This is a bit of an unusual blog post – don’t worry, I’m going to get back to blogging about Hercule Poirot very soon – but I wanted to write a bit about a new project that I’ve started, as I’m really quite excited about it.
In April, myself and a small group of residents from Charlestown in North Manchester decided to start a new Friends of Bailey’s Wood group to save and protect a patch of semi-natural ancient woodland that (we think) is pretty special. I’ll be posting about upcoming activities and projects on the group’s Facebook page as we go along. But this is a bit more of a personal post, because I wanted to write about why I think Bailey’s Wood is so special.
Where is Bailey’s Wood?
Since this blog is read by some people who don’t live in Manchester (or even in the UK), I’d better start with the basics. Bailey’s Wood is in Blackley in North Manchester – specifically, it’s in the area historically known as Charlestown, just opposite Boggart Hole Clough (it’s also in Charlestown Ward according to current municipal boundaries).
To be honest, even a lot of people in North Manchester don’t know where Bailey’s Wood is. Boggart Hole Clough is pretty well-known, but Bailey’s Wood just isn’t (and this is a big part of the problem – and I’ll say a bit more about this below).
What is Bailey’s Wood?
Bailey’s Wood is one of Manchester’s last remaining semi-natural ancient woodlands. It runs through a steep ravine, carved out over millennia by a little brook (and more on that shortly as well). It’s a regional site of biological importance, with birds (such as the greater spotted woodpecker and the nuthatch), bats and butterflies making it their home. At the moment, there’s very little information about the flora and fauna of Bailey’s Wood, as there hasn’t been any sustained surveying done for some time. Some conservation work has been done by Manchester City Council’s Irk River Valley Project (as the brook is a tributary of the River Irk), but the project has tended to focus on sites around the Irk itself. There’s still an awful lot to be discovered about what lives in Bailey’s Wood.
A Brief History of Blackley
So… now for the bit that gets me really excited. Here comes the history part…
Once upon a time – okay, in the three centuries following the Norman conquest – the township of Blackley was a deer park, an enclosed area that was regulated by the king’s forest law and kept by the nobility for the purposes of hunting. Medieval deer parks were enclosed by wooden fences (known as ‘park pales’), and often included pasture land and woodland, as well as hunting grounds. In 1322, we have a record of the Blackley deer park that measured it at seven miles in circumference (it took in what is now Blackley, but also much of Crumpsall, Harpurhey and Moston, and also Heaton Park and Alkrington Wood). There was pasture land for 240 cattle, as well ‘eyries of eagles, herons and hawks’.* It was also still partially wooded, staying true to its name – ‘Blackley’ probably derives from the Old English words blaec and lēah, meaning ‘the dark clearing in the woods’.
|These are not medieval deer. Nor do they live in Blackley. But you get the idea.|
In the early fourteenth century, Blackley township was in the barony of Manchester, so the deer park would have been a hunting preserve for the lords of Manchester. But this wasn’t to last. Around 1355, areas of pasture land in the park began to be granted by indenture, and the forest was cut back to make room for farmland. By the fifteenth century, Blackley was no longer under the domain of a single lord, instead being shared by a number of landowners – including families that will be familiar to anyone who knows their Manchester history, such as the Asshetons and the Byrons. In the following century, John Leland would bemoan the deforestation of what had been the Blackley park, writing:
‘Wild bores, bulles, and falcons, bredde in times past at Blakele, now for lack of woode the blow-shoppes [forges] decay there.’*The Byrons continued as the subinfeudatory lords (technical term) of Blackley until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when it all started to go a bit tits up (probably not a technical term) for them. Sir John Byron inherited the Blackley lands in 1566, but wasn’t fantastic with money, and so the Blackley lands were sacrificed so that the family could afford to keep their properties elsewhere. By 1603, the Blackley estate was vested in the hands of Peter Legh of Lyme, Richard Assheton of Middleton (and his son) and John Holt of Stubley, and it began to undergo an alienation (i.e. it was now possible for the lands to be carved up and sold from one party to another, rather than remaining as a hereditary estate).
The alienation of the Blackley estate saw it divided up between a number of well-to-do families. Blackley Hall and its demesne was owned by the Asshetons, and then sold to the Leghs of Lyme (after that it had a weird and sordid little history until it was eventually haunted and destroyed brick-by-brick by persons unknown in the mid-1800s). Alkrington Wood and its estate was sold to the Lever family in 1627, who erected Alkrington Hall (still standing, and my absolute dream house) on the estate. The Heaton estate (including Heaton House) was owned by the Hollands, and then inherited by Thomas Egerton (later 1st Earl of Wilton), who swelled his estate by marrying the daughter of Sir Ralph Assheton and acquiring most of the Crumpsall portion of the old Blackley estate (and, most notably, Heaton Park, in which he constructed Heaton Hall).
