From Newton Road to Carr Mill Road there was once an open expanse of farmland know as London Fields. An old village superstition held that on dark and windy nights a pack of ghostly hounds might be heard baying there, above the howl of wind through swaying branches, as the moon scudded across a cloudy sky. I never heard the hounds though I often worried about them as my grandfather walked me home in the stormy autumn evenings at the edge of my memory. My first conception of death, however, occurred in London Fields. It concerned the year two thousand, which is now almost upon us.
Though I remember the event with total clarity I cannot fit it exactly into time. I was too young. As near as I can estimate I would have been eight years old. In my embryonic mentality I was trying to come to terms with the concept of time as it relates to the passing years. London Fields is intersected by Garswood Road, in which, if one looks carefully, the old cobble roadway is depressed by the passage of laden coal wagons from years gone by. Just before my grandfather and I reached this intersection, it occurred to me that, one day, it might become the year two thousand. So I asked my grandfather if that were the case, would it actually someday be two thousand? He affirmed. I was simultaneously astonished and delighted. It was as if I’d discovered, quite unaided, the secret knowledge of the universe hidden in the power of numbers. Almost overcome by the immensity of this discovery I blurted,
“Granddad, I wish it was two thousand.”
“It will come one day Joe but I won’t be here.”
“I will have been dead a long time by then.”
Then it hit me. Just as somewhere, back in the countless aeons, the inevitability of death must have dawned in the evolving mind of man, so too I realised, in the shattering confrontation with enlightenment, that my grandfather would die. Had he lived to the turn of the millennium he would have been one hundred and twenty-two years old.
Some two hundred years ago, Edward Taylor married a girl called Hester. They were my great, great, great, great grandparents, presumably born around 1769; the year James Watt’s patented the steam engine. The days of England’s predominately agricultural economy were numbered. The Industrial Revolutions was on its way. The appalling poverty and degradation into which the working class of rural Lancashire would be plunged didn’t become apparent until the publication of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842. The record says that their wedding took place in Winstanley but where in Winstanley I cannot imagine. Their dates of birth and Hester’s maiden name are unknown to me at present, perhaps they always will be. Records only go back so far and then become hazy. The parents of this couple may well have witnessed Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, march by their homes at the head of the last Jacobite army in December 1745. They may even have been sympathetic; after all they were Catholic at a time when there weren’t many Catholics in the area. Years of religious persecution had seen to that. In 1717 only ten out of one hundred and ninety-eight families in Billinge were listed as being Papist. Unfortunately for Catholic supporters, the Highlanders grew afraid in unfamiliar flat terrain as they ran out of hills in the Midlands. With the English armies overseas and London there for the taking, they turned back to face ultimate disaster at Culloden in 1746. England remained Protestant. In the backlash of that near catastrophe, Catholic persecution intensified domestically and terror was unleashed against the Scottish Highlanders. It may have been some small consolation that Protestant England had to finally concede to Pope Gregory’s reformed calendar of 1558 by dropping the eleven days from September 3-13 in 1752. Catholic emancipation would not happen until 1829.
Edward and Hester Taylor’s first recorded child was William, born 14th December, in the dreadful winter of 1794, as England’s troops fled across the frozen wastes of Holland1 before the ravaging Jacobin army of France, spawned by the Revolution, at the outbreak of what would evolve into the Napoleonic Wars. The following month, one third of the expeditionary force of 18,000 would perish in four days as the retreat disintegrated into chaos. William was the eldest of a large family, the other children being James, Edward, John, Margaret, Thomas, Henry, Joseph and Peter, the youngest, born 28th October 1811, a year in which Luddite disturbances were recorded in Yorkshire - the effects of the Industrial Revolution were not pleasing everyone.
There was no official Catholic Church at Birchley until 1828 so William was not married at St. Mary’s. I can’t find a record of his marriage at St. Aidan’s either. Maybe he got married at Birchley Hall. There had been a clandestine chapel there since 1618. The events centred on the Catholic Anderton family’s occupation of Birchley Hall, from its purchase by Christopher Anderton in 1558 to the death of Sir Francis Anderton in 1770, are probably the most historically significant occurrences in Billinge history. That recorded history goes back to the Angles settling the area around 550 AD. The Celts would have been there before the Angles but they left no trace. The Roman Road, running north to Hadrian’s Wall, ran through Warrington, Wigan and Preston. There was also a Roman Road from Manchester to Wigan. They mined some iron ore and coal at Orrell but they probably left Billinge alone. Who knows what went on in Billinge before the Romans came?
Wherever and whenever the marriage took place, William Taylor married Joan Fairhurst some time around 1820. The village must still have been reeling from news of the nearby Peterloo Massacre and George IV had just ascended to the throne. Their second child, Esther, born 28th May 1822, was my great, great grandmother2. William died 12th June 1873 aged 78, the year Gladstone’s government resigned and Disraeli rose to ascendance. There is a record of baptism for Joan, 19th February 1797, but I have not been able to trace any record of her burial. Her parents are recorded as William and Helen Fairhurst. They, like William’s parents, Edward and Hestor Taylor, are too far back for me to trace accurately at this time.
Esther Taylor is my direct ancestor. She was born as famine gripped Ireland and gave birth to Robert 18th May 1842, Alicia 29th January 1847 and Thomas 19th April 1853. These three children took their mother’s name otherwise the Taylor name would not have been handed down to my grandfather, father, and ultimately to me. Esther then married William Harrison, probably in 1854/55, the time of the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade. St. Mary’s marriage records begin in 1856. She subsequently gave birth to six more children, including twins.3 The last child was born two months short of her forty-fourth birthday. She was residing in Fair View when she died, 5th January 1907, four months short of her 85th birthday. The Anglo-Russian Entente was signed in that year, as Europe manoeuvred into armed alliances that would culminate with World War One and decimate the young men of Europe. Her grandson, James, would be a victim.
Thomas Taylor, Esther’s second son, started work at the age of eight, sometime around 1861. He always remembered his uncles taking him to work that first morning, in the freezing dark, and told his son, Francis, about it. Francis, my grandfather told me. It had been snowing. His uncles had to lift him over the snowdrifts because his legs were too short. That he eventually became involved in the miners’ union is all that his grandson, my father, knows about him. The history of the many district unions and various amalgamations of them, within the coal industry, is both complex and intriguing. Unions were legally suppressed in 1799 and not legalised until 1825, following the Peterloo Massacre. In constant dispute with coal owners and capitalists, union fortunes fluctuated as regularly as the weather. There was a serious local incident in October 1874 when 500 strikers fought with 200 strikebreakers outside the Ram’s Head in Haydock. That was but one of countless incidents that typify the bitter class struggle that few Billingers could have been exempt from. I have been so far unable to ascertain with certainty my great grandfather’s involvement with the union movement, other than it cost him his job. He led a strike at Bold Colliery, where he was employed as a checkweighman, and was subsequently blacklisted from further employment in the local coal industry. He married Sara, daughter of Frank Cunliffe, 29th August 1875, the year Disraeli’s second government bought shares giving England control of the Suez Canal until the fiasco of the 1956 Suez Crisis.4 They ran a shop and outdoor licence on the corner of Rainford Road until their liquor licence was revoked for serving someone with the hair of the dog on a Sunday morning. Eleanor, the youngest daughter, loved to work in that shop. She could judge an ounce of thick twist tobacco by wrapping it around her hand. When Gertrude married Christopher Nulty in 1914, her father’s union involvement was remembered and Christopher was dismissed from his position as a checkweighman at one of Lord Gerard’s collieries.
The register says my great grandfather, Thomas Taylor, died suddenly 17th March 1916 aged 52 but that is incorrect. If he was born 19th April 1853 he must have been 62. On that morning Thomas took Jack, his dog, for a walk and died sitting under a tree down the bottom of Shaley Brow with his hand in his pocket, still through the dog’s lead. They had to bring my grandfather to free the dog, which wouldn’t let anyone approach its dead master. My dad knows the spot so hopefully I can find it myself with his assistance. Eighteen months later, Thomas’s son, James, then a thirty-two year old corporal in the 114th Company of the Machine Gun Corps, was killed in action. It happened on the night of 31August or the morning of 1st September 1917.
Thomas Taylor’s wife, Sara nee Cunliffe, died on the 27th of November1918, aged 63. She must have been born in 1854 but there is no record of baptism in the St. Mary’s registry. The Cunliffes were also Catholics. My father remembers his great uncle, Frank Cunliffe, working as a wheelwright at the smithy in Rainford Road, opposite Gazing Row, where the chemist and bakery shops now stand. He remembers this Frank Cunliffe making trundles for him and his younger brother and taking him fishing at Carr Mill Dam.
In those days there were gorse, broom, and blackberry bushes growing in the centre of the arches. My father could only just see over the parapet. In that part of Carr Mill Dam, between the arches and Carr Mill Road, Bronze Bream used to spawn in season and could be caught only at that time of the year. When somebody was lucky enough to hook one, the other anglers would lift their tackle from the water so the person playing a bream could walk along to the end of the arches and net the fish on the bank. My father remembers his great uncle as being a good fisherman. The records show that this Francis Cunliffe married Mary Taylor at St. Mary’s on February 14th 1900, a year before Victoria died. Their grandson, John Cunliffe, still lives at the top of Claremont Road.
Francis Cunliffe’s father, another Francis, is named as the father of Sara in the record of her marriage to Thomas Taylor, 29th August 1876, the year Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Unfortunately her mother is not named. There is a record of this Francis Cunliffe marrying Mary Derbyshire 5th February 1856.5 There is a record of John, born eleven months later and nine other children. Three of these children were christened Francis. The first Francis lived for two months and the second survived for seven months. The last of this family’s three sons named Francis Cunliffe is the great uncle Frank my father remembers. The 1861 census shows his father, Francis Cunliffe, then aged 28, was living with his wife Mary, aged 24, and two children, Sara aged 5 and John aged 4.
My great grandmother, Sara Taylor, was therefore the daughter of Francis Cunliffe and Mary Derbyshire but she was born before they married. I can find no record of her baptism. The parents of this Francis Cunliffe were Jonathan and Mary Cunliffe who would have been Sara’s grandparents, my great, great, great grandparents, born around 1800. There is no record of Francis Cunliffe being baptised around 1830 at St. Mary’s. Perhaps he, like James Gaskell & Thomas Wilcock, came to Billinge from outside. On July 22nd 1837, the same year that Victoria started her long reign, his wife, Mary Derbyshire, was however baptised at St. Mary’s. Her parents were Peter and Helen Derbyshire. Peter Derbyshire was born 14th March1816. His parents were James and Margaret nee Foster. Go back far enough and we Billingers are all related but it’s hard to sort out just how. Francis Cunliffe and his wife Mary nee Derbyshire are therefore my great, great grandparents. They ran the Labour-in-Vain before their son-in-law James McLoughlin. Ann was James’s first wife. She died 26th December 1901at the age of thirty, after giving birth to the last of her four children, Beatrice Irene, who died eight months after her mother. James McLoughlin remarried Elizabeth Maxwell, a teacher at Birchley School who came from Liverpool. This couple had three more children and also managed the George & Dragon then the Unicorn.
Sara Taylor worked at Pilkington’s; doing a job that became redundant with the introduction of the float glass process. Women were employed to continuously lift fifty-six pound weights on and off glass sheets as they were being polished. Consequentially, the women doing this job developed muscles like cannonballs. One of Sara’s sisters could put her arm through the handles of two fifty-six pound weights, pick up a third and walk away with all three on one arm. My grandfather remembered her doing that for a bet, walking from the Brown Cow to Labour-in-Vain. His mother was not quite so strong but strong enough. She once struck at him with a rolling pin but missed, hitting the doorframe and breaking the rolling pin. If the blow had landed it would have killed him. He might have deserved it. He’d almost frightened his younger sister, Eleanor, to death by hiding in one of the coffins, made by his Uncle Frank, which was drying in front of the fire in a room behind the shop in Rainford Road. When his little sister came into the room, skipping round the coffin, he slowly raised the lid from inside, moaning as he did so. Little Eleanor went into hysterics.
Mary, the eldest child of Thomas & Sara Taylor, never married. She became the headmistress at Birchley Infants School, would have been 39 when her father died and just turned 42 when her mother passed away, leaving her head of the remaining family. Her eldest brother, Francis, had been married ten years by then. Gertrude had been married two years. James had died in action one year previously. Aloysius 18, Thomas 22, Eleanor 24 and maybe Lawrence 31, would still be living at 94 Rainford Road. Incidentally, that house was built in 1908. Polly, as she would always be known, would one day own it. Eventually she would sell it to William, the third son of her brother Francis.
There is mention of Thomas and Ellen Hill, publicans, living at 94 Rainford Road in the 1891 census so that was, possibly, one of the two cottages that stood next to the Brown Cow. More likely it was the Brown Cow. This Thomas Hill was the son of the famous ‘Our Nell’s Jack,’ the champion speed skater, who became a Billinge legend in the winter of 1879 by winning 23 straight races against all comers on Carr mill Dam. The year that Jack Hill was demolishing the skating pride of England the Zulus were spearing British troops at Isandhlwana, our troops butchered the Zulus at Ulundi and in the tiny Georgian town of Gori, Stalin was born. In that same year at least one son of Billinge was doing his bit for Queen and Country. Henry Lowe from Long Fold was fighting with the 63rd Regiment of Foot on the Northwest Frontier. He came home From the Khyber Pass wounded then went back to work down the pit6. The Pathan tribesmen couldn’t kill him but the coal mine probably did.
Our Nell’s Jack merited a chapter in ‘The Billingers’. Here, with permission of the author, that chapter is reproduced in full.
OUR NELL’S JACK
In the year 1879, England was hit by the Big Frost and Carr Mill Dam, near Billinge, froze over for four whole months. It was a big year for Billinge, for it is the only time on record that a Billinger rocketed to national fame.
Jack Hill, who was later to become the licensee of the “Brown Cow” Inn at the top of the Rant, was then a young man of nineteen. Born on the 20th of October 1860, he had been a speedy skater since boyhood and at the time of the Frost he was currently being proclaimed champion skater of all Lancashire. This claim was disputed by many, but it was true that Jack had never been beaten since growing to man’s stature. In 1879 these controversies were to be settled beyond all doubt.
Carr Mill Dam is a deep and treacherous stretch of water both in summer and winter, but at the time of the Big Frost the ice was so thick that it was quite safe for large numbers of people to go on it without fear of any kind of accident. Shops, coffee-wagons and toffee stalls were set up out the ice and skating matches were held nearly every day in front of thousands of spectators. People flocked on from Wigan, St. Helens, Prescot, Liverpool and Southport and contestants and their supporters soon began to arrive from other counties. Such was the wintry splendour of the scene and the excitement of the competition that it was not long before important skating matches involving very high stakes were being promoted. In the thick of this rivalry, betting, argument and prize-winning was the young local hero skating under his Billinge nickname of Our Nell’s Jack, taking on all comers from the many corners of England, and still the fastest man on the ice.
In the first two or three weeks, Jack cleaned all the local opposition, which consisted of the best skaters from the South Lancs coalfield. Some of these he beat by half the length of the course.
In the second month, his claim to the Lancashire title was put to the test as he encountered local champions from Southport, Formby, Kendal, Nelson and so on. Some of these men were bigger than Jack and all of them wore fancier outfits, but none of them was able to finish within yards of him.
Excitement mounted as he was matched with the renowned Jack Highcock from Windermere, who it was reputed, had never been bested. That day nobody would bet on Our Nell’s Jack except Billingers. Highcock got off to a good start and at one stage was leading by sufficient a gap to wave to some of his admirers, but Jack clenched his fists tight and overhauled him in the second half to their tilt to skate in with five yards to spare and his Lancashire title now recognized by all. In the third month, they produced champions from all corners of the realm. Jack beat the Midlands champion with fifteen yards to spare and the champion of East Anglia by nearly thirty. He thrashed the champions of Cheshire and Derbyshire on the same day and skated past the Cumberland Number One after he had fallen on his nose at the start.
For every victory Jack chalked up, he received a gleaming cup or trophy, which increased in size and splendour as the skates and gate money went up. People would pack the saloon at the “Brown Cow” after the day’s events to see the trophies, which were on display behind the bar. Business had never been so good, for not only were strangers attracted by the exhibition of the fine cups, but the Billingers soon were rolling in money from their betting activities and they were not slow to buy drinks for the losers as well as for their friends and themselves.
By now, Billingers could size up a visiting skater like other men size up a boxing prospect or an up-and- coming racehorse. They would observe him as he put on his skates and fastened up his tunic, quietly assess litheness of movement and visible muscle, watch him practice on the ice before the match and finally decide for themselves the odds they would give or take. Most of them put their money on Jack and he rewarded their faith in him by winning consistently. All the big names finished behind him - Mannion, Gee, Brookfield, Gaffney, Daft Duck, Balmer, the West Leigh crack - counting only the big matches Jack won 22 victories in a row and still the ice on Carr Mill Dam held up the shops, stalls and the crowds.
People began to realise that the young lad never would be beaten. But there was one man he had not met. The champion of Lincolnshire was a formidable skater with the enigmatic name of Fish Smart. Though he had not been up to Lancashire, Fish Smart had never been beaten on ice and he claimed to be champion of All England. By this time, Our Nell’s Jack’s fame had spread as far afield as London itself and gaming and betting men both in the North and in the South began to get interested in staging a match between the two champions.
Fish Smart was an excellent and experienced skater who had actually written a book on skating and had even competed with foreigners abroad. It was inconceivable that he could be beaten by this young Billinge novice. There were some who argued that it would be no real match and that it would not be worthwhile for Smart to make the journey up North. By the time Jack had won 22 matches straight and Start’s backers were forced to accept the challenge, the ice in the South was getting soft. There was one obvious venue for the match, where large crowds, heavy betting and thick ice could all be guaranteed-Carr Mill Dam.
And so it was. Fish Smart and his managers were met by a brass band at Wigan station and driven in style by pony and trap to Billinge. A special lunch was laid on at the “Brown Cow” during which it was observed that Fish was a short, stocky figure in his late twenties with thick, black hair, dark complexion and beady, intelligent eyes. He had a trim waist and strong, muscular calves. The next day, December 28th, 1879, saw the ice black with people. Fish and Jack had each had a twenty-minute work out on the ice and were stripping down to their racing tunics. Bets had been placed hours before. One woman had bought flour and baked bread the previous day to sell and raise money for her stake. A farmer had sold two of his pigs to increase his betting capital and Emily Baines, the landlady of the George and Dragon, had bet a horse and trap on the result. Large sums of southern money put on Fish Smart half an hour before the start of the race made Billingers wonder if they had been made fools of.
The match was over four hundred yards. A dark cloud passed over the wintry sun and, as the shadow spread quickly over the ice, the sharp crack of the pistol sent the two champions sprinting away. Jack had won the toss for choice of sides, but Fish, like Highcock before him, had faster reflexes than Jack and was two yards ahead after the first few seconds. This was the only advantage he was able to gain, however, and the gap neither widened nor narrowed as Jack matched him lunge for lunge, with five hundred Billingers screaming at him in the dialect he knew so well.
At the halfway mark he clenched his fists in the old familiar way and pulled up to the shoulder of the Lincoln champion. Smart, however, had been waiting for the psychological moment when the Billinger, having exhausted himself by making up those two vital yards, could be crushed by a sudden counter- sprint on the part of his opponent. For a moment Fish glanced sideways at Jack, noted the lad’s contorted face and bursting lungs, then suddenly put his head down and made his own supreme effort, mustering up all the speed that his hardened body and smooth technique afforded him. Jack lost a yard, then another; Billingers choked with disappointment as the gap widened and Jack seemed to lose his rhythm.
