Classical history relates to incidents or people of national or international status, but in the case of local history, the tapestry of past events is enriched by tales of a variety of characters who, for better or worse deeds, become a part of folklore. There follows a selection of tales relating to such 'notables', which we hope brings a touch of spice and enjoyment to our studies of times in Gorton's past.
Of a number of families who, as far back as the sixteenth century, adopted 'Gorton' for their surname, the offspring of one included Samuel, son of an emigrant to far-off Choriton, who was named Adam. Samuel was born in 1601 and at one time, must have lived in London, since he described himself as 'Citizen of London, clothier'. But Samuel ventured still further afield when, in 1636, he made the hazardous crossing to Boston, New England, in America. Like most of those early settlers, he appears to have been an intensely religious person, but with a troublesome and stubborn nature, which constantly involved him in religious disputes with his superiors. His establishment of a religious sect, which he modestly named 'The Gortonites', did not endear him to colleagues of more orthodox persuasion. Eventually, affairs reached a state in which flight was his one safe course - an option which he took in some haste with a journey which took him to Plymouth, New Jersey, where he arrived in 1637. In 1643, he purchased land from the Indians at Shawomet and shortly afterwards, he was arrested, as a result of quarreling with them. The following year saw him back in England where, somehow, he obtained the patronage of no less a person than the Earl of Warwick. With this support, he returned to the New World and promptly honoured his benefactor by renaming Shawomet 'New Warwick'. How many confrontations Samuel survived from thereon is not on record, but survive them he did, until his death in 1677, when he left a widow, six daughters and three sons, to propagate the Gorton lineage, in America.
Fortunes might be inherited, earned or result from sheer opportunism. John Gorton gained his capital by means of the latter.
In 1715 the uprising of the 'Old Pretender' culminated in confrontation at Preston, on November twelfth when two English generals, Carpenter and Wills led their army in successfully regaining the town from its recent and temporary conquerors, from Scotland. At the time, John Gorton was a miller's servant, nicknamed 'John-o-potbo' as a result of his habit of requesting 'some flour for a bo' from farmers, when he delivered their flour. 'Pot-ball' was a pudding, made with fine flour. Going about his business, when the Scots were advancing toward Preston, he saw a man secrete a large bundle in a stack of turves. John guessed that the man was hiding valuables, before the Scottish invasion. When it was safe to investigate, John found his assumption to be correct and on the dubious justification of 'finders, keepers', he appropriated the cache, amounting to a considerable sum of cash, whereupon he discreetly departed the area before the theft was detected.
In Manchester, John invested in a warehouse on Market Street. Later, he bought as much as he could of his namesake village as was possible, becoming the proud owner of Gorton Hall and estate, Chapel Farm, Towncroft Farm, Green Stile Farm and Bridge House Farm, all previously owned by the Byron family, since 1473. As it happened, the Byrons had for many years been in dispute with another branch of the Gorton family, who were tenant farmers in the locality. Contrary to the old adage that crime does not pay, our entrepreneur became a respected local landowner and served several times as a juror in the Manchester Courts Leets, between 1735 and 1757. He died in 1770, aged eighty, having fathered three sons, John, Robert and Thomas.
The eldest son, John, dwelt on in Gorton Hall enjoying an annual income of £2,20O from the rents of land and property. He was the archetypal country squire, often seen riding into Manchester with the bare-legged son of one of his tenants seated behind him. On arriving in Manchester, the boy served as messenger and footboy. Perhaps, though, some proverbial chickens did come home to roost. The Market Street warehouse, trading as 'John Gorton and Co', was seriously damaged by fire, resulting in uninsured losses amounting to £30,000
Brother Robert's life seems to have been uneventful, records revealing only that he married a Miss Margaret Wilkinson, resident of Manchester, in 1753. Perhaps he escaped the 'Judgement' by joining the many other Gorton wanderers?
Thomas, the third son of John senior, became a Salford merchant and in 1749 was one of the local businessmen who contributed £10 each toward subduing the Manchester food riots. On the death of his father, he inherited land in Gorton becoming a chapel-warden at St. Thomas's Church, Gorton and a trustee to the parsonage estate, in addition to his existing post as Boroughreeve of Salford. His success as a merchant is reflected in the gift of £20,000 to his son, Richard, on the occasion of that young man's coming of age, in 1774. Thomas is reported as saying to his son, "Now, Dick, thou'rt Gorton's Gorton".