In the early part of the 1600s, Humphrey Booth of Salford, a wealthy fustian merchant, purchased part of the Blackley estate. As well as being a very successful businessman, Humphrey Booth the elder was also a philanthropist. During his lifetime, he made several grants of land for the benefit of the poor in Salford, and his legacy lives on in the various charities he and his grandson set up. Booth endowed a chapel-of-ease in Salford, which is now the Sacred Trinity Church. Before his death in 1635, Humphrey Booth the elder made over the estate to his son (also called Humphrey), who built a mansion house on the site of an older farmhouse – the house was probably completed in 1640, as there was a timber beam bearing the legend ‘HB AB [Ann Booth, wife of Humphrey-the-son] 1640’ on the front of the original building.
The original Booth Hall was a two-storey gabled house, built in brick. One description of the house stated that it stood ‘on a beautiful site which is screened from the waggon way which passes its garden boundaries by prosperous woods’. William Crabtree’s ‘Plan of the Booth Hall Estate’ (1637) gives an indication of what the site looked like just before the construction of Booth Hall – two buildings form a farmstead, which is surround by pasture land and bordered by a line of woodland at its northern-most edge. Comparison with William Johnson’s later ‘Plan of the Parish of Manchester’ (1818-19) shows that the woodland follows the line of a small brook, which sits in a deep, unfarmable ravine.
I don’t have images of Crabtree or Johnson’s plans, but this slightly later map by George Hennet (1829) gives you the idea:
Between 1640 and 1700, Booth Hall and its estate were owned by the Booth family (I won’t go into details about this – suffice to say it’s Humphreys all the way down). At the end of the seventeenth century, the final Humph (the son of the cousin of the grandson of Humph I) sold part of the estate to Reverend John Legh of Tyldesley and leased another portion to John Knowles before dying childless. When Rev. Legh died in 1714, Knowles acquired the entirety of the estate.
If the sixty years of Humphs were confusing, the next hundred years are almost impossible to get your head around. It looks as though the estate was split for a time, with one part (the outlying portion of the estate) passing from Knowles through a serious of indentures and leases to men named Ralph Seddon and William Patten, until it was bought for £240 by John Diggles, a linen draper. The other portion, which contained the ‘capital messuage and demesne’ (i.e the bit with Booth Hall on it), went through an even more baffling series of mortgages and leases, being at one point the property of Richard Worthington, who was John Diggles’ brother-in-law. By 1719, John Diggles appears to have owned the entire estate (including the hall). He bequeathed it to his son Thomas, who bequeathed it to his nephew John, who bequeathed it to his nephew Thomas Bayley (along with a gold watch, an amethyst ring and a chamber organ with eight barrels).
Thomas Bayley died on 22nd November 1817, leaving his property to his three sons. They promptly put the Booth Hall estate up for auction. There were no takers, but the estate was later sold to Dr Henry (Thomas Bayley’s son-in-law) for £9000. Clearly Dr Henry didn’t much fancy living in Blackley (or he only bought it so he could sell it on and stick one in the eye to his late father-in-law), as he sold it to Edmund Taylor of Salford within a couple of years.
I promise it gets easier now… The Taylor family owned the Booth Hall estate for most of the rest of the nineteenth century, and expanded the estate by purchasing more of the surrounding land. By the 1870s, it was the property of John Taylor (who I think was the grandson of Edmund), who seemed to have a terrible time of things.
He was robbed by a servant:
|Manchester Evening News (22 Aug 1871)|
And one of his staff got in trouble for blowing an engine whistle on Oldham Street:
|Manchester Evening News (24 Nov 1871)|
And that’s not to mention the servant who drunkenly confessed to a murder he hadn’t committed or the prize fight on the estate that attracted over 300 spectators.
Perhaps part of the problem was that, at some point, John also acquired an estate in Wiltshire – I’ve not had the time or energy to work out whether this was an inheritance or a purchase – and so seems to have been splitting his time between Booth Hall and The Rocks in Marshfield, where he was known as ‘Squire John’ and had considerably less trouble with his servants.
