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A History of Newtown

There are occasionally copies of local newspapers, which for one reason or another contain, instead of articles of local news; articles that define local history, as it was known at that point in time. A rich mixture of facts, tradition and memory, these articles though providing the cream of local history, should be treated with care.

Two such articles appeared together in ‘The Chronicle’ of November 12th 1886. Both are, unfortunately anonymous.


Newtown, a locality situated near the great highway, through which, in olden times journeyed between London, Buxton, Stockport and Manchester, and joining the border line of New Mills to the west of Derbyshire, is lifting itself into greater notice, and becoming of much more importance in the annuals of history as the neighbourhood develops. It is located on the northeastern side of the county of Chester, with Stockport and Manchester to the north, and Buxton and London to the south. In the eighteenth century the construction of the Peak Forest Canal was started by a number of gentlemen who formed themselves into a company. Buildings along the highroads in those days, between Buxton and Stockport, were few and old fashioned, and sometimes a mile or two apart. The moorlands in the neighbourhood of Newtown were then the same as they are at the present time, in the northern parts of Cheshire, vast wastes, inhabited by wild fowl, but as time advanced hamlets and villages have been formed, and moors transformed by the arts of the husbandman into green fields. In the last century, acts of parliament were obtained by the lords of the manors for taking over moors; these being portioned out into estates and lands, and sold to the great personages of the day, including the well known Legh family of Lyme, whose lands chiefly abutted on the common. As far back as the year 1600 special Acts of Parliament were sanctioned by the legislators, for taking over moorland on the common between Tatton to Wibbersley Hall in Cheshire, and portions of the grounds between Charlesworth, Whittle and Peak Forest in Derbyshire. The people who died in these hamlets, or on the uplands, and for miles surrounding New Mills and Whaley Bridge, were bought by their relations and friends to the ancient churchyards of Hayfield, Disley, Taxal and Chapel-en-le-Frith for interment; the grounds adjoining the main roads in most places, being hilly and thickly covered with trees. The squires of the halls were formerly the dominating powers of the localities and sometimes of the people. In those days the old fashioned way of travelling on horseback with pillion was resorted to by the inhabitants of the two counties; riding in the coaches being considered by the folks of the period a wonderful thing. Two coaches left Manchester for London and visa versa, twice a day drawn by four horses. The route was by Buxton, through Derby, and oft times very difficult and hazardous, on account of the rain and snow, which sometimes fell in considerable quantities. The meeting place of these great public conveyances was between the Swan Inn and Furness Vale, where numbers of people formerly congregated to witness both the arrival and departure of both coaches with their passengers. Other coaches, a little less in size, drawn by two and three horses, also travelled between Buxton and Stockport during the day, and halted at the Swan Inn, which was considered at that time the halfway house between the two popular places. The coaches that ran through the skirts of Newtown some eighty or more years ago were not much used by the manufacturers of the locality, as the old fashioned way of getting along that of walking, was generally resorted to. In times past holiday pastimes and rustic fetes were celebrated with much éclat. Rushbearings were held, and the villages loved dearly to witness a bull-bait, which brutal pastime frequently came off about New Mills. In those days Lapwings and Grouse infested the moors in numerous flocks.
The localities were then haunted by a ghost, which some people said they saw many a time, so that the inhabitants were kept in awe and fear of travelling lonely roads after dusk. Sixty years ago New Mills had what was then known as a ‘big’ factory which did its twelve hours a day, and sometimes 13 and 14 without let or hindrance from Her Majesty’s inspectors. Short time and short timers at that period were an unknown quantity. Education had not then reached its present high stages, as schools were places almost unknown, only to the gentry of the district who sent their children to female teachers to receive ‘a higher education’ which constituted of reading, writing and spelling. Seven year old children were then required to go to the mill and work from eight to twelve hours a day, the only standard of their ability enquired into by their masters, was the standard to keep up at their work and do plenty of it. Masters were generally robust men who had a deal of their own way and imagined themselves the chief leaders of the people.
Differences occasionally cropped up between the men and their employers, but these were oftentimes amicably settled, by the one treating the other to ‘quantities of ale.’