The Billinge skater, with the pulverized ice from Smart’s skates showering and cutting his face, felt for the first time that winter the humiliation of being behind. The stream of ice, however, meant that he was still within striking distance, so he pressed his head even lower and kept his eyes glued to Smart’s flashing heels as they entered the last stretch. Imperceptibly, Jack edged towards his rival and then the crowd shouted hoarsely as daylight could no longer be seen between the two men. Some say that Fish had made his bid five seconds too soon and flagged in the last few yards. Others say that Jack just skated past him in the frenzy normal to any Billinger who was about to be humiliated by a stranger in front of five hundred of his fellow villagers. At any rate, he won by six inches to a foot, which gave him 23 straight victories in 1879. Billinge, for the first and only time on its history, had a Champion of England. The ice broke soon afterwards and in following years was much thinner and unsuitable for big matches. Fish Smart never came again.
Thomas and Sara Taylor are listed in 1891 as living at 28 Rainford Road. That would have been the shop on the corner of Rainford and Birchley Roads. Mary, then 15, was living with her grandmother, Mary Cunliffe, at 234 Main Road. Francis, Esther, James, Lawrence and Gertrude were still living at home. I have no doubt that my great grandfather witnessed the triumphs of ‘Our Nell’s Jack’ with great interest. He had been the champion’s first serious opponent. The entire village would have been at Jack Hill’s important races. Fifteen to twenty thousand were there the day he beat Fish Smart. For the next few generations, the young sports of Billinge would try to emulate him. My grandfather and his brothers skated - my father and his brothers likewise. Jack Hill’s son, Thomas, also skated in money matches. A man called Highcock from Haydock beat him, at least twice, at Sefton Meadows. Tom Hill’s sister, Alice, married Tom Fairhurst. Their daughter, Helen, married my mother’s uncle, John Roby. She still lives in Newton Road, now almost ninety years old. The best skater in my father’s time was another Billinger, Jimmy Lomax, a few years younger than Tom Hill. Jimmy Lomax won what money matches could be arranged for him but soon frightened off all opposition.
Skating at Carr Mill Dam could be dangerous. There are a number of springs in the lake that kept the ice above them from forming. The locals would stick a bush in the water to indicate the danger. My grandfather, his brother Aloysius and my father were all skating at Carr Mill Dam when someone skated into one of these holes and drowned. On another occasion a dog belonging to Peter Green, a friend of my grandfather, went through thin ice at that part of the dam know as The Gunnel. The water was shallow there so Peter took his shirt off and jumped in to rescue the dog. Peter, the youngest brother of a large family of top class football players, dried himself on his shirt and carried on skating. His only son, Joe Green, drowned as a thirteen-year-old, in a lake left by opencast mining, near the Hollin-Hey Bridge. He was trying to rescue the younger Michael Barton, another only child, who slipped down the steep clay bank into the water and also drowned that day. I was there when the police dragged Michael from the murky brown water. Rigor mortis had stiffened his body into an unnatural shape and his hair was plastered to his crown like that painted on the head of my sister’s old doll. The sight of this body so disturbed me that I avoided seeing another cadaver until work in a New Zealand hospital morgue left no option. Most of the Billingers of my generation will remember where they were on 1st August 1958 when news of that tragedy shattered the village. Alan Littler7, who lived at 68 Claremont Road, wrote these words in a letter, more than forty years after the event.
That day I'd arranged to meet Joe with Billy Melling to go to ‘The Lost Lake’ but Ma made me go to Wigan for a pair of shoes and Billy cried off too. When we came back, I was looking in the mirror over our fireplace when I heard Sally Baybutt next door tell my mother. I'll never forget the look on my face as long as I live. Sally didn't know if it was Peter Green's Joe or Joe Green's Peter – but I did. I just sank to my knees crying, "Not Joe, not Joe". I will never forget it - he was one of my best mates. I was amazed that Michael was with him – he never went there with us before - as you know he wasn't the full quid and Joe always felt responsible for him.
As the years progressed and the winters grew milder ice-skating became a memory. Carr Mill Dam was rarely safe for skating in my time. I remember skating once, as a ten-year -old, between the arches and the dam hollows, where the bronze-bream used to spawn, but by the time I was a teenager it was unusual to find a large area safe enough to ice skate upon. Maybe five years later, my father took me skating at Wrightington Fishponds, where the shallower water froze more readily. He mentioned his Aunt Cecily living close by. At the time I took no notice, I was too intent on skating. I can’t remember the deep part of Carr Mill Dam ever holding. The legend of Our Nell’s Jack will never be challenged, though Jimmy Lomax would probably have given him a run for his money. Jimmy’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Gilbert Potter and they still live in Holt Crescent. They are great grandparents now and the champion’s ice-skates are still in the family.
Mary Taylor was always known as Polly (as her eldest niece, Mary, first child of her brother Francis and his wife Helen, would always been known as Molly). My father remembers his Aunt Polly as being bossy and clever, just like his sister Molly. Margaret Nulty, Gertrude’s youngest daughter, remembers visiting at Moss Bank, where Polly then lived with her youngest brother Aloysius and his wife Margaret Mary. She remembers Polly answering the door to Gertrude and four of her children by asking when they were leaving. Gertrude answered that they were leaving right then and did so. Margaret does not have fond memories of her eldest aunt. In her mind Polly treated Aloysius’s wife, Margaret, as if she were a servant and that she looked down on women, like Gertrude, who had large families. Polly lived to be 86, passing away 8th June 1962. She certainly looks severe in the few photographs that I have of her and is reminiscent, to me, of my Aunt Molly. My Aunt Molly was unquestionably the most formidable woman I ever met.
Esther Taylor married Dick Beesley. I haven’t found the marriage record yet but Dick and his two sisters were orphans from Greenfield. The sisters were put into service and Dick was farmed out to a local family and took the name Beesley from them. Esther was a seamstress and ran a small sewing business from a stone cottage that stood immediately before the Mason’s Arms, going down Carr Mill Road. Coincidentally another lady, Miss Bolton, ran a sewing business directly across the road in the stone cottage still standing there. When she died Bill Kearsley moved in with his wife Annie nee Parr. Esther and Dick moved from there to Chadwick Farm, where Marsh Grounds dip just before joining Carr Mill Road. Marsh Grounds is now a housing estate. Few of its inhabitants have ever heard mention of Chadwick Farm. My father remembers Dick Beesley fondly. He used to take him fishing to Carr Mill Dam. Dick was always a horse person. He worked for the redoubtable Dean Powell, priest at St Mary’s Birchley 1872 - 1910, as a groom8. In Dean Powell’s will there is provision for an annuity of ten pounds to be paid to his housekeeper, Anne Beesley. It seems probably that it was she who took in Dick from Greenfield and gave him his name. Dean Powell’s will also stipulates that an annuity of ten pounds be paid to his manservant. This person is unnamed but it is almost certainly Dick Beesley.
Dean Powell often figured in my grandfather’s stories. His regular visits to Birchley School, as recalled by my grandfather, had not been occasions for pupils to relish. In my childhood insecurity, I was pleased that he was no longer around. There is a short chapter about Dean Powell in ‘The Billingers’, which I will here reproduce in full, again with the kind permission of the author.
One of the best characters on Old Billinge, the Rev. Austin Powell, was not born in the village, but became Pastor of Birchley in 1872 and stayed there nearly thirty years until his death in1910. His importance as a Billinge figure lies not only in the fact that he was for so long a pillar of the Catholic community, shaping the lives of all those connected with St. Mary’s and Birchley Schools, but also in the way he provided a living link between the village at the time of his ministry and the ancient traditions of Billinge stretching back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
He was fully aware of his historical role as the latest in an unbroken line of priests serving at Birchley since Roger Anderton’s ordination in 1645. The significance of the pre-Civil War Birchley operation, the centuries of struggle to follow, the crises during his own ministry, all gave him a tremendous feeling for the continuity of history and great affection for the old Hall, the rugged village and its sturdy people. There is little doubt that Austin Powell considered himself to be the Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time.
It would have been hard to fine a better-educated or more erudite leader. Born in 1842 near Liverpool, he was sent to St. Edward’s College, Everton at the age of ten, where he studied for six years. There followed a 3-year course at St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, after which he went to the English College at Rome, where Roger Anderton had studied more than two hundred years earlier. He pursued philosophical and theological studies for a further six years under the learned Jesuit theologians Ballerini and Franzelin. There were 30 other English students in the College and he himself was delighted with his sojourn in Rome. His own description of the city not only shows his enthusiasm for life, but also the richness of his vocabulary and imagination.
“Is there a man with the least spark of sensibility- be he Christian or Pagan- who would not like it? Obliterate Rome from the pages of history, and what would the annals of the world amount to? How like Rome? - with its hoary memories of king and consul, emperor and pope- with its ruins rich with the fable, the romance, the tragedy, the comedy, and the passions, the vicissitudes of 26 centuries-with its priceless art treasures on canvas or in marble- with its three hundred churches, each more noble than the other, culminating in St. Peter’s- with its palaces, gardens, villas, fountains? I think it must have been Rome that inspired in me my love of antiques”
In the year 1866 he was ordained priest by Cardinal Patrizzi and ordered to Pro-Cathedral, Copperas Hill, in Liverpool. He remained there for two years, then spent three years at Newhouse before taking over Birchley a few months after his 30th birthday. He was already a man of the world. Apart from the experience gained from his travels, learning and profession, he came from a well-to-do family and quickly showed his abilities as a businessman. He had already bought a plot of land at Catforth and erected schools costing eight hundred pounds. He had a hand in the building of the Sacred Heart Church in St. Helens and one year after his settlement in Birchley he made an investment of two thousand pounds in a plot of land at Rainford (and this in competition with the local bigwigs at an auction) which, on account of coal mines beneath it, realised a profit sufficient for the erection of a presbytery. He financed further purchases of land at West Leigh and Plank Lane, where more churches were built. By 1889, when our three St. Helens newspapermen arrived on their fact-finding mission concerning the impending sale of Birchley Estate, Father Powell was too old a hand in such manners not to know how to manoeuvre the Catholic community out of the crisis.
He told the journalists that when Lord Gerard’s agent had informed him that a bid of ten thousand pounds had been made for Birchley Hall and Estate on condition that the schools were moved elsewhere, he had been greatly perturbed. Not only would it be difficult and inconvenient to relocate the schools, but there were the sacred associations of the Hall itself. He lost no time in writing to his Bishop, suggesting that he should purchase Birchley, but as a second string to his bow, he approached John Middlehurst, a local Catholic, with the proposal that he (Powell) and Middlehurst buy the estate together at once. Middlehurst was immediately willing to buy the greater portion- the 172 acres surrounding the Hall- and Father Powell arranged to take over the land- 25 acres continuous to the presbytery. Without further ado they submitted a joint bid of nine thousand, four hundred pounds (Middlehurst’s share was nine thousand pounds to Lord Gerard. Austin Powell declared that this was a much better bid than the one of ten thousand pounds made by the mysterious Protestant. On being asked how this could be, he pointed out that it would cost two thousand pounds to remove the schools- as the new building would have to be put up before the old one came down- and Lord Gerard would therefore get only eight thousand pounds clear from the first offer.
Father Powell was pleased to inform the representatives of the “St. Helens Lantern” that his offer had been accepted and that the Catholic association with the Hall, Chapel and Presbytery would now be able to run on unhindered. He pointed out, of course, that the Chapel was now purely of sentimental value to the Church, since the construction of St. Mary’s in 1828 had provided them with a proper place for their services. In connection with one of the newspapermen’s querying the initial cost of the building St. Mary’s, Father Powell had another interesting tale to tell. It appeared that Sir William Gerard, who had died in 1826, gave eight thousand pounds to be apportioned between Ashton and Birchley, two thousand pounds to go to each for a church and presbytery, and another two thousand pounds to each as an endowment. The trustees, who were laymen, started on the Ashton church first and when it was finished they found it had somehow absorbed seven thousand pounds out of the eight thousand pounds, so Birchley had to be satisfied with about one thousand pounds. The Rev. John Penswick- the priest then in charge- managed to scrape together another four hundred pounds; therefore one thousand four hundred pounds had been the original cost of the church.
“So, practically, Ashton owes Birchley three thousand pounds,” asked one of the journalists. “Yes,” laughed Father Powell, “that’s how the matter stands, but when, if ever, restitution will be made is a different thing altogether.”
It seemed that Austin Powell frequently made a good impression on newspapermen. This was already apparent in 1872- the year he came to Billinge- when he was interviewed by “Atticus” of the “Preston Chronicle”
“Mr. Powell is medium in build, light in complexion, with a calm, cool, irenic temperament; he takes things easily with equilibrium, has a well-trained mind, which can discourse of any ordinary subject, in religion of literature; is gentlemanly and scholarly, and yet free from hauteur and pedantry; has an ancient head on young shoulders; has seen so much, and knows the ways of the world well; can preach a sound and sensible sermon, and can hit off the defects of sinners to a nicety; has in him a quiet, keenly-edged wit and a genial, deeply set vein of humour; once tamed an eagle, and can bring all the sparrows to his doorstep by a good whistle; is generous in disposition, and devoid of everything in the shape of narrow-mindedness; discharges his priestly functions quietly and comfortably, and avoids all meddling, earwigging, and corner cupboard hunting- tricks which some spiritual advisers are very proficient in.”
With all these qualities, he was able to handle the Billingers (and not many outsiders could manage that). There are many Billingers still alive who remember him very well. He could be as tough and as eccentric as they were and he quickly gained the respect not only of his flock, but of the Protestants as well. They all knew the story of his catching this young eagle in the Apennines and stuffed and put on a shelf. He loved to take children for a ride in horse and trap, but he would thrash them soundly with his knobstick if he came across them playing truant during his walks through the fields. The villagers knew him as a farmer (he farmed Poverty Land) a mine owner, and a hunter (he rode with Lord Gerard). He was defiant in defence of his faith, but he was the firm friend of Canon Howard St. George and Gentleman James Parr. He loved to appear eccentric or theatrical, leading the Catholic processions on horseback, keeping 4 donkeys and 4 black horses on his land, making bower-like structures outside Birchley school to be used as outdoor classrooms in summer, throwing out quotations from English and Latin poetry and reeling off jokes and amusing anecdotes when he was in the mood.
One good Catholic family at the Rant kept a ferocious dog, which bit him every time he went to visit them. It is said that on these occasions he would lose his usual composure and, as he vainly swished at the beast with his knobstick, shouted at his hosts “When are you going to have this Protestant dog of yours done away with?”
As there was no Methodist school in Billinge, Jim and Susannah Parr sent all their children to study at nearby Birchley. Sam Parr, the youngest, was a regular truant and, more often than not, Father Powell would find him among the bushes in Marsh Ground and thrash him with the knobstick. Sam would run tearfully home and hide behind Susannah’s pantry door, while the good living priest followed on at a leisurely pace up Long Fold and into the Parr living room. Susannah was often in two minds as to whether she ought to scold the autocratic chaplain or whimpering Sam, for she, too, had a will of iron. Father Powell, without saying a word to her, would go round the living room and systematically straighten all the pictures. After two or three minutes, when he was satisfied that all was symmetrical, he would say: “Well, how’s that Susannah?” And Sam would sneak out into the back garden, Austin Powell would take off his hat and coat and Susannah would get out her fine barge teapot.
There was a large plot of land attached to Chadwick Farm. I remember the overgrown orchard as a child. Dick Beesley grew vegetables and kept chickens and other livestock. He also owned a black funeral horse that he rode and used to pull the plough. He served in the Second Boar War. My father remembers that he always kept his sword above the mantelpiece. Because of his connections to the Church he gained a position with a priest in Cambridge. He and Esther moved there sometime around 1930. Esther died 11th October 1938 aged 56. Dick lived to be 90. He died 4th March 1967 and is buried at St. Mary’s.
Francis Taylor, like his father, Thomas, was a miner. He married Helen Gaskell, one of the four daughters of James Gaskell and Mary Ann Wilcock, 9th November 1908; the year Asquith introduced Old Aged Pensions. Helen was twenty-nine years old at that time. She was born 7th July 1881, during the first Boer War. Frank, the name he was always known by, was thirty. The marriage lasted 53 years. They successfully raised five from seven children.
Mary Ann (Molly) was the first child. She was born 15th August 1909 and went to Birchley Infant School, where her Aunt Polly was the headmistress. The Infant School opened 9th January 1899. The foundations were commenced 8th March 1898 and a committee was formed 13th March 1898 to meet liabilities. Mr Joseph Middlehurst was elected treasurer and Molly’s great uncle, William Wilcock, secretary. A collection of funds from catholic families raised £397 7s 3 towards the total cost of £1050. My father says that Molly was always acknowledged as being the cleverest child at Birchley School but was never entered for her scholarship. As soon as she was able, around the age of fourteen, she left school and trained to be a nurse. As a nurse she rose to the top of her profession. She was matron of the Stead Memorial Hospital at Redcar when my sister Enid left school. It was at that hospital that she nursed then married a Scotsman, Adam Bell, 16th June 1951. They married in a non-Catholic Church then solemnised the marriage in Redcar 14th October 1952. Enid was born 14th January 1936, the year George V died, Edward VIII abdicated and George VI became King. Adam and Molly had no children but Enid lived with them from 1954 until her own marriage to Trevor Cook, 24th September 1960.
Molly and Adam came back to Carr Mill Road around 1960. She took over as matron at Whelley Hospital, Wigan, until her retirement. Adam died 25th March 1980. Molly died a few days short of the 87th birthday, 15th August 1996. She is buried at St Mary’s.
Sarah was born 10th March 1911 and died 14th March 1912, aged one.
James was born 24th October 1912 and died 19th February 1916, aged four.
Thomas, my father, was born 16th November 1913. He has just turned eighty-six and is the source of much that has been reiterated here. I hope that I retain his mental edge to the same age. Genetically that seems possible. This project had taught me that we are a long-lived family. My father walks up the road for a couple of pints every afternoon on weekdays. My mother, now eighty-four, is fit beyond all reasonable expectation. Not long ago she walked home from Wigan. My father finished school in1928 at the age of fourteen and became a bricklayer. That was when a seven-year apprenticeship was mandatory and you became a man when you came out of your time at twenty-one. Until then you were treated and regarded as a child. My dad served his apprenticeship with Joe Vose from Denton’s Green, a position he acquired due to his Aunt Polly knowing Mrs Vose. In this respect he was lucky. The fate of most Billinge male school leavers, who had not been to Grammar School, was the pit.
In 19299, Carr Mill Road was tranquil, unspoiled and scenically beautiful. Thomas Birchall ran the shop, on the corner of Carr Mill Road and Main Street, which eventually his daughter, Ruth, would come to operate. That Birchall family has retained the nickname Butcher.10 There was a row of five cottages on the left hand side, just down from Main Street. Joe Smith and John Thomas Gee lived in number one and one A receptively. Michael Dearden occupied number three, where once upon a time a pub called The Divil in t’ Tree had been located. Years later, during excavations for a swimming pool, a Roman coin was found behind this property. Thomas Duncan lived in number five. Richard Barnes, the baker, lived at number seven. He was a familiar sight, delivering bread round the village with his horse and trap, occasionally picking up parcels and passengers from Garswood station11. Someone once left a block of concrete, wrapped up in brown paper, at the station. Richard, unknowingly, struggled with it all the way back to Billinge. He was a huge man for his time but with a gentle nature. He used to let the kids ride up Long Fold Brow on the steps of his trap. Those five houses, at the top of Carr Mill Road, have long gone. Across the road, where Billy Birchall, Thomas Birchall’s grandson, has his fruit shop, there were then two homes at numbers four and six. Ellis Corless resided at number two while Tom Berry lived at number four. His daughter Rachel married John Thomas Melling. They lived right at the bottom of Carr Mill Road, at number seventy-seven, by Robinson’s Pond, where my dad was born. Henry Hitchen leased Greenfield Farm from Kate Taylor, though his son, Herman, worked the land. They were a deeply religious family, walking to Haydock on Sundays to attend the Baptist Church there. Young Tom Melling, from number forty-one, had just started work for them. In time, influenced by his employers, Tom converted from a rough, tough kid into a life-long, devout Christian12. He worked for the Hitchens for sixty-four years and was an integral part of Chadwick Green life for the better part of the entire twentieth century.
