Chorlton in the 19th Century
Compiled and researched by Andrew Simpson
Most of us have walked through the old parish church yard on Chorlton Green, and will have idly read a few of the grave inscriptions before passing on. One in particular, close to the Bowling Green entrance, always draws me back. It records the lives of Samuel and Sarah Ann Nixon.
Now in one sense there is nothing remarkable about these two people, and that is the point. History has not been kind to them. In total there are just ten official records of their lives, and yet they were at the core of the community during one of the most dramatic periods in its history.
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 Roadand 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. At 300 acres Barlow Hall farm was the largest in the village. The majority ranged from 70 acres down to 40, with only three at 20 or lower. It is difficult to say if this was typical of the rest of Lancashire, but does compare to farm sizes in Withington.
The prime landowners were the Egerton and Lloyd families. Back in the 1840s the Edgerton’s had owned 887 acres and the Lloyd’s 231 acres which represented 69% and 18% respectively of the entire township. This may have been higher than the national average.
Samuel and Sarah Ann lived in the heart of this rural community. He had run the Bridge Inn by Jackson’s Boat and from 1851 ran the Traveller’s Rest opposite the Trevor on Beech Road and had a small holding of nine acres. On his death Sarah Ann took over the pub until her death in 1886. Their son was a post master in what is now Marmalade. And that really is all there is. In total a few parish documents, five entries in the census record and two mentions in a series of articles written about Chorlton between 1885 & 1886. And yet there should be so much more. This was my starting point. In attempting to reveal their lives others came to light. John Gresty for instance seems typical. He was born in the village in 1817 and worked as a farm labourer until his death sometime before 1885. He married Maria Helsby in the parish church in 1838 and they had five daughters
John 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. In the years after the end of the wars with France prices and unemployment had risen dramatically, and there had been riots, and demands for minimum wages. The Government fearing revolution had passed repressive laws and even dispatched the military to the new industrial cities of the north. Twenty years later when John married Maria, 28% of all families in England worked on the land, but by the 1870s faced with cheap food from the New World and Russia farming became increasingly less central as a source for work or national income. During the high point of English farming in the 1850s and 60s there was a massive exodus from the land. A trend which meant that by 1930 only 5% of the work force was occupied on the land and agriculture.
As a boy John might have played beside the canal at Stretford and watched the barges heading towards Manchester. In his thirties he could have worked alongside 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.
He listed his occupation as agricultural labourer and hay cutter. He may well have been hired at the annual fair and been contracted for a year at a time. In his youth he could have been employed as a farm servant which meant he lived in with the farmer’s family receiving part of his wage as board. This was a typical practice in the early years of the nineteenth century. James Higginbotham who ran one of the farms on the Green employed four farm servants in the mid 1840s. The relationship between servant and farmer was not always an easy one, and some workers were exploited. Others seem to have been well treated. Higginbotham’s accounts suggest he was a benevolent employer advancing wages for his work force to visit parents and buy essential clothes. How far this was the norm in the village is impossible to say.
The same accounts throw an interesting light on the level of drunkenness amongst his workforce. More than one of his workers was dismissed for being persistently drunk. This should not surprise us over much. In Chorlton in 1881 with a population of 2332 there were seven public houses and five shops selling alcohol the Travellers Rest, the Trevor, the Horse and Jockey, the Bowling Green, the Royal Oak, The Bridge Inn, The Lloyds. The Black Horse had existed from 1832 till its license was withdrawn in 1848. This matches what was going on in the city just four miles away. In Manchester in 1853 there were 1572 beer shops and 484 pubs. Or expressed in a different way, on Liverpool Road in 1848 there were 44 householders, 13 of which were beer retailers and another 4 were publicans.
The presence of beer shops is interesting. These were the result of a determined attempt by the Government to wean people off gin which was both cheap and ruinous to the health of the poor. So in 1830 the government had passed the Beer Act which it was hoped would create enough beer houses to push out the gin palaces. This rather suggests that the current debate on legalising addictive substances has a long pedigree.
In other ways Chorlton seems typical of what was beginning to happen to many rural communities. The coming of the railway made it possible for people to commute quickly into the heart of the city and encouraged the key landowners to sell off land to meet the new housing demand. In little over twenty years after the arrival of the railway in Chorlton most of the farming land to the north of Chorlton Cross had been built over.
The employment profile reflected this change. In 1861 52% of the working population were still engaged in agricultural work but by 1881 this was down to 25%. So while Samuel Nixon had been rooted in the land his granddaughter worked in the communication industry as a telegraphist. Where once most homes had been still made of the traditional wattle and daub by the turn of the nineteenth century most were brick.
Whatever the Nixon’s or John Gresty thought of these changes are so far lost, but in the last few months their lives are coming back into the limelight and with time and more research those very thoughts might be revealed.
Their last resting place has already begun to reveal a rich source of information on the lives of the villagers. The plan of the burial plots and the details of the seven hundred or so people who were interred in the church yard still exist. It is now possible to plot the life expectancy of these people, and the family links that bound them together. For the first time since the graveyard was landscaped in the 1970s we can again stand beside the actual spot where the Nixon’s, and Gresty’s were buried. It is a small and first step in bringing them back from the past.
In reconstructing the life of that rural Chorlton I would welcome any suggestions of people to talk to and any material whether it be pictures or written records which will help.
Copyright © 2003 Anthony F Walker
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