Taken as a whole, workpeople and their employers agreed somewhat tolerably together, and worked hard to further each others interest, as putting down of wages was an event very rarely heard of. There were as many trades half a century ago as there are now. The margin between cotton and twist, which now has no parallel in cotton spinning, was far from being close. The bumping trade was the principal industry of the inhabitants of this part. There was little communication with the neighbouring villages. The principal and only communication between Cheshire and Derbyshire in this part was by means of a bridge over the river Goyt near Bankfield Farm, which led to Buxton road on the one hand, and Bugsworth and Beard on the other. In consequence, however, of the heavy floods which occasionally swelled the river, the tenants on the estate of Beard, then belonging to the Earl of Burlington, appealed to his lordship to provide them with better communication between the two counties, as that bridge was now becoming somewhat dilapidated. His lordship considered the matter for some time, and afterwards gave instructions for the erection of a new bridge at Joule Hole, upon certain conditions, and the consent of a Mr Joddrell who also owned land on the Derbyshire side. One of the conditions was that coals should be prohibited from being brought across the river to the Cheshire side, and the public were only to use the bridge on sufferance. This bridge was erected, and proved of great convenience at that time, but a few years later, during a heavy storm, it was carried away by a flood, there being only the wing, wall and haunches remaining. After a short time a modern structure was thrown over the river, and was used as the only available means of communication between the counties of Derbyshire and Cheshire, until two bills were introduced into Parliament making the turnpike road, then called Thornsett-road, communicate by two bridges across the Goyt with Cheshire and Derbyshire, one at Disley and the other at Whaley. The bills during their progress though Parliament were strongly opposed by a large landowner of Derbyshire called Joddrell, and it was not until the promoters of the Bills agreed to confine themselves to a bridge across the Goyt at Nedmill near Disley, that Mr Joddrell and his agent withdrew their opposition. Even after this difficulty had been overcome it was discovered by the promoters of the Bills that the assent and dissent and neutrality of the neighbouring residents had not been obtained to the bill, which necessitated then being immediately obtained. On the morning the bills were again brought finally before Parliament the promoters received an intimation that they would be opposed by a Mr Tinker, of Hyde, a surveyor employed by Mr Grimsditch, the result being that Parliament was dissolved under William the Fourth, before Royal assent could be obtained to the bills. After more opposition to the bills in the succeeding Parliament, an Act was passed giving consent to the making of a road and the erection of to new bridges over the river Goyt, at Nedmill, and over the Peak Forest Canal, at Wirksmoor Wharf. Further powers were afterwards sought in the same Parliament to build a new road and bridge across the Goyt, at Joule Hole, to communicate with Buxton road, near Whaley Bridge, for the conveyance of coal from the shire of Derby into the county of Chester. The bill also received considerable opposition by Mr Grimsditch and his agent. Witnesses in support of the opposition to the bills were called, but after their examination the promoters succeeded in obtaining their powers for a free and unrestricted communication with Cheshire. From the beginning of the present century downwards coal has been obtained from Aspenshaw, Thornsett, Beard and Ollersett, although drainage and operations were not then carried on in those mines as they are in the present day. About the year 1810 the cotton spinning and calico trade were first introduced into the villages and valleys of the neighbourhood. The present improved process of carrying on these industries, however, have only been resorted to in more recent years. The old-fashioned hand looms were in use by the people in those days, and the rattle of the quickly picked shuttle could sometimes be heard from most of the houses. There were no tramcars and no railways fifty years ago, the roads then very uneven and treacherous, for travelling, and especially for horses and coaches. There was no main road communication with Hayfield and New Mills, or to Kinder, Phoside Hamlet, or to Beard, Ollersett, Whitle or Thornsett. The Parish Church of Hayfield had weathered many storms at the commencement of the present century, and in the year 1700; houses there were as they were on the great coach road, few and far between.
History has given the villages of Hayfield, Disley, Taxal and Chapel-en-le-Frith, many conspicuous marks. In the fifteenth century the ancient edifice of Disley Church was erected by a member of the Legh family, but has since undergone a few alterations and additions. The Hayfield Church is stated to date from the same century and is plainly visible from the hills and moors of Kinder and Birch Vale, whilst the tintinnabulation’s of its bells on a Sunday have been heard in the dales miles away. Taxal and Whaley Bridge churches are also no less interesting for age and picturesque-ness. The prospect from the tower of these four edifices, ranging over developing villages, hamlets, moorland, and fairly farmed land, is extremely pleasing to the eye, and occasions are within the recollection of a few old inhabitants, when peals from the Chapel-en-le-Frith bells were audible in New Mills and Newtown. Tradition reminds us of the ever-changing scenes around us. Some twenty years after the commencement of the present century, the name Newtown was unknown to the people here, and its present site was a barren piece of marsh and unlevelled ground. There was no communication with Whitle and New Mills for many years after, only by Furness Vale and Joule Hole. A ricketty constructed bridge was thrown over the River Goyt, near the present gas works. One or two of the inhabitants, still remember with pride some fifty or sixty years ago, when the ceremony of laying the foundation stones of St. George’s Church was performed. The houses of many of the residents of the vicinity were decorated with flags and appropriate bannerettes, and the villagers were accorded the honour of walking over the foundation stone of the present building, when amidst much rejoicing it was laid. Sunday after Sunday the services in this building are listened to with reverent attention. ‘What changes’ remarked an old veteran the other day, ‘ had come over the neighbourhood since the laying of the foundation stone!’ In the years he had lived, the yard then the green on which the church was erected, had been well peopled with the dead.


