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A Short History of Prestwich
Introduction – an Outline History.
Peter J. Corbally
In 1296 the church at Prestwich suffered a burglary in which a number of charters, placed there for safe-keeping, were stolen. What was lost was probably the whole early history of Prestwich – grants of the Manor to Saxon Thanes or Norman knights, the foundation deeds of the church etc. What we are left with is a black hole and we have to peer into it somehow.
The name, Prestwich, is Anglo-Saxon, probably Mercian. It was translated in a rather ham-fisted manner in the nineteenth century as “The Priests’ Retreat”. In fact “wich” in a place name means an “enclosure” or “place of work”. Prestwich means “the Priests’ enclosure” or the enclosed land of the Priests. Wich should not be confused with wick, which, in the north of England is usually Danish in origin and indicates a dairy farm.
Note the Saxon form,preost, is plural – Priests’ not Priest’s – which implies a religious community, a group of Priests, rather than a single Parish Priest. This fits in with the family tradition mentioned by Sir John Prestwich in the eighteenth century. That his family, the de Prestwich family, had been Thanes of Prestwich from before the Norman Conquest and had founded a monastery in the village which later merged with Stanlow Abbey. The de Prestwich family certainly were the Lords of the Manor of Prestwich up to 1362. Sir John’s claims about the “monastery” have been rubbished, notably by Booker in his Memorials of the Church in Prestwich. But they do seem to bear the hallmarks of a long held family tradition which has a kernel of truth in it. A Saxon monastery need not be the grand imposing edifice we think of in regard to medieval monasteries. It might just have been an enclosure with a wooden church and monk’s huts scattered around it.
The area between the Ribble and the Mersey (where Prestwich is situated ) had a confused history during the Dark Ages. It was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria between 610 and 850 but from 850 to 920 it was in the Danish Kingdom of York. In about 918 King Edward the Elder waged war in the area with his sister, The Lady Ethelflaeda of Mercia. They defeated the Danish King of York and he had to hand over our area – the land between the Ribble and the Mersey. King Edward made the whole area a royal possession run from manors like the royal manor of Salford. But he gave it to Mercia to supervise. Mercians flooded into this area after 920, sent to reclaim the area for the Saxons. Manchester is a name showing Mercian influence and so is Prestwich ( the soft “ch” of the Mercian version of Anglo-Saxon contrasts with the hard “c” of Northumbria. – Manchester versus Lancaster for example).
It is from that period, the tenth century between 920 and 980, that the name Prestwich probably comes. Of course that does not mean to say that there was not a settlement there before that. We know there were Romano-British farms in Prestwich from the archaeological record e.g. at Rainsough.
Robert de Prestwich 1193
Nevertheless, because of that theft at the Church in 1296, the first reference we have to the name of the village and to the manorial family called de Prestwich is the Pipe Roll of 1193.
King Richard I was away on Crusade and his younger brother Prince John attempted a coup. Prince John mustered his supporters at various places such as Lancaster. But King Richard’s Regent, William de Longchamp assembled his own troops in defence of the rightful King. The Regent stormed northwards destroying several of John’s castles and hanging his followers. Prince John took the hint ; he crept away to his lands in Ireland and his followers dispersed homewards.
That still didn’t stop reprisals and Longchamp drew up lists of knights and others who had supported Prince John and fined them. That is how we first hear about Prestwich. Robert de Prestwich held the manor of Prestwich and he had turned out in support of Prince John. He was fined 5 marks as a result. It should be noted that other local squires were also fined – Adam de Bury, William de Radcliffe etc. What they all had in common was that they held some of their land from the Baron de Montbegon of Hornby Castle. Montbegon was a friend and leading advisor to Prince John. So he probably summoned out all his Lancashire vassals, such as Robert de Prestwich, in his cause. Robert de Prestwich might not necessarily have believed that Prince John would make a better King than his brother Richard ; Robert de Prestwich was just obeying a summons from his feudal overlord, Adam de Montbegon. He had to do forty days a year knight’s service for his manor of Prestwich and a quarter of that for Alkrington.
The de Prestwich family held the manors of Prestwich and Alkrington from at least 1193 until 1362. In the end Prestwich went to the Langley family through marriage to the heiress but a subsidiary branch of the de Prestwich family obtained Hulme and Hulme Hall by marriage and became a leading Manchester family from 1350 to 1660.