John Taylor died in 1881, aged just 37, and his estate passed to his son Darcy Edmund, who was still only a child. From what I can see, the family had pretty much decamped to Wiltshire by then, as when Darcy had his coming-of-age party in 1890, the papers reported that he and his mother had ‘resided wholly’ in Marshfield since John’s death. Sure enough, that same year, Darcy and his mother auctioned off all the furniture at Booth Hall (oh no, not the walnutwood drawing-room suite!) and announced their intention to let out the hall.
|Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (17 May 1890)|
In 1893, the whole estate, including the mansion house, was put out to auction. And a surprising customer came forward: Manchester Corporation purchased 145 acres of the estate for £10000, with the intention of turning the land into a ‘pleasure ground’ and ‘health resort’ for the people of North Manchester. This portion of the estate was Boggart Hole Clough, which is still a council-run park. The corporation didn’t buy the northerly portion of farmland or Booth Hall itself (because no council in its right mind would buy a park that included an old mansion house).
Darcy Edmund Taylor continued to own the now-empty Booth Hall until 1902, when the Prestwich Poor Law Union (or Prestwich Guardians) purchased the house and 33 acres of land for around £8300. The Prestwich Guardians bought the land for the construction of a new infirmary to care for the sick of the Prestwich Union Workhouse (now North Manchester General Hospital). Humphrey Booth’s house was pulled down, and a new hospital building (costing around £71000) was erected and opened in 1908.
I’m going to leave the history of Booth Hall there, because its life (and much-protested demise) as a hospital has been recorded and celebrated by people far better than me. It’s enough to say that anyone who lived in North Manchester before 2007 will have some story to tell you about Booth Hall Children’s Hospital. The hospital was closed in 2007, and the main buildings were demolished in 2014. The hospital’s gatehouse was the last building to be removed, this year. There is now a Taylor Wimpey housing estate on the site.
Before I return to the forest, I just want to have a final moment of bafflement. The fight to save Booth Hall Children’s Hospital was waged throughout the 80s and 90s, and I remember clearly being told when I was younger that the hospital was named after its founder, Humphrey Booth.
It seems that this is a common story, and it has been replicated in some surprising places. The story goes that a certain Humphrey Booth, a man soaked through with the milk of human kindness, bought and donated a piece of land in Blackley for the purposes of building a free hospital for the poor. Perhaps the weirdest version of this story is found on the NHS Central Manchester Foundation Trust’s website, which not only gives Humphrey Booth a ‘caring nature that has passed through generations’, but also a birthdate (1851) and an epitaph. An exhibition at the People’s History Museum offered further details: this Humphrey Booth bought the land in 1909 because his family had previously owned the property, but he gave it to the sick and poor of North Manchester.
As you can see from the pointlessly detailed history I’ve given above, this is an utter work of fiction. The Booth family died out in 1700, and while I’ve no doubt Humphrey Booth the elder had a ‘caring nature’, he didn’t even live to see the construction of the mansion house, let alone the children’s hospital (which was first conceived of some three hundred years after Humph I bought his land in Blackley).
No. Boggart Hole Clough was bought by the corporation, and Booth Hall was bought by the Prestwich Poor Law Union. And both of them paid market value for the land, as the vendor was a wealthy landowner who wanted shot of his Manchester estates so he could spend more time in Wiltshire.
But the myth of Humphrey Booth persists. In a lot of ways it’s similar to another piece of North Manchester fiction. There is a persistent story that, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Earl of Wilton donated a part of his estate (Heaton Park) for the recreation and enjoyment of the people of North Manchester – some people will even tell you that the earl placed a covenant on this gift so that the evil council could never take this wondrous bounty from the poor people he cared so much about.
No. This is another fiction. In the 1890s, the Earl of Wilton had bankrupted himself repeated, and offered up his land for sale at auction. When there were no takers, his son begged Manchester Corporation (repeatedly lowering the price) to buy the land, suggesting that they could knock down his Georgian mansion and build new houses – or even use the land for coal mining. Eventually, the corporation purchased Heaton Park and Heaton Hall (oh… turns out a council would buy a park that included an old mansion house after all) in 1902. But they didn’t pull down the hall, and they didn’t use the land for housing (or mining). Heaton Park, like Boggart Hole Clough, is still a council-maintained park, and Heaton Hall is now a Grade I listed building. Admittedly, the council hasn’t really been able to look after the hall as well as we might have liked – but at least it’s not a bloody coal mine.
The invention of the 1851 Humphrey Booth and the myth of the benevolent Earl of Wilton reveal a bizarre faith in the philanthropy of the gentry. I find it fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I get that people might find it easy to imagine the council as a bureaucratic municipal overlord (part Ministry of Truth, part Kafka’s Castle) – but, and this cannot be stressed enough: rich people in the past just weren’t as nice as you think they were. When they were skint or they wanted to move to Wiltshire, they gave no more thought to poor people than they did to their walnutwood drawing-room suite.