About 62 years ago the Thornsett Turnpike Trust was commissioned. The trust was first started by a few gentlemen of the neighbourhood, who borrowed a considerable amount of money for the making of new roads in the vicinity, so as to have direct communication with Hayfield and New Mills. A special Act of Parliament was obtained to carry out this undertaking, and after some delays and at lengthy intervals, Albion road, Hyde Bank and Birch Vale road to Hayfield, and Joule Hole road to Furness Vale were constructed. When toll bars first originated in the neighbourhoods, wooden, but substantial structures were placed near the gate for the convenience of the keepers. About that time New Mills was building what was known as ‘big’ factories, which were afterwards lighted with oil lamps and candles. Rock Mill commenced at about that time as a print works; consumers were being then obliged cotton and other requisites from Manchester by carts. Two ‘flys’ arrived at the canal wharf daily, but the charge for carriage by boat was generally considered excessive. The dilapidated building near the station, called the Midland Iron Works, was formerly known by the name Barnes Top Shop and was worked as a cotton mill. The station of the Sheffield and Midland Railway was a piece of huge rock, but at that period a few small works were in the course of erection.
Newtown was then in a hilly state. The origin of that name was stated to be due to Mr Robert Hibbert, father of the present Mr Joseph Hibbert, of the Swan Inn, who built the first mill, now in the occupation of Mr Francis Rowbottom, and the house adjoining; the idea of being a start of a new town. The first tenant who occupied on of the houses when completed was Mr John Higginbottom, an old veteran residing at Newtown. Houses built at that time were far from being as healthy or commodious as they are now. Flag floors were a luxury only obtainable by well to do people; little and sometimes no drainage was connected with the houses, and people in order to obtain clean water were compelled to go to a well on Disley - road. What is now Grove Paper Works was then worked as a cotton mill. About 40 years ago few buildings were erected on the site of the present Torr Mills and Rock Mills. The original structures of these mills were burned down and afterwards rebuilt, and after a few years were again made considerably larger. A small works was then erected on the site of the present Brunswick Mill, and was worked at the time by Mr James Wharmby.
The old Primitive Methodist Chapel then stood near the banks of the river Sett. Beard Mill and an engraving works near there were in operation at that time. Other toll bars were also in force under the Glossop and Hayfield trust. Marple trust extended as far as the White Hart public house. Some thirty six or forty years ago the London and North Western Railway from Manchester to Stockport to Buxton was in course of construction. The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Companies afterwards laid a railway to New Mills and Hayfield, and subsequently the Midland Company carried a line from the New Mills junction through Chapel-en-le-Frith to Disley and London. The Peak Forest Canal was also constructed in the last century, when Mr Thomas Lowe was in the occupation of Bank End Farm.
New Mills and Newtown had suffered many vicissitudes and trials. Mills occasionally stopped for short periods, and on two occasions the prospectus of the people of the village had been darkened in consequence of fire having completed the ruin of the mills where employment was found for most of the inhabitants. As we have previously intimated, the principal industry of the neighbourhood was that known as ‘bumping.’ That work in the meantime largely changed its venue, and gradually removed itself to other districts. When the mills mentioned were burnt down, the houses in many parts of the village were deserted and remained so until the places were rebuilt, and other operations were carried on. We are not aware of the moors and lands of the neighbourhood being mentioned in history as fields of battle and bloodshed other than a few riots having occurred in consequence of a band of Irishmen and Englishmen meeting. Tradition though, informs that during the London plaque of 1600, the malady extended to a few hamlets to the west of Taxal, where today people of the neighbourhood will show visitors a few corroded gravestones, underneath which persons stricken with the plaque are stated to have been buried. Travelling to London and the south in days gone by was thought to be expeditious if done in a week or so.
Telegraphic communication a century ago was an event unknown, whereas now messages are correctly dispatched from one continent to another in a few minutes of time. Large provision had been made for the employment of labour, and in many towns and villages a thriving population has taken the place of a dispirited one. Fine churches and chapels are erected in our midst, and a handsome hall, ornamental and convenient has been erected for the edification of the people of New Mills. Many cottages and buildings of old origin have been taken down or demolished, while others which have shown signs of dilapidation have been put in good repair, and are now generally occupied by clean and respectable tenants. The lighting of the street lamps with gas has not been neglected in the districts, although in the outskirts and on the high roads this convenience has not so far been extended. The erection of houses along Spring Bank is almost a new departure of the period. The planting of trees along the roads through the villages, which has not yet resulted in the success desired, has given quite a pleasing aspect to this neighbourhood, and reminded us forcibly of the disadvantages under which our forefathers lived. Customs amongst the people of olden times are events of the past. People are becoming cultivated and refined, and with the advance and spread of education rustic simplicity will pass away from the people and from our midst. Co-operation has also kept pace with the general and steady improvements of the villages of the neighbourhood. Societies have been formed and buildings erected for the transaction of the business. In some cases the premises are large and commodious with a newsroom and other conveniences unknown to the stores and trust-shops of former days, and are often times found in a commanding position in the centre of the village or town. Both New Mills on the Derbyshire side and Newtown in the Cheshire division have kept pace with other towns and villages in England, and it is thought by many that the dark clouds of depression which have existed in our midst, will cast off its sombre shadow and a period of prosperity and happiness result to the people.

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