At the start of the 20th century, Atherton was not a healthy place. The air was choked with smoke and pollution from mills, collieries, other industries and domestic chimneys. The houses varied from substantial villas to terraced houses to dilapidated cottages. The majority of the town’s working-class population had little access to cultivated green space in which to spend their few hours of recreational time. The views from their houses were largely of bricks and mortar, and their yards were functional spaces.

Changing views on health and sanitation eventually began to impact the town, and this is the story of how Atherton attempted to improve the health and well-being of its habitants.

Where was Dan Lane Gardens?

Those of you familiar with the town may not recognise the name ‘Dan Lane Gardens’, and that’s because it is now the site of the Atherton Arms pub. The gardens only existed for a couple of decades. By the 1950s they had been converted into a car park and in the 1960s the pub was built as Atherton’s Labour Club.

This road, which bends into Market Place and Market Street, is a very old road. One of the earliest recordings of it comes from 1724 when it was known as Dan Hatton Lane. Hatton is a common surname in the area and there was a Daniel Hatton who lived in Atherton in the 1720s, so it is likely he resided on the edge of the lane, and the name stuck. By 1736 it had been shortened to Dann Lane and the road was eventually renamed Tyldesley Road in 1899, in connection with the opening of Tyldesley New Road which provided a more direct access between the two towns.

In the early-nineteenth century Dan Lane was covered with terraced houses on either side and most of these were homes to weavers, who conducted their business in their homes on handlooms. By the early 1840s the landscape had already started to dramatically change when Dan Lane Mills was built on the southern side of the road (read more about the mill here).

Above: Dan Lane Gardens, c.1950 (centre) The site has already been cleared and it will become a car park not longer after this photo is taken. A lot of terraced housing, Church House, the Baptist Church and Dan Lane Mills are still visible in this photo. Most of them have now disappeared. (Source: Archives: Wigan and Leigh COPYRIGHT)

George Brearley

The exact site of the Dan Lane Gardens was an area which ran just behind some of the terraced houses on Dan Lane and this spot was known as Brearley’s Yard. The yard contained a few cottages and some industrial buildings, all of which belonged to George Brearley (1810-1896). In 1831 Brearley moved to Atherton from Bolton and started his business as a clog and patten maker. Clogs were a popular choice of footwear in Lancashire and pattens were a wooden and iron overshoe, which could be worn over shoes made of more delicate material. These would have been an ideal choice of footwear as the majority of streets were unpaved. By 1848 Brearley expanded his business to sell hats and boots and he even employed a small team of four men. Some of these items were manufactured in Brearley’s Yard, but his shop and domestic residence was at 20 Church Street, just round the corner.

Brearley reluctantly gave up his business at the age of 85. He had also taken a step back from public life. He had played a prominent role in the spiritual and political matters of the town. He was the assessor and collector of income, property and assessed taxes. It was noted in his obituary that:

‘In his younger days he took a great interest in public matters and had at heart the welfare of the people, whom he faithfully served as a representative on the Local Board from its formation [in 1865] to April 1885, when he resigned owing to deafness.’

Above: The grave of George and Hannah Brearley and their son, James Thomas Brearley. The grave is located in Atherton Cemetery. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2022)

Both Brearley and his wife, Hannah (1805-1897) were Wesleyan Methodists. Historically, Wesleyan Methodists were the more dominant branch of the Methodist movement compared to the Calvinist branch (dominant in Wales) and the branch known as the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection. The term Methodist, comes from the methodological study of the Bible by John Wesley and his followers. Wesley followed Church of England doctrines but he believed salvation was for all people. He actually preached in Atherton in 1771, 1776 and 1781. On one occasion he stated:

‘I preached about noon at Chowbent, once the roughest place in all the neighbourhood. But there is not the least trace of it remaining; Such is the fruit of the genuine Gospel.’

Atherton did not have its own Wesleyan Methodist Chapel until 1865 and Brearley played an important role in its opening. It was built on Laburnum Street and the building still survives today as offices. Next door is Rose Hill, which was once a large house. Brearley and his wife lived at this house towards the end of their lives with their daughter-in-law. Before Atherton’s chapel was built, Brearley worshipped at Tyldesley’s Wesleyan Chapel. He also worked there as a class leader for 25 years and he was a superintendent there for 17 years. Apparently, he very rarely missed a Sunday in all that time, and he always walked no matter the weather.

Above: The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Laburnum Street, Atherton. It was built in 1865. There was later more Methodist Churches built in Atherton, including a chapel on Bag Lane, an Independent Methodist church on Mealhouse Lane and a Central Methodist Church on High Street. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2022)

Brearley’s Yard

George Brearley owned several ‘cottages’ in Brearley’s Yard and some terraces house that stood in front facing out onto Dan Lane. These were sold in 1895 and apparently most of the terraced houses had been erected around 1871. The five houses in Brearley’s Yard were likely much older and built long before any government legislation over building practices (which eventually came in piecemeal fashion in 1868 and 1875).

The Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) enabled local authorities to legally purchase land and enact slum clearance projects. Nevertheless, for small industrial communities funding was not available to follow the terms of the Act completely and consequently poorer-quality housing remained the norm.

One of the residents of Brearley’s Yard was Ann Ainscough (also Ainscow). She was born in 1850 in Atherton and at the age of 21 she had her first child, William, who was born out of wedlock. Five years later she had a second illegitimate son, James. In 1878 she married James Ainscough and they had, son, Thomas (1879) and a daughter, Betsey (1882). After this James does not appear in any official records though Ann still recorded herself as married.