On the corner, at the bottom of London Fields, stands the now beautifully renovated Woodstock Cottage. Peter Alker had retired there, from Ashfield Farm in Garswood Road, with his twin sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret. His wealth was part of Billinge folklore. Kate Taylor is listed as the owner of Ashfield Farm in 1929 so it could be that Peter’s prosperity originated from the sale of that land to her. He once was in a St Helens store, buying gramophone records, when the salesgirl became concerned about the volume of records he was amassing on the counter. She asked, politely, if he realised how much they cost and if he was sure he could afford them all. He replied,
“Ah cud ufford t’ baa t’ shop iv ah waantid luv.”
His sister Margaret was still living there when I was a kid. She was an old lady then, still dressing in the traditional smock and bonnet of the former century. A Little Owl was always perched in a pigeonhole in the outbuilding, where Peter played his gramophone records. That hole was filled in as part of the restoration. Maggie Alker and the owl have long since gone.
The widowed Ellen Brimilow lived at the bottom of Long Fold Brow in the first of the row of stone cottages that still stand there. Her husband had been one of the more important workers at Brown Heath Colliery but he committed suicide, leaving her to fend for a large family. She worked for Joe Tinsley at Otterswift Farm, on the way to Carr Mill Dam. Red-headed Albert Brimilow was the only kid down Carr Mill Road who supported Wigan. Whichever of the other kids that were interested in Rugby League supported St Helens Rex. Jack Brimilow, the second eldest of the children, married Joe Nelson’s sister Alice. Their son Ronald, born 1926, still lives in Claremont Road. Next door to the Brimilows lived Jack Roby with his wife Mary Ann. They had at least two boys and two girls. Mary Ann also worked at Otterswift Farm. These Robys moved away, probably to Huyton, to find work in the mines. Seth Martlew lived at number nineteen with his wife Tet nee Parr. Chris Martlew, one of Seth’s sons, eventually took over Len Clough’s cobbling shop in Main Street. As children we used to go in there to watch him working, fascinated by the way he could speak with a mouth full of nails. Tom Lowe lived next to the Martlews. His mother, Caroline, formally Parr, was Tet Martlew’s sister. Tom’s uncle, James Parr, lived next door at number twenty-three. Old James Parr had seven children of his own. His son Jonathan, always called Johnty, was the one nearest my father’s age. Edgar Compson lived at number twenty-five, round the corner from the Parr household, in what was known as The Fold. His wife, Ester nee Lomax, was another farm girl. There were few employment opportunities for woman those days. Chris Martlew, originally from number nineteen, married one of their children, Helen Compson, and Bert Rabbit married another, Ann. May Compson married Lawrence Richmond and their son, Alfred, married Jane Berry. Ester Compson’s widowed mother, Ellen Lomax, lived next door at number twenty-seven. She raised the illegitimate child May Compson had to a solder, killed in the First World War. The solder’s name was Nicholson. The child, John, took the name Lomax but always retained the nickname John Niky. At one time there must have been another cottage up the fold but by 1929 it was no longer there. The last cottage up the fold was number thirty-one, housing Levi Berry and his sister Margaret. The street numbers began again on Carr Mill Road at thirty-three where yet another Berry, Robert, was head of the household. Joe Littler lived at thirty-five with at least three daughters. Another former Parr girl, Mary Ann, lived at thirty-seven with her husband Edwin Bellis. One of their children, Ned Bellis, was killed in the First World War. His photograph hangs on the wall in the Olde House at Home. Another child, Ruth, married James John Littler and their children were Wilfred, who died as a three-year-old, Edwin (Ned), Herbert, Albert, Seth, Elsie Marion and Maria.
At the end of the row of cottages that make up Long Fold is a much larger house, at right angles to the road. When my father was fifteen, in the summer of 1929, three families lived there with close to twenty children. Number thirty-nine, known as the Narrow House, was a converted wash house where another Berry family lived with about six children. Harry Melling had eight girls, a crippled son who died when he was eleven and a son, Tom, who worked at Hitchen’s Farm. They lived at forty-one, a tiny cottage attached to the big house. Harry Melling had an entirely different character to his son Tom. If he got too much to drink at the Mason’s Arms he used to sleep under the hedges. The more religious Tom became the more likely his father was to turn the air blue with expletives in his son’s company. Edward Swift and his family lived in the larger part of the building, designated number forty-three. Edward worked at Brown Heath Colliery, as did his son Edward. Jacky Swift, another of the sons, became my father’s life long companion. The eldest girl, Alice, married Leonard Hill. Their son, Kenneth, lives alone in the property that now comprises what was once three dwellings housing something like thirty individuals.
Barrows Farm, on the right hand corner, was the domain of the Kearsley family. In 1929 Lord Gerard owned the land on which William Kearsley was the tenant farmer. William was the second generation. His father, Thomas, came to Barrows Farm from Arch Lane, via marriage to Alice Ellen Phythian. If any farmer were to be singled out as the subject for an epic on the rural life of Lancashire, Williams’ son, George Kearsley, would fit the bill nicely. He fought as a pilot in World War Two, came back to Billinge and expanded the family enterprise until it reached all the way from Carr Mill Dam to Newton Road. Within a decade of his death it was all gone. It’s a story that needs scant remark or a full rendering - nothing in between will serve.
Just off Carr Mill Road, along Marsh Grounds, was Chadwick Farm where my father’s uncle, Richard Beesley and his wife, Eshter, had moved to from number fifty-nine. This cottage was officially forty-six Carr Mill Road and the two semidetached homes further up Marsh Grounds were officially numbers forty-six A and forty-six B. Those two houses still stand in the midst of the housing estate that obliterated Marsh Grounds. This property will be forever referred to, by what Billingers survive, as Austin Durkin’s. Eventually it became one dwelling but in 1929 William Hampson lived at 46A and Martin Conroy at 46B. Henry Moran married Margaret Conroy 21st November 1882. William Hampson married Bridgett Moran 25th May 1895. The Hampsons and the Conroys were related. Living with William Hampson in 1929 was Mary Ellen Durkin nee Moran and her son, Austin. Legend is that Austin’s father was one of two brothers who came over from Ireland, married two Billinge girls, and then took off for Australia. That may be partially true. What is certain is that Austin Durkin was one of the better-known personalities of his generation.
The first record of a Durkin in Billinge is the birth of Mary, born 8th December 1846. Her parents were James Durkin and Helen nee Cunliffe. There is a record of a Helen Cunliffe born 8th July 1838, which may be her, but where James Durkin came from or where he was buried I have no idea. Anna Melia was born 28th February 1894. Her mother was Bridgett nee Durkin, who may have been James Durkin’s daughter. A William Durkin, aged eight, from Simms Lane Ends, was buried at Birchley after dying 13th March 1899. Who his parents were is not recorded. John and James Durkin were brothers who seem to have come to Billinge from Simms Lane Ends. Any relationship with James Durkin is speculative but the name is uncommon. The records show that their father was Henry Durkin. Henry was born in 1843 so he is the right age to be James Durkin’s son. On the 28th of February 1903, John Durkin married Mary Ellen Moran, who was living in Marsh Grounds at the time. Her family came from the cottage that used to stand near the double bend, down the bottom of Newton Road. John’s brother, James, was a witness to the wedding, as was Bridgett Moran from Marsh Grounds. James married Anna McManus 8th August 1903. He is shown to be living at Malt Kiln House. Henry Durkin’s burial record shows him to have been living at Malt Kiln House. He died at the age of 57 in 1910. He may have worked at Malt Kiln House or the may have owned it.
John and Mary Helen’s first child, Henry, was born 7th January 1904. There are no further Durkins recorded as being baptised at St Mary’s prior to 1912, when available records stop. There are three Durkin burials recorded in February 1911, all of them from Marsh Grounds. James Edward died at the age of five on the 5th, Henry aged seven on the 8th and Bridgett aged two on the fifteenth. The next Durkin record is the burial of Bridgett, aged 70, 18th August 1923. If she is the mother of Anna Melia why has she dropped her married name? Thomas Durkin’s funeral was 19th November 1946. He was 60, making his probable birth 1886. How he fits in is beyond me. Mary Helen Durkin was buried 28th December 1954 at the age of 71 and Anna Durkin 2nd February 1966, aged 85. These are the two Billinge girls who married the Durkin brothers. A William Durkin was buried February 1972, aged 82 and Austin 16th October 1989 at the age of 79. Whoever this William was he must have been born in 1890. Like Austin he wasn’t baptised at St Mary’s. It is obvious that Durkins from outside of Billinge were buried at St Mary’s and that Durkins born in Billinge were baptised elsewhere.
Of the three Durkin children who died in February 1911, only Henry, the eldest, was baptised at St Mary’s. Austin must have been somewhere between four and fifteen months old when the tragedy struck. Sometime later, his father John and his Uncle James both left for Australia and John never returned. James reputedly returned sometime in the early seventies. Austin’s mother, Mary Helen, was one of the few people, other than her family, who my grandmother ever spoke to. They didn’t visit each other’s houses; they met at church on Sundays. My father was an altar boy. His duties included going to church early to ring the bell and to pump up the organ. Mary Helen Durkin sang in the choir. My father’s Aunt Polly was the organist.
Back on Carr Mill Road, at number forty-seven, the widowed Margaret Gaffney13 lived with her daughter Theresa and three sons, William, Joseph and Thomas. William and Joseph were partners with Edward Taylor in Blackleyhurst Colliery, off Newton Road. Thomas had married one of the William Kearsley’s sisters, Jane (24/7/1912), but she died giving birth to a daughter, Edna. Tom Gaffney was Catholic and Jane Kearsley was Church of England. The union caused great friction on both sides. Jane’s death served only to exacerbate the situation. Edna grew to be an attractive, intelligent, fun loving girl but she was ostracised by the Kearsleys. She married Jack Curner and they eventually moved into Claremont Road, a few doors down from the house we moved into after leaving Holt Crescent. She is still alive and remarkably healthy. One of her four daughters, Theresa, lives in the old family house in Carr Mill Road. William Harrison lived next door with his wife Elizabeth nee Foster. My grandparents lived over the wall at fifty-one. Their children, including my father, always referred to Elizabeth Harrison as Aunt Lizzy. They never knew why but in the course of this research I think I have discovered the reason. It goes back to my great, great grandmother, Ester Taylor. Her third illegitimate child, Thomas, born in 1853, was my great grandfather. After she married William Harrison, around 1854, her subsequent children were at least half uncles or aunts to my grandfather. Esther gave birth to twins Edward and William in September 1861. William Harrison married Elizabeth Gaffney in 1892 and came to live at 49 Carr Mill Road. Poor Elizabeth went mad because she never conceived a child. She was eventually committed and died in confinement. William Harrison remarried Elizabeth Foster, sister to Francis Foster who lived further down the road. My grandfather probably knew his grandmother’s history but would never have told his children. William Harrison was at least his half uncle and maybe even his true uncle. The man she eventually married may well have fathered Ester’s three illegitimate children. There were often economic reasons for couples not to marry in those days. Knowing that William Harrison was his uncle, my grandfather probably once referred to his wife as Aunt Lizzy, in the hearing of one of his children and the name stuck. Ironically, this second Elizabeth Harrison produced no children either so poor Elizabeth Gaffney may not have been the cause of the infertility that drove her mad and killed her.
Further down Chadwick Green were the Dixon brothers, at fifty-three and fifty-five. In the two cottages immediately before the Masons Arms lived J T Hogan and William Lomax. William Lomax was a brother to Ester Compson at Long Fold. He survived the Great War but committed suicide by putting his head on the railway track behind Carr Mill Dam. Among his children were Lillian, Doris and William. Miss Bolton, the seamstress, lived opposite at number fifty-six, in the detached stone house that still remains. The two cottages attached to the Masons Arms have long gone. Francis Foster lived in the first one, number sixty-three, and John Hardman next door at sixty-five. Francis Foster’s son James was killed in action in World War Two. A sergeant major from James’ battalion, William Haynes, marred James’ sister, Mary. They moved into number 49 after the Harrisons. Lizzy Harrison was Mary Foster’s aunt, not my father’s.
Below the Masons Arms14, where Margaret Berry was the innkeeper, Billinge ended. The remaining section of Carr Mill Road was in Winstanley. William Kearsley farmed Barrows Farm on Lord Gerard’s land and William Robinson farmed Tanyard House Farm on Squire Bankes’ land. There is a 1922 rate book for Winstanley in St Helens Library but none so early for Billinge. The earliest rate book for Billinge still in existence is dated 1929. In attempting to reconstruct the Billinge of my father’s youth, I used this later rate record to extract the names of those living in the Billinge part of Carr Mill Road and to jog my father’s memory. I will continue, using names recorded in the earlier Winstanley record.
Below the Masons Arms and its two adjoining cottages are three redbrick houses, built by William Robinson in 1911. In 1922 Bill Martlew lived in the first, number sixty-seven, with his wife, Martha Alice nee Swift. Martha Alice wasn’t one of the Swift family from Long Fold, she was the orphaned child of a Swift family from Longshaw. She went into service at Tanyard House Farm with her Aunt Lydia. There she met and married Bill Martlew. She died giving birth to a daughter during the strike of 1926. Bill moved back to Long Fold, to live with his parents. His mother’s sister, Wilhelmina, also died soon after childbirth. Seth and Tet Martlew helped raise her child, Minnie Parr, whose son, Richard Donald Lewis, wrote The Billingers. Fred Williams, a mysterious Welshman, lived at sixty-nine. He cultivated a plot of land, formally Plum Tree Croft15, behind the Masons Arms and was noted for the quality of his tomatoes. Fred was a skilled wheelwright. He made a small handcart for my father to collect horse manure. There was more horse muck than diesel fumes those days. Mary Atherton was the head of the household at number seventy-one, the last of these three redbrick houses. James Robinson, the eldest of William Robinson’s two sons, lived at seventy-five. He married Hannah Hayes from Orrell, a relative of the Hayes family at Lime Grove Orchards. Hannah was in service at Greenfield Farm when she met James Robinson. Their children were Thomas and Lillian. Further down Carr Mill Rod, on the right hand side, there was a small plot of land known as Ellen Ann’s Garden. Two fine pear trees still grew there when I was a child but have since been needlessly cut down. Ellen Ann Rigby used to take in children from Greenfield Orphanage. She opened the gate, blocking the road at that point, when horses and carriages, heading for Greenfield House, warranted admittance. The cottage where Ellen Ann Rigby lived had disappeared by 1922. The foundations were still evident when my father played there as a boy. It was a meeting place for the children of Chadwick Green, which included Lola Williams, Lillian Robinson, Daisy Millington, Mary Foster and Ethel Tinsley among the Chadwick Green girls that the boys from Billinge used to chase.
Across from this spot is Tanyard House Farm, then home to William Robinson. Edward Platt and his family lived next to the farm at number seventy-five. Mrs Platt was somewhat obsessed with cleanliness. She was reputed to wash her money. These Platts were involved in mining coal at Neston, by the River Dee. When that colliery developed trouble due to water penetration, they may have taken over Birchley Colliery. Peter Hitchen and Mr Moss were co-owners prior to 1911 when Birchley Colliery was taken over by Billinge Collieries Limited. The Platts had cousins who lived near Lime Vale Farm. Carr Mill Arley Colliery was behind that house, managed by the Platts. Joe Leadbetter, a fine cricketer, moved into seventy-nine after my grandfather moved his family up the road to number fifty-one. He came from Pemberton, in the heart of the Orrell Coalfield, to be a winder at Brown Heath Colliery. He did not stay long. John Thomas Melling, brother of Harry Melling from number forty-one, took his place in the tiny cottage by the pond. These two brothers were the orphaned children of William Robinson’s brother-in-law. His wife, Lydia, was the daughter of Richard Melling, one time landlord of the Hare and Hounds.
Across the fields at Startham Hall, built by Squire Bankes in 1734, were two families, headed by Joseph Mason and Aaron Heyes. Jack Heyes, the son of Aaron Heyes, was so moved by his childhood at Startham Hall that he later wrote poetry about it.16 I traced him to a nursing home at Moss Bank, still upset at George Kearsley for knocking The Startham down. Jane Hayes was head of the household at Lime Grove Orchards; always know as Bob Senney’s after her husband Robert’s father. Senney was probably a nickname. Almost everyone from Billinge had a nickname. One of Jane Hayes’ daughters married William Thomas Foster from Fair View. They went to live at sixty-seven Carr Mill Road when Bill Martlew vacated after his wife died in childbirth. Another of her daughters, Ami, married Albert Atherton from Newton Road. They ran a fruit business and she is reputed to be the first woman in Billinge to have driven a truck. The path from Bob Senney’s across to Birchley Road passes though a dip where a brook runs through. That swampy region was known as the Toad Holes. Further along, at Lime Vale, William and Walter Platt lived at the big house, while Peter Lomax, father of the champion skater Jimmy Lomax, lived in the small cottage adjacent, now named Otterswift Cottage. The Carr Mill Arley Colliery was still in production behind the Platt’s house in 1929. William Abbott farmed Lime Vale Farm until his death in November 1928. That farm had been in possession of the Abbot family for 103 years in 1928 and still is. Harry Abbot is the current occupier.
The relationship between the farmers at the bottom end of Billinge is interesting. It demonstrates the way control of the critical agricultural industry was retained.
Sometime between 1852 –1858, James and Mary Ashton came from Lowton to take over the lease of Carr Mill Dam Farm, previously leased from Sir David Gamble by a Birchall family. Caleb Birchall gave his name to Caleb’s Gates (usually know as Top Two Gates), Caleb’s Cottage and Caleb’s Wood. How his family lost the farm is unknown. The Ashtons had a large family. They left an unusual inscription on their gravestone in Saint Aidan’s.
Sown in corruption – raised in corruption
We shall sleep but not forever
There will be a glorious dawn
We shall meet to part no never
On the resurrection morn
The descendants of the second eldest son, William17, still farm The Lawns at Tontine. Their youngest child, James, born 4th April 1858, was ordained as a minister and, after a stint in Canada, became a cleric of some note in Ireland. Surprisingly, the farm passed on to a daughter, Hannah. She married Joseph Tinsley from Thatto Heath, February 9 1875. It is they who probably changed the name to Otterswift Farm. Joseph Tinsley’s daughter, Sarah Ellen, married Edward Abbot, the son of William Abbot from Lime Vale Farm. They took over the running of Moss Bank Farm. William Abbot’s son William married Susan Redfern from Orritts House Farm, 15th October 1908. The other Tinsley children were Ann, John, Thomas, James, Robert, Ethel Mary and Joseph. John, Ethel Mary and Joseph worked Otterswift Farm between them. After their parents died and they had all retired, they sold Otterswift to Jimmy Abbot, the son of William Abbot who worked Lime Vale Farm and owned Fir Tree Farm at Kings Moss. James Tinsley married William Robinson’s daughter Margaret 27th July 1904 and went to live at Brown Heath Nook Farm, adjacent to Brown Heath Colliery. Their children were Mary Lydia, Ethel, John and Hannah. Mary Ann Robinson, the second of Old William’s daughters, married John Bradburn from Gladden-Hey Farm 27th January 1904. Between them, these intermarried farming families held interests in at least eight farms in 1929 - if carefully researched there will certainly be others.
There is certainly a connection between the Abbots and the Kearsleys. William Abbot married Elizabeth Phythian 24th April 1869. Tom Kearsley married her sister, Alice Ellen, from Barrows Farm. Mosses Phythian, then farming at Goose Green, married Jane Turner, daughter of John Turner from Windy Arbour Farm, 6th April 1904. Tom Kearsley came from a Family farming in Arch Lane. His son William married Annie Birchall from 24 Main Street 15th October 1908 and his grandson, George, would become perhaps the most successful farmer Billinge ever produced. He was a large-scale producer of pigs and poultry and his fields produced every vegetable imaginable.
