At the heart of Astley stands a brick-built detached house, with a charming 18th century facade. Within the bricks and mortar of this building are centuries of stories and tales, not only of the individuals who have lived there but also of the history of Astley itself.
A Brief History of St. Stephen’s
From 1704 until 1989 the building was home to the Curate of St.Stephen’s Church in Astley. The building it originally called ‘The Parsonage’ until 1867 it became ‘The Vicarage, when Astley became a Parish in its own right (for the purpose of this blog I shall refer to it as The Vicarage throughout). It is still largely known by this name today, although with the prefix of ‘old’ to distinguish from the new Vicarage which is also located in Astley.
Astley itself did not have any place of worship until 1631 when St. Stephen’s was built as a chapel of ease within the Parish of Leigh. Adam Mort, Lord of the Manor, donated land opposite the entrance of his estate to build the Chapel and also the village’s first school, Mort’s Grammar School. Mort was apparently passionate about Puritanism and his will, written in 1630, reveals his reasoning for building the first chapel and school. Mort declared:
“I have my abode, it being a place far remote from any church and the most part of ye inhabitants [are] very rude and ignorant in good things.”
Mort’s Chapel was consecrated after his death in 1631 by the Bishop of Chester and it stood until 1760, when it was in such a dilapidated condition it was pulled down. A new Church was subsequently built by Thomas Sutton, the great-great grandson of Adam. This particular building survived until 1961, when it was destroyed in an arson attack.
The old Vicarage, located on the edge of the land surrounding the manor house of Damhouse and opposite St. Stephen’s, was constructed around 1704. A deed written in 1705 by Thomas Mort (great grandson of Adam) bequeathed it “for the use of the Astley curates forever”. However the building has much older origins than this, dating back to the early 17th century.
Whatever this original building was, it is not known, it could have been the home of the earliest curates of St. Stephens. Part of this original structure was certainly incorporated into the building of the new Vicarage in the early 18th Century, which it appears was built around it. Today this surviving Elizabethan fabric, including beams, is located in the kitchen and study, which stand at the very centre of the building.
The rest of the building is Georgian, with the exception of mid-nineteenth century enlargements and additions to the rear of the property. The house has no foundations, the walls being erected on huge oak beams. These walls are 14 inches thick and made of hand-made bricks. The front of the house is twin-gabled with symmetrical windows, the ground floor has sash window but the first and second floor have original casement windows. Interestingly on the south-east corner of the property there is evidence of a bricked up window, possibly to avoid the window tax which plagued Britain between 1696 – 1851. The building was granted a Grade II* listed building status in July 1966.
Within the grounds of the old Vicarage stands a barn, which is older than the property and dates from c.1580. This building has had a remarkable history on its own and it is a miracle it has survived to this day. It was partly rebuilt in 1950 by the National Coal Board after suffering from mining subsidence. On April 8th 1971 a small fire was deliberately started in the barn against some firewood but fortunately the building was saved and restored.
Amongst its many uses it has been; a tithe barn, a gardener’s cottage, a stable, a storehouse, a studio, scout headquarters, a garage, and a community space from 1986-1991. Today is has actually been converted into a domestic property but its most interesting use was been 1828-1841 when it was used as a school. At one time this building accommodated around 300 children! In the 1830s Rev. Alfred Hewlett erected a partition floor into the barn. Within the floor he installed a trap door, so that he could teach the younger children on one floor and the older children on the other floor and at the same time be seen and heard by both groups.
Residents of the Vicarage: 18th Century
The first curate to enjoy the newly built vicarage was Roger Seddon. His predecessors were Thomas Crompton (1631-89), John Battersby (1689-90) and William Leigh (1690-1702). In the appendix of his 1968 A History of Astley John Lunn mistakenly recorded Miles Barrett as the curate, however Barrett was the clerk of the Parish of Leigh and he married Grace Chaddock, heiress of Chaddock Hall.
Roger Seddon lived at the Vicarage with his wife Alice. Seddon was born in 1677 in Farnworth, the son of Thomas Seddon. In 1701, the year before he became curate of Astley, he graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford. He died in 1716 without leaving a will, so his father took control of his affairs. A year later in March 1717, his widow Alice died and both were buried in Leigh.
Following Seddon was James Marsh who died in 1728. The next curate was Thomas Mawdesley, who was actually a cousin of the Mort Family who owned the Astley Estate (Mawdesley’s father John was a relation of Mary Mawdesley who married Adam Mort). When his cousin Thomas Mort died in 1733 he left Mawdesley £50 (£7489 in modern terms). Mawdesley, like his predecessor, also graduated from Brasenose College and in 1731 he became curate of Astley.