Richard followed his father as Boroughreeve, chapel-warden and trustee, while still remaining resident in Salford. But yet again, perhaps the restitution of hell-fire, certainly a very genuine fire, struck the Gortons and this time, it proved fatal to their long run of good fortune. Richard had founded a silk business in Cupnall, near Nottingham. Shortly after opening, live coals fell from a coal-box onto the stair timbers and the resulting fire completely destroyed the premises and contents. Richard's subsequent losses, subsequent on his elder brother's earlier misfortune, brought the Gorton family to bankruptcy. All land and property holdings were auctioned in August, 1805 at the premises of Mr. Edward Stanney, known as the 'Horse and Jockey', Bottom o' the Brow ( now Far lane). The Gorton Hall estate was purchased by a Mr. Samuel Barker and the Chapel Farm was bought by Mr. Garner, of Cock Gates, upon whose death, it became the property of Mr. Francis Woodiwiss, of Manchester. Mary, wife of Francis, later donated the land on which the present Saint James' Church was erected in 1871. Her gift is commemorated in the wording carved on the reredos, beneath the East window.
Where now are Stanley Grove and the Annie Lee Playing Fields, was once Nearer (or Lower) Catsknoll Farm, owned for many years by the Oldham family. Nathaniel Oldham, known as 'old Natty', features interestingly, in Gorton's history. In 1787 there is a record of 'sundry expenses of £2. 13s, paid to account on the inquest on Sarah Birchinough. 'Old Natty' was in the 'George and Dragon' and when liquor loosened his tongue, the old man spoke semi-coherently, of his nephew having killed a woman. Consequently, inquiries were made into the death of Sarah Birchinough, of Prestbury, who had worked at Nearer Catsknoll Farm and been recently buried in Prestbury Parish churchyard. The body was exhumed and taken to Gorton, where a jury was assembled and learned that Miss Birchinough had been a jenny spinner, employed by Nathaniel and Josiah Oldham in their cotton spinning industry at Nearer Catsknoll. Evidently, her responsibilities were not confined to cotton spinning. She was fetching cows from the lower meadows and in the vicinity of the 'Cotton Billy' shed, she was teased by old Natty's nephew, Samuel Withington and fell backwards against some tubs, receiving injwies which caused her untimely death. The jury brought in a verdict of 'chance medley', that is, in modern terms, 'accidental death'. Her remains were first re-buried in Saint Thomas's churchyard, but later removed back to Prestbury. Records are skimpy, but the impression gained is that 'old Natty' was a simply, likeable old countryman, the eldest of three brothers. He died in 1804'
Josiah Oldham lived in a clay-floored cottage, adjacent to Whiteley, or Whitley Bridge, which crossed the Gore Brook near what is now Stanley Grove. He was said to be an ingenious man of inventive inclination. Adjacent to his cottage was a small wooden shed, which constituted his dye works. He also erected a larger wooden shed, near the brook and on the verge of the hamlet of Kirkmanshulme. In this he installed a cotton spinning machine, known as a 'cotton billy', which was powered by a water wheel, motivated by the brook. His older brother. Nathaniel, partnered him in the venture but unfortunately, it ultimately failed. Josiah died, aged 66, on February 2 1st., 1801.
The youngest of the Oldham brothers, Joseph, left the family farm to open a printing business in Cheadle. He was enterprising, but often his activities found him at variance with the law. He neglected to apply for a licence for his printing trade and several times contrived to outwit the soldiery and official gauger, who raided his premises., In the end, though, he was taken to the local equivalent of the 'Star Chamber'. The original court of this name had ceased years earlier, but the name persisted for a legal hearing, which was held in secret and without benefit ofjury. Luckily for him, Joseph managed to escape to Holland. Later, via Ireland, he returned to the Manchester area, virtually destitute and disguised as a female pedlar to escape the seekers of a £100 reward, placed on his head. He often hid in a false loft, in outbuildings of brother Nat's farm at Nearer Catsknoll and evidently succeeded in staying free until his death, aged 64, on November 16th., 1801. Maybe, by then, the authorities bad given up the search for Gorton's own 'Pimpernel'. It is a fact that he was respectfully interred, in the family plot, in the yard of the Dissenting Chapel, Gorton.
In 1799, the Oldhams also feature in the story of 'French Peter', a dyer who lived in a cottage close by their farm. The reputed Frenchman was a large man of around seventeen stones, but renowned as the archetypal 'gentle giant'. In the 'White Bear'. in Manchester, he was mocked about French losses, in recent engagements with British forces. His latent patriotism must have moved him to mild rebuke, for he replied “Ab, but your Prince came home from Valenciennes with his hands behind him”. This was reported as a slur on the Royal Family and poor Peter was consequently threatened with the full weight of what was euphemistically termed 'British justice'. It was suggested that if Peter apologised to the local legal representative, Justice Bailey, (I wonder if this was the original 'old Bailey'?) all would probably be forgiven. Peter did express his regret, explaining the provocation to which he had been subjected, but the judge was inflexible. He departed, saying to the judge, “If God Almighty has no more mercy on your soul at the last day, than you now have upon me, it will be dreadful for you”. A warrant for Peter's arrest was issued and Manchester's deputy constable, Marshall Knowles, with his under-deputy, Joseph Nadin, were sent to apprehend him. Nadin earned considerable notoriety, by his actions in the Peterloo Massacre, early the following century.
