Monday, 29 September 2008

Chorlton's History - From Agricultural Village to Suburb - by Andrew Simpson

I've known Andrew Simpson for many years now. Recently, we were having a chat in Morrison's and he told me of his interest in Local History. Subsequently, Andrew has shown me what he has learned so far and I'm very impressed by the depth and ambition of his research. In the article below he introduces his project and its objectives:

It takes very little in the way of imagination to place Chorlton in a rural setting. Stand on the Green and all the features of a country village are there. At one end is the lych gate and graveyard, opposite is a half-timbered pub and on the remaining two sides are the old school and a farmhouse.

But the timbers on the Horse and Jockey are no more than 100 years old, and the farmhouse had been the office of a garage for most of the last half century. Even the lych gate only dates from 1888. And yet despite this, the fact remains that for perhaps a thousand years Chorlton was a village which became a suburb of Manchester in less than forty years.

It is difficult today to picture a landscape dominated by farms, fields and open land, but that landscape is only just passing out of living memory. It is this transformation and the story of the people who lived through it that I set out to record.

During the last half of the nineteenth century Chorlton changed from rural village where people farmed the land to a Manchester suburb. What is remarkable is how late the transformation was in happening. There were working farms around the Green till just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The blacksmith on Beech Road continued to serve their needs well after 1900 and in 1907 it was still possible to stand at the corner of Beech and Cross Road and look across fields to the River Mersey.

In 1845 there were 490 acres of arable land, 680 acres of meadow and pasture and 10 acres of woodland. To the north in what is now Whalley Range there was Holt Wood and to the south there were Barlow Wood and Holland’s Wood. Along the river where the land was low lying and liable to flooding the area was mainly given over to meadow. To the east where today the long roads of Longford, Nicholas and Newport run out towards Stretford the area was full of streams and lakes. This area was known as the Isles and provided more meadow and pasture land. Twenty years later there were still eighteen farms, as well as market gardens and orchards.

And this has been the starting point of my story. What was daily life like for the people of Chorlton? And how did a way of life which had lasted for a thousand years end in such a short period of time? Moreover who were these people who saw their village change but who have been lost to history?

In the last few months their lives have become clearer. There was for instance the Nixon family who from the 1840s ran pubs around the village and looked after the post office in what is now Marmalade. They married into the Gresty family who made their living as farm labourers and lived in one of the last wattle and daub houses close to the old parish church. There were the farming families like the Higginbothams, the Whiteleggs and Haysons who ran farms of varying size. Dominating all of them were the two large landowners who between them owned 80% of the land. Our farmers and indeed all the villagers paid them rent and lived on their land.

We can see the same rural pattern of life as elsewhere. Many farm labourers were hired by the year, lived with the farmer and some were prone to persistent drunkenness that eventually cost them their jobs.

Outside the hours of work the villagers engaged in the village brass band, played on the various bowling greens visited the Reading Room and kept older traditions going till the last quarter of the century. The Brundrett family along with the Hollands, Baguleys and Lunts built the Wesleyan Chapel on Beech Road and sang in its choir. George Whitelegg, publican of the Horse & Jockey was a Poor Law Guardian, who administered those “Poor Law Bastilles” so hated and feared through out the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

John Gresty was another of these people whose life is slowly coming to light. He was born in the village in 1817 and worked as a farm labourer until his death sometime before 1885. He had been born during a period of economic hardship, reached manhood at a time when agriculture was still the main occupation and entered old age as farming went into decline. As a boy he might have played beside the canal at Stretford and watched the barges heading towards Manchester. In his thirties he could have worked along side the notorious and much feared navvies in building the railway which cut across the fields and ran beside the canal. And in old age he would have talked with villagers who worked in the city and owed their living to manufacture and commerce.

In 1848 it would have been possible to leave the village and walk by the way of farm tracks past fields and the odd house all the way to the far edges of the township. A farm labourer making that journey just before the turn of that century might try hard to remember the landscape and rural features which would have been familiar to him as a child. Much of the agricultural land beyond Chorlton Cross towards Whalley Range was now terraced housing and shops.

But so much has survived. We can trace the changing landscape through pictures, and postcards, the lives of the people through the census material, parish records and land documents and above all by talking to people who remember the last farms and fields.

The next task will be to interview the people who remember this transition. To this end I would welcome any suggestions of people to talk to and nay material whether it be pictures or written records which will help.

Andrew Simpson
September 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

bugger off! jk
interesting and fascinating as per usual :)