Ann, effectively a single mother, and her four children lived in the two-roomed house at Brearley’s Yard for over 15 years. Ann, who could not write, worked as a tent framer in a cotton mill and her sons worked as bolt makers. As her children grew up, spouses and grandchildren were also squeezed into the house. It was the best they could afford, and Ann was probably grateful she could keep her family together and out of the workhouse, where they would have been separated from each other and punished for their poverty.

Life in the Slums of Atherton

The housing at Brearley’s Yard was condemned in 1909 as being in a very dilapidated condition and unfit for human habitation. Nonetheless, Edwin and Alice Schofield and their four children, who were all under five years old, were still living there in 1910.

What was life like in the slums of Atherton? Whilst we have no direct account or photographs of Brearley’s Yard, we do know what life was like in similar housing in Atherton. The 1911 census revealed that there were four households in Atherton which consisted of 12 people living in just three rooms. Even in the more standard ‘two up-two down’ terrace there was still overcrowding. There were four households made up of 13 people in four rooms, and 111 household made up of 8 people in four rooms – that means four people per bedroom.

Above: The Walk, Atherton c.1930 These were slum housing probably very similar in appearance to those at Brearley’s Yard and certainly reflective of those living conditions in the accounts below. Alder House (built 1697) can be seen at the top of the road. These houses on the Walk were still occupied in the 1920s, though they did not even have a gas supply. They were demolished shortly afterwards. (Source: Archives Wigan and Leigh COPYRIGHT)

However, conditions were actually much worse than just overcrowded bedrooms. The houses suffered from neglect, damp, subsidence and insanitary conditions. Even those lucky enough to live in a four roomed house did not necessarily have access to each room.

A survey conducted in 1902 is the closest we will ever get to experiencing the interiors of these slum houses. Whilst the specific streets were not named, it was later revealed that some of the houses surveyed were in the area known as The Valley. These conditions would have been very similar to those experienced by Ann Ainscough and Edwin and Alice Schofield.

‘In slum No. 1 there are two bedrooms. but the back room is not habitable owing to the bad state of the roof. There is only one bed in the single bedroom occupied, and this is the only sleeping accommodation for the woman who is the tenant, her three children (one a girl of 16), a male lodger, with two sons aged 17 and 16. There is no back door, the plaster is off the walls in the living place, and a disused cellar is under the house. There is no boiler for washing clothes, and the house is in a filthy and dilapidated condition.’

In slum No 2. there are two beds in one room again. In one bed lies a woman with broken ribs and collar bone; the other occupants of the room being her husband, a daughter 20 years old, two sons aged 18 and 16, and a girl of 10. The back kitchen is very dark, having no window.

In Slum No. 3 The roof is so bad that the rain has come through the bedroom and into the kitchen. There is neither latch or lock on the front door, which is fastened at night by a piece of tape; the walls of the living place are wet and the wash boiler broken down. The plaster is off the walls and the floor of the kitchen is paved partly with bricks and partly with broken flags and is in a bad state of repair. The ceiling in the front bedroom is bulging with wet, the walls are damp and the window of the living place will not open. (The landlord is a very wealthy pillar of the church but rents are collected by an agent)

Some of the other conditions recorded included two outside toilets shared between five houses, which was a relative luxury as in other parts of the town nine houses shared two toilets. This would mean potentially dozens of people using these basic facilities. In another house, a flooded cellar led to the husband, wife and three children catching typhoid.

The survey evoked a mixed response from the people of Atherton. One ‘leading gentleman‘ stated that in The Valley, the four beer houses were ‘all flourishing‘, and as such he blamed the tenants of these houses themselves for spending money on alcohol rather than repairs. The question was raised about whether the council should build houses (this was some 20 years before the Addison Act which would eventually build social housing post-World War One). The idea was not popular. There was opposition from landlords who feared they would lose income, and others held tight to the notions of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ with one correspondent writing ‘why should I have to pay addition rates in order that a working man may have a cheap house?‘ – sadly some mentalities never change.

A New Green Space

Whilst Atherton Urban District Council were not willing to replace the slum housing at Brearley’s Yard with new houses, they at least recognised the value of creating some green space in the centre of the town. Many people had questioned the popularity of the pubs in the town, and raised the point that there was actually little else to do or places to go for working-class people.

Likewise children needed space they could run around in and get out of their crowded houses. The site now known as Atherton Park, or Central Park, off Hamilton Street was a large field leased to the Atherton Local Board in 1887 by Lord Lilford for the nominal rent of 10 shillings per year. He then gifted £300 for the fencing of the site to make it safe. In 1905 it was proposed to split the site and to create a formal park, which was completed in 1912.

Above: This aerial photograph taken c.1935 shows the Dan Lane Mills now the site of Tesco (centre), Hamilton Street (bottom left) and the Dan Lane Gardens, the oblong clearing in the top right corner. (Source: Thomas McGrath)

However, the population of the town had risen from 12,602 in 1881 to 18,982 in 1911 and just one park and recreation ground wasn’t enough. In 1910 the UDC acquired Brearley’s Yard, demolished all buildings and the houses on Dan Lane in front of it, and it was initially used as a recreation ground. It was not the only recreation ground formed at this time, a site of Lodge Lane in Hindsford (now Fallowfield Way) was also created. By 1913 the site at Dan Lane (Tyldesley Road) was fenced off and the following year a caretaker was employed. It seems that after this it took