Dr. John Lunn was a twentieth century historian who resided in Astley, near Manchester. He wrote several local histories of his hometown and other local places, which even today are still the foundation of historical research in the locality. I am indebted to John Lunn’s work which has proved paramount towards my research in this blog.
The Early Years
John Lunn was born in Astley on 29th December 1902. His parents were John Lunn (1870-1940) and Annie Sanderson (1869-1963) who had married at St. Stephen’s Church in Astley in July 1898.
I’m not sure of John Lunn’s exact place of birth, it is more than likely it took place at home as this was the cultural norm at the time. From historical records, we known Lunn spent his childhood in Astley Green, a part of Astley village which is split into “Higher Green” and “Lower Green” by the Bridgewater Canal.
The 1901 census shows his parents living at number 31 Lower Green, a two-up two-down terraced house, located just over the canal bridge. His father is a coal miner and his mother is a cotton spinner, probably in Arrowsmith’s Mill which was a short walk away. Lunn may very well have been born in this house just over a year later.
By 1911 the Lunn family have moved over the canal bridge into Higher Green. The census reveals that Annie Lunn is the head of the household, her husband is not recorded on this census form but she still lists her marital status as married. Unfortunately John Lunn senior apparently walked out on his family when his son was still young.
Here at Number 128, Annie Lunn lists herself as a “fish and chipped potato dealer” which has long been regarded as a weekly treat (normally on a Friday as the Church promoted abstinence from meat on this day as it was the day Christ died) especially amongst the working classes in the North.
This shows Annie to be quite an independent woman, especially as a single parent. Not only did Annie Lunn run her own business but she cares for her son and also for a lodger, 23 year old Victor Spencer, who lives at the same address. Having a lodger, even in a small house was common amongst the Victorian and Edwardian working class, as it could supplement their weekly incomes. As the property is described as having only four rooms we can assume that the front room was where the business was run from and the food was served, the back room was a kitchen/living space and that Annie and her son shared one bedroom and Victor Spencer was in another.
The business was no doubt successful and popular, Annie was remembered as hard-working and was well respected locally. John attended St. Stephen’s National School and under the tutorship of Robert Beattie he received a scholarship to Leigh Grammar School. Therefore he was able to escape the world of work like many of his contemporaries who would have followed their parents into the mines or mills.
The making of a historian
In 1925 John Lunn went to Manchester University to study for his bachelors degree. Whilst there he held four scholarships: modern language, history, Lancashire County and Council and Hulme Hall Exhibition.
In 1928 Lunn studied his masters degree also at Manchester University. He then went on to study at St. John’s College, Cambridge where he received a Doctorate of Philosophy degree. Upon graduating from Cambridge he applied for a post as County Director of Education, however he did not receive the role and afterwards he apparently never applied for a permanent position again. Lunn became a teacher at local schools, including Marsland Green School in Astley.
At the same time, Lunn was beginning to publish his academic work. His thesis “The Black Death 1348-49” was published by the Manchester University Press in the early 1930s. Revered William King remembered Lunn’s fascination with the medieval period:
“His very language was medieval, and I remember how he referred to the Vicarage table-linen as ‘napery’. He revelled in archaic words such as neifs, stirks, messuages, twinters and shillybears, and he seemed not to care whether his listeners understood them or not.”
However John was also starting his legacy of local histories. His first was “A Short History of the Township of Astley” which was published in 1931 and paid for by local subscription. This work was later re-edited and re-published in 1968 as a more complete volume. This was followed by “A History of Leigh Grammar School 1592-1932″, a history of his former school. In 1950 he published “Shade and Shadow” a collection of local stories and histories of Astley.
By the 1950s his success as a historian was becoming more well known and he was a popular lecturer. The urban councils of other local towns commissioned Lunn to research and write histories of their towns; “A Short History of the township of Tyldesley” (1953), “Leigh: The historical past of a Lancashire Borough” (1958) and “Atherton: A manorial, social and industrial history” (1971).
By 1939 Lunn and his mother had moved from Astley Green and were now living on Church Road. Their interwar semi-detached house was surrounded by important local landmarks; the National School, St. Stephen’s Church and Damhouse (Astley Hospital). Lunn is fondly remembered for his eccentricities by local people. In 1965 he built a garage around a car he had not driven in 30 years. He had purchased the small Morris Saloon in 1937 for a motoring tour around France with his mother. Upon his return he never drove it and it became land-locked on the private property of the Bull’s Head Inn. Eventually Lunn built the garage around the rusting wreck, as a monument to his “inflexible will” as Rev. King noted. He would also exercise his little black and white dog, named Joe, by tying its lead around his bicycle, until he was told by the police this was too dangerous.
Dr. Lunn always had a passion for Local Government and he worked on the Leigh Rural District Council board representing Astley, before the borders changed in 1933 and the village became under the control of Tyldesley Urban District Council. He sat with Labour on the council and became library chairman but was defeated in the 1937 election. He later served as an Independent in the 1966 elections but was unseated in 1969.
Lunn also had played a prominent role in cultivating history in the local area, beyond his published books. He was chairman of the Tyldesley Historical Society and moreover he was a great local campaigner. He fought to save the trees at Astley which had been planted to commemorate the wedding of King Charles II and he also saved Withington Common from developers. He lost one fight at the High Court when he challenged Tyldesley Council’s decision to sell trust land to built the new St. Stephen’s Church and school in the late 1960s, which sadly also deteriorated his friendship with Rev. King.
Towards the end of his life, Dr. John Lunn lived with Miss Dorothy Mary Beddow, a fellow retired school teacher. Her home was on Henfold Road, just yards from Lunn’s house on Church Road. Miss Beddow predeceased Lunn by five days and he had been organising her funeral when he passed away on 20 March 1973. Coincidentally he passed away at Astley Hospital, which was located in the ground of the former manor house, Damhouse. Therefore Dr. Lunn would have spent his last few days surrounded by the historical building and gardens he so passionately wrote about throughout his life.
Thankfully due to his passionate nature for all things historical, Dr. Lunn’s legacy has survived into the twenty-first century, maybe not in the hidden histories of his former homes but in the spirit of Astley itself.
– Leigh Chronicle, 15 April 1932
– Leigh Journal, 22 March 1973
– Leigh Journal, 28 June 1973
– Leigh Journal, 5 July 1973
– Pictorial Astley, John and Sylvia Tonge (Salford: John Roberts and sons, 1989)
– Census Information, Index of Wills and Administrations www.ancestry.co.uk
– 1939 Register http://www.findmypast.co.uk