The Ainsworths & St. Peters

A carriage and pair pulled up in front of a terraced house in Nottingham; out of it stepped a gentleman and his wife; they had come to call on my father. It was around the year 1899. For eight or nine years my father had been a curate in the parish of Old Radford. The gentleman was Colonel R.H. Ainsworth, a rich landowner, of Smithills Hall near Bolton in Lancashire. I can only surmise that it was the occasion when he invited my father to become vicar of St. Peter’s church in Halliwell of which he was patron. It is said that when the vacancy occurred a hundred and twenty clergymen applied for it, but Colonel Ainsworth turned them all down and chose my father who had not applied

So in 1900 my father became vicar of this extensive parish which stretched from slums on the outskirts of Bolton to farms and moors and the top of Winter Hill, nearly 1500 feet high. The eldest five of my family had been born in Nottingham; we, the younger five, were to be born near Bolton. The vicarage, a rather fine Neo-Gothic building, was about two hundred yards from the church, built by the Colonel’s uncle, a Bolton Liberal M.P.; it was of Horwich millstone grit. An architect brother of my father called it utilitarian Gothic.

The whole of the parish and the •area around lay under the aura of the Ainsworths who owned three biggish houses, Smithills Hall, Moss Bank, and Moss Lea, as well as a house near Rugby and a house at Bournemouth. Earlier Ainsworths had developed a bleaching process for cotton goods that so prospered that the bleachworks at Halliwell had many employees. There were grey stone buildings where the bleaching was done and in their midst a brick chimney, 340 feet high and second only in Bolton to the 360 foot chimney of Dobson and Barlow’s firm.

They are now all gone except for this chimney, our ‘Big Chimney’, now an ancient monument, but sadly reduced in height.

In another part of the parish was a model village, Barrow Bridge, built to house mill workers. For their betterment had also been built an institute with columns like a Greek temple. This was once visited by Prince Albert himself who was accompanied by Disraeli; they spent the night in the Barrow Bridge farmhouse. From Barrow Bridge ran the road that led up to the desolate moors and the slopes of Winter Hill. Nearby was a steep descent into the valley, a stairway of sixty-three stone steps which we always knew as ‘Sixty Three Steps’. At Barrow Bridge was born the famous Lancashire & England cricketer, Barlow. He is mentioned in Francis Thompson’s cricket poem ‘Lords’. – ‘……..Oh my Hornby and Barlow long ago……..’

In our parish my father had as it were, daughter churches or missions where Sunday evening services were taken by laymen, each with its own little Sunday school: Delph Hill, Barrow Bridge, Colliers Row, and The Vallett’s, (a district named after a French chemist who came to advise on bleaching and who settled there). Smithills Hall, of course, had its own chapel where on Sundays, services were held morning and evening; again with its own Sunday school.

For the first fifteen years in the parish our family lived in the ‘old vicarage’; on one side was an oldish house called ‘Lieutenants’, named supposedly from the time when Cromwellian troops were billeted in nearby Picton Street; on the other side was Lambert’s Farm with horses and cows. In front of the vicarage was a field which my father rented in which we children could play cricket; this we had sometimes to share with the horses and cows. In 1915, the second year of World War One, Colonel Ainsworth’s finances were badly hit by increased taxes and it was necessary to reduce the number of gardeners and employees, and to dispense with his private chaplain.

So my father took over Smithills chapel, staggering services there, and at St. Peters, so that for a time he had to hurry from one to the other, a great strain that ultimately helped to bring on his early death. But to make things easier for him we moved from the old vicarage to the more centrally placed Moss Bank, and we occupied the spacious servants quarters. This big house, which in earlier days had been occupied by the eldest Ainsworth son until he succeeded and went to live at Smithills Hall, was now almost empty. It was occupied by an old German lady’s maid, Miss Rousette, and by an old coachman ‘Old Richardson’ and his daughter, also a retired lady’s maid. Miss Rousette had been a refugee from Alsace-Lorraine when the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871. Old Richardson was an unsmiling bearded Yorkshireman.