When he died in November 1928, William Abbott had farmed at Lime Vale for 65 years. He left two sons, two daughters and twenty grandchildren to mourn his passing. The mourners listed at the funeral included his sons William and Edward, grandsons James Abbot, Edward Abbott Waterworth, James Waterworth, William Abbott Waterworth, sons-in-law Thomas Waterworth and James Waterworth, brothers-in-laws John Alker and Thomas Kearsley, nephews Moses Phythian John Birchall and other farmers and landowners including J Petty, E Moyers, W Platt, J Tinsley, J Jones and Mr G H Banks of Winstanly Hall.
There was no television those days. You made your own entertainment or went without. My dad was a bit of an organiser as a school kid, arranging football games with kids from neighbouring areas such as Red Cat, Kings Moss, Garswood and Longshaw. He remembers that Bert Mitchell18 always use to fight with Arthur Bell from Red Cat and that after one game Bert tempted Arthur away from his own territory, closer to Gores Lane Bridge, whereupon the whole Billinge team gave Arthur and his sole companion a good hiding. It did not always work out that way though. When my dad and his brother Frank had been pulled out of Birchley School to attend Holy Cross in St Helens, the Long Fold boys arrived behind St Helens Town Hall for a football game, arranged by my father, but only a couple of the other team turned up. They walked back home up North Road to go over Moss Bank but noticed a gang of St Helens boys playing football in Victoria Park and challenged them. The Billingers won at soccer so the St Helens boys challenged them to a game of Rugby League. As the Billingers didn’t know how to play League properly, the game soon degenerated into a fight from which the St Helens boys emerged triumphant. Tommy Melling led this particular group of Billinge kids, by virtue of his age and strength. John (Niky) Lomax, Tommy Brimilow, Ned Bellis (son of Edward Bellis killed in WW1), Jimmy and Jacky Swift, Jonathan (Johnty) Parr, my father and his brother Frank were the others from down Carr Mill Road. The two kids from Billinge proper who hung around with them were Albert Littler (Ned’s brother) from The Rant and Tommy Ratclilff from Piccadilly. Those who could afford it put a penny a week into the kitty for a new football. Tommy Radcliff was trusted to be treasurer. He was a particularly good singer. He and Jesse Foster were very popular around Christmas when they went around together, carol singing.
Football was always the main sport in Billinge. There were several teams over the years; Old Birchley, Birchley, The Prims, Shamrock Rovers, Billinge Juniors, Billinge Albion and St Aidan’s Sunday School teams. The best team Billinge ever produced was when Billinge Juniors had a team in the Lancashire Alliance. There were at least six football fields below Billinge Church. There was one between Pingot Road and Newton Road, behind where the cinema used to stand, one across Main Street, between Malt House and the Olde House at Home, one between Garswood Road and Carr Mill Road, another behind Long Fold and one either side of Birchley Road. My dad played for Billinge Juniors under eighteen’s but changed football teams to Orrell YMCA when he started to train for boxing there with a professional, Hiram Gaskell. Bill Huxley, the butcher, was another kid who trained at the YMCA for boxing. Where Marsh Grounds ran into Birchley Road, nowadays Trent Road, there used to be a sports club, run by St Mary’s. Its local name was The Casino. Tom Callon used to train there. He was supposed to be the best boxer in Billinge though my grandfather reckoned his brother Thomas could beat him. Tom Callon lived with Joe Roby’s family, at the splendid, detached stone house, situated at the corner of Fair View and Gorsey Brow. That was one of the homes, with a makeshift gymnasium in the cellar, where the would-be Billinge pugilists used to train. Probably due to the inspiration of local champions such as Peter Kayne and Nel Tarlton, lots of the local kids aspired to boxing. There was always a punch bag at Carr Mill Road. Some, including my father, graduated to the boxing club at Low House in St Helens. One of the makeshift gyms was at the Olde House at Home. Tom Bold lived there then. My dad liked sparring with Tom because he was a couple of stone heavier and exceptionally tough. He could hit Tom as hard as he could without hurting him. To illustrate that point my dad told the tale of when Tom and he where riding their bikes, flat stick, down the St Helens side of Moss Bank. Tom's wheel locked, throwing him over the handlebars. Tom just got up as if nothing had happened. It would have killed a normal bloke. Tom Bold's father was also named Tom. My father cannot remember him but remembers his own father telling him that old Tom Bold was the strongest man ever to live in Billinge.
When his brother Frank started mating with Maurice Beesley, in my time a much-feared teacher at Birchley School, he persuaded my father to play football for St James’s. He played there until after the War when he was in his thirties. Among the better soccer players of my father’s generation were the Lowe brothers Jack, Hugh, Bill and Lloyd, the Green brothers Billy, Peter, Harry, and Jimmy, Oswald Litter19, Peter Middlehurst20, John Roby21, Stanley Liptrot, Ned Wayne, Tommy Littler and Frank Dillon.
If he wasn’t anything special as a football player my old man was a bit better than average as a fisherman. He had a good background as far as fishing goes. When old Jem Parr finished his day’s work down the pit he would go fishing all night at Carr Mill Dam. As a child my father often stayed until well after dark with old Jim, as he fished, by the light of a carbide lamp, to help feed his family. Dick Beesley, my father’s uncle, often took my dad fishing, as did his great uncle Frank Cunliffe. But what really got my father into match fishing was a trip organised by Bert Rigby from Haydock when he worked as a bricklayer at Pilkingtons. Those days, just before the Second World War, bricklayers could earn better money building retorts for the industrial glass giant than they could by building houses. Many, including my father, did both. Bert Rigby was a keen fisherman, spending all his free time at Carr Mill Dam. When my mother’s father heard about this trip he fixed my father up with the necessary tackle and bait for match fishing and because of that he won both matches. After that success he was hooked. Over the years from 1945 to 1970 he organised fishing clubs at the Brown Cow, the Labour Club, St James’s and Bispham Club. More often than not he got in the money. He reckons that Ned Littler was the best match fisherman of his generation - probably the best poacher too.
A fishing trip was always a welcome occasion. Club members would pay a weekly subscription then use to money to go on two or three fishing trips throughout the year. A typical trip would start with the coach leaving the pub about ten in the morning. There were always a few crates of beer on board so those who wanted an early start could get one. Those who started drinking early rarely won the money. Occasionally they would end up in the canal. Often two matches were fished during the course of the day. It depended on how far they were going and what time the pubs opened. A two hour match in the morning followed by a couple of hours in the pub then another two hour match in the afternoon, before heading to the nearest big town for a night on the drink, was the usual format. When the pubs closed they would all get back on the coach and arrive back in Billinge about two in the morning. Some participants were keener than others about the fishing but for all and sundry it was a day away from the routine of work, wife and family. Thomas Berry from Holt Avenue, also known as ‘Owd T Berry’, was usually the life and soul of these outings. ‘Owd T Berry’ was one of those uniquely Billinge characters, like Jimmy Roughly and Wild Jacky Frodsham, that everyone has a story about. He wasn’t a great fisherman but he was part and parcel of the day’s enjoyment. His mother was Jane Berry, who married Joe Chisnall. Her brother John, known as ‘Killy’, helped her raise young Thomas. Her subsequent four children, all daughters, died young. Her husband, Joe Chisnall, born 13th September 1870, committed suicide by drowning in a pond on Madox Farm. His body was found 4th March 1928. Thomas, who was to become ‘Owd T’, married Mary Roughley, 13th April 1918, and raised four children, Tom, Joe, Jane and Denis. ‘Owd T’ lived to be ninety and will never be forgotten by those who knew him.
Because of these fishing trips, to various stretches of canals within driving range of the village, a generation of Billinge males grew familiar with such names as Glasson Dock, Garstang, Copper Kettle, Beaston Castle, Golgate, Mollington, Tarleton, and Red Rock.
All the fishing clubs in any one area, run from various pubs, belonged to a Centre. Billinge was in Orrell Centre. Once a year there would be a team competition for all clubs in a Centre and the Orrell Centre competition was the Foster Cup. In the early 1950s the Labour Club team, comprising Ned Littler, Bert Foster, Little Burt Corday, Jimmy Cunliffe and my father, won the Foster Cup. Bert Corday won the Taylor cup for highest individual catch of the day. That was a pretty good achievement in its time. Other noted match fishermen of that era were William Cunliffe and Jimmy Mousdell from the Oddfellows and Len and Joe Swift from the Hare and Hounds. I got into the match-fishing scene as it was coming to its finale. Affluence finished match fishing in Billinge. Once club members started coming to matches in their own cars and leaving for home after the match it killed the social side of fishing trips, which is what they were all about in the first place. I won the odd match in my time but was never a serious contender. Tony Hilton, another of my generation, went on to win his section of the All England twice. That is probably the highest achievement a Billinge born match fisherman has managed to attain though Barry Foster, son of Bert Foster, is considered by many to be one of the best match fishermen the village has ever produced.
My dad was also a cricketer. It was another popular village sport. He was captain of Billinge second team from the end of the War until the club was disbanded and the field used for building council houses22. That would be about 1950. He and Jack Lowe once bowled Dalton out for seven runs. My dad got five for four and Jack Lowe got five for three. Jesse Foster once returned bowling averages of six for one and nine for nine. Bill Derbyshire was the only batsman to score a century for the team and my father was the only bowler to get a hat trick. I can just remember running onto the cricket field as a toddler and my father catching me in his arms then carrying me back to the pavilion as spectators laughed and applauded. Little Bert Ward played a big part in the organisation of that cricket club and was more often that not the home team umpire. He was not averse to giving a favourable decision. Once, during a critical game, when one of the away batsmen was looking like winning the game single-handed, Bert whispered to my father, who was bowling,
“Just hit him on the legs Tommy.”
My dad put one down the on side and appealed when the batsman padded it away. Bert gave him out LBW. The batsman was naturally upset.
“That wasn’t out.”
Bert came back with the reply that put him forever into local folklore.
“Look in next week’s Reporter and you’ll see if it was out or not.”
Regular first team players, before and after the War, were the headmaster of Billinge School, Luke Barton, his brother John Barton, John Willie Haseldon, Billy Tommy Foster, Ted Halliwell, Fred Birchall, Oswald Littler and the team’s best bowler Fred Garner. On the second team were the Melling brothers, Cyril and Ken, Jack Berry, Jack Lowe, Jim McNamara, my uncle Bill and the landlord of the Labour in Vain, Arthur Edmonson. This same Arthur Edmonson was also one of the best dart players in the village, maybe even the best. He wasn’t a Billinger and left the village before he was able to establish himself, though no sport is more likely to provoke controversy when discussing the merits of its participants than darts.
Darts spread to Billinge from Manchester after the War. The first dart board in the area was at The Grapes Hotel. The game caught on and replaced the previous popular pub game of rings. Ten teams formed the inaugural Billinge dart league of 1952 with my dad as president, my Uncle Bill as secretary and Terry Frayne as treasurer. The Labour in Vain topped the league with 25 points from eighteen games and took out the Kearsley Challenge Shield. The Chapel End Labour Club got the McLoughlin Challenge Shield as runners up with 24 points. Ned Littler won the Liptrot Cup for the individual knockout championship. Terry Picton won the Nelson Cup for best individual performance throughout the year. Early players of prominence were Arthur Edmunson, Frank Taylor, Bill Taylor, Terry Frayne, Harold Bradshaw, Jimmy Cunliffe, Jimmy Moyers, Harold and Wilf Barton, Harold Foster, George Boothroyd, Frank Liptrot and Albert Tickle.
The following 1953/54 season, the Labour Club won the league. The team for that year included my grandfather, my father, Uncle Bill, Ned Littler, Jimmy Roper and Timmy Frodsham. In the crucial game against the Labour-in-Vain, with the scores locked at three all, my grandfather beat my Uncle Frank, captain of the opposing team, to clinch the victory. He was so annoyed at having to beat his own son that he wouldn’t shake hands with his own team members.
There is a slight difference between good pub throwers and money throwers, probably a matter of temperament. Two names came to dominate the Billinge dart scene, Richard (Dicky) Melling and Steven (Stee) Dickinson. When it came to playing for money these two were as good as anybody in England, as their achievements provide adequate testimony. It will always be a point of contention as to who was the better player, as long as those who can remember them survive. There will be others who will argue that Wilf Barton was better than either of them. He was certainly on par. They played each other dozens of times, each registering their share of wins and losses. For me, the name I associate with darts will always be Dicky Melling.
He beat my father in his first money match and that was the last time my dad played for money. After that he arranged Dicky’s matches and, together with Jacky Swift and my Uncle Bill, managed the young superstar though nineteen successive victories in his first year as a money thrower. There is no way of knowing how many times Dicky played for money or what his overall record was. In my father’s 1956 diary23 I can see that he beat Harold Barton 4-3 on the 31st of March, Harold Bradshaw 4-3 on the 28th of April, and Jacky Spenser 4-3 on the 5th of May, the same day Manchester United beat Birmingham 3-1 in the Cup Final. That particular match emphasises what was special about Dicky Melling as well as any.
These days, in professional dart tournaments, who ever goes up first wins the game. That gives a tremendous advantage to the person who throws first. It’s much fairer to play equal darts, which was the way all money matches used to be arranged. With the score at three all Spenser went up, treble fourteen double eighteen, leaving Dicky two darts to finish. Dicky liked to finish on double top but he’d made a mess of his finishing sequence. Having twenty-one left with his last dart on the previous throw, he’d singled the nineteen to leave double one instead of five to leave double eight. Now, with two darts in hand, if he hit double one with his first dart he won. If he got it with the second he drew the game and they would play another game to decide the outcome. On the marker, with the entire match resting on that first dart, he turned round and said he would bet anyone in the pub half a crown that he won. Straight away one of Spenser’s backers took the bet to put Dicky off. It made no difference. Dicky went back on the marker and buried double one with the first dart. That is what made Dicky Melling so special. The more pressure that was on the better he threw. He was always the best man to have throwing last for a team. If the match depended on Dicky winning the last game you knew that he would do it. The money wasn’t important to Dicky - he played for the adulation. If the entire world had been watching when Dicky had just one dart to hit the double he couldn’t miss it. He was to darts what Billy Boston was to rugby league or Muhammad Ali was to boxing.
For the rest of that year he beat Jacky Sepenser 4-1 in a re-match on the 12th of May, Stee Dickinson 3-1 on the 3rd of November, lost 3-2 to Stee Dickinson on the 10th of November, beat Bill Smith 3-0 on the 16th of December and beat Stee Dickinson 3-1, three days before Christmas. On February the 25th that same year I went to Carr Mill Dam and amazed my grandfather by getting straight onto the ice and skating. He could not understand how I could do that but there were no roller skates in his days. It was the year an American Super Sabre jet fighter crashed in the field behind Makin’s Farm, Devon Loch fell over an imaginary fence in the Grand National Jim Laker took ten wickets for 88, playing against Australia and my parents celebrated their twenty-first wedding anniversary. I turned eleven years old that October.
By the time I was old enough to get in the pubs legally Dicky had given the game away then made a comeback. I followed and backed him in dozens of matches and more often than not I chalked the board. It’s an advantage to have your man chalking. He can make little mistakes at crucial moments, just as the other player throws for double. He won a lot more than he lost and gave a younger generation moments we will always remember. In a way it was like Ali’s come back; sometimes it was heart breaking to see him beaten by kids he could have wiped the floor with, sometimes he displayed the magic that was his alone. The Billinge dart league had folded in my time though some of the pubs had teams in other competitions. The area’s top team in the 60’s and 70’s was the Delph Tavern, when Bill Painter was the landlord. The Delph Tavern continually won the prestigious Burtonwood Rosebowl with a team that included the five top players from Wigan - Joe and Pat Brown, Arthur Yarwood, Dicky Walls and Fred Chadwick. The automatic choices from Billinge were Tony Rabbit and Dicky Melling. Those final two places on that star studded team was contested for by the likes of Bill Price, Tony Hilton, and Brain Waite - great players in their own rights if just a shade behind the others. My father was non-plying captain of that team. He always saved Dicky for the last game, just in case it was vital. Dicky Melling is dead now. He was killed at work when a building being demolished collapsed on top of him. He twice saved my father’s life by pulling him, in the nick of time, from collapsing trenches. When my father gets to that pub in heaven I know who will be waiting on the dartboard.
It’s a fair assumption that bowls came to Billinge with the opening of the first bowling green. When that might have been I have no idea. We all know about Francis Drake and there must have been pubs in Billinge a long way back. The oldest surviving pub with a bowling green is the Holts Arms – named after the Holt family - in Crank Road, which was built in 1721 but that might have been too far away for most Billingers to use regularly. Bowls, like darts, needs lots of practice. The Eagle and Child was built in 1745 and there was a bowling green at the Stork Hotel, built, in its present manifestation, in 1752. A closer look at the Stork seems to indicate it was built around an earlier medieval dwelling24. It was on the Stork green that my father had his first ever game of bowls, with James Foster who lived in one of the two cottages attached to the Masons Arms. James was killed in the Second World War. But the bowling green that was always the base for Billinge’s bowling fraternity is at the George and Dragon. In 1825 the landlord was Thomas Mather25. If he was the first landlord or not or when that pub was built I have been as yet unable to discover but it would have been some time after those further up the road. My grandfather played bowls for the Dragon. The names that came down from the generation before his are Jimmy Gee, Peter Garner (who probably entered the Waterloo and the Talbot), Bill Foster from the Stork and Owd Nat26 - the character on the Dragon team in those days. Billinge has produced a lot of characters. One of those was Enoch (Nucky) Picton.
Nucky, coming from Haydock, wasn’t strictly a Billinger but he married one, Ethel Gee. He became landlord at he George & Dragon for a while in the fifties but when the bowling team failed to fulfil its fixtures for two consecutive seasons he stopped mowing the green and put a donkey on it. Wild Jacky Frodsham, another famous character, used to tempt the donkey into the pub with a packet of crisps. Getting the donkey out again was another story; many a table got kicked over in the process. When Nucky eventually sold the stubborn animal, the purchasers could not get it into the trailer. Nucky closed the pub door and left them to it. The last Billinge saw of the beast was it trotting along towards Southport, tied to the back of the trailer.
The green at the Eagle & Child is a bit easier to play on than the Dragon and the kids of my father’s generation, Jonathan Parr, Bert Littler, Gerard Malone and Jimmy Ashall, learned to play there. It cost two pence to practice on the green all day. The first team my father played for was St James’s. He had just started to play football for the same club when, one evening, watching the bowling, he remarked that he could beat any of those playing. The team captain heard the remark and replied, “You better sign on then.” That was the start of his bowling career. In 1939 he and George Hilton were St James’s entrants to the Cathedral Cup, a competition open to all CYMS clubs in the Liverpool Diocese. That year it was played at the Black Bull in St Helens and my father won it. He considers that win to be his best achievement in bowling apart from beating Brian Dunkan 21-13 at the George & Dragon the only time he ever played him. Brain Dunkan is the best bowler Billinge ever produced. Among his many achievements are five victories in the Waterloo and one in the Talbot. These two competitions are regarded as the ultimate in bowling prowess. The fist person born in Billinge to win either was my uncle, Billy Hienikey, who won the Waterloo in 1964. Billy, who married my mother’s sister Edna May Roby, was by that time living in Birmingham. His brother George still lives in Beacon Road.
When he got seriously into match fishing my dad gave up bowling. Eventually Bill Marshall took over the George & Dragon whereupon he organised a restoration of the neglected bowling green, which had become a village scandal. The Ribble bus never passed the Dragon without Billingers on the upstairs deck looking over the wall and passing scathing comments about the state of the green. Joe Nelson was the man who eventually got the green back to its former glory. Joe was a bit of a character himself. He had an acrimonious marriage break-up that left Joe to pay the alimony. It was against Joe’s principles to do this. From that moment on he refused to get a job. He went into prison periodically, for the mandatory six-week spell allocated to non-payers of maintenance, for most of his life. His ex-wife lived a long time but Joe never faltered. When she eventually died Joe was an old man. He got a job immediately with the local council. I worked with him there for while - so did Nucky Picton. Joe used to put seven spoons of tea and two of sugar in his brew can. None of us co-workers ever had a cup of tea from Joe. It was like drinking treacle. Joe Nelson was a top-class bowler. He taught my father the marks on the tricky George and Dragon green.