Back to Bailey’s Wood
This lengthy history of the Booth Hall estate in Blackley is actually a history of Bailey’s Wood. As you’ll have spotted, the presence of woodland around Booth Hall is a constant feature of its history since the 1600s. Early maps show a sprinkling of woodland around the hall, particularly around the banks of the brook that sits in its steep ravine.
When the Ordnance Survey charted the land, the wood was more clearly defined. Here it is in 1845 (present, but unnamed):
Note the line of trees along the brook that rises at Dam Head farm (one of the longest-surviving farms, which was finally cleared for a new council estate in 1974), and also the thick semi-circle of forest that surrounds the fields at the back of the hall. You can also see the attempted encroaching of industrialization to the west – there’s a bleach works next to the Rochdale Road (Hennet’s 1829 admittedly less accurate map showed this area as fields).
By 1891, the woods had acquired a name:
The name Bailey’s Wood doesn’t appear in any of the wills or indentures attesting to the ownership of Booth Hall. This Ordnance Survey map, which wasn’t published until after the Taylors had left the building, is the first evidence of the name I can find. It’s possible that the map-makers were following some local tradition of naming the woods – perhaps Bailey was a farmer from Lea Grange or White Moss Farm – but perhaps it’s more a throwback to one of the hall’s previous occupants.
Perhaps the OS surveyors had seen this map (sorry for the image quality):
This is taken from William Yates’s 1796 map of Lancashire, considered to be the earliest accurate map of the county. As the map was being prepared, landowners were offered the opportunity of paying a guinea to have their names inscribed under their estates.* You can just make out Ashton Lever’s name underneath Alkrington Hall at the top – and there, underneath Booth Hall, is the name ‘T. Bayley, esq.’
Acquiring a name (whether it was from Thomas Bayley or some forgotten farmer) didn’t actually change the woods all that much. Comparing OS maps surveyed in 1906, 1915 and 1938 shows an area that is plodding its way to modernity – but the semi-circle of forest remains resolutely unchanged.
The coming of the hospital did little to change Bailey’s Wood, and you can catch a glimpse of the forest in some early pictures of the nurses hostel (which was built much closer to the treeline than the main infirmary buildings).
|Thanks to Tricia Neal for this image|
In the second half of the twentieth-century, the remaining farmland was given over to council housing. A school (St John Bosco’s RC Primary School) now sits at the edge of the forest, bordering the remnants of the old farmland. Booth Hall is now a new housing estate. But the forest is still there… in fact, after the demise of the bleach works (and its afterlife as a mill and then a factory), the forest has swallowed up even more of the land. Bailey’s Wood now stretches out to Rochdale Road and is bigger than it’s been for centuries.
So why do we need to save it?
Surely, with such an incredible pedigree stretching back to the days of a medieval deer park – never mind the fact that it’s a semi-natural ancient woodland and regional site of biological importance – Bailey’s Wood must be a much-prized green space enjoyed by the local community and visitors alike.
Here’s how you’re welcomed to Bailey’s Wood when you enter by the Grange Park Road entrance:
And here’s how you’re welcomed when you arrive by the Ranby Avenue entrance on Crosslee:
The woods have been sorely neglected and painfully mistreated for the past few decades. The lack of signs or proper entrances are only the beginning… the site is a mecca for fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour, and the edges (on the site of the old bleach works, which is now in private ownership) have recently seen all the trees felled without license.
And that little brook, tributary of the River Irk, that carved out the ravine? It was part culverted in the 1930s when Charlestown Road was constructed. And now the culverts are blocked and streambed is silted over. You can see there’s meant to be a stream there, but no water flows.
It’s absolutely gutting.
As I said at the beginning of this post, myself and a small group of local residents have decided it’s time for a change. We’ve set up a Friends of Bailey’s Wood group, and will be doing our first community clean-up event on Saturday 15th July at 10am. We have big plans for the future – we want to clean up the mess, we want to survey the flora and fauna, we want new signs and entrances, and we want to get the brook flowing again. We want children and families to enjoy the woods again, and we want the local area to celebrate and appreciate its history.
It’s a big job, but we think it’s worth it. We do need more support though, so if you’d like to join in or just support us from afar, please like our Facebook page or consider joining our group.
* Some of the information here is taken from the booklet, Booth Hall and Boggart Hole Clough: From Medieval Private Deer Park to Urban Public Park, which was commissioned by Taylor Wimpey and prepared by Fiona Wooler and Richard Newman of Wardell Armstrong Archaeology.
* And some of the information here is taken from the Rev. John Booker’s A History of the Ancient Chapel of Blackley in Manchester Parish, published in 1854.
* Thank you to Paul Hindle for introducing me to this map, and for explaining the landowner names.