy Lever. Alkrington Hall was leased out to wealthy tenants, part of it with detached offices, garden, hothouse and ten Cheshire acres of land being advertised in 1804. Between circa 1832 and 1836, John Tetlow (1791-1836) lived there in retirement. He had been a partner in Lynch & Tetlow, Painters and Plasterers of Spinningfields. The company carried out work as far afield as Oldham.
Around now a mini crime wave hit the Hall, on 6 December 1832, two men entered the Hall and took fourteen pounds of beef, two legs of mutton, some bread and 2 CWT of cheese (approx 100 kg) from the Tetlow pantry. On the evening of 15 September 1839, members of a well known gang of thieves climbed into the gardens of Alkrington and stole a large quantity of apples from Mrs Tetlow. The next tenant, Jane Kennedy, suffered a similar fate on the night of 10 March 1843 when someone broke into the outhouses and removed £4 (£500 in 2021) from a desk containing the monies collected for milk.
In 1841 we see the widow, Jane Kennedy nee Brown (b ca 1786) living there with her five children. Jane had been married to James Kennedy (1774-1829), a cotton spinner. He and Jane appear to have come to Manchester from Scotland.
It is unclear whether James was related to John Kennedy of Ardwick Hall, but he owned Caledon Mill near to him, which he established in 1822 after leaving the partnership of McConnell & Kennedy. James and Jane were living in Levenshulme in 1805, with James practising as a cotton spinner.
In March 1826, after implementing what the newspapers reported as a trifling reduction in his workers’ wages he was faced with a strike which grew into riots. Three of the knobsticks³ employed to replace the strikers were thrown into the canal, and the workers marched on towards Middleton gathering crowds and eventually 7,000 assembled on St George’s fields where they advocated destroying the powerlooms which they saw as the cause of their grievances. It was only when they were promised a parliamentary deputation, which quelled their mood and for the most part they dispersed.
A small number marched back to Ancoats where they resolved to attack James’ mill, but he had decided to pay up his remaining workers and close down, so the rioters continued to Harbottle’s and Clarke’s Mills on Beswick Street where they smashed windows but were repelled as the owners had men equipped with firearms defending the mills. They therefore continued to Hugh Beaver’s mill on Jersey Street and entered the building, setting fire to the premises, burning 2,000 pieces of calico in the process. In the carding room they lit bales of cotton, destroying two machines. Had the building not been fireproofed, the damage would have been much worse.
Part of the mob proceeded to Mottershead’s Mill on Miller Street breaking the windows and then went down Long Millgate to attack Clegg Norris & Company, but were discouraged by volleys of gunfire discharged above them.
Eventually the military were called and the Riot Act read, stopping the mob in their tracks, and fire engines were brought in to quell the flames, they did not receive any help from the rioters, and some firemen had their waterbuckets taken from them.
The trouble was not over, for the next day crowds gathered again in New Cross, and wandered the streets, blocking them and raiding bakeries and butcher’s shops for food. Any well dressed gentleman unwise enough to try and pass them was robbed.
The unrest lasted all day, stones were thrown at constables, and eventually all the streets between Piccadilly and New Cross (approximately Swan Street and Oldham Road) were occupied by the mob The Riot Act was read once more. Most people now dispersed, but a hard core remained at New Cross, and so the military opened fire on them, clearing the crowds, seriously injuring many people (the street afterwards was reportedly stained with blood).
Twenty Three rioters were arrested, but most appear to have been discharged, being under age. Two were committed to the Lancaster Assizes on 18 August where Michael Gavin and Peter McNamara were sentenced to 15 months and 12 months imprisonment respectively.
James Kennedy died in Ancoats in April 1829 and was buried in St Luke, Chorlton on the 22 April that year. His body was moved to a family vault in Ancoats, together with two of his infant children, Sophia (1827-1829) and Janet Anne Crichton Kennedy (1820-1831) two years later.
They had many children (there are gaps in the children’s ages suggesting more).
In 1828, Margaret Kennedy (1805-1808) married Edward Tootal (1799-1873), the son of a Bradford Corn Merchant who came to Manchester in 1820 and traded in silks and fancy goods. He was a close friend of Joseph Whitworth, and a founder member of Tootal Broadhurst and Lee. He died a rich man, leaving a fortune of £80,000 (£8.8m in 2021)
Jane Kennedy (1809-1891) married John Douglass who had established a textile factory in the Tyrol, their grandson was Norman Douglass (1868-1952) a travel writer, of repulsive sexual tastesª, whose last words were reputedly get those f&&&&ng nuns away from me. His book, South Wind is mentioned in Brideshead Revisited, as being one of the books Charles Ryder brings to Oxford.
Elizabeth Kennedy (b 1816) did not marry and ended her days living in Park Crescent, Rusholme.