Bert Rabbit, who organised the first team after the green’s restoration, talked my father into coming out of retirement. The clinching argument that brought my father back to the Dragon was that his brother, Frank, had also decided to play for them. Being a new team they got a good handicap and won the Greenall’s League Championship. It was 1965. There’s a trophy, commemorating that victory, on the shelf at home. My dad turned 52 in 1965. He continued playing bowls for different clubs up until a couple of years ago. Though he smoked cigarettes for most of his adult life and drank beer for all of it, my father still possesses a nimble mind and an excellent memory. He walks up the road to Bispham Club for a couple of pints most weekdays and can speak with authority on any number of topics. No doubt his genealogy plays a part in that, he comes from a long-lived family. But I tend to think a lifelong involvement in sport has been a major contributing factor to his amazing perseverance.
Francis, the fifth born, was, in my father’s opinion, the most academically gifted child in the family. He was born at Tanyard House Farm 22nd August 1916. There was some dispute between the nuns at Birchley School and his Aunt Polly, headmistress of the Infants School. Francis was not entered for his scholarship. His father took both he and his elder brother, Thomas, out of Birchley and entered them at Holy Cross School in St. Helens. From there Francis won a scholarship to the prestigious St. Francis Xavier Collage at Liverpool. Whist at St Francis Xavier he won a boxing championship in which he defeated the son of Johnny Best, then boxing promoter at Liverpool Stadium.
Francis trained to be a chemist but shortly after starting in that profession the Second World War started and he was conscripted. Soon after joining up he caught meningitis, was invalided out and almost died. He never went back to being a chemist. After the war he started work at Pilkington’s and stayed there till retirement. In those days Pilkingons functioned round the clock. If Frank had to work night shift on Christmas Day he always went to Midnight Mass first. The company used to pay one-pound bonus at Christmas but he always gave it back because five shillings tax was deducted. He married Winifred Minton, a girl from Longshaw, and fathered one child, Irene. Irene is six months older than I, born 27th April 1945. We were in the same class at Birchley School. Irene went on to Grange Park Grammar School in St. Helens. She married Ken Ashurst 3rd March 1962 when she was seventeen. She has three children, two girls and a boy. Her two grandchildren, together with my sister Enid’s grandchild, are this family’s latest generation. None of these grandchildren carry the Taylor name.
Frank was a good sportsman, just about unbeatable on his local bowling green at Carr Mill. He was captain of the Labour-in-Vain dart team in the early fifties and a good amateur boxer in his early days. He was a great walker, like his father; as far as I remember he never rode a bike or drove a car and rarely caught the bus. I remember him as a soft-spoken kindly man, who, for whatever reason, chose never to take advantage of his academic capabilities. My Uncle Frank died 27th October 1989 aged 73. Winifred nee Minton, his wife, died 3rd November 1998 aged 81.
William, the last child born at Tanyard House Farm, came into the world 8th May 1919. He passed his scholarship and went to West Park Catholic Grammar School in St. Helens. Unfortunately for him, he passed his eleven plus a year early and was therefore one of the youngest in his class. When I passed my eleven plus as a ten-year-old, he advised that I should be held back a year. This did not happen and consequentially my time at Grammar School wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Bill either. He was twenty at the outbreak of the Second World War and served throughout as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He did not rise high enough in the ranks to join the civil air force after the war and became a teacher. Next to my grandfather he probably had more effect on my personality than any other relation. He was a free thinker, doubting that the Holy Eucharist of the Catholic Mass transubstantiates into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, creator of the Universe. It seems a bit unlikely to me and that is probably Bill’s doing. Because of my Uncle Bill I’m a reasonable swimmer. He used to collect me after school five nights a week and take me to Boundary Road Baths in St Helens. Twice a week we would go back to the Baths for swimming lessons so I was swimming seven times in five days and going on Saturday mornings with the local kids. Going to the Majestic Cinema on Friday nights and St Helens Baths on Saturday mornings was our principle form of entertainment until we were old enough to get in the pubs. For most of us, that occurred about the age of fifteen. We were all seasoned drinkers by the time we attained the legal drinking age of eighteen.
Bill was one of the few locals who owned a car when I was a kid. He used to take me with his mother, father, and sister Helen to Ainsdale Beach on Saturdays. So great an impression did these trips to the seaside leave that I can still remember the registration number of his first car – BV 9095. He was a member of West Park Old Boys Cricket Club. He took me to matches where I learned to mark the scorebook. He liked to back horses and took me to racecourses all round the country. Bangor-on-Dee is the racetrack I remember best. He married late in life, on the 15th April 1963, to Marian Wilson, a girl from Stowmarket that he’d met in his time with the Royal Air Force. My Uncle Bill bought the house at 94 Rainford Road from his Aunt Polly and moved in with Marian. Their only child, Paul - cousin to Enid, Irene and I - was born there 25th February 1966. Marian was never happy in Billinge and eventually they moved back to Stowmarket. Paul was a difficult child and this fact may have contributed to my Uncle Bill committing suicide 29th April 1980 aged 60. I found myself in the Stowmarket area this year and called in to see Marian for an hour or so. Paul wasn’t home. She said he was living with a woman somewhere in the area. If Paul produces a male child then the name might progress to another generation. So far he hasn’t done so.
Sarah Helen, the last child, was born 4th May 1921 at the new home up Carr Mill Road. She still lives there. She passed her scholarship and was educated at Notre Damme High School for Girls at St. Helens. My Aunt Nelly never married. She stayed home and looked after her parents. For years she worked for a chemist in St. Helens but when Molly came home from Redcar she changed professions to become a nurse. She retired in 1981 at the age of sixty; a year after Adam Bell died in 1980. She and Molly stayed together until Molly herself died in 1996. Only two of Francis Taylor’s children will see out the twentieth century. His four grandchildren, his eight great grandchildren and his three (four if the Stork comes on time27) great, great grandchildren will all see in the new millennium. None of them will connect the event to him quite like I will. He was right. He will have been gone a long time when the day comes.
My grandfather, Frank Taylor, died 28th July 1965 aged 86. Helen, my grandmother, died 12th July1962 aged 81. Frank was thoroughly working class. Helen came from a more sedate upbringing. My grandmother never engaged in debate. Her response to any attempt to involve her in sensitive discussion was met with her stock phrase,
“You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe.”
She was a kind, gentle and immensely private person. She rarely passed an opinion and never tried to impose one. Her thoughts were entirely her own. William was her favourite child. He and Sarah Helen took after their mother whereas the other three children tended towards her husband. She once said to William,
“Your father thinks he knows me but he doesn’t.”
They’d been married for fifty years.
James Taylor, the fifth born child of Thomas and Sara, married Jane McLoughlin 30th November 1912. He was killed in action 1917 aged 32. His remains lie in grave 1 B 13 at the Welsh Cemetery at Ieper, West Vlaanderen, Belgium. He left no children. Jane never remarried. She stayed faithful to her husband’s memory to her grave. She was one of the daughters of two Irish immigrants, James McLoughlin from Dublin and Mary Murphy. James, a collier, found lodgings in Fair View with another Irishman, the uncle of Mary Murphy and her sister, both working in the cotton mills in Bolton. When the sisters came to visit their uncle in Billinge, romance blossomed. James and Mary were married at St. Mary’s. Jane McLoughlin was one of their six children. Jane’s eldest brother, James McLoughlin, married Ann Cunliffe, who was a younger sister of Sara Taylor nee Cunliffe, James Taylor’s mother. James therefore married the sister of his aunt by marriage.
Lawrence Taylor served in the navy during the Great War so the family had members in all three services. He married Hanna Bold at St Oswald’s, Ashton, 15th April 1921 then moved to Bury. There was some dispute within the family and he did not communicate for years. Eventually my grandfather, father and Uncle Bill went down to Bury, after my grandmother died, and found him. They brought him back to Billinge. He stayed at Carr Mill Road with my grandfather for a couple of months and became reacquainted with his old Billinge friends. My father remembers Lawrence as being the least serious of the Taylor brothers, more inclined to joke and have a laugh than the others. That trip back home must have settled him as he died shortly after returning to Bury. There is an entry in the St. Mary’s registry for him being buried 18th December 1962. No age is given but he would have been 75. Lawrence had a daughter, Gertrude, who emigrated to New Zealand. She was born 18th June 1921. Before I left for that same country in 1974, my Uncle Bill, then living with his wife Marian and son Paul at 94 Rainford Road, gave me Gertrude’s name and address. Soon after arriving in Auckland I found her in the phone book and spoke to her briefly. She was living on the North Shore. There was no way I could get over to see her at that time and I never made contact with her again. I have forgotten her married name and her cousins, my father and my Aunt Nelly, likewise.
Gertrude Taylor married Christopher Nulty of Arch Lane Garswood on 10th October 1914. They are buried together at St Oswald’s. Gertrude died 9th May 1959 aged 69. Chris died 23rd October1978 aged 90. They had a large family. The youngest of these, Margaret, lives with her husband, Len De la Haye, close to my parents in Tracks Lane. Gertrude was a good singer. One of her daughters, Philomenia, became an opera singer and eventually moved to America.
Eleanor Taylor married Ellis Morley. I haven’t been able of find the date of the marriage. They were married in Wigan, not at St Mary’s. They had two children, a daughter, Sarah Margaret, and a son, James. Ellis played rugby league for Wigan Highfield when that team was on par with Wigan. He was a big man with red hair and my father remembers him fondly. Eleanor worked as a nurse at Billinge hospital. The tiny stone house where they once lived, up what is now Green Slate Court, but was then The Patches, is still standing. Eventually the family moved away, for reasons probably related to employment. My father was playing bowls at St. James’s one afternoon when a particularly striking red haired lady walked onto the green and asked if she might speak with her cousin. My father replied that he did not think he had such an attractive cousin. It was Sally Morley. He has never seen her since.
On the fifteenth of May 1925, Thomas Taylor married Katharine Emily Morris, a girl from Corfe Castle in Dorset that he met when he was in the Royal Flying Corps. She gave birth to a boy named Leo, 20th July 1931, in the town of Mere, but died sixteen days later. Eleanor and Ellis Morley raised Leo in Billinge, until the age of 6. Thomas re married Alice Beatrice Formby, originally from the town of Formby, in 1936. Beatrice was from a large family. She and another sister were farmed out to relatives in North Wales whereupon Thomas met and married her. Leo then went back to live with his father and stepmother. There were other three children by this second marriage. Kathleen Elizabeth married Brain Morgan 8th October 1960 and has three girls and one boy. Beatrice Ellen married John Adams 15th April 1968 and has one daughter. James married Denise Fredricka Conde five days after his sister Beatrice’s wedding. They are both schoolteachers and have no children to date. James and I were born the same year. Our fathers share the same name but are from separate generations of the same family.
Leo Taylor married Eira Morris, a dark haired Welsh girl from Beddgelert, in the shadow of Mount Snowdon, 21st November 1959. He was a forester when they met and his love of the outdoors eventually took him to the summit of the Matterhorn. He was a mountaineer and a ski instructor who became an authority on the flora in Snowdonia National Park before his died April this year. His ashes were scattered in November in his beloved Gwynant Valley. His son, Mark, has his father’s ginger hair. He was born 10th January 1979 and lives with his mother in that beautiful little village where, in the thirteenth century, Prince Llewelyn mistakenly slew the faithful wolfhound, Gelert, that gives the village its name.
My grandfather always claimed that Thomas was the best sportsman the family ever produced. I have a photo of him being presented with a trophy for winning the 100 yards flat handicap at Swindon 2nd July 1921. Grandfather used to say that Thomas could run one hundred yards in even time. He was also an accomplished boxer but a dislocated shoulder, caused by a propeller kicking back as he started his aeroplane in the First World War, forever after would come out of socket with little provocation. That injury ended the boxing career. Thomas, like his elder brothers James and Lawrence, served in the First World War. Somewhere there is a photograph of him standing by an early warplane. Dangerous as such an occupation must have been, he survived the war. James didn’t. Thomas must have had a mechanical inclination. Though he started work at Carr Mill Arley Colliery, after the war he was qualified as an AA man. Gertrude’s youngest child, Margaret, has a photo of him by his AA motorbike and sidecar. The silverware and medals he accumulated as a result of his sporting prowess are now the family heirlooms of his children and grandchildren.
There’s a cross set into the wall outside where Birchley School has been relocated, commemorating Annie Gaskell, a six-year-old, killed there in 1899. Dean Powell had the memorial placed where the accident happened. We were taught to say a prayer for her soul as we passed this spot, as were the previous generations before us. Annie was on her way home from school to Moss Bank on Friday 1 September 1899 when she was run over by a horse drawn lorry, belonging to Messrs Charles Wilcock and Son of St Helens. The driver, Robert Smith of Dentons Green, was exonerated from all blame at an inquest held at the George and Dragon three days later. Evidence given at that inquest stated that the driver was distracted by children running alongside the wagon and that Annie had undergone an operation on her eyes some time previously due to her having poor eyesight. Five months after the accident, a daughter born to the parents, Joseph and Mary Gaskell, was named Annie in her memory. Such was the custom of the times28. Children were often named after a sister or brother who died prematurely. This second Annie Gaskell grew up and married a man called Burnett. They had a daughter called Jean who married a Harold Lowe. Jean Burnett, before she became Jean Lowe, was a Catholic and the Lowes were fairly staunch Protestants. In those days mixed marriages caused problems. They had one child, Elizabeth Anne, now married to Adrian Birchall, one of the seven sons of Wilf Birchall who sang at Covent Garden. Wilf was one of the children of James Birchall’s second marriage. His first produced Mini Parr, mother of Don Lewis who wrote ‘The Billingers’. Gaskell is a common surname in our part of Lancashire. If these Gaskells were related to my grandmother I have not been able to ascertain how.
My great grandmother’s last child, Aloysius Taylor, was born two months before young Annie Gaskell met her sad demise. He had just turned nineteen when his mother died in 1918. As his formidable eldest sister, Polly, never married, Aloysius stayed with her, even after he married Margaret Costello, daughter of Patrick Costello and Margaret nee Tinsley from Crank, 26th July 1932. They had two daughters, Margaret Mary and Esther Patricia. Margaret Mary married Ronald Pye, the son of Stanley and Elsie Pye, from North Road St Helens, 5th Match 1957. They have two daughters, Deborah Jane and Gillian. Esther Patricia married Anthony Fallon, son of James and Agnes Fallen, 16th September 1961. Their two children are Paul Damian, 11th December 1962, and Catherine Maria, 14th April 1964. Aloysius was a character and a good all round sportsman. He died 15th March1982 aged 82 and his wife Margaret died 2nd January 1986 aged 81. They are buried at St. Mary’s in the same grave
On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather’s father was a Taylor and his mother was a Cunliffe. My grandmother’s father was a Gaskell and her mother was a Wilcock.
The 1851 census shows this family living in the Rant.
Thomas Wilcock 41 Head Victualler Born: Abram
Ann Wilcock 30 Wife Born: Billinge
Mary Ann Wilcock 10 Daughter Scholar Born: Upholland
Thomas Wilcock 6 Son Scholar Born: Upholland
Jane Wilcock 4 Daughter Scholar Born: Upholland
Margaret Wilcock 1 Daughter At home Born: Billinge
Ann Harper 62 Mother-in-law Born: Billinge
Elizabeth Wilcock 8 Daughter Scholar Born: Upholland
Thomas & Ann Wilcock are my great, great, grandparents. Abram is a fair way from Upholland so how they came to be in Upholland I can only speculate. Possibly the Harpers originate there.
The 1861 census shows
Thomas Wilcock 51 Head Tanner Born: Billinge
Ann Wilcock 40 Wife Born: Billinge
Margaret Wilcock 21 Daughter Born: Billinge
Mary Ann Wilcock 11 Daughter Born: Billinge
William Wilcock 1 Son Born: Billinge
Early census records are notoriously inaccurate. In1861 the girls’ ages have been mixed up and Thomas' place of birth has changed but this is the same family. William's birth certificate names his mother as nee Harper. By then they were living at the bottom of Carr Mill Road, where my father would be born fifty three years later. Mary Ann Wilcock would eventually marry James Gaskell, a farmer's son from Ashton, on 29th March 1875 at St. Mary’s. James would cross then re cross the Atlantic before his marriage. Here comes the travelling gene. The photograph of my great, great grandmother, Anne Wilcock, with one of her sons, is the oldest family photograph still in our possession. Her husband Thomas must have been born 1809/10 and that is a far back as I have been able to go on the Wilcock line at present.
Gaskell is a common name in our part of Lancashire. The Gaskell line that we belong to came from Ashton. They were farmers.
The 1841 census shows,
William 65. Farmer
John 40 Farmer
James 35 Farmer
Cecily 30 Wife
William 7 Son
Joseph 5 Son
James 2 Son
John 7 months Son
The 1851 census shows,
Thomas Gaskell 47 Head Farmer
Cecily Gaskell 40 Wife
Joseph Gaskell 16 Son Carpenters apprentice
James Gaskell 12 Son Scholar
John Gaskell 10 Son Scholar
Ellen Gaskell 7 Daughter Scholar
George Gaskell 4 Son
Charles Gaskell 1 Son
Francis Gaskell under 1 Son
All born Ashton-in-Mackerfield
There is a problem with Thomas, named in the 1851 census as the head of the household. He may have been James’ brother, born between John and James, but where was James at the time of the census?
My great grandfather, James Gaskell, was born 22nd July 1838, a year before the Chartist riots and two years before the Penny Post was introduced. He was born when the Tokugawa Shogunate still ruled Japan, ten years before Marx and Engles published the Communist Manifesto and twenty years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. He died 2nd May 1908 aged 69, six months before his third daughter married my grandfather. It is almost certain that he was the only person ever to have lived in this area after experiencing, first hand, the American Civil War. He is buried at St. Oswald’s, Ashton, with his wife, Mary Ann. That she would live on, through a war even more appalling in its squandering of human life than the one he experienced, is a something he could hardly have imagined. How could he have imagined the unimaginable? She died 10th September 1928 aged 88.
Great grandfather James’ parents were James and Cecily nee Burgess. James Gaskell married Cecily Burgess on 25 January 1831 at St. Oswald’s, Winwick, and John Gaskell married Jane Burgess on 28 April 1828, also at Winwick. It looks as if great, great grandfather James and his brother John may have married two sisters. We presume, from my great aunt Cecily’s letter to her sister Helen - my grandmother - that the parents of these two brothers Gaskell were William and Ellen from Low Bank Farm. This letter is the only document that has passed down to my generation that gives any indication of the lives of our ancestors. Reading through that one short page made me feel that I could somehow reach out into the past and touch it. It prompted me to compile this rendition of family history for any future interested party and I will now reproduce it in full.
29 March 1934
The Gaskells came over with the Gerards as their vassals when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. Living in Ashton today are the descendants of two other families who came over, the Lowes and the Roses. The Gerards in return for their services to William the Conqueror were awarded great tracts of land in Lancashire between Wigan and Warrington, two ancient Saxon towns. The Gaskells, Lowes & Roses would be their men-at arms & in return would have been granted smaller tracts of land.
The Gaskells were yeoman farmers. I have heard my father talk of his Grandfather William Gaskell & Grandmother Helen Gaskell who lived at Low Bank Farm, Ashton. They had two sons, John & James. John was our grandfather. He had a farm of his own, the ‘Greenhalges’ in North Ashton. He married Cecily Burgess, our grandmother. They had a large family of 12 sons & 2 daughters. Three sons died in infancy. My father used to tell us that our grandfather always objected to being forced to pay tithe to support the Protestant clergy - so he sold his farm and took his family to America, except uncle William who was at Ushaw Collage Durham, studying for the priesthood. Uncle Will died soon after his ordination. He was attending the sick when typhus fever was raging at Seaham Harbor, Durham, when he caught the fever and died. I am very proud of him.
