Church Fields was a local landmark in Leigh, an open green space which was enjoyed by the local population for centuries. As Leigh developed into an industrialised urban hub in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the land around Church Fields became a distant memory. However, even though the rural atmosphere was lost, this article will show that the area of Church Fields still provides for the community as it always has done; offering employment, recreation and places of residence.
The Townships of Leigh
Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th century Leigh did not exist in format as we know it today and the boundaries between areas was much more defined and important. The parish of Leigh was comprised of six townships; Astley, Atherton, Bedford, Tyldesley, Pennington and Westleigh; with the area around the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin being known as Leigh (as it just fell within the Westleigh boundary). In 1875 three of the townships; Bedford, Pennington and Westleigh merged to form the Leigh Local District Board. In 1894 the Local Board became Leigh Urban District which included large parts of land belonging to the Atherton Estate and Leigh finally became a Municipal Borough in 1899.
The area of Church Fields was just within in the boundary of two townships; it was located in Westleigh but boarded land belonging to Atherton. The origins of the name of area are as simplistic as it sounds, these were the fields belonging to the church, which are also historically referred to as a ‘glebe’. The lands were used to provide the Vicar with an additional income.
The Parish Church
The fields served the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. A church was founded on the site in the 13th century around 1238, and this early church was dedicated to St. Peter (sometimes referred to in very early documents as St. Peter’s of Westleigh). These early years were violent times and the rector of the Church, Nicholas Wigan was murdered in 1276 following a dispute with Henry Westleigh and the Urmston family (the dominant manorial family of Westleigh).
At the end of the 14th century the church was rededicated to St. Mary the Virgin, which it has remained ever since, even after the reformation. The current Grade II* listed building can be traced to the early 16th century, with some parts surviving from this period (e.g. parts of the tower). However, the main body of the church was declared unsafe in the 1860s and subsequently rebuilt between 1870-73 by Austin and Paley. The architectural firm was famous for their Gothic Revival Churches and other examples in the locality include: St. Michael’s and All Angels in Howe Bridge (1875-77), St. Peter’s on Westleigh Lane (1879-81) and St. John the Baptist in Atherton (1878-96).
Church Fields: A public space
As a large, open green space Church Fields was often used by the local community. It also featured some of the main public footpaths linking Westleigh with other districts. In 1825, the first public railway in Lancashire was opened adjoining the site. The Bolton-Leigh railway line was opened in August 1828 for goods and in 1831 for passengers, so the area would have seen a lot of activity in the early nineteenth century.
The public footpaths of Church Field could occasionally be dangerous; for the most part of its history, the site was in isolated open countryside. In 1862, Robert Ratcliffe, aged 22 attacked his father whilst walking across the fields. Robert had been “in a low state of mind” and his father took him to the doctor, unfortunately the doctor was absent and on the walk home, Robert stabbed his father in the lower part of the face and slashed his throat. Amazingly, his father survived the attack and lived until the age of 79. Robert was bailed by his father and committed to an asylum. In 1871 Jane Robinson managed to fight off an attacker in Church Fields who wrestled her to the ground, grabbed her neck and tore her dress. Fortunately, she recognised her attacker and he was later fined 40 shillings and costs. In 1893, 70 year old Mrs Grundy was found drowned in Wright’s pit in Church Fields, according to the newspapers she had “several times threatened to do away with herself.” Human bones were sometimes discovered on the site as well, having been moved their centuries before during works in the chapel yard.
However, for the most part Church Fields was a place for public enjoyment. The fields were used often for the annual Leigh Agricultural Association competition day and also used annually for the children of the parish school, who had a treat day out on the field each July. The land was also used by the various cricket clubs of Leigh for their matches.
Church Fields: A residential place
Church Fields, although belonging to the church were also a place of residence. Reference to the glebe lands belonging to others are recorded as early as 1319, when the rector, John Urmston claimed land back which had been parted with under his predecessor, William Urmston. Of course a legal dispute arose between Urmston and the owners of the land, John and Agnes (presumably a Jewish couple as John was simply referred to as ‘John the Jew’) and William Harper, all who resided in Hindley. The case was still being disputed several decades later in 1346.
In 1798 the area of Church Fields measured eight acres, out of a total area of glebe land measuring fifteen acres. By 1814 a house had been built on this vast expanse of land, called Churchfield. In that year it was home to Thomas Barlow. However, within in the subsequent decades the house appears to have been split into three different dwellings.
In 1851, one cottage was home to Peter and Catherine Hussey and their eleven year old servant, Elizabeth Royle. The other cottage was the home of Robert and Margaret Woodward and their children and the final cottage occupied by Luke and Ann Waywell and their lodger. The occupants in all three cottages were employed as silk weavers, which was a prominent industry in Leigh in the early nineteenth century.
Twenty years later little had changed, each household had the same occupants. Luke and Ann Waywell continued to lived in the cottages until Luke’s death in 1883. By 1891 the cottages were still inhabited; the census for that year also recorded the amount of rooms in a household. Cottage One consisted of only three rooms and was home to James & Elizabeth Kirkman and their two daughters and a lodger, James Kay. Unlike their predecessors, the Kirkman’s did not work in the weaving industry, James Kirkman and James Kay both worked as dataller’s, which meant they were paid for work in the collieries on a day by day basis. Cottage two, slightly larger at four rooms was still home to Robert Woodward, who recorded his occupation as a retired gardener. He lived there with his granddaughter Catherine and her husband Henry Blears; both worked in cotton mills. The third cottage, consisting of three rooms, was home to Thomas and Mary Holden and their two young children; John and Ann. Thomas described himself as a “jobbing gardener”, again another unsteady form of occupation.