There were immense kitchen gardens and orchards surrounded with high brick walls, and extensive stables, coach house, and hay loft. I think there were stalls for eight horses; these outhouses we shared with the Richardsons. There must have been two hundred yards of enormous greenhouses, now mostly derelict. The huge gardens were uncultivated, but this did not worry us boys; it was a glorious place in which to roam about and play Red Indians; grass and weeds were six feet high. At the bottom of our own big garden was a canal or lengthy pond which was frequented by waterfowl and kingfishers. Behind the house was a grove of immense, majestic trees; I used to stand and look up at them in wonder.

Once life here, as at Smithills Hall, must have been very good, with butlers, grooms, and many servants. Under Moss Bank house were vast cellars to store food and hang hams; there were also ovens and kitchens from which the meals were sent upstairs. We boys got to know well some of the estate men. There was Jewitt, my hero, Northumbrian, tall, strong, and gentle-spoken; he looked after the many trees, carrying on his shoulder two narrow-bladed felling axes with three foot handles. He was generally accompanied by Bagshaw, whom among ourselves we called ‘Clodder’, and another whose name I did not know. ‘Drainer’, another elderly man who wore a worn bowler hat was ‘Old Gent’. The estate agent was either Lowther or White; he had an office near the bleachworks; his chief assistant, a tall fellow with ginger hair and ginger moustache was ‘The Foxy Man’. In the lodge near the iron gates to Smithills Hall lived Atherton, an outspoken man with a rough tongue who would have been a match for any hooligan. At the stables lived an Irish gardener, McGinnis, who had settled here after a hurried exit from South Africa. What memories I have of those men and those days! Years later I went to visit ‘Jewitt’ who was living in one of the stone cottages beyond Smithills Hall. When I called I found him in bed dying of cancer. Mr Weir, a Scot was the Gamekeeper and Mr Heap the Under Gamekeeper.

We children seldom met Colonel Ainsworth himself who now an old man lived much at Bournemouth. In his absence his butler, Clark, was in charge of Smithills and tended to boss people. But I do remember hearing Colonel Ainsworth when he read the first lesson in a service at Smithills Chapel. He had a deep voice and the words sounded as if they came from dark depths: ‘In the year that king Uzziah died … Shebna the scribe (which he pronounced ‘scroibe’), and Joah the son of Asaph the recorder..’

Colonel Ainsworth like his father and uncle was a staunch Evangelical. As a boy he had been to Eton College, some time about 1860, and from there had gone on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was an unwilling Classic; he maintained that he should have studied engineering. He had been a colonel in the Duke of Lancaster’s Yeomanry.

There are two Ainsworth families in Lancashire; one has descended from Pleasington village; to this belonged the Smithills Ainsworths. The other Ainsworths were descended from another village, not many miles away, Tottington; these moved to the Oldham-Rochdale area three hundred years or so ago; to this branch my father belonged. My grandfather, Abraham Stott, now regarded as the leading cotton mill architect of Lancashire, had married an Elizabeth Ainsworth.

To this branch also belonged, it appears, the novelist Harrison Ainsworth who like several of my brothers and me went to Manchester Grammar School. Colonel Ainsworth once told me that he thought that both Ainsworth families were related, but not until recently (1986) has a probable link been found. It would be nice if this could be proved, for the Pleasington Ainsworths have recently been traced back to William the Conqueror.

There is much about the Ainsworths and Smithills Hall in Mrs. Annabel Huth-Jackson’s book, printed in 1932, ‘A Victorian Childhood’. Colonel Ainsworth died about 1926. As he had no children the estate went to a nephew, Nigel Coombes, who sold it to Bolton Corporation. The park around Moss Bank was turned into a public park, and Moss Bank house itself was demolished just before or just after the last war.’ You can imagine the sorrow it gave us to see a photo of the grand old house being pulled down and my father’s study, where he worked and prayed, being broken up. It had been the same when the old vicarage in which I was born was taken down