My father came back to England in 1875 and married my mother. They had been lovers before Father went to America.
Our grandmother, Cecily Burgess, was a daughter of one of the younger branches of the Burgess’s who were smaller gentry and came from near Lancaster. They were staunch Catholics and during the penal days came to Bryn to be under the protection of the Gerards, one of the leading Catholic families of the country. In the course of the years, when the penal laws were relaxed, the elder branch of the Burgess family went back to their home near Lancaster whilst the younger branch remained in Bryn. The Burgess’s were staunch Catholics. To this day a great treasure, ‘the Martyrs Altar,’ an oak cupboard with a concealed altar on which many Lancashire priests, including the glorious martyrs Father Edmund Campion and Father Edmund Arrowsmith, offered mass in the dead of night in the penal days, is in the possession of Mrs. Clarkson, of Bolton-le-Sands, near Lancashire. This lady is the direct descendant of the eldest branch of the Burgess’s and a kinswoman of our. She has a son, a priest. Father Baybutt, my brother in law knows him very well and has often talked about this altar. I have never seen it but have seen a photo of it.
May we always be faithful to our Holy Catholic faith, which has been so carefully handed down to us through all the troublesome times.
Signed by Cecily A Baybutt nee Gaskell.
Cecily never met her grandparents or any of their children except her father. If the facts she discloses in this letter are true, they went to America around 1860, long before she was born. She must have heard whatever she knew about her forefathers from her father. She can be forgiven mistakes. Her father’s parents were James (not John) and Cecily nee Burgess. I have confirmed this in the registry of St. Oswald’s, Ashton. That church was opened in 1822 and is interwoven with the history of the Gerard family, which can be traced back in the direct male line to Otho, a baron of England in the sixteenth year of King Edward the Confessor (1042-66). Edward had been exiled in Normandy for twenty-five years before acceding to the throne. When he died without issue in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, won the throne in battle from Harold, Earl of Wessex, the last Anglo-Saxon claimant to the throne of England. Perhaps a forefather of the Gaskell line came across the Channel with William. Perhaps the Gaskell family was already aligned with the Gerard family in England before the Conquest. Cecily’s claim may be accurate but there are no written records to substantiate it that I have yet been able scrutinise. I doubt they exist.
There are records of the marriages of James Gaskell to Cecily Burgess in 1831 and John Gaskell to Jane Burgess in 1828 in the registry of St. Oswald’s in Winwick. James and Cecily are my great, great grandparents. John is the elder brother but Jane, according to the 1841 census, is ten years older that John. Maybe that is true, maybe it is a mistake. In the 1841 census the ages of adults are rounded off to the nearest five years. I did a search for William Gaskell married to Helen (bearing in mind Helen is often given as Ellen) and there were two good possibilities. William Gaskell married Ellen Birchall 21 August 1791 and William Gaskell married Ellen Hewitt 9 January 1798. I could not find a record of the death of Ellen, wife of William Gaskell, between 21 August 1791 and 9 January 1798, so enabling me to pinpoint Ellen Hewitt as the mother of John and James. The 1841 census shows William to be sixty-five. Therefore in 1791 he would have been fifteen. In 1798 he would have been twenty-two. It is safe to presume that William Gaskell and Ellen Hewitt are my great, great, great grandparents. William was born two years either side of 1776. This as far back as I can go back on the Gaskell line for now.
That James and Cecily uprooted their family and emigrated to America fascinates me. James must have been over fifty at the time. That his son James returned to find the love he’d been forced to leave parallels, for me, the events in the remarkable Civil War novel ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier, the book I read shortly before leaving for America in June 1999. My son, Louis, and I made a journey exceeding sixteen thousand miles by road through thirty-one American States. We were hoping to find our long lost relatives. It didn’t happen but we often felt we were treading in their footsteps.
When I finally read ‘The Billingers’ in 1997, the chapter that moved me most was ‘The Andertons of Birchley’ because the author had been to America and tracked down his long lost Anderton relatives. It made me want to meet the guy. I could see we had things in common though he had a lot more between his ears. That same chapter brought back to me the story that my grandfather had told me about the Billinge treasure. Again, with Don Lewis’s permission, that chapter is here reproduced in full.
THE ANDERTONS OF BIRCHLEY
On a bleak February morning in 1889, three St. Helens journalists set out on a special assignment and trudged their way to Billinge through six inches of snow. As they themselves put it, no sanguine tramway or railway promoters had ever turned a pitying eye on the inhabitants of Billinge, so that the traveller to that ancient hill-side hamlet was compelled “either to wheel it or walk it”. They seem to have found the trip somewhat arduous in the wintry conditions and one of them described the venture in the following words;
“Three travellers with aching backs,
Half buried in the snow, made tracks,
Each grasping with a look seraphic,
Some apparatus photographic
The three men were employees of the “St. Helens Lantern” at the time a fortnightly publication giving “Reflection on the Labours, Recreations and Distractions of her People”. They puffed and pulled their way up Moss Bank, “with many a slip and backward slide”, and at last the summit was attained. At this critical stage they discovered they had left their notebooks back in St. Helens, so they scampered after a bunch of juvenile Moss Bankites “trooping into school” and gained possession of a few “copy books”, thus avoiding a painful delay in the work they had to do. Still out of breath, they paused for a short respite on top of Moss Bank, before completing the last lap into Billinge.
Birchley valley lay at their feet. To the right the waters of Carr Mill Dam gleamed between the leafless branches of the plantation of trees around it. Halfway up the opposing hill they could see the square outline of Birchley Church and, beyond, the straggling line of grey cottages to Slack Farm and the “Labour in Vain” and the crooked Main Street twisting up to the dominant silhouette of St. Aidan’s at the top. The Beacon, seen at its best from this angle, crowned the cheerless February scene, still white from the previous Sunday’s blizzard. In line with the Beacon, and two hundred yards to the left of Birchley Church, they could just make out the bulky shape of another building, well back from the road and mysteriously shrouded among bushes and trees to be well-nigh invisible from the highway itself. This old, imposing structure, their destination of that morning, was Birchley Hall, a Catholic stronghold steeped in history and adventure.
The word was out that a Protestant landowner had offered ten thousand pounds to Lord Gerard, the owner, for Birchley Hall and Estate, on condition the Catholic schools nearby were removed elsewhere. The journalists had an appointment that very day with Father Austin Powell, the Chaplain of St. Mary’s Birchley, to ascertain the fate of the Hall, which had been rebuilt by Catholics in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, and had served as a Catholic Mission since 1645.
A crisis at Birchley was nothing new; indeed the very survival of Catholicism in the Birchley valley is a remarkable story and one which reflects credit on several generations of Billingers of all faiths. Billinge, after the days of Henry the Eighth, was traditionally Protestant. The population figure of 1717 show a total of 198 families, of which 174 were listed as Protestant, 10 Papist and 14 Dissenters. Birchley Hall itself was reconstructed at a most difficult time for English Catholics, for the Penal Laws were such that even to declare oneself a Catholic endangered livelihood and possibly life. It was under such conditions that the Anderton family of Birchley clandestinely transformed the Hall into a centre of Catholic resistance and the story of their struggle is as exciting as any modern spy drama. “Plain clothes” priests posed as farmers in the Birchley area, and in the concealed chambers of Birchley Hall, operated a secret printing press- the first Catholic Press in England since the Reformation. Things were really happening in Billinge in the days leading up to the Civil War.
Birchley Hall owes its historical importance to the dynamic, prolific Anderton family, which took it over shortly after the middle of the 16th century. The Birchley estate had belonged to the de Heton family from the 13th to the 16th century and a mill house, possibly erected around 1450, had stood on the site of the present Hall. William de Heton went to live at Birchley around 1500 and remodelled the mill-house in the early part of his residence, so that the first reference to the mill-house in 1558 describes it as being in the timbered or “Chester” style. The name Birchley is thought by some to derive from the Old Norse “bjarkar” (cf. modern Swedish “bjork) meaning “birch” and Anglo Saxon “leah” (grass-land). Dean Powell, however, pointed out that the trees surrounding Birchley were at that time mainly chestnuts and that hardly a birch-tree could be found on the estate. He considered the name derived from “Birchall-ley”since one of the tenants of the mill-house had been a Thomas Birchall.
In 1550 William de Heton the Younger was in debt to a certain Roger Wetherelt of Lincoln’s Inn. By coincidence, Heton’s brother-in-law, Christopher Anderton, was also a lawyer- and a very good one-at Lincoln’s Inn. Anderton appears to have succeeded in purchasing Birchley around 1558, though the actual transfer of property seems to have taken place in 1581. At any rate Christopher and his son James are both credited with the rebuilding of the Hall at considerable expense, although it was likely that Christopher had obtained the estate at a bargain price, since the sovereigns of the day played shuttlecock with Catholic estates, as Dean Powell put it, and a Catholic would have to be out of his mind to start investing in land and property at that time. The Andertons, however, were no ordinary Catholic, and Christopher not only walked the tightrope with confidence, but died a man “of many acres”, in 1593. The family owned the important Lostock Estate and many others, but they did a good job on the rebuilding of Birchley, producing a fine example of an Elizabethan mansion, three-storied in Billinge stone with large gabled wings, a recessed centre and fine chimneys. James’s younger brother Thurston also made his contribution and his initials “T.A.” appear over the original front door opposite the date 1594. After James’s death, it was the youngest brother, Roger Anderton, who took charge and who in fact really founded “the Andertons of Birchley”, producing 6 sons and 4 daughters. Four of the sons became priests and three of the girls nuns.
There was no end to Roger’s energy. He was a much stouter Recusant than the Andertons before him and he began to implement measures which his predecessors had up to now avoided. Both Christopher and James were good Catholics at heart, but they were both averse to “playing ball” with those who imposed the new religion. Roger, on the contrary, moved from the defensive to the offensive and it is probably in the period of apathetic Protestantism following 1595 that he involved his family and friends in the installation of the secret printing press described above.
It is worth pausing for a moment to ask oneself why a man of Roger Anderton’s background and standing would suddenly begin to work against the throne and expose himself and those near to him to expropriation and perhaps death. What were his motives and how dangerous in fact was his course of action? It must be borne in mind that only a few decades previously England had been a Catholic country and the landed gentry were naturally strong supporters of the King. After the Reformation, English Catholics rejected, in varying degrees, the imposition of the new religion, but few of them wavered in their loyalty to the throne. A Catholic admiral commanded the British fleet that sailed against the Catholic Spanish Armada. Catholics stayed loyal to the Stuarts and incurred the wrath of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. It was only natural that some of the people who demonstrated unswerving loyalty to King and Queen would also retain loyalty to the old faith. It was a severe dilemma for conservative Lancashire and her people. Roger Anderton had to make the difficult decision for himself. He was an Englishman from a good family blessed with land, property and education. His allegiance to the throne was unquestioned. One of his sons was in fact to turn soldier and fall fighting in the Royalist Army. But was the new religion good or bad for England? As one of the most important men in Billinge, how should he use his influence? Which side should he be on?
Christopher and James had compromised, and with good reason, but Roger took the plunge. He was a courageous man, for almost everything he did was illegal.
A look at some of the Penal Laws will show us what risks he was running:
A priest caught saying Mass could be imprisoned for life.
Catholics receiving education abroad forfeited their estates to the next Protestant heir.
Any son of a Protestant house who became a Catholic was not allowed to receive his inheritance.
No Catholic could acquire legal property by purchase.
No Catholic could sit in the House of Lords or Commons, neither could he sit on a Judge’s Bench or practise as a lawyer.
No Catholic had a legal claim to a horse valued above five pounds. (That meant that any one could take away his horse by offering him that sum for it. A story is told of a Catholic gentleman who, on being offered five pounds each for his carriage horses, went to the stable and shot them all).
No Catholic could carry arms.
No Catholic could teach.
Catholics would be fined for not attending the Protestant Church.
These laws were not always enforced and the Andertons had been successful skating on thin ice several years, but rewards were offered for information leading to the conviction of Catholic offenders. Roger was well aware that one informer, for a sum of one hundred pounds, could lead to disaster, financial ruin and imprisonment for all the Andertons. Nevertheless he set about organizing his underground movement. For some time the family had stayed away from the parish church and Roger paid the fines for his absence. It was natural that Catholics would hear Mass in secret and in 1618 a chapel had been added to Birchley Hall, disguised as a granary. There are now steps on the outside of the wing leading up to the chapel door, but originally it was a blank wall and the only access to the chapel was from the upper floors of the main house. The construction of the granary would appear quite normal in view of the agricultural nature of the estate and its mill-house traditions. In order to discover the religious service, Protestant spies would have first had to penetrate the main house, with it many rooms and passages and find their way to the upper floors without disturbing any of the inhabitants. It is unlikely that the Andertons would have left the route to the chapel entrance unguarded and we can safely assume that the alarm would be given. The interior of the chapel itself is striking in its simplicity and it would be a matter of seconds for the priest to gather up the sacred vessels and escape through a trap door, which is still in evidence in a small room off the sanctuary. A ladder led down to the concealed presbytery below and it is possible that further secret passages led back into the main building and even underground to Birchley Wood. It is supposed that a fire was kept lit for burning vestments and other items in an emergency and that a plan would be in operation to decoy intruders in various ways while the priest made good his escape or donned his “plain clothes” in his hiding place. Finally there would be a lookout man on the roof during Mass.
Such were the security arrangements at Birchley Hall that we have no record of any priest having been caught or arrested on the premises. A Missal and Chalice were found hidden under the trap-door, inferring that concealment was a necessity, but it would appear that the “country squires” managed to keep their aliases intact and held regular Mass while no doubt learning something about local farming in the meantime. Away from Birchley Hall, however, protection was not always so well organized. ,One of the priests who offered Mass at Birchley was St. Ambrose Barlow, born near Manchester in 1585. He became a Benedictine monk at Douai and returned to Lancashire after ordination. Arrested one Easter Sunday morning, just after finishing Mass, he was hanged drawn and quartered at Lancaster in 1641.
The construction of secret passages and places of concealment at Birchley had been a defensive operation, but now Roger began offensive manoeuvres. One of the difficulties faced by the Catholics of the time was that of making their views known to the people. We would say today that the government controlled the media and not only was it forbidden to print Catholic literature in England, but the importation of Catholic books from abroad was also a treasonable activity. The Jesuit press at St. Omers in France produced the books, which were needed to combat the many anti-Catholic works being written, but you risked your head to get them across the Channel. Roger not only brought in books, but was almost certainly involved in importing a whole printing press from the Continent and setting it up within the bowels of Birchley. The hazards were tremendous. Apart from the problem of shipping bulky equipment, great care would have to be taken in choosing printing type, to avoid providing investigators with easy clues as to its origin. Then there was the question of choosing the operators, for printers at that time were regarded as special craftsmen and Roger would have to be sure not only of their professional competence but also of their religious convictions. We can imagine that the work was noisy and arduous and that the printers (also dressed as rural characters) would be glad to escape from their clandestine production and spend a few hours walking in the fields and, it is said, taking exercise in the caves and copses, which adjoined the estate.
In spite of the many problems, “Operation Birchley” achieved many of its objectives. At least sixteen books seem to nave been printed on the secret press and one Wigan authority estimates the number of books and pamphlets printed there to have been over sixty. Who were the authors? It is likely that Roger Anderton himself wrote some of the early ones, using a pseudonym, but his first cousin, Lawrence Anderton, was more active and qualified for the work and wrote under the name of John Brereley. Lawrence had graduated from Cambridge, become a Jesuit at 28 and was known as “Golden-mouthed Anderton” on account of his eloquent speeches. He resided for a while at Birchley and there is little doubt that he would be regarded as the star author in the Billinge writing team. Rome was determined to win back her lost provinces and Lancashire was one of the prizes. Lawrence Anderton was made superior of the Lancashire provinces in 1621 but in the same year the Birchley printing press was raided. There seem to have been some indications that the authorities suspected the existence of a secret press in Billinge as early as 1613, but the luck of the Andertons had held out for almost a decade more. The curate of St. Peter’s Chapel in Newton-le-Willows stated in a 1624 publication that “there was a printing-house in Lancashire, suppressed about some three years since, where all Brereley his works, with many other Popish pamphlets were printed.”
This may of may not have been the end of the Birchley press, for it is said that the incredible Roger rode out this storm and actually reactivated the printing through the 1620s. Lawrence Anderton, certainly, continued to publish works, although these may have been printed in other parts of Lancashire or even abroad. Whether the press continued to function or not, Roger still had another 20 years to go. He seems to have thrived on danger and intrigue and died of natural causes (we are not sure exactly at what age) in 1640. There were, of course, sons to follow him. James, the heir, took possession of the Hall on his father’s death. The second son, also named Roger, had entered the priesthood and was educated at St. Omers. Later he went to the English College in Rome, where he was entered into the records as “Edward Poole”- another example of a Birchley alias. Two of Roger’s brothers adopted the name of Shelly and another that of Stanford. Roger was ordained in 1645 at the age of 24 and in the same year came to take charge of the Birchley mission. There has been an unbroken line of priests at Birchley to the present day. They used the “granary” chapel until 1828, when a Catholic Church was finally erected on the side of the highway.
The young Roger Anderton had not inherited the Hall, but he did inherit his father’s incredible stamina. He was created Archdeacon of Lancashire in 1676 and served the mission at Birchley fifty years until his death in 1695, “leaving the sum of two hundred pounds for the maintenance of a secular priest to officiate at Birchley, on two Sundays every month”. His brother James, the heir, bore no sons. His only daughter, Elizabeth, inherited the Hall and passed it on to her daughter, Mary, who had married Sir William Gerard, a well-known Catholic of the area. Thus Birchley Hall became part of the Gerard Estates and the line of the Andertons, of Birchley came to an end. The close association with the Catholic Church continued however. If the succeeding priests were not actually Anderton’s they were priests in the full-blooded Anderton tradition. When the Gerards rented off parts of the Hall to other families, (not always Catholic) they were careful to stipulate that the mission be allowed to function unhindered. It was the Protestant offer of 1889 to purchase the Hall outright, accompanied by the conditions stated, that had provoked the crisis, which sent our three St. Helen’s scribes hurrying over the fields to Dean Powell.
The priests who followed Roger Anderton in the mission continued to use aliases. Thomas Jameson was known as “Sedden” and Thomas Young as “Brooks”, and so on. One of the later priests bore the splendid name of Rev. Emerick Grimbalderstone. The Rev. John Penswick built St. Mary’s Birchley in 1828 and died at Garswood, in 1864 at the age of 86. During the 18th century the baronet Andertons of Lostock appeared to have kept up their connection with Birchley and one name from their line stands out in particular in this respect. This was Sir Francis Anderton (1680-1760). He seems to have visited Birchley regularly and is said to have raised fighting-cocks on the estate. Indeed Birchley and Moss Bank appear to have become a well-known centre for sport and gambling around 1730-40. The Duke of Suffolk is reputed to have matched his cocks against those of Francis Anderton in a pit in a field to the rear of the “Black Horse”. Thomas Martlew, a collector of antiques and owner of a luxurious cottage on the slopes of Moss Bank, is said to have been a good friend of Francis and gambled his valued possessions on various cockfights. Sir Francis was the last of the Andertons that we know had a close connection with Birchley Hall. He was clearly very different in character from his serious-minded cousins, but he was a typical Anderton in that he had tremendous energy and lived till he was eighty. We may say that with his death the story of the Andertons of Birchley comes to an end. The deeds of Christopher, James and the two Rogers are fairly well authenticated and there is little doubt that Sir Francis’s activities in Billinge made a real contribution to the village’s colourful history.