James and Jane’s son Robert Alexander Kennedy (1820-1902) is living at Derby House in Chorlton ten years later with his wife, Mary Stewart (1829-1875), and trading as a cotton spinner, however he changes careers and in 1861 we see him as an insurance agent in Ormskirk. This is a successful move for him and he rises to become manager and secretary of the Liverpool London and Global Insurance Company living at Norwood in Alderley Edge from the late 1860s until his death on 29 January 1902
His brother Andrew is living with his mother and trading as a cotton spinner in 1851 on Park Crescent, whilst the youngest brother, Matthew ( 1817-1899) describes himself as a landowner at West Cliff, Preston in 1871. James Kennedy was considered successful enough to be able to marry his daughter, Amelia Garforth Kennedy (1812-1859) to Richard Birley of Ford Bank and in the 1841 census, Jane is looking after her new grandchildren, Ellen (b 1839) and Margaret (b 1840).
The Hall and Estate were eventually put up for auction in 1844, along with the gardens, pleasure grounds, outbuildings, the Lever Chapel in Prestwich Church, Alkrington Cottage with gardens greenhouse, stable, meadows, 15 farms, Alkrington Colliery, practically all of the surrounding houses and cottages in Alkrington. The entire property offered covered an area one by one and a half miles. A particular selling point was the lack of paupers in the area, and resulting low poor rates levied on the estate.
For some time in 1848 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners considered buying it for the seat of the New Bishop, James Prince Lee, but probably because the price was too high, they settled finally on Mauldeth Hall, not before the Manchester Courier quipped that future bishops may live so far from their congregations that they would use the wonderful agency of the electric telegraph to communicate with their flock. I can’t begin to think what they would make of Zoom services.
It was probably the coalfield that tempted the next owner, James Lees (1817-1871) and his wife Betty Caldwell (1817-1896). He was the son of James Lees and Betty Harrop of Oldham. James Senior and his brother John operated a pit in Clarksfield in 1799, which James was working with his brother, Joseph in 1829. He also had Spaw Colliery nearby and a further pit at Roundthorn.
By 1841 he was in partnership with Messrs Lees and Booth and managing the New Earth Colliery at Roxbury near Lees. There is some confusion as to when James moved into Alkrington Hall, some sources say 1844, but that contradicts the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1848. However, by 1847 he was prosperous enough to marry an Ellen Cardwell of Lytham, and describe himself as a Gentleman, he therefore likely moved into Alkrington Hall around this time.
The family are certainly there by 1851 and they lived at Alkrington until 1896. James certainly rises to his new status, blocking a road around the estate in 1855, perhaps inspired by one of his Blackpool relations, Cuthbert Cardwell of Lytham against whom complaints were heard at the same meeting of the Ancient Footpaths Association, Cardwell stating defiantly, there is no more right of road through my land than there is through your kitchen or stomach. Even Francis Philips of Bank Hall came under scrutiny at the same meeting, Lingard and Vaughan defending him for having blocked a path on the Bank Hall estate.
James lived at Alkrington until his death, passing away there on 11 March 1871, leaving £30,000 in his will (£3.5m in 2021). Ellen lived on there until she passed away on 1 January 1896.
He and Ellen had nine children. The eldest, Mary Ellen (b 1851) remained unmarried and stayed at Alkrington most of her life. James Arthur Lees (1852-1931) became a barrister and married Lucy Jane Martyn (1852-1931), daughter of the Rector of Melford and Dean of Sudbury, at the Chapel Royal, The Savoy in London.
James was also known for his travel writing, and it is worth checking out his Three In Norway or Rambles in British Columbia (the first travelogue written after the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad) if you like the wry understated humour in Jerome K Jerome’s style of literature.
Harold Lees (1854-1902) lived a life of leisure at Alkrington Hall before moving to a similar bed of roses with his cousin Thomas Cardwell in Ropsley, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, dying there on 24 January 1902.
Alfred John Lees (1856-1882) joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and died in service in Gibraltar on 16 November 1882 aged only 26, whilst Joseph Cardwell Lees (1858-1932) was the first son to follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a mining engineer , in 1882 seeking his fortune in America and settling in Pueblo with his wife, Evelyn Daisy Fry (1870-1956). The couple had returned to England by 1930 and he died on 20 March 1932 in Shropshire. Evelyn died in Surrey on 5 April 1956.
Percy Lees (1860-1903) was another stay at home, living at Alkrington Hall and dying unmarried in Alkrington on 20 August 1903.
Roderick Livingstone Lees (1865-1936) was educated at Eton and first followed his father in becoming a colliery proprietor, however also pursued a distinguished military career, joining the Second Volunteer Batallion of the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1885, and on the outbreak of war, aged 48, he joined the territorials serving in Egypt.
Major Roderick Livingstone Lees was awarded the DSO for conspicous gallantry and determination during an attack near Krithia, Galliopoli on August 8 1915, commanding the defence of a position against heavy odds with great skill and tenancity. Quite a feat considering he was 50 at the time.
