Howe Bridge would have been a very different place had the Fletcher family not invested in the area in eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Fletchers themselves lived in a large house in the centre of Howe Bridge, called ‘The Hindles’, this is their story.
Howe Bridge is part of the township of Atherton. Today many people associate Howe Bridge with the brick-built miner’s cottages on Leigh Road but historically this was not the ‘traditional’ area of Howe Bridge. These cottages were only built in the 1870s, the original area known as Howe Bridge was centred around the bridge, which is now next to the entrance to the sports centre. After the cottages, school and church had been built, that part of Howe Bridge became known as ‘the upper village’ or ‘the prom’ (after the promenade walkway in front of the houses) and the part around the bridge itself was known as ‘the lower village.’
The Fletcher family originally came from Bolton. In 1776 John Fletcher was granted access to the mining rights in Atherton and the family also owned collieries in Bolton. John Fletcher died in 1832 and left his collieries to his sons, John and Ralph and some other beneficiaries. In the 1840s the company, John Fletcher and Others, sank shafts at their collieries at Howe Bridge.
Ralph Fletcher was not only involved in the collieries, he was also a colonel in the Yeomanry. In August 1819, Fletcher was present alongside William Hulton in a house overlooking St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. Fletcher, who was witness to the subsequent massacre, was among those who signed a document which declared the meeting illegal, thereby justifying (in their eyes) the charge of the cavalry upon the crowd of men, women and children.
Ralph married Jane Dodgson in 1813 and some of their sons were; Ralph (1815-1886), John and James. By 1868, the business was known as the Fletcher Mining Company. That same year the family firm opened a cotton spinning mill in Atherton. This was known as Howe Bridge Mills and it was intended to provide work for the wives and daughters of their miners. In 1872, Ralph was the sole proprietor of the business after the death of one brother and the retirement of the other partners. Ralph brought his own son, Ralph, in as a partner and Abraham Burrows also entered into the partnership. Thereafter, the company was known as Fletcher Burrows Company. They controlled the Atherton Collieries with several pits in the area at Howe Bridge, Chanters and Gibfield. To give an extent about the size and growth of the collieries and the industry, in 1825 the Atherton pits were producing around 7,268 tonnes of coal a year, in 1913 it was 670,000 tonnes a year.
Despite the less-than-harmonious the first Ralph Fletcher had with the labouring poor, his descendants were much more liberal. The Fletcher Burrows Company was credited as being a ‘good’ company to work for and they were part of the philanthropic trend of industrialists in the late-nineteenth century. In the mid-1870s, the Fletcher Burrows Company built a ‘model village’ for their workers at Howe Bridge complete with miner’s cottages, bath house, shops, school, social club and church. There was also a cricket ground and a bowling green. There is a rumour that the buildings were designed by a Dutch architect but all the buildings were designed by J. Medland and Henry Taylor and the church by Austin and Paley. Around the same time, they also built similar miner’s cottages at Hindsford for the workers of their Chanters Colliery, which was sunk in 1854 and expanded in the 1890s.
The Village Club, built in 1873, is reputed to the oldest working man’s club in the country. The Fletcher Burrows Company also built the ‘Mines Rescue Station’ on Lovers Lane in 1908, the first in the Lancashire Coal Field and several years before they became compulsory. The pit head baths, built at the Gibfield Colliery in 1913, were the first pit head baths in the country. The baths allowed the miners to shower at the end of their working day, much to the relief of their wives and mothers at home!
Ralph Fletcher (son of Ralph and Jane) was educated at Bolton Grammar School and then at Cambridge, where he received his BA and MA degrees. He was also a keen rower and he rowed throughout his time at the university. He later worked as a tutor and during his travels abroad he met Marie Sophie Eigenschenck, whom he later married in 1841 in France. Marie Sophie, who was known as ‘Sophie’, was born in 1821 in Versailles. Her father, Philippe Antoine Eigenschenck was music teacher and in his youth he played the violin at the chapel in Versailles when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette still lived at the Palace.