But the story does not quite end there. It has not been my intention in this book to write a history of Billinge, for this can be gleaned from the record books, but rather to put down all I know about the people of Billinge, their ways, their thoughts and their lore. In trying to do so, I would be wrong if I ignored gossip, or superstition or legend. And there is one legend which has been passed down from generation to generation- that of the Andertons and the Treasure.
Before devoting a few lines to this subject, I think it is time we got our shivering journalists out of the February cold and into the warmth of Birchley Hall. Dean Powell was waiting for them, surrounded by his reference books. As this famous Billinge chaplain is worth a chapter all to himself, I propose to leave details of their interview till later in this book and go back for a while to discuss an event which may or may not have taken place sometime between 1642 and 1700.
The Andertons had hung on to their property and wealth partly through their own intelligence, skill and luck, partly through the independent character of Protestant Billingers, unwilling to turn informers against respected neighbours. The Civil War was to follow, however, and one version of the legend is that an Anderton buried treasure-sovereigns, jewels and pewter in the troublesome times of Cromwell. The Civil War lasted from 1642 to 1649. Another version is that one of the Andertons, in the latter part of the 17th century, married a rich Irishwoman and returned to Billinge by stagecoach, bringing with him his Irish bride and her fortune in gold and jewels. He is reputed to have stopped the coach at night outside or on the outskirts of Billinge, gone off into the darkness with the treasure and a spade and buried it good and proper. The task took him over two hours, so he is likely to have made a good job of it. He made such a good job of it that the treasure has never been seen since. His wife, who said to be unhappy about burying the fortune in the first place, was even cooler towards him when he discovered he was unable to find it again.
Whatever truth there may be in either of these two stories, the legend of the Anderton treasure was firmly established by 1700. Joseph Anderton, the grandfather of Susannah, was born in 1790 and his grandparents had not only told him about it but had actually looked for it. Susannah (b. 1841) believed that it had been found in her lifetime and that the finders had kept quiet about it. Many Billingers in the 1880s and 90s considered it was still under the ground and it was not uncommon for old men to go off and look in the woods for it. Others said it had been buried ten miles away and it would be impossible to trace its whereabouts within such a wide radius.
The original Andertons of Anderton, Lancashire, threw out many junior houses and if you follow a curve running from Anderton through Eccleston, Mawdesley, Wrightington, Appley Bridge, Skelmersdale and Billinge, the tombstones in the churchyards along the route show the resting places of a goodly number of them who died on the 19th century. At least three Andertons emigrated to America. They were sisters - Lavinia, Phoebe and Maria - and were probably nieces of Joseph Anderton, as Susannah kept in touch with them for a while when she was a young woman. They had all gone over on the same boat sometime in the 1840s- three young, good-looking and presumably fertile girls. Phoebe, the eldest, was already a young widow and took two small sons with her. Jim Parr visited them during his American journey in the 1860s and reported that they had all got married and were doing well. One of them had married a man called Duncan Hamilton, for whom Jim had conceived a great admiration. Hamilton was said to have been the illegitimate son of duke. He was a proud, resourceful man, not without money, and he had helped all the sisters to settle down over there. Another sister had married someone called Gee and the third a man called Speakman. Jim spoke of a fine handsome boy named John Speakman. They were in New York and Illinois and were in the hotel business. That was all we knew. Jim had no doubt related much more, but nothing had been written down and all the letters from the American Andertons had been thrown away.
About 1955 someone down Long Fold turned up an old, brown photograph which had been lying in a bottom drawer for close on 70 years. It was an imposing picture. It showed a group of approximately thirty people arranged in three rows in front of a large wooden frame house. The back row was standing, the middle row sitting and the front row squatting on the grass. Those sitting on chairs were the elder members of the family. In the dead centre sat an austere old man with an abundant white beard, side-whiskers and an aristocratic air. There could be no doubt as to who ruled the clan. This would be the redoubtable Duncan Hamilton. It was not surprising that Jim Parr had taken a liking to him. Both were tall, upright, proud-looking men with a reputation for scholarship and justice. Next to Hamilton was sitting an equally proud-looking woman with her hair done up in a severe bun, her arms folded and her chin jutting forward. She strongly resembled Susannah and we knew that this was either Phoebe, Lavinia or Maria. The remaining eight men and women on chairs were subjects of great controversy among us, for we had different opinions as to which ones would be the other two sisters and their husbands. About Hamilton, however , there was unanimity of opinion. On the back row there was a tall, athletic-looking youth of such extraordinary good looks that we felt this must be John Speakman, described so flatteringly by Jim Parr. He seemed to be about twenty on the photograph and had a confident, unmarried look about him. The children appeared brown, mischievous and healthy. The house was vast and solid and we wondered how many of them lived in it. All in all, they looked an impressive clan.
In 1957 I visited the United States of America. As I have some Anderton blood in my veins, it was suggested that I try to contact the American Andertons, who would no doubt be very numerous by now, and possibly quite rich after so many years on the hotel business. One of my problems was that, in trying to locate them, I had very little information to go on. I knew that they were in New York or Illinois, that they had married men called Hamilton, Gee and Speakman, and of course I had the picture. Armed with this aging photograph and a map of the United States, I set forth on my mission. I started in New York.
At that time New York had seven and a half million people and four million telephones. I do not recall any more how many of these telephones belonged to people with the names of Hamilton, Gee and Speakman, but I once wrote the number down and was very impressed by it. I also discovered that if you ring up a New Yorker you have never met and ask him if he had a grandmother called Lavinia, you are not always taken with the seriousness you deserve and can get some very original and lively things said to you in reply.
After a while I gave up on New York and went to Illinois. There we found Americans much more patient and understanding and when my photograph had been examined by some learned professors and wise old journalists, I was assured that the house in the picture was almost certainly in Illinois. More detective work narrowed the area down to Lasalle County, south of Chicago, and a little further investigation found records of a Duncan Hamilton who had lived in the village of Lowell in LaSalle County. It only remained for me to drive there.
We were three in the car, for I had been touring America with an Englishman called Alex and a Swiss friend named Jean-Guy. As we drove south towards LaSalle, we often stopped and visited places of historical interest en route. This resulted in very haphazard scheduling, so that when we reached the town of LaSalle it was already well past midnight and the streets were deserted. There was fog in patches and we did not reach the village of Lowell until two in the morning, being able to read the signposts only from close quarters with headlamps trained on them. We could make out very few houses in the village and decided to park the car inside a park which we found by the highway. Two of us would sleep in the car and Jean-Guy (whose turn it was) would spend the night in his sleeping bag on the grass. He was not too happy about this, but we decided that we could not wake anybody up at that hour, so finally he dragged out his bag, put it carefully on top of a mound, where there was less moisture, climbed in and said good night.
The night passed quickly and I woke up at six. The windows of the car were steamed over on the inside. Rubbing a transparent porthole with the sleeve of my pyjamas, I peeped out at the morning scene. We were in a cemetery and Jean-Guy was sleeping peacefully on a grave. A white mist lay close to the ground, the sun as yet being too weak to disperse it. The grass was heavy with dew and the trees visible over the hedge were leafy green and still. It was a very English scene and could have been in old Billinge. I pulled out the picture and looked at it. The old-fashioned wooden house fitted perfectly into the landscape I could see before me. Amid-western house for sure, the Americans had told me. It was probably less than a mile away. Maybe somebody on the picture was still living in it; some of the tiny children could still be alive. It was difficult for me to imagine them as mid-twentieth century Americans; the picture had too much of Merrie England about it. And yet they would certainly talk like Americans. Would they have an old-fashioned air about them, as Billingers still had? Lowell seemed just as isolated as Billinge, possibly even more so. All we had found of it so far was a graveyard. Maybe old Duncan and Phoebe and Lavinia were sleeping just a few yards away.
Duncan and his wife stared stolidly up at me from the faded brown picture. Our eyes met and for a moment we seemed to bridge those seventy years. As I stared I felt as if I had entered the picture or as if they had come out of it and we had the same grass and trees around us and were breathing the same air. The younger people were watching me expectantly.
The feeling passed. I put the picture on the back window and returned to my century, eager to get going. Pretty soon I should have the answers to many of my questions. I awakened the others. Alex was sleepy-eyed and slow, Jean-Guy full of his usual early morning grumpiness. At that hour they did not share my enthusiasm. They were not their relations. Alex and Jean-Guy have no sense of history.
We had some warm coffee still in our flasks and we managed to put together a few sandwiches. The sun began to melt the fog and birds twittered in the trees around us. It was a lovely morning and had all the signs of a hot day ahead. Time heals all wounds and after a while my two companions began to speak. Alex said we were in a graveyard and Jean-guy told us he had slept on a grave. We packed everything in the car and backed out on to the main road. There was nobody in sight and we drove on slowly until we came to the first houses. There were only ten altogether and none of them looked like the one in my picture. I was not a little disappointed; it had been pulled down, as I had feared. Still I nursed the hope that some of the inhabitants would be able to give me more information. We stopped in front of a large wooden and brick house, which seemed to be the centre of the village. Climbing our, we sat down on the grass and smoked in the sun until there was sign of life.
Our car must have attracted attention, for after half an hour or so an old gentleman in a straw hat came out of the house and asked us if we were looking for somebody. I told him my errand and showed him the picture. He shook his head. Not only did the surnames mean nothing to him, but he was sure there was no house like that still standing in the neighbourhood. He had been living there for twenty years. We tried the other houses and the only shop, but our luck was no better. None we spoke to had been residents of Lowell for more than thirty years. We walked up to the other end of the village and looked round the bend; there were no other dwellings in sight. However, when we returned to the car a youth came up to us and suggested we go and talk to Mrs Price. She was an old lady who lived in the very first house as you came in from the cemetery end. She had just got up and was leaning over the garden gate. The youth said she had been born in Lowell.
I hastened over to her- a frail old lady in her seventies. When I mentioned the names I detected a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. She stretched out her hand:
“Let me look at the picture”.
She took out her spectacles, put them on and scrutinized the faces.
“That is Duncan Hamilton. There’s his wife Phoebe Hamilton next to him.”
“So it was Phoebe who married him. Do you know all the others?”
“I know everybody on this picture, although a lot of them died when I was still young.”
“Which ones are Lavinia and Maria?”
“Oh I never knew them. They didn’t live in this part of the country.”
“You mean they aren’t in the picture at all?”
“No. They are not from Lowell.”
“But who is this lady and that?”
She mentioned unfamiliar names.
“Do you see that three-year-old girl there, playing with her doll?”
You could see the likeness, when you knew.
“Who is that handsome youth? Is it John Speakman?”
“Why, so it is. Poor old John, God bless him. How did you know?”
“We heard he was good-looking.”
“He’s only been dead a few years. Eighty-seven he was. He was as handsome the day he died as he is on that picture. He had white hair and a silky moustache. He looked like Mark Twain.”
“Mrs Price, what happened to the house?”
“What do you mean, what happened to it?”
“Well where is it?”
“Where is it ? You just came from it. That’s it there.”
She pointed to the house where our car stood.
“But that house has an extra wing and no porch.”
“They built the brick wing after this picture was taken. The porch they took down forty years ago. Don’t you recognize it now?”
“Yes. The man who lives in it told us he’d never seen it.”
“Listen, young man, you ought to go and see Grace Poland. She’s John Speakman’s daughter. She lives in Tonica, the next village about three miles down the road.”
“Are there any relations left in Lowell itself?”
Thanking Mrs Price warmly for her information, I returned to the car and took two pictures of the big house, one from close up and another from the spot where the old picture had been taken from. Then I rounded up my colleagues and we drove on for five minutes till we reached the village of Tonica, about half the size of Lowell.
Grace Poland was a small, bespectacled widow in her sixties with snow-white hair and a Lancashire face. She was a pleasant, alert old lady and soon we were chatting readily over tea and sandwiches. I showed her my photograph.
“I have one just like it in one of my drawers. My father often used to take it out and look at it.”
“How many of these people in the picture are descended from the Andertons?”
“Two. Phoebe, my grandmother and John Speakman, my father.”
“Who are all the others?”
“We thought you had a thriving clan over here. Where were Lavinia and Maria?”
“Maria married a Canadian and went to Canada. She died in Vancouver. Lavinia married a man called Gee, but they went to live in Indianapolis. I only saw her once when she came to visit. She was very much like my grandmother.”
“What about Phoebe’s second son?”
“He died on the boat on the way over. There was only John here”
“No children with Duncan?”
“No. He was getting on when he married her>”
“So there are no Hamiltons around?”
“None. And no Speakmans, either. Speakman was the name of Phoebe’s first husband in England.”
“Did John have no sons?”
“No I was the only child.”
“What about Lavinia and Maria?”
Maria had a daughter and there is one grand-daughter. She came back to Illinois. Cousin Susie. She’s a widow of about my age. She lives about ten miles from here.”
“Do you mean that you are the only two left? We imagined there would be scores of you around here. We thought everybody on the picture belonged to the family. Think what thirty people might have produced in three generations.”
“The only person on that picture still alive is Mrs Price.”
“Do you remember Duncan Hamilton?”
“I certainly do. He was a tyrant if ever there was one. Mind you he was honest and straight and all that. He never let you forget it.”
“Was Phoebe happy with him?”
“She tolerated him. She was a pretty hard nut to crack herself, you know. They were rather a strait-laced lot in my father’s younger days.”
“What was your father like?”
“A grand old man, you’d call him. Always had a humorous twinkle in his eye. Here, this is a picture of him a couple of years before he died.”
“He’s magnificent. It’s incredible how much he looks like Hugh Parr, Susannah Anderton’s son. Same eyes, same eyebrows, same moustache.”
“My father was a full-blooded Englishman, of course.”
“And you are half English and half American. You certainly look English.”
She took it as a compliment.
“You talk the same way as Phoebe used to.”
“We’re from the same village.”
“Billinge, wasn’t it ?”
“Susie and I often wonder what it’s like.”
“It’s a bit bigger than Lowell. It used to be very old-fashioned.”
“We thought you lived in hotels.”
“Jim Parr thought you were in the hotel business. He must have got mixed up.”
:Oh, I know, Duncan once started a boarding-house, but he gave it up. Never had any boarders. He wanted everybody to be in by ten every night and they always had to say grace before meals.”
“No business man?”
“Hopeless. Too many principles, I suppose. He could afford to have them, though. He had some land and he left Phoebe three thousand dollars. She left most of it to my father and he left most of it to me. We all just had ordinary jobs - never went in for investing or that kind of thing. This house is mine.” It was small, square and wooden with a neat garden and an elaborate American kitchen.
In the afternoon we visited the graves of John Speakman and the Hamiltons and then went to see Susie. Alex stayed behind to mow the lawn and Jean-Guy went to sleep on the porch. Susie looked very much an Anderton with her expressive eyes and prominent cheekbones. She showed us an oil painting of Lavinia, done when she was about fifty. Lavinia and Phoebe were like two peas from the same pod. We had tea at a small, round table. Susie had a kindly, thoughtful manner of speech, with a stronger mid-Western accent than Grace:
“I’ve always been conscious of my English blood. Of course, I was born over here and the pattern of my life and all my friends are American, but there is still some sort of nostalgia. I didn’t notice it much when I was young and while I was married. Lavinia used to tell me about England a lot, but I didn’t pay much attention as a little girl. It is chiefly since I have been widowed and have had only Grace here that I’ve thought more about my origins. When you get to a certain stage in life the future holds less for you and you begin to think more and more about the past and what older people talked to you about. When I came to live in Lowell, where Phoebe and Duncan and John are buried, it reminded me so much of the way Lavinia and Phoebe used to talk about England. We English-Americans don’t stick together the same way as Italians and Jews and so on, but sometimes I feel that we keep more of the old country inside us than the others, even after two or three generations. I might be wrong.”
“I think the very way you said that proves that you are right. I mean, the reserved manner you have of expressing yourself.”
“You know, I’d find it interesting to go back there, just for a month or so, meet my English relatives and see the houses and fields where Lavinia grew up. And the place where the treasure was buried.”
I tried not to twitch.
“You mean you know about the treasure?”
“Oh yes. The sovereigns. Lavinia loved to tell about it. How people looked for it for generations.”
“I suppose it will never be found,” I said.
“But they found it.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I am only repeating what I have heard. But Lavinia was sure.”
“But Phoebe wasn’t,” said Grace.
“Who found it, and where, and when?” I asked.
“I don’t know who, but Lavinia said she heard the sovereigns had been unearthed soon after she came to America. It was a rich hoard.”
“But not in Billinge?”
“No. It was a few miles to the north- in a field.”
I asked her more questions, but that was all she knew. Even this piece of news was incredible, coming from a third generation American.
“What is Billinge like?” asked Susie.
“As I told Grace, it’s an old-fashioned place, just outside an industrial area.
Nearly all the inhabitants work in industry now.”
“Isn’t there a town nearby?”
“It’s equidistant from Wigan and St. Helens. They are industrial.”
“I suppose Billinge is very different from Lowell.”
“Well, it’s quieter around here, but actually you look just like two Billinge ladies, chatting over your cup of tea. I don’t see that the emigration of your grandmothers changed very much.”
“Lavinia said that in England times were hard, but they weren’t all that easy over here either.”
“Some people just have an urge to travel. Just think of the challenge a new country like America would offer in Victorian days.”
“My father used to say the only reason why people travelled away from home was so they could come back and talk about where they had been,” said Grace.
“Certainly Phoebe wanted to go back, in her old days.”
We sat on for an hour, filling up the teacups and staring out through the open French windows over the lawn to the oaks beyond. The green was soothing and I felt very much at peace and at home.
Our story is almost at an end, but not quite. Many years later I was going through some old papers when a newspaper cutting from “Wigan Observer” caught my eye. It referred to an interesting find, which had been made on the Old Hall Estate, near Heskin, in January 1852. One of the workmen, a James Babet, was clearing up the roots of an old ash tree in a field on the estate, when his axe struck something hard. On examination it proved to be a pint pewter tankard containing 200 sovereigns from
the reigns of James I and Charles 1. Not so long ago I was able to visit the spot and verify the story with the people who now live there. Heskin is ten miles north of Billinge, as the crow flies. And who was Babet’s employer-the tenant of the Old Hall Estate in 1852? He was a well-known local farmer named Roger Anderton.
When James Gaskell eventually returned to England from America in 1875, he married Mary Anne Wilcock at St. Mary’s, five months to the day before Thomas Taylor married Sara Cunliffe. They had four daughters, Elizabeth (Bessie), Cecily, Helen and Jane. They must have lived in Billinge for some while because Elizabeth and Cecily were baptised at St Mary’s. Elizabeth was born 11th December 1875 and Cecily 18th January 1879. Helen, born 7th July 1881, was baptised at St Oswald. The 1881 census has James and Mary Ann living at 30 Liverpool Road with daughters Mary Elizabeth aged 5 and Cecily Ann aged 2, which suggests they moved to Ashton soon after Cecily was born and that the census was taken prior to July while Mary Ann was pregnant. My grandmother was raised in the Dower House that still stands at Ashton Cross, opposite the golf course that once comprised part of Lord Gerard’s estate but when or in what circumstances they moved there is beyond me.
The eldest child, Bessie, married James Anderton from Earlestown. James was a strikingly handsome man who worked at the mighty Vulcan Works, where the steam engines that epitomise the English Industrial Revolution were produced. I managed to trace the last two children of this marriage before leaving for America in June this year. Here included are a few lines from notes I took that day.
On the way to Earlestown my father pointed out the mansion where his mother was born. For the first time in my life I realised the enormity of the gulf my grandmother crossed to marry a miner from the rant. It may have been a wider gulf than the Atlantic for her father. Jack was waiting at the door. He’d last seen his cousin, my father, forty-six years before in the Brown Cow. Now he was too old to ride the bicycle. I wasn’t. By bicycle I’d arrived and traced the remaining two of ten children born to the industrial machine of Victorian England. Their father had been a boss at the mighty Vulcan Works, where the steam trains of the English Empire were created. Their mother had been eldest daughter of James Gaskell. After the smiles and handshakes at the doorway Jack took my father through to the tiny lounge to meet his eighty-nine year old cousin, Jane, ending a separation of seventy-one years. We stayed an hour. Father’s routine does not allow for much improvisation. The obligatory cup of tea, that English riposte to every eventuality, the confirmation of family detail - who was living and who was dead - then the taxi came back and we left them.