Sir Adam de Prestwich, Lord of the Manor from 1275 to 1319, started a collection of deeds relevant to his estate in 1297. No doubt it was in response to the theft of charters from the church. He preferred to keep important documents under lock and key at the Manor House from then on. The Langleys continued collecting deeds and the collection grew into the Agecroft Deeds, a series that runs from 1297 through to the early nineteenth century. Most of the early deeds from 1297 to 1561 were about Prestwich. The Agecroft Deeds are a rich seam of material on the history of Prestwich which so far has not really been tapped.
The large Parish of Prestwich.
Something should be said about the Parish of Prestwich. Historically it was huge, stretching from the Irwell to the Pennines beyond Oldham. The original Parish included Prestwich itself, Alkrington, Tonge( Middleton ), Chadderton, Heaton,Oldham, Werneth, Royton and Crompton. It covered about fifteen miles west to east.
Large medieval parishes like Prestwich have been subject to historical research in other areas of England. A hypothesis has been put forward that they show the boundaries of “unitary estates” from the Roman period. The Romans and Romano-British created big estates in order to get a mix of all kinds of farmland in them – arable land, pasture, meadow, moor, heath etc. It is not known whether Prestwich parish was one of those unitary estates but there are Roman remains scattered across the area.
Also in Saxon times when an Earl or King founded a monastery or religious house he endowed it with a large hinterland designed to be big enough to support the monks. That takes us back to Sir John Prestwich’s assertion that his family had founded a monastery in the village. Even if there was not a monastery, the Church at Prestwich might need a substantial area to draw tithes and fees from in order to support it.
This area was poorly populated, there were few people here until the sixteenth century. Perhaps in a poorly populated area the parish would need to be large as a matter of course simply because of the scattered settlement. Eccles and Middleton, the two neighbouring parishes were also large in extent.
Eventually the large parish of Prestwich became untenable, it came to be called Prestwich-cum-Oldham which reflected the fact that Oldham had outgrown its parent like a cuckoo in the nest. Nineteen parishes ended up being carved out of the medieval parish of Prestwich.But the Mayor of Oldham is still one of the Patrons of Living of Prestwich.
The form of agriculture practised in Prestwich in the medieval period was probably not the classic Open Field System with three fields. The early maps of Prestwich show a tangle of haphazard fields with patches of regular co-axial fields jumbled in with them. The chaotic field boundaries suggest that the land was enclosed early on by agreement between peasants or on the orders of the Landlord. One document from about 1340 is quoted in the history books to show that forest was cleared in this neighbourhood and the land enclosed straight away in individual fields rather going into a common field system.
The presence of old enclosed fields also suggests that animal husbandry was important. Prestwich, with its sandy soils, can never have been a real crop-growing area. Sheep seem to have been important in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and it is possible that the Langleys, after 1400 turned Prestwich into a series of sheep ranches – Polefield, Diggle Fold, Hardmans Fold, Poppythorn, High Bank, Sedgley, Greengate, Woodhill, Prestwich Wood etc.
The inventories of Prestwich residents, there are about thirty of them from 1536 to 1759 in the Lancashire Record Office, will show what the balance was between arable farming and animal husbandry. But again, incredible as it may seem, the Wills from Prestwich ( there are over 300 of them between 1536 and 1858 ) and the inventories that accompany some of them have not been used by Prestwich Historians so far.
Prestwich also had common land however. It was the triangle of land between Sheepfoot Lane, Bury Old Road and Middleton Road, variously known as Fohcastle Moor and Prestwich Moor. It was finally divided between Crumpsall and Prestwich in 1484 following disputes over turf cutting on the moor.
The area of Prestwich Moor or Commons was finally enclosed in about 1720. This was during the tenure of the Cokes as Lord of the Manor.
The Holland- Langley dispute over Prestwich 1362 – 1416.
Prestwich was ravaged by a dispute about ownership of the manor between 1362 and 1416. The last de Prestwich in possession, Agnes de Prestwich, died childless in 1362. Her sister, Margaret, claimed the manor. Margaret was married to Robert de Holland and had seven children but she had, at the age of 15, taken the vows of a nun. This disbarred her, in the eyes of the Church and of the Law, from owning or inheriting land or property. Consequently her cousin, Joan de Langley, claimed the manor for herself.