In 1842, Ralph and Marie Sophie’s son, Ralph Junior was born in Bolton. They later moved to Atherton, where they lived at Laburnum House. Their other children were: Elizabeth (b.1845), Philip (b.1846), George (b.1848), Annie Sophie (1851-1853), Mary Emily (b.1853), Arthur (b.1855) and Jane (b.1856). Ralph retired to Southport in 1861 as his eldest daughter suffered from ill-health. Unfortunately she later died in the south of France. Marie Sophie died in Southport in 1869, aged 48 and Ralph was remarried to Katherine Isabella Bond and he had another two children. He died in 1886. His obituary stated:
He always lived in a simple and un-ostentatious manner, his greatest pleasure being to have the means and opportunities at his disposal to of doing acts of kindness and of rendering pecuniary assistance to those who needed it.
A testament to his memory and generosity would be the building of the worker’s model village. He was a great supporter of the Church of England. As well as building St. Michael and All Angels in 1877, he also helped fund of the rebuilding of St. John the Baptist Church in Atherton. The patronising of the church and school under St. Michael, could have been due to St. Michael being the patron saint of military personnel and the Fletcher family had their long-standing roles in the military spanning several generations.
However, Ralph Fletcher never lived at The Hindles. Instead it was his son, Ralph Fletcher Junior who lived at the property and took over the hands-on running of the business after his father moved to Southport.
Ralph Fletcher Junior married Dora Gnosspelius in 1867 but sadly Dora died just over a year later aged 27. In 1869 Ralph remarried. His new bride was Fanny Smith, the daughter of a naval commander. It was around the time of his second marriage that Ralph moved to Howe Bridge.
The house he chose, The Hindles, was originally part of an old farm, known as Hindles Farm. On the 1845-49 OS Map, the farm was recorded at Hindley’s Farm but this is not to be confused with Hindley’s Farm at the top of Lovers Lane. In the 1851 census the farm was recorded as Hindles Farm and it was occupied by Joseph Battersby. The farm was around 14 acres in size. However, by 1871 the site was occupied by Ralph and Fanny Fletcher. Surviving photographs show that the property was a mismatch of buildings, so its likely part of the house belonged to the farm and extensions and alterations were made in the 1870s to make it more comfortable for the Fletcher family.
The household would have been very busy. Ralph and Fanny had six sons and a daughter: Frank (1870), Ernest (1871), Leonard (1872), Clement (1876), Stephen (1880), Denis (1881) and Agnes Mary (1885). The family also employed several servants: a cook, housemaids, parlourmaids, gardeners and eventually, a chauffeur. When the children were young a nurse and governess also lived with the family. Their close neighbours on the same site, at the new, smaller Hindles Farm were the Hales family who acted as farm bailiffs for the Company.
Ralph Junior, who was known as ‘young Rafe’, was very much involved in Atherton’s civic society as his father was. He served as a County Magistrate, on the Leigh Board of Guardians, on the Atherton Local Board and Atherton Urban District Council. In 1887 he also funded the building of the infants’ school of St. Michael’s in Howe Bridge which was dedicated to Fanny. Ralph gave money towards the building of St. John the Baptist’s Church, St. Anne’s, St. George’s and St. Phillip’s. It was rumoured that he gave ten per cent of his income to charity but he often made anonymous donations too. Fanny Fletcher died in 1900 and her husband Ralph died later, in 1916 at the aged of 73.
The Hindles in the 20th Century
At the start of the twentieth century, The Hindles was extended. In 1901 it was occupied by Leonard, Clement and Stephen Fletcher along with; Julia Oliver (housekeeper), Rachel Davies (cook), Lily Blair (parlour maid), Ellen Hale (housemaid) and Margaret Hale (housemaid) who looked after the bachelor brothers.
However, by 1911 the only brothers living at The Hindles were Ernest and Clement. In September that year Clement (1876-1965) married Jessie Mabel Forster (1887-1922) at St. James’ Church in Piccadilly, London. The couple had a society wedding and were given silver dishes as gifts, alongside a crystal jug and bowl from their servants at The Hindles. They honeymooned in the Austrian Tyrol. The couple lived at The Hindles and had the following children: James Clement (1912-2010), Frances (1915), Cicely (1917), John (1918) and Marjorie (1920).
The family stayed at The Hindles until 1920. Even though the house was set on the site of the former farm, it was not exactly a rural retreat and the Fletchers, unlike many other industrialists, lived directly among their workers. The house faced a busy road and the railway lines ran right next to the house as Chowbent Station (later known as Howe Bridge Station) was just across the road. James Clement Fletcher, known as Jim, who lived at the house for 18 years recalled:
“ There were trams going past the house every five minutes in both directions so it was noisy … also at the change of shifts time we used to hear the clatter of clogs on the pavement of people going to and from the labouring works.”
