In A Chronological History of Bolton, a free supplement, specially compiled for the 1870 New Year’s Day Bolton Chronicle, we are told in a history of Bolton to 1871¹ (sic) that in the year 579 AD Smithills was a Royal Saxon Palace, occupied by Ella, King of the Deiri, and subsquently by many noble families. Ella or Aelle is mentioned by Bede and is widely believed to have been the first king of Yorkshire. James Clegg in his Chronogical History of Bolton of 1880 repeats this assertion, which a review in the Bolton Evening News of 10 May 1880 roundly debunks as being without a scrap of evidence. Numerous attempts and digs have unearthed nothing to support the conjecture, therefore it is likely to be legend.
Smithills has however a long history. The estate sits infront of Winter Hill, overlooking a tributary of the Ravenden Brook and the oldest part, an open hall, dates from the 14th century. There was a courtyard, but the south wing was demolished in the early 19th century. Between 1874-1878 and 1882-1886 George Devey (1820-1886) made extensive alterations. Devey was renowned for his rambling country houses built largely for prominent liberals.
The land occupied by Smithills has been inhabited for a long time. The Manor was in the possession of Roger De Pendlebury in 1289. He granted the land to Richard Hulton for the rent of one silver penny. Smithills was held by the Knights Hospitalier, and the Hultons lived there. It then passed to the Radcliffe family who made it their chief manor for three generations, Sir Ralph Radcliffe was the last to hold it and after he died around 1460 it was inherited by Sir Ralph’s brother, Edmond who passed it to his daughter Cecily who married John Barton of Holme.
John’s father, John, was a wool trader and merchant of Calais and became very rich in the process, first buying an estate at Holme near Newark, which is said to have had a window inscribed I thanke God, and ever shall. It is the Sheepe hath payed for all there.
Cecily (c 1473- 1506) was around 13 at the time of the marriage, and John also a minor. The couple married in 1483, their eldest son and heir, Andrew (1498-1549) was born significantly after that. Andrew married Agnes in 1516 and a couple of years later his father made over the house to him, and entered a house of Friars, where he died the following year.
Andrew entered Middle Temple in 1517, but did not complete his legal education, but became a Justice of the Peace and member of Parliament. He also took up his country seat at Smithills, adding wings to the structure to make it a courtyard house.
Andrew’s eldest son, Robert (c1524-1580) was a strict Catholic and is best known for his arrest of the Protestant martyr, George Marsh. He arrested George in 1554, who reaffirmed his faith so strongly by stamping his feet, that that it left an impression on the stone floor. He vowed that the footprint should remain as a constant memorial to the wickedness of his accusers. It was Robert who sentenced the cleric to be burned at the stake. His ghost is still said to haunt the Hall.
Conversely Robert’s brother, Ralph rose in prominence under Elizabeth I being given judicial and other Crown appointments, which implies that he batted for the Protestant side. This clash of religions initially saw Robert leave the estate to his widow, but the Ralph obviously knew the law and was able to contest the will. He won back the estate in 1586, but only kept it a few years, dying in 1592.
Smithills was then inherited by Ralph’s son, also Ralph (1556-1611) a barrister and High Sheriff of Lancashire. Initially after his death, the estate went to Ralph’s younger son, again Ralph, whilst Thomas, the elder boy inherited the more presitigious property, in Newark. Ralph predeceased his elder sibling and the estate came into Thomas’ hands. Thomas had one surviving child, a girl, Grace (d 1658) who marrried the Honorable Henry Belyase. His son Thomas, the First Earl Fauconberg (1627-1700) inherited from his father.
Thomas was close to the parliamentary cause, he married Cromwell’s third daughter, Mary, but managed to curry favour with Charles II and William III as he served in the Privy Council under Charles, and rose to the Earldom under William. However, it was Thomas’ younger brother, Sir Rowland Belyase (d 1699) who lived at Smithills.
After Sir Rowland’s death the estate was sold to the Byron family of Manchester around 1721 who in turn sold it to Richard Ainsworth (1762-1833) for £21,000 in 1801 (£1.5m in 2021).
The Ainsworth family had gained their wealth through a Bleachworks at Halliwell. Peter (1713-1780) founded the business in 1739 having inherited a legacy from a relative, Robert Ainsworth of Stepney. He used this to buy Lightbounds House nearby. His son, also Peter (1736-1807) improved the technical side of the business, making them more efficient and even more profitable. He built Moss Bank House by the Bleachworks, creating a vast area of parkland. Peter’s son Richard (1762-1833) moved into Moss Bank, whilst his father stayed at Lightbounds.
In buying Smithills, Richard was not so much interested in the house, but on the water supply from Winter Hill which formed part of the estate. In 1814 he added to his portfolio by buying Halliwell House.
His son, Peter (1790-1870) decided that he would become the country gentleman and ceded the Bleaching operation to his younger brother, John Horrocks Ainsworth (1800-1865) who resided at Moss Bank House.
Peter married Elizabeth (c 1794-1870) the daughter of a Liverpool merchant, Ashton Byron, in Toxteth in 1815. He inherited the Smithills estate in 1833 and threw his hand in as a parliamentary candidate the following year. He stood on an anti corn law ticket, but fell into trouble with his supporters when he voted for a fixed duty on corn prices in 1843 after a motion to repeal the laws failed. He justified this by stating that he did so, to equalise tariffs with other commodoties, however his constituents were not happy and demanded he come and explain himself at their meeting. He declined and made a half hearted justification by way of letter to them.
In the meantime, he sought to bolster his position as a country gentleman by inviting visiting worthies to dine with him at Smithills, Lord John Russell had too little time to take up his offer in April 1850 and the following year it was not known if Prince Albert would take up his invitation.
Peter died at Smithills on 18 January 1870 and Elizabeth a few months later on 16 April. They had no issue and the house was inherited by John Horrocks Ainsworth’s son, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth (1839-1926).
The Colonel married Isabella Margaret Vaughan (1841-1925) and he had also come into the Bleachworks via his father. He instructed George Devey to make improvements, but was not really enamoured of the place, preferring Winwick House in Northamptonshire which he bought in 1880. After that the Hall was largely let out to tenants, and on the censuses of 1881, 1901 and 1911 it was just occupied by a skeleton staff of servants.
One of the few interactions he made with the Hall and local residents was to close of the road leading up Winter Hill in 1896 as it disturbed his grouse shooting. This stirred up unrest in Bolton with regular Sunday protests marches up the hill, and barriers being demolished. As many as 20,000 were said to have attended on occasion and a public defence fund set up to fight the writs issued by Ainsworth. However, it all seems to have fizzled out, as donations to the fund were decidedly lacking.
He sold the Bleachworks in 1900, and between 1915 and 1926 entered negotiations with Bolton Council to sell Moss Bank. The Council for the Protection of Rural England successfully pressurised Bolton Council into buying Smithills along with 2,000 acres of land in 1938 for £70,800, which was funded by a loan granted by the Ministry of Health.
The building was initially used as a care home for the elderly and the grounds used to host the Lancashire Show, but in 1956 the Council embarked on a project to restore and renovate the Hall. They did this with care as this picture from 1964 shows:
The Hall is today available to visit, and supported by Bolton Council and an active Friends Group.
Let’s see some pictures:
Much of the information above was derived from the excellent Landed Families Blogspot which I happily acknowledge.
¹ Having read the article, I presume nothing happened in Bolton in 1871 as the entry for the year is blank. There was a dig for evidence of the Saxon king in 2003 but it came to naught.
© Allan Russell 2021.