Many bitter struggles ensued, men were killed fighting in Glossop ( Derbyshire )over this issue in 1402 ! One highlight was the seizure of Prestwich by Robert de Holland on the Monday morning after Ascension Day in 1374. He chucked out of Prestwich both the Sheriff of Lancashire and the young Langley heir, Roger de Langley and his sister. The Langley children were left to roam the cloughs and woods until rescued by a loyal woodsman. He conveyed the children to the care of the Duke of Lancaster. This episode in the history of Prestwich is said to be the basis of the Pantomine plot of “The Babes in the Wood.”
Legal and physical battles followed on from this and the Hollands finally gave up their claim to Prestwich in 1416. Margaret de Prestwich’s grandson, Peter Holland, accepted that he could never be Lord of the Manor of Prestwich and Alkrington because his grandmother had been a nun for a few years in her youth.
The Langleys of Agecroft Hall.
The Langley family of Agecroft Hall held Prestwich until 1561. They owned the manors of Prestwich, Alkrington, Pendlebury, Tetlow ( north Salford ) in addition to other lands in Bamford, Pendleton, Swinton, Chadderton and Oldham. At the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s Sir Robert Langley bought Kersal Cell and its lands as well.
The Langleys also owned the Advowson of Prestwich Church and were Patrons of the Living. They appointed a succession of Langley Rectors from 1412 to 1632. Every Rector in that period was called Langley and was a member of the family.
The Langleys lived at Agecroft Hall, a superb medieval Courtyard Manorhouse. This was about 100 yards behind the present day dog kennels on Agecroft Road.
When the last Langley, Sir Robert Langley, died in 1561 the whole estate was divided up between his four daughters who were co-heiresses. Prestwich went to Margaret Langley and then from her to her descendants the Cokes of Longford Hall, Derbyshire. If the Langleys had had a son and kept on going it is not unlikely that they would have emerged as Peers of the Realm in the 17th century, they were so prominent and so wealthy.
The Cokes ( pronounced “Cook”) held the manor of Prestwich until 1794. All the manorial records of the Coke’s period in Prestwich from 1669 to 1794 are in the Drinkwater Deeds in the Lancashire Record Office in Preston. This is another rich seam of Prestwich history which, unbelievably, does not seem to have been touched by the historians of Prestwich thus far. The most famous Coke, a figure of national importance, was Thomas William Coke ( 1752-1842), Earl of Leicester who was a major contributor to the Agrarian Revolution of the 18th Century. T.W. Coke was Lord of the Manor of Prestwich from 1776 to 1794.
Peter Drinkwater was a famous Manchester mill owner, employer and friend of Robert Owen, who bought the title and remaining lands of the Lord of the Manor of Prestwich from Thomas William Coke in 1794. Peter Drinkwater lived at Irwell House in what is now Drinkwater Park. The Drinkwater family held the Manor of Prestwich until 1912 when all Feudal Titles, Rights and Privileges wewre abolished.
The Industrial Revolution.
Prestwich in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries remained a rural backwater, lightly populated, with an important church to be sure but with an absentee landlord until 1794. Transport links were poor and Prestwich was just surrounded by a spidery network of narrow country lanes and farm tracks. A turnpike road of 1754 ( Bury Old Road ) passed half a mile away to the east.
That situation changed gradually. Prestwich became a weaving centre as did most of the neighbourhood. Silk weaving, which was a refined art, spilled over from Middleton into Prestwich, especially at Bowlee and Rooden Lane. Silk weaving had been brought into Middleton in the late 17th century by Huguenot refugees from France. But it was domestic industry based in weaver’s cottages.
Middlemen called Putter-Outers or “Manufacturers”. Collected raw materials from warehouses in Manchester and distributed them to weavers to make up on looms in their own cottages. The Putter-Outers delivered the finished goods back to the warehouses and the process revolved on a weekly basis.
A famous Putter-Outer in mid 19th Century Prestwich was “Roger Yates ut neest”. Roger Yates of Cuckoo’s Nest. His house and warehouse extension are still in existence. Roger walked into Manchester several times a week with his wagon to deliver woven goods and collect supplies for his weavers.