Seeing the approaching officers, the Oldhams urged Peter to flee and with great agitation, he did so, across the meadow toward Higher Catsknoll Farm (now Belle-Vue Greyhound Race-track) The tenant of that farm, Martha Higson, offered to hide him upstairs, but his distress and panic was too great to permit him to think clearly and he was seized near the garden hedge, by the officers. He was taken to the new Bailey prison and thence to York, where he was sentenced to banishment, that is, deportation. When he left, he wore a long waistcoat, in which he had managed to hide a few guineas, some of the fruits of his long and hard labouring in Gorton. But he was allowed no time to collect any accounts outstanding to him and consequent losses must have added to his suffering and sense of rejection by his adopted land.
'French Peter' continued to be held in such esteem, by his Gorton associates, that items of his furniture were preserved into the mid nineteenth century and attracted almost religious veneration.
In 1737, an ex-soldier lived in a cottage in Abbey Hey. He had served in the armies of both Queen Anne and George 1st and is remembered only as 'Strong Herod', a nick name given to him for reasons which shall become obvious, in the course of this narrative. Herod was born out of wedlock, to one of the Ryder family, remembered today by the street-name, Ryder Brow, once known as 'Winning Hill', the place at which the tide turned against the Danes, in the ancient battle which gave Gorton its name. This site of mediaeval celebration included property of the Ryders, who were then prominent farmers.
Herod was a large child who blossomed into a very large man, serving in the army with distinction and performing many dating deeds of valour which, when he reached more advanced years, earned him a pension. This enabled him to rent his little cottage, with some land, where he settled into a peaceful retirement. It was said that his strength was such that he could take his entire harvest of grain, for milling in Manchester, drawing the cartload himself, without the aid of a horse. Returning likewise and completing the journey in each direction without stopping. The total distance was in excess of six miles. Herod could also carry three sacks of flour at a time, one under each arm and the other carried by holding the sack-string between his teeth. For a wager, he once undertook to carry a similar burden on his back, for a distance of some five miles, from Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne. However, exhaustion forced him to give up at Audenshaw, about one and a half miles short of his destination. Happily, those who had wagered against him were so impressed that they paid up, irrespective of his failure to complete the specified distance.
In later years, he restricted his demonstrations of strength to what was termed the 'Dead Man's Lift', performed usually in the 'George and Dragon'. This exercise required Herod to lie prone on his back, on the floor and rise to a standing position, lifting a grown man in the process, to a position above his head. The landlord of the George and Dragon was a portly gent named John Gee. Rashly the landlord challenged Herod to raise him in this manner. Unfortunately, the ex-soldier chose an unfortunate spot for this act and comprehensively impaled Mr. Gee on a spit which hung from the ceiling. An inquest was held to consider the landlord's untimely end and Herod was greatly relieved when they reached a verdict of 'chance medley', which we would nowadays describe as 'accidental death'. No further record of feats of strength by 'Strong Herod' are on record. Perhaps he found a safer way of earning tankards of ale from admiring spectators.
In addition to 'Strong Herod', other persistent imbibers of Gorton's local brew were wont to perform outlandish acts in encouraging a supply of free liquor. One such was 'Old Burgess', known more appropriately as 'Drunken Burgess'.
In 1787, the main Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne road was straightened and paved. In the process, an ancient thatched house was demolished which was reputed to stand on or near the site of the old Openshaw parsonage. Probably this would refer to that belonging to Saint Barnabas's church, since the Openshaw parish of Saint Clements did not exist at that time. Previous occupants of the old cottage had been frequently disturbed by what was then termed 'fierin', an old name for 'haunting'. Often mysterious and inexplicable noises had been heard and indelible, dark stains on one wall and on the floor were said to be blood. The stains on the wall, it was said, persisted even through several coats of limewash.
During the demolition of this property, human remains were discovered, by none other than the aforesaid 'Drunken Burgess', who was working on the site as a labourer. Rumour bad it that the bones were those of the victim of a murder, committed in the old house, which had been hidden there to escape detection. Some older villagers recollected the sudden disappearance of a man who had resided at Hope's Farm, in Gorton. It had been assumed that he had left the district, but now it seemed likely that his departure and the restless bones were linked. After an inquest, the remains were shallowly buried in Saint Thomas's chapel-yard, by the sexton, a Mr. Grimshaw and in the presence of Burgess. Across the road from Saint Thomas's church was the 'George and Dragon'. For wagers, 'Drunken Burgess' would stagger across to the chapel-yard, open the shallow grave and return with the skull, to the pub, where he would use it as a tankard for his free ale. Mr. Grimshaw came to hear of Burgess's exploits and the drunkard was severely admonished. The remains were once more re-buried, in a location unkown to 'Drunken Burgess' and a good six feet down. After which, one assumes that even the bones had had enough. At least there are no more reports of their peace being disturbed, thereafter. But who knows in the future, in this age of mechanical diggers?
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