When I got back from America, Jack Anderton had died.
Cecily Gaskell married Charles Baybutt of Wrightington, the brother of Canon Baybutt, priest at St James’ Orrell from 1939-1965 and for a short time priest at St. Mary’s. She died 6th September 1940, aged sixty-one. Charles survived her by almost five years. Cecily and Charles lived at a farm in Finch Lane, Wrightington. They are buried together at St Joseph’s, where her father, James Gaskell, made the pews. In the same grave lies Norman Gaskell. This Norman Gaskell was related to Cecily only by marriage. He married Charles’ sister Margaret. Charles had three brothers; Thomas, James and Robert, and five sisters; Grace, Mary, Kitty, Margaret and Ellen. Robert became a priest. It was he who negotiated the purchase of land near the top of Gathurst Brow on which Saint John Rigby’s College stands.
John Rigby was born around 1570 at Harrocks Hill, near Wrightington. Those were not happy times for Catholics. The 1581 Act of Persuasion made it high treason to reconcile or to be reconciled with the Catholic Church. Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587 and the Spanish Armada repelled in 1588. John Rigby was in Cambridgeshire in 1600, working for Sir Edmund Huddleston of Sawston Hall, when he went down to London to represent his mater’s widowed daughter before the magistrates and to pay her fines for recusancy. When questioned about his own faith he openly declared himself to be Catholic, was subsequently arrested and hung drawn and quartered, June 21st 1600. Another John Rigby farmed the land on which the college named after him stands, coincidentally, at the time of the land sale.
James, Canon Baybutt’s brother, was not so reverent. When reciting the catholic ‘Hail Mary,’ he would say ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace and what about our Kitty?’ James Baybutt, my great uncle’s brother, had four children. His only son, James, married Mildred Brown and their son, David, is one of the administrators of the Eddleston Trust29. In his time he was a champion grass-track motorbike racer. One of the three daughters, Ellen, married Thomas Horridge and their daughter, Jane, born 1925, is the family’s unofficial historian. One of the old family wedding photos, that she kindly let me see, featured no less that ninety-eight persons. Another of James’ daughters, Gertrude, married Thomas Calderbank, the son of Elias Calderbank, a former rag and bone man who founded Calderbank Scrap Metal Recycling in Wigan. One of Tom Calderbank’s daughters, Patricia, married John Winnard, the producer of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, another Wigan icon, whose sons carry on that tradition. The Baybutts are a well-established family. Many of their descendants are prominent members of the Wrightington community. Cecily and Charles proved not to be so fertile; they died childless. I have the copy of Cecily’s letter to my grandmother, the one that revealed the existence of possible relatives in America, and a photograph from my grandmother’s album that reveals her as a woman of stunning beauty. If I ever trace the American relatives I’ll be looking for another Cecily.
Jane Gaskell was baptised at neither St Mary’s nor St Oswald’s that I have been able to discover. Perhaps the family moved to Wrightington for a spell and she was baptised there. She married Harry Potter from Sheffield. My father thinks they had three girls, Elizabeth, Cecily and Mary. If the other three daughters of James and Mary Ann Gaskell were as retiring as my grandmother was throughout her life, then I seriously doubt any but the barest facts concerning them will ever come to light. Jane Gaskell remains the most obscure of my three great aunts.
Mary Ann’s father, Thomas Wilcock, died on March 18th 1880, aged 71. Her mother, Ann, lived on at the tiny, two-room, stone cottage at the bottom of Carr Mill Road for another twenty-two years. She died on June 20th 1902 at the age of 81. That year Winston Churchill, then a new MP, spoke at St Helens Town Hall. The elder Wilcocks are buried, together with their sons, Thomas and William, at St. Mary’s. Thomas died on November 22nd 1925 aged 80. William died on April 8th 1947 at 86; an age often attained by the assorted members of our family. William I can just remember. He lived with my grandparents, as part of the family, from their marriage in 1908 until his death almost thirty-nine year later. I had not quite turned two then but I can remember him. The vague image of a moustached old man is among my earliest memories. To my father and his brothers and sisters, William Wilcock was Uncle Willi. Actually he was their great uncle. He never married. He worked for Doctors Mason & Kyle in St. Helens as their bookkeeper and collected the weekly instalments that most people paid their doctor’s bills with in those days. He was born at the Tanyard House Farm cottage, number 79 Carr Mill Road, as was my father and all his brothers and sisters except Helen. She is the youngest child of that generation of the Taylor family. She was born 4th May 1921 and still lives in the house that now is number 89 Carr Mill Road. It was originally number 51 and then 65. My grandfather signed the lease in 1919. Before then two sisters, Margaret and Ellen Mather, lived there with their niece Jane Mather as housekeeper. These sisters are listed as being 78 and 74 in the 1891 census. They left number 51 and the two adjacent dwellings at numbers 49 and 47, to the Catholic Church. As I write the family had been paying rent to the Church for eighty years. With three rooms upstairs and three downstairs it must have seemed spacious indeed when compared to the one up one down cottage attached to the barn at Tanyard House Farm, the very last building in Carr Mill Road.
Thomas Wilcock must have moved the family into that cottage between 1851 and 1861. In the process he changed his job description from ‘Victualler’ in the ’51 census to ‘Tanner’ in the ’61 census. Mary Anne, the eldest child, married James Gaskell in March 1875 and, presumably, moved to Ashton. She waited a long time for James. At least one of her two younger sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret, married before she did. Elizabeth married James Brown 27th October 1868. Margaret was a witness at that wedding. She is recorded as living in Manchester at that time. She was also a witness at the marriage of her elder brother, Thomas, to Mary Rigby, 12th July 1875. Again she is recorded as living in Manchester. There is no record of Margaret marrying at Birchley.
Thomas moved away, down the narrow path by Tanner’s Wood, past Brown Heath Colliery, through the Dam Hollows and past Carr Mill Dam, to live with his bride in one of the old stone cottages that stood beyond the Top Two Gates, in Clinkham Wood. The youngest child, William, was left at home. He was nineteen when his father died in 1880. He stayed on to take care of his mother until she died in 1902.
Sometime, before 1902, Helen Gaskell, my grandmother, promised Ann Wilcock, her grandmother, that she would look after her uncle William when her grandmother died. She lived up to that promise. When her grandmother died in 1902, Helen left the stately home at Ashton Cross and moved into the two-room hovel at Tanyard House Farm, to be William’s housekeeper. It must have been whilst she was living there that she met Frank Taylor. They married at St. Mary’s 9th November 1908
That dwelling at Tanyard House Farm is still standing though it has been rebuilt. There was once a barn, a storage area for skins and the dwelling, all under the same stone roof. Now they are all amalgamated into one home. Outside this renovated building, standing by the wall, is a large sandstone disk. This was a tanning stone. It used to lie near the pond, on the farm side of the building, where the skins must have been soaked before salting and tanning. Six of Frank and Helen’s seven children were born in this cottage - all except Sarah Helen, the youngest. Before the move to number 51,30 about two hundred yards up Carr Mill Road, three adults and the four surviving children all lived in these two rooms, one up one down as they used to call such dwellings. The ceiling was so low that Uncle Willi’s grandfather clock had to stand in a hole dug for that purpose.
The grandfather clock moved up the road with the family in 1919. It is still there, standing behind my Aunt Nelly as I type these words in November 1999. My Aunt Nelly has lived in this house all her seventy-eight years to date. My son, Louis, is sleeping upstairs. He was born in New Zealand and raised, from the age of two, in Australia. He turned twenty-two a month ago. He has already been in eleven different countries and soon he will fly to yet another, Israel. I returned to England with Louis, after twenty-three years, almost three years ago. In those three years I have crossed the Atlantic five times and Louis has crossed it on three occasions. It took me some time to find the grave of my great grandfather, James Gaskell. I like to imagine that the urge to travel, which has dominated my life, comes as a genetic inheritance from him through his daughter Helen. She did not travel. She only left the house to go to mass on Sundays.
When my grandparents, their children, Uncle Willi and the grandfather clock moved to what is now 89 Carr Mill Road, the Dixon31s were living in the house next door, going down towards the Mason’s Arms. That house, built in 1770, is divided into two dwellings. Bob Dixon lived nearest the Taylors, where Stan Grundy and his wife have since lived for over fifty years. Next-door Bob Dixon’s brother, William, lived with his wife and family. One of the daughters, Jane, lived next door with Bob as his housekeeper. Bob never married. He worked as a carpenter for Pilkingtons. Six days a week he walked to and from work at Rainford. Seven nights a week, at nine-o-clock exactly, Uncle Willi and Bob Dixon would walk down the road to the Mason’s Arms. My dad remembers that Uncle Willi was always back by ten. Uncle Willi and Bob Dixon were the only two customers who drank in what was then called the parlour room of the pub. The other clients drank in the taproom. Uncle Willi was a Tory. My grandfather defiantly wasn’t. I have never know any person to use any other word with such malice as when my grandfather used the word ‘Tory.’ That he resented Uncle Willi living with them as a result of his wife’s promise to her grandmother was inevitable; that Willi and he were so politically opposite would not have helped. My father remembers having to separate them over a disagreement about the General Strike of 1926.
None the less, William Wilcock must have made a huge contribution to the family’s welfare. His was one extra wage coming in when such could mean the difference between poverty and relative comfort. It was probably the reason that the three youngest children were able to go to grammar school. The two surviving children, my father and my Aunt Nelly, both remember Uncle Willi with great affection. He was good to the kids. He indirectly saved my father’s life. A childhood accident, resulting in a fractured skull, was not responding to treatment until Dr Mason came to examine my father at Willi’s behest. Doctor Mason took the barely conscious eight-year-old straight to St. Helens Hospital, whereupon he operated on him immediately. My dad recovered where otherwise he may not have done so. The grandfather clock needs a slight repair. I’ll see that it’s done before the year turns.
My grandfather, Francis Taylor, was the biggest influence of my formative years. For the first eighteen months of my life we lived at Carr Mill Road. Jack, the dog, named after his father’s dog, used to jump in my pram when my mother pushed me up Long Fold Brow. We moved to 5 Holt Crescent before my second birthday. My mother took me to work with her at Tanyard House Farm, often called Robinson’s Farm, but once I started school it was to my grandparent’s that I went for dinner and after school, until my parents came home from work. It was my grandfather who met me at the school gate and who walked me home, both to Holt Crescent and later to Claremont Road. We moved to Claremont Road when I was eight. My early childhood memories are of long walks with my grandfather and his dog Jack. He taught me how to make catapults and how to play darts. He taught me the birds and the trees and where to tickle trout. He taught me the geography and the history of my surroundings. He taught me how to shoot with a shotgun. He taught me how to whistle with two fingers and this skill I in turn taught to Louis. The only thing I can do really well is to whistle for taxis. This I owe to my grandfather. But beneath those practical skills he bequeathed the basis of my earliest philosophy. I had no way of knowing it was happening but is there any faith stronger than a child’s faith that its father, or in this case its grandfather, knows everything?
Accrued knowledge is passed down the generations in the format of oft-repeated stories. The undercurrent to many, if not most of, my grandfather’s stories was the working class struggle. Their moral was simple; the upper class is the despotic enemy. My grandfather was a communist where there never was a communist party. That he never voted for other than for the Labour Party is more certain than the sun will rise tomorrow.
He was a short and stocky man who wore a flat cap and carried a walking stick. The stick was not for walking; it was a weapon. The pitchfork, or the pickle as we called it, is now as obsolete to agriculture as the carthorse. The staff of a pitchfork was made from ash; light, strong and the favoured wood for the quarterstaff, that traditional weapon of Old England. My grandfather’s walking stick was the shortened staff of a pitchfork with a brass end to stop it fraying. If a dog bit one of his children he killed it. I doubt any dog ever bit my grandfather; very few ever came near enough to him to bite. The few that did soon regretted it. Jack, his black fox terrier was partially to blame.
Jack was a feral animal, running wild on an airport on the other side of Warrington where my father was working just before the war. He saw Jack catch a rabbit and brought him home. Catching rabbits was his passport to Billinge where the skill was appreciated. Billingers have been poaching for generations. Having been feral, the wildness never left him. Until his death, some fifteen years later, Jack would fight with anything. The size of another dog never bothered Jack because a fight with an Alsatian, five times his size, wasn’t as one-sided as it might have been. My grandfather always joined in, usually only half a step behind the fox terrier. His favourite stroke was the blow between the ears and he was an expert at it. I’ve seen him do it dozens of times, usually when we met a stranger with a dog on the long walks that constituted my early education. Only stranger’s dogs came near my grandfather. Among the many visions that I retain of that tenacious old man, who was still riding a motorbike at eighty, is one of dogs melting away from his coming like fish from an approaching shark. As far as half a mile ahead, dogs would slowly rise from resting in sunny comfort, stretch, then yawn, and then disappear!
Now my grandfather has disappeared. Along with him much of the Billinge he lived his entire life in has also disappeared. The Greater Municipal Districts of Liverpool and Manchester converge at Billinge Church. Billinge Chapel End is now part of St. Helens and Billinge Higher End is part of Wigan. London Fields is now a litter-despoiled footpath through a series of housing estates, populated by the products of urban over spill. The threat of ghostly Hell Hounds is no longer tangible. A late-night walker is more likely to be assaulted by a mob of teenage hooligans. There is no valid reason whatsoever why anyone would linger a few yards south of the intersection of London Fields and Garswood Road in the dead of a winter’s evening. At the stroke of midnight, on last day of the year nineteen ninety-nine, I’ll be there.
Bibliography (of works consulted)
F H & M A Billings. Billinge of Billinge
Huge Parr. History of Billinge
Revd W H Wickhem. Some notes on Billinge.
R D Lewis. The Billingers
David Young. One Man’s Pitch.
Harry Parkes. The Life of George Lyon
J F Giblin. The Gerard Family of Bryn & Ince
J F Giblin. The Anderton Family of Birchley
W B Savigny. The History of Bispham Hall
Arthur Bryant. Set in a Silver Sea
Arthur Bryant. The Age of Chivalry
Arthur Bryant. The Years of Endurance 793-1802
Arthur Bryant. Years of Victory 1802-1812
Arthur Bryant. English Sage 1840-1940
Arthur Bryant. George V
Kenneth O Morgan. The Oxford Illustrated History of England
P J Gooderson. A History of Lancashire
Lt Col H Fishwick. History of Lancashire
Edward Baines. History, Directory & Gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster vol. 11.
J R Harris. Trends in the Industrialisation of Merseyside 1750-1860
Raymond Challinor. The Lancashire & Cheshire Miners
Raymond Challinor & Brian Ripley. The Miners Association
Donald Anderson. Life & Times at Haigh Hall
Donald Anderson. The Orrell Coalfield-1740 to 1850
Donald Anderson & A A France. Wigan Coal and Iron
Townley Smith & Peden. The Industrial Railways of the Wigan Coalfield
The Children’s Employment Commission of 1842
Billinge & Winstanley Rate Records
Local and surrounding Church Registries
Census returns 1841-1891
The Wigan Directory 1869
Records of local newspapers
Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire
1 See The Years of Endurance by Arthur Bryant.
2 Their children were Edward 11/12/1820, Esther 28/5/1822, William 25/1/1825, Henry 19/9/1827, Anne 26/8/1830, Thomas 26/3/1833, Ralph 20/11/1835 and Sarah 5/2/1839
3 Margaret 5/10/1855, James 8/11/1857, twins Edward & William 22/9/1861, John 11/10/1863 & Alicia 19/3/1866,
4 Their children were Mary 13/11/1876; Francis 13/12/1878; Esther 11/1/1881 - 11/3/1882; Esther 4/9/1882; James 5/3/1885; Lawrence 15/8/1887; Gertrude 29/1/1890; Eleanor 15/4/1892; Thomas Cuthbert 20/3/1894 & Aloysius 11/6/1899.
5 Their recorded children were John 26/1/1857, Francis 1/11/1861 – 15/1/1862, Jonathan 30/11/1862, Helena 28/12/1864, Anna 3/6/1867 – 20/5/1868, Maria 9/6/1869, Anna 22/10/1871, Francis 21/4/1874 - 14/11/1874, James or Jacob 28/11/1875 (a year before Polly Taylor) & Francis 11/1/1878 (10 months before Francis Taylor)
6 See article in Wigan Observer August 1976.
7 See Appendix L.
8 There is a photograph of Dick Beesley riding alongside Dean Powell in the book The Billingers.
9 See Appendix E.
10 see notes re John Birchall and descendents page 223.
11 See Appendix F – Reminiscences of Billinge.
12 Appendix Z semonsgtrates just how devout a Christian young Tom bcame.
13 John Gaffney was born in Ireland circa 1826. He moved to Scotland, near Castle Douglas and married Elizabeth, born circa 1812. They came to Billinge to work for Turny (attorney) Heald at Greenfield House and eventually became publicans at Moss Bank. They had three children, John c 1853, James c 1856 and Elizabeth. It was the children of the younger John Gaffney, William and Joseph, who became colliery owners. See also Appendix I
14 The initials FHS on the datestone of the Masons Arms stand for Henry and Sarah Fairshurst. They owned the cottages on either side of the pub, which have now been demiloshed. Their great grandson, Robert Rigby, was a stonemason. He took over the pub some time after 1871 and that is probably is how the pub got its name. (Margaret Whittle)
15 See endnotes about Plum Tree Croft.
16 See Appendix G.
17 William Ashton, 1840-1900, was another noted speed skater.
18 Bert’s parents, Tom & Ann, lived at 13 Fair View. His grandmother ‘owd Meg, came from the Quaker Cottages, near Gladden Hey Farm in Ashton Road
19 Oswald’s son, Frank Littler, went to West Park CGS and became one of the best rugby union players ever from Billinge. He was a regular first team player for Orrell Rugby Union for years and the first ever Orrell RU player to score a try at Twickenham.
20 Owd P Nat, later a famous bowler. I remember him beating Harry Green at the Dragon around 1967.
21 My mother’s uncle
22 After the team folded many former player joined Bispham Cricket Club. See ‘One Man’s Pitch’ by David Young.
23 That year Wilf and Harold Barton, Ned Littler, Jimmy Rooper, Jimmy Cunnlife, Joe Berry and Jack Rose played for the Labour Club. Terry Picton, Cliff Leigh, Steve Derbyshire, Jimy Atherton, Ronnie Lyon & my dad played for the Brown Cow.
24 These words are taken from Ghosts of the North By Tony Ellis but he does not give his source – ‘Halfway between St Helens and Wigan, the Stork Hotel was built in 1717, on the site of an older inn that was built in 1640. The crypt of the old building, which is now used as the cellars of the more modern Stork Hotel, was used to incarcerate Royalist prisoners during the Civil War’.
25See History, Directory & Gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster vol 11 by Edward Baines. Also mentioned: Thomas Birchall-wheelwright, John Cowley-gentleman, Simon Dixon-joiner, John Liptrott-schoolmaster, John Eaton-quarry owner, Rev John Penswick-priest at Birchley Hall, William Haward-landlord Stork Hotel, Henry Pemberton-gentleman, Thomas Petty-overseer, Michal Roby-landlord Eagle & Child, Thomas Tasker-tanner, Thomas Wilcock-miller.
26 Nat is the nickname of the Middlehurst family. This Owd (old) Nat was the father of Owd P (Peter) Nat, one of the best bowlers and footballers of the next generation.
27 It did not turn out that way. The fourth great, great grandchild was born just after the millennium.
28 Harry Roughley provided the information about Annie Gaskell.
29 See Appendix H.
30 Later changed to 65 then 89.
31 See Appendix O –The Dixon Story.