Handloom weaving reach its peak in the 1790s and weavers were temporarily an elite group. But machines and factories gathered pace and wages fell. Weavers from all over the region met at Prestwich in 1816 in a “Weavers Parliament”. Their aim was to obtain guaranteed rates of pay. But weavers’ living standards continued to decline and Handloom Weaving was a poor job by the 1840s. Domestic Handloom weaving was finally killed off by the Manchester Cotton Famine 1864-66. The Civil War in America stopped supplies of cotton to Lancashire and the Industry ground to a halt. There was considerable distress in the Rooden Lane area of Prestwich during the Cotton Famine.
Another aspect of the textile industry that flourished in Prestwich was bleaching and dying. The first whitster mentioned in the Prestwich Parish Register was in 1678. Whitsters were bleachers who soaked cloth in alkali ( a mix of potash and lime ) and then laid it out in fields ( “bleaching crofts” ) or hung it on tenter lines with tenter hooks for several months.
In the early 18th century they started using chemicals (Sulphuric acid at first and then chloride) to bleach the material. Bleaching developed steadily in Prestwich through the 18th century. There seemed to have been three main sites for it – at the bottom end of Prestwich Clough, in Spring Vale adjacent to Hilton Lane and at Kersal Moorside ( on the Singleton Brook in the George Street area of Sedgley ).
A whitster called Issachar Thorpe was the first local person to step up to bleaching on an industrial scale in his bleach works at Bunker’s Hill in about 1777. Issachar Thorpe had Dams Head Lodge built to supply his bleach works and dashwheels with water. Thorpe’s premises later became Wardleworths ( famous for its Turkey Red dyes) and then turned into the Waterdale Bleachworks.
But as late as the 1851 Census we still find five men describing themselves as “crofters” i.e. working in bleaching crofts in the old way.
Bleaching and dyeing was a major part of Prestwich life in the 19th century. In the 1881 Census, James Buckley, who had the Prestwich Clough Bleach and Dye Works at that time was described as “Bleacher employing 103 men”. And Buckley’s was just one of three or four bleachers and dyers in Prestwich at the time.
The whole prospect of Prestwich changed in 1828. In that year the Turnpike Road from Manchester to Bury was opened. It followed the line of the old Roman road out of Manchester upto the centre of Prestwich where it diverged to head round the end of Mere Clough and join Bury Old Road in Besses o’ th’Barn.
The new road in 1828 transformed Prestwich; it turned the quiet village into a suburb of Manchester. Prestwich was now on the map – it was halfway between Manchester and Bury whereas before it was not halfway between anywhere and anywhere else, it was just in the middle of nowhere. Wealthy people from Manchester and Salford bought up land and built large Victorian villas ( Elderslie, Hornby Lodge etc ) on or near the new road.
Bury New Road also realigned Prestwich on a north-south axis. Previously there seems to have been a scatter of houses and farms and cottages. Bury New Road cut straight through it all, gave it a unifying theme and a “High Street” section.
Trams and their routes on both main roads through Prestwich also affected the march of bricks and mortar around the 1900s.
Following Public Health reforms in 1848 each County was required to set up Lunatic Asylums. Lancashire established three of them. The one serving Greater Manchester came to Prestwich in 1851. Part of the reason for choosing Prestwich was because it was still rural ; good air and country walks were part of the treament for lunacy in those days. Basically the Asylum / Hospital occupied the land of the historic Prestwich Wood estate bought from the Milnes family.
The next step came with the railway in 1879. After the railway was built vast swathes of housing grew up within easy reach of the four stations – Bowker Vale, Heaton Park, Prestwich and Besses o’th’ Barn. The Earl of Wilton also tried to sell Heaton Park at the same period, luckily there were no takers or that would have disappeared under housing.
Prestwich became an integral part of the Greater Manchester conurbation.
Its history is still of great interest though and there is much research to be done – in the Agecroft Deeds, the seventeenth century Inventories with the Wills and in the Drinkwater Deeds.
The places ending in “wich”
There are two areas where placenames end in “wich”.
1. Area 1 is a group of Mercian wichs starting at Droitwich in Worcestershire.
Prestwich is at the northern end of this group i.e “Prestwich” is a Mercian name probably from the mid tenth century.
The Mercian “wich” means a an enclosure or a place of work of some kind.
2. Area 2. The coastline of S.E. England has a string of ports ending “wich” e.g. Sandwich in Kent , Ipswich in Suffolk.
London itself was “Londonwich” in the eighth cenury and this south-east version of wich means “a trading place”.