In July 1754 he applied to the Bishop of Chester for leave so he could establish a school at the Vicarage (which at the time was known as the parsonage). His request was supported by his contemporaries in Leigh, Atherton and Ellenbrook. He died in 1769 and his gravestone was discovered in the ruins of St. Stephen’s Church after the fire in 1961.
Robert Barker (1741-1822) was appointed curate in 1769, his notice of election was signed by 66 supporters, however in August 1769 a challenging petition was drawn-up with 72 objectors to Barker. Despite this he was still appointed as among his 66 supporters were the influential Vicar of Leigh and Thomas Froggatt, Lord of the Manor of Astley.
Barker resided at the Vicarage with his wife Anne and their three sons; Robert (b.1768), John (b.1770) and Thomas (b.1771) – the younger two being born in Astley and baptised at St. Stephen’s. Barker wrote two pamphlets, one on the Catechism and the other on the Lord’s Supper. He also bred owls at the Vicarage. He died in 1822, having been curate of Astley for some 53 years.
The 19th Century: A troubled start
After the death of Barker in 1822, Rev. Richard Hodgkinson, the Vicar of Leigh, flexed his right to appoint a new curate. Hodgkinson appointed Rev. Thomas Birkett to the position, this proved to be an extremely unpopular decision with the residents of Astley and some of the more prominent members of society signed a petition appealing against the decision. Rev. Hodgkinson met with the local people, who formed “the committee of action”, at the Fleece Inn where they held and election for a new vicar. Their candidate who won 287 votes compared to Thomas Birkett’s 16 votes. Hogdkinson pushed ahead with his decision regardless and this led to the famous Chapel Riot in July 1822 when Birkett was greeted by a thousand person strong crowd who tried to bar his entry to the Church. Birkett eventually entered the Church with help from the military. Rev. Hodgkinson and his family had been slandered in some local publications and this led to a mental and physical breakdown and he died in an asylum later in 1826.
Birkett even declined to stay at the Vicarage, preferring lodging houses instead. In 1826 the Vicarage was turned into a day school, with the parlour, kitchen, larder and some of the bedrooms being turned into classrooms. In the larder there was a large stone slab on which the children learnt to write, it was later used as shelving. The hostility from the local population proved too much and Birkett appointed intermediaries to act on his behalf. In 1828 Alfred Ashworth was appointed minister and he moved into the Vicarage, the school children being sent to the barn instead.
Revered Alfred Hewlett: The Early Years
Alfred Hewlett (1804-1885) was born and raised in Oxford. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford University achieving his B.A. degree in 1831 and his M.A. in 1837. In July 1827 he married Catherine Anne Gibson (1805-1882), who had met at an Oxford racecourse. Together they had ten children: Elizabeth (1829-74), Alfred (1830-1918), John (1832), Ebeneezer (1833-1902), Hannah (1836-?), Ruth (1837-1874), Catherine (1839-?), Emily (1841-?), Rosa (1843-1926), William (1846-?). Apart from the two eldest children, all the others were born in Astley.
On 9 December 1831, Alfred Hewlett received a letter from the Bishop of Chester:
” My dear Sir. It is unexpectedly in my power to offer you a curacy with a title. Astley the place in question is a small chapelry about ten miles from Manchester and twelve miles from Warrington. The emolument is about £60 per annum and there is a very good house on a small scale; if you choose to come so far north for so trifiling a salary, you must be here with the necessary papers on Thursday morning next when my examination commences. I ought to add that I expect all whom I ordain on titles to remain at least two years. I remain, J.B. Chester”
A month later in January 1832, Hewlett arrived at Astley and he found almost everything to be disheartening; he noted it was “Very bleak, dirty and desolate”. The Chapel was extremely neglected, it was mouldy and stray dogs roamed around it. The Vicarage also proved to be damp and dirty. Most of the windows had been bricked up and the top floor of the house was in darkness completely; Hewlett spent his first night at The Bull’s Head Inn.
However Hewlett quickly settled into his new role, his great oratory skills won the people of Astley over and he began to pay daily visits to his parishioners and he held prayer meetings in local cottages. When he preached at St. Mary’s Church in Leigh at Christmas 1834, the church was the most crowded it had ever been.
Catherine Hewlett and their two young children joined Hewlett at Astley, their furniture was shipped from Oxford to Astley via canal. During this time Neighbours lent them some chairs and Catherine thought she was going to fall through one chair, which turned out to be a rocking chair – something she had never seen before!
The couple began to transform the neglected house into a home, they uncovered the windows and re-discovered some 250 volumes of books left by Thomas Mort in 1733. On 6th October 1835 the house nearly burn down when some hot coals fell out of the range in the kitchen onto a pile of laundry. Fortunately Catherine Hewlett woke up and the flames were extinguished before they could do any damage. A year later the structure of the house was damaged in a storm.
However Rev. Hewlett struggled to survive on his meager wage of £60 a year (about £5000 in today’s currency). This was because Hewlett only received part of the stipend available, as he was only an acting curate in the place of Thomas Birkett (who received the other £65). Therefore Hewlett had to make ends meet; when he first arrived in Astley he sold Hymn books and he also developed a kitchen garden at the Vicarage to supplement his growing family’s diet. In October 1832, the Bishop of Chester paid an unexpected visit to Astley and there he found Hewlett in the garden digging potatoes, wearing a pair of clogs. He was so impressed with Hewlett, he increased his wages slightly but this was not enough and in 1838 he left Astley for a position in Lockwood, Yorkshire. He was replaced by John Wilkinson Edwards, who once again struggled to win over the people of Astley. Upon Edwards death in 1840, Hewlett returned once again this time as full curate.
Reverend Alfred Hewlett: The Later Years
The 1851 census provides us with an insight into the world of the Hewlett family in the later 19th century. On the night of the census the Vicarage is occupied by Hewlett and Catherine, their children; Elizabeth, Alfred, Catherine, Hannah, Emily, Rosa, William, nine male pupils between the ages of 9-21 and three servants; Mary Houghton (cook), Ann Poole (housemaid), John Stout (groom). The Hewlett family were obviously very close to their servants and when Ann Poole passed away in 1859, they printed a notice of her death in the local newspaper:
“On the 25th, at the Parsonage, Astley, Ann Poole, who for upwards of twenty-three years was a valued, faithful and attached servant of the Rev. Alfred Hewlett, aged 35 years.”
In 1867 the house was enlarged and it became a proper Vicarage, having previously been known as ‘The Parsonage’. Hewlett was a keen diarist and wrote his daily recordings on a sheet of paper, which was then posted to his various children across the country, where upon its return to Astley it would be bound into a journal. On 24 April 1874, Hewlett celebrated his 70th birthday. As a child, his mother would present him with a bunch of marigolds, on his 70th birthday his maid entered the breakfast room and presented him with a large box, which contained a new set of robes and a letter from the mill owner Henry Arrowsmith. The letter read:
“ My dear Pastor, I have the very great pleasure in forwarding you the accompanying testimonial a set of robes and £124 on the occasion of your attaining the age of 70, being the free will offerings of your congregation and one Liverpool friend as a token of the love and esteem for you and your ministerial labours amongst us.”
Besides the robes and the generous donation by his congregation (which is around £10,380 in today’s terms), Hewlett also received: a garden seat, two ladies garden chairs, three water pots and two grates for the drawing room and the dining room. After dinner Lady Katherine Wetherall (heiress of the Astley Estate) and her daughter paid him a visit. However the next day Hewlett received a telegram informing him of his daughter Ruth’s death the day before due to complications from childbirth.
In 1882 Catherine Hewlett passed away and a few years later in 1885 Rev. Hewlett himself passed away. His family grave monument still stands at the old gateposts of the church yard. In July 1885 there was an auction of household items at the Vicarage (see below).
The Late 19th Century/ Early 20th Century
Reverend James Alexander Maxwell Johnstone (1845-1927) followed in Hewlett’s footsteps. At first he found it difficult to connect with the people and some left St. Stephen’s for nearby Tyldesley Top Chapel. However after a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rev. Johnstone conducted his ministry in a quiet but successful way. In order to deal with the problems of overcrowding in Astley’s schools he extended St. Stephen’s National School and built Ellesmere Street School and Marsland Green School. He was also a member of the Leigh Rural Council Board and Leigh Joint Hospital Board. In the 1890s the Hospital Board sold some fine old trees which adjoined the Vicarage garden, they were marked with chalk for felling. Rev. Johnstone actually snuck into the grounds and removed the chalk crosses, which he got into trouble for.
Johnstone lived at the Vicarage with his wife Catherine and their children; Joseph, Margaret, Mary, Katherine, Winifred, Dorothy and James and a few servants. The 1911 census records that the Vicarage consisted of 13 rooms; Drawing room, Dining room, Breakfast room, Study, Kitchen, Larder, bathroom and six bedrooms. Upon the death of Rev. Johnstone in 1927, after some 53 years as Vicar of Astley, the contents of his house were sold at auction, just as they had been after the death of Hewlett five decades before. As Johnstone did not leave a will and the family would have to vacate the Vicarage after his death, an auction of household items was an ideal way to gain capital.