Why did the Kirkman’s and Holden’s appear to have trouble finding work? Between 1873-1896 Britain experience a long period of economic recession, which hit agriculture particularly hard in the 1880s. The Leigh Chronicle from 1886 noted that Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley were largely unaffected by the recession. The article noted of those men who were often seen all day hanging around the market place in each town, that only a handful were unemployed, the rest night-shift workers. However, in nearby Lowton and Golborne, where mills had closed, unemployment was higher. In Golbourne, the Parish paid out £40 more in relief funds in 1885 than it had in 1884. In comparison the Atherton Board (over Astley, Atherton, Bedford & Tyldesley) had only paid an additional 9 shillings and 3 pence compared to the year before. Therefore, although the effects of the recession were not felt as deeply in Leigh as in other areas, the repercussions meant some families still had to live in small, cramped and unsanitary homes such as Church Field cottages as their casual employment status could not afford them other accommodation.
The 1890s also marked a new era for Church Fields, which would alter its appearance forever. Terraced housing had been built on the fringes of the site from the early 1870s, along Leigh Road and Kirkhall Lane. However, the land of Church Fields was carved up and sold to developers in the early 1880s. The new streets were: Glebe Street (in homage to the history of the area), Gordon Street, Selwyn Street, Chadwick Street and Prescott Street. The housing stock was made up of terraced houses built for Leigh’s rising population (in 1891 it stood at 28,708 persons and 1901 it rose to 40,001 – although the boundary changes of 1894 would also have added to this rise in population).
The streets were built in typical piecemeal fashion, for example 15 houses on Gordon Street were built by Peter Horrobin and another 12 houses on the same street were built by William Prescott. Prescott also lent his name to his own street, although for a brief period of time in 1887 it was a street with two names, as the local district council had decided to call it Howarth Street (until Prescott complained). The area was also a somewhat desirable place for working-class families, some houses on Gordon Street were supplied with gas and both hot and cold water, a luxury compared to conditions in Church Field cottages. However, in 1892 most of the new streets were still unpaved, causing chaos in heavy rainfall and a large ditch had developed which was described as “an open sewer”. Church Field cottages were demolished in the late 1890s, they would have stood behind Glebe Street and Grassmere Street. Further development of Church Fields land took place near there with the laying out of Windermere Road and construction of Sacred Heart Church and School at the dawn of the twentieth century and also at the Kirkhall Lane end, where St. John’s School and Church were also established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the land around the church was so close to the centre of the town, many important buildings have also stood, or still stand, here across the centuries, including: the original Grammar School, the Girls’ Grammar School on Windemere Road, Primitive Methodist Chapel, a cinema, the Fire Station, the British Legion Club and the market hall.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond: New Uses
Despite a large part of the land of Church Fields being built upon, a substantial amount of ground bordering the railway line continued to be open green space for the use of the community, and as such continued to be known as Church Fields. From the 1920s the remaining bits of land were parcelled up and divided as allotment gardens, which was to prove vital for supplying the local population with fruit and vegetables during the economic slump of the ‘hungry thirties’ and during the rationing of World War Two and beyond.
In 1947, a stadium was built over an area of 5.5 acres on Church Fields, next to the railway line. It was the home of the Leigh Rugby League who moved there from their earlier site at Mather Lane. Given the post-war austerity, much of the old stadium at Mather Lane was simply dismantled and re-built on the new site. Tommy Sale (1918-2016) recalled: “‘families turned up to help rebuild the stadium. When the pitch was laid there was a long row of trucks lined up waiting to unload and men, women and kids all formed a line to pass the turf from the trucks and into the stadium!”
The stadium had a capacity of 10,000 and domestic and international matches were well attended. The 1953 match between Leigh vs. St. Helen’s was attended by a staggering crowd of 31,224 spectators at the stadium. Originally called Kirkhall Lane, the stadium was later renamed Hilton Park in honour of Jack Hilton, the former club chairman. The final match was played there in 2008, before the club moved to new premises at Leigh Sports Village in 2009. The stadium was demolished in 2015 and Atherleigh Park was subsequently built there, a hospital specialising in mental health.
Another popular use of the Church Fields site in the twentieth century was for Silcock’s annual fun fair. The fair was originally held on land on the corner of the field, bounded by the railway line and Kirkhall Lane. This site was next to the Railway Inn and was eventually redeveloped into a B&Q, around the same time the old railway line was converted into the bypass. The fair is still held on the former Church Fields land, nowadays on land fronting onto Leigh Road. The black peas which could be bought at the fair appear to have been just as popular as the rides themselves!
Church Fields has been constantly changing and developing. Although the name may now no longer be familiar for younger generations, the continuity of enjoyment, employment and housing has carried on into the 21st century. So, even though the land has changed and no longer looks the same, we unknowingly follow many of the same patterns as those that came before us. We visit the fair, just as they did decades ago, we travel down the bypass, just as they did almost two centuries ago and even when we walk down Glebe Street, we are treading the same paths across the same land, just as they have done over the past 800 years.
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
- John Lunn, A History of Leigh, (Manchester: Co-operative Press Limited, 1958)
- Leigh Chronicle, 17 May 1862, p.2
- Leigh Chronicle, 5 August 1871, p.3
- Leigh Chronicle, 26 February 1886, p.5
- Leigh Chronicle, 24 June 1887, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 30 September 1887, p.5
- Leigh Chronicle, 17 July 1891, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 28 October 1892, p.8
- Wigan Observer, 22 February 1893, p.3
- Leigh Chronicle, 10 June 1904, p.4