After the war he moved to Fair Mead in Knutsford with his wife, Amy Constance Jones, and lived there, dying at Legh Lodge in Knutsford on 5 February 1936. One of his sons Lieutenant J Malcolm Lees was killed in action in August 1916, aged just 20. Roderick’s brother, Edgar Lees (b 1867) served as a lieutenant in the British Navy.
The Hall was put up for let once more in 1896 after Ellen Lees’ death. Middleton Council had been making noises about building a sewage works near the Hall in 1893, or even constructing a new railway through the park.
Miraculously these plans disappeared when three times mayor of Middleton, Abraham Lord (1834-1909) took up residence in the Hall around 1897, with his second wife Amanda (1843-1933).
Totally coincidentally they resurrected their plans to build a park at Alkrington (even though they had rejected buying the estate for a park because of a no building clause in 1896). I wonder if the new ex mayor resident had anything to do with the decision, councillors are surely not driven by self interest.
I have found a tendency in my researches for councillors to build spitefully around halls or use them harshly. It is little surprise that they are left to rot.
Abraham was born in Eccles and became chairman of Parker Lord & Co of Tonge Mills, Middleton. Whilst living at Tonge House in Middleton in June 1872, he was involved in a serious rail crash when the Peak Forest Tunnel collapsed, causing a fissure of 70 feet across and 200 yards long, completely blocking the line. The London train had been delayed by three hours because of torrential rain, and fortunately was proceeding with care along the line. It hit the debris causing the carriages to buckle and Abraham Lord was only found after three hours’ frantic digging, screaming to be got out, dead or alive, it didn’t matter which. Fortunately nobody was killed but Abraham suffered internal injuries and broken arms. The article in the Derbyshire Times of 22 June 1872 ends somewhat gruesomely by reporting that hundreds of locals are visiting the scene of wreckage, and it will well repay a visit by any who has not seen it. Abraham died at Alkrington Hall on 19 September 1909, and left a fortune of £124,425 (£15m in 2021)
The previous residence of a councillor, being of the municipal nobility, was clearly not suitable for a sewage works. It was therefore proposed that a Garden City be built there in 1906, and the Garden City Association successfully concluded negotiations for an option to purchase the estate that year with the executors of James Lees.
The Garden Village was laid out in 1909 and the estate covered 700 acres aiming to provide an affordable substitute the ugly rows of terraced housing giving locals a chance to own their houses, with gardens. The plan was for a man to buy a £250 house by paying a deposit of £63 and then twenty annual payments of £24.
It certainly looked a desirable place to live if we look at the 1923 map of the area. We have neither smelly sewage, nor disruptive rail tainting the area.
After Abraham and Amanda Lord vacated the Hall it was bought by George Frederick Coulson (1867-1939) and his wife Sarah Ann Schofield. George came from modest roots being the son of an Exeter decorator , John W Coulson of Exeter who moved up to Burnley in the 1870s, living at 35 Bread Street in 1881.
George married Sarah Ann Schofield in 1891 and traded as a master painter and decorator from Little Acres in Middleton, however, incredibly, in 1918 he has become the Engineer for the Chadderton Mill Company and in 1921 is living at Alkrington Hall, which he sold to Middleton Council in 1928, engaging on a life of leisure after that, making extensive visits to Montreal. and retiring to Ivy Bungalow in Alkrington where he died on 26 May 1939.
The Hall was used to house spinsters in the 1940s, they had to sign an undertaking to vacate the premises should they marry. By the 1970s the council had clearly forgotten one of their own had once resided there and it fell into disrepair, serving as a college of adult education in the 1970s, as well as housing bedsits.
Fortunately it was sold off in 1993 to be developed into three luxury private dwellings, by James and Robert Pickup. Although no longer accessible to the public, it has reverted to its original use and saved from further council driven decay and damage. You can if you wish see the fireplace that was in Alkrington Hall, if you visit what claims to be England’s oldest original public houseº, the Boar’s Head in Middleton.
It is quite a striking building still today, and I think one of the most beautiful within Greater Manchester.
¹ The surviving items from the collection were bequeathed to the people of Liverpool in 1851, and formed the founding items in what it now the World Museum there.
² Which gives us the nice coincidences that both Alkrington’s Mr Darcy and Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy are connected to a building designed by the same architect, and the Levers bought Alkrington from the Leghs of Lyme.
³ Blackleg workers
ª A pedophile. The prurient amongst you can read more here. The artistic set protecting and defending him (Compton MacKenzie and others) is not dissimilar to more recent cases.
º Don’t @ me on this, the website claims it.
The Lever Crypt in Alkrington Woods – Middleton Archeological Society, 2017
Darcy Lever as an Inspiration for Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, Harland, Baynham, Lee, Wood : Mariner’s Mirror 2013
Locating Oldham Coalpits, British Mining No 73: The Northern Mine Research Society, Keighley, 2003
© Allan Russell 2021.