Among the 305 lots for sale from the Vicarage were: five silver teaspoons, white pottery model of an elephant and two models of dogs, Royal Doulton china tea service, 5ft wide American Oak roll top desk, ebony and gilt low settee, a lady’s brown oak sewing chair,a blue, yellow and pink Turkish carpet 18ft x 11.6ft, six mahogany Chippendale chairs covered in maroon velvet, Jacobean oak diamond-shaped table, a Georgian toilet mirror in mahogany frame, a birch wood Tudor bedstead, a painted and decorated hang wardobe 4ft wide, a French iron bedstead 4ft 6in wide & fitted with wire spring mattress and pair paillasses and around 400 books.
The 20th Century
In 1927 Arthur Selwyn Bean (1886-1981) became Vicar of Astley, before he could move into the Vicarage it underwent extensive restoration, which included removing a smaller secondary staircase at the back of the house and repairing a leaking roof. The repairs cost £1,300 (about £69,700 in modern terms). In 1935 Rev. Bean left Astley and he became Archdeacon of Manchester until 1966. During World War II he was an honorary chaplain with the forces and from 1952-1969 he was honorary chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II.
From 1935 until 1947 Frank Ferguson was reverend at Astley and resided at the Vicarage. In 1947 Reverend William King moved to Astley and he quickly became popular with local residents. When he first arrived at the Vicarage, he and his family had to sleep on the bare floor as their furniture was still being shipped from India. Rev. King was once asked if he thought the Vicarage was haunted, he replied that it had a positive “Feng Shui” but in his first few months living there a curious incident occurred. One night the four clocks in the house – a grandfather clock, an electric clock, a travelling clock and an alarm clock – all mysteriously stopped at 3:30am.
In June 1961, St. Stephen’s Church was burnt down in an arson attack, Rev. King was actually woken by the arsonist knocking on the Vicarage door to tell him of the fire. As everything was lost, the Vicarage became a new community point in the village. The Vicarage was used an office, vestry and church. There were football matches and amateur dramatics in the gardens and tea-parties in the drawing room.
Between 1970-71, Rev. King tirelessly campaigned to restore the Vicarage which was suffering from a number of structural problems which included: a leaking roof which was caused by the different historic additions to the building, cold rooms, problems with flooding and damp walls. Reverend Jack Finney resided there after Rev. King left in 1973 and he stayed until 1983. Rev. John Findon was the last curate of Astley to reside at the Vicarage. By 1989 the up-keep of the house cost too much and the Diocese decided it was cheaper to build a new Vicarage in Astley and the old Vicarage was vacated.
Rescue and Restoration
Between 1989-1993 the old Vicarage stood empty as the Diocese decided what to do with it. It was during this time that the house fell into a dilapidated state of repair and even worse vandals broke into the house. Not only did they cause general disruption, they also broke the large stone slab in the larder, which had been by schoolchildren 160 years earlier and even worse they stole they stole the pride of the Vicarage. The huge magnificent Jacobean bannister was cut away from the staircase, which was then propped up with an old radiator.
In 1993 the Diocese eventually put the house up for sale and it was purchased by the Kinsella family, who still reside there today. Over the past two decades they have lovingly repaired and restored the Vicarage, gardens and the barn to their former glory. They even discovered one original balustrade to the staircase and therefore have been able to create a modern replica of it.
The old Vicarage has played a central part in the lives of the people of Astley for the past three centuries and even though it is no longer home to the Vicar of St. Stephen’s it stands proudly as a very charming and tangible link to the past.
Further Reading – https://ifthosewallscouldtalk.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/long-lost-histories-st-stephens-chapel-astley/
- John Lunn, Astley: The History of a Lancashire Township, (Manchester: Co-Operative Wholesale Society Ltd, 1968)
- John & Sylvia Tonge, Pictorial Astley, self-published, 1989
- John & Sylvia Tonge, The Second Pictorial Astley, self-published, 1992
- Rev. William King, Astley Vicarage, Parts I-IX, Mort’s Astley Heritage Trust Archives
- Thomas Brogden & Son, The Vicarage, Astley , 1927 (sale catalogue) Mort’s Astley Heritage Trust Archives
- Adam Mort’s Will, March 1630, Dootson Collection, Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies
- The Leigh Chronicle, 1 October 1859, p.2
- Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 11 July 1885, p.8
- The Leigh Chronicle, 8 April 1927