It is no surprise that the Fletcher family had a second home in the Lake District, which served as a country property far removed from the mills and mines of Atherton. Crow How in Ambleside was owned by the family since the mid-nineteenth century and they regularly split their time between the two properties.
After the Fletcher family left The Hindles, the house was split into two properties: The Hindles still being the larger part of the building and Hindles Lodge, the smaller part. In 1939 Hindles Lodge was occupied by Robert and Jean Sarsfield. Robert was the manager in one of the collieries. The Hindles was occupied by a medical practitioner, Dr Charles Saunders and his wife, Aileen.
By the 1950s The Hindles was the home of Peter Alun-Jones, who was a geography teacher at Leigh Grammar School, where he was nicknamed ‘PAJ’ after his initials. Alun-Jones studied at Oxford University and he was part of the rowing team and his oar hung on the wall at The Hindles. He lived at the property with his wife and two children.
The Hindles was demolished in the late 1960s or early 1970s, with the exception of Hindles Lodge, which survived a little longer. The site was used by Sutherlands Meat Spread. In the mid-1980s the site was used as scout land before being used as a scaffold yard. In 1986 planning permission was granted to build houses on the land but it was not until 1994 that the final buildings relating to The Hindles and Hindles Farm were demolished and Old Manor Park was built in its place.
Briarcroft was a large house, built a few hundred yards away from The Hindles. It was the home of Philip Fletcher, the son of Ralph and Marie Sophie. He lived at the large house with his wife, Phyllis and their sons: Philip and Basil. There was also a large staff of six female servants.
The property itself had an interesting history. It was built in 1870 as a pair of semi-detached villas, named Stanley Terrace. This type of housing was extremely fashionable among the middle classes at the time and at this point the model village hadn’t been built, so Stanley Terrace was surrounded by fields and a few farms. The houses were initially lived in by Reverend Horne and Ralph Peters. Philip Fletcher was living there from at least 1881. In 1886 and 1887 he had the house altered and enlarged and it was known as Brookfield House. It is likely that he knocked the two properties into one at this time. Further alterations and extensions in 1891 resulted in a much larger property and this likely warranted the change in name, to Briarcroft. Around 1922 when Philip Fletcher left Atherton to retire to Southport and he gave Briarcroft to the Atherton Collieries Joint Association to be used as a clubhouse. It was used as a boys’ club in the 1940s and 1950s, after which is became a general youth club until the late 1980s. Once it was derelict, it was targeted by vandals and a fire severely damaged the structure. It was demolished in the 1990s. The house and grounds were replaced by flats in the early 2000s.
Only one of the Fletchers’ former houses survive at Howe Bridge (just). This is Hindles Cottage which was built around 1911. It was first lived in by Ernest Fletcher, who moved out of The Hindles when his brother married. Clement Fletcher and his children lived there between 1922-1930. His son, James Clement Fletcher (Jim) lived there in the post-war years with his wife, Marjorie and their sons: Christopher, David and Roger. Jim was the last of the Fletchers to be the manager of the collieries, which were nationalised in 1947. Howe Bridge pit closed in 1959, followed by Gibfield in 1963 and Chanters in 1966, ending several centuries of mining in Atherton.
The house was occupied until fairly recently and it has been up for sale since 2019. Although, it seems the land is more prized than the historic home. Just like Briarcroft, Hindles Cottage has been subjected to vandalism and a fire was started in the property. Fortunately, within a month of this article being published online, Hindles Cottage appears to be under restoration.
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
- Dr John Lunn, Atherton: A Manorial, Industrial and Social History (1971)
- ‘Our Heritage’ – DVD film with an interview with James Clement Fletcher, 2011
- ‘Old Photographs of Atherton and Tyldesley’, Facebook, – many local people shared their memories of these houses and their former occupants which have been invaluable to writing this post.
- Yorkshire Post, 4 June 1868, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 2 July 1886, p.6
- Leigh Chronicle, 10 September 1886, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 22 April 1887, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 20 February 1891, p.5
- Leigh Chronicle, 22 September 1911, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 18 April 1913, p.5
- Yorkshire Post, 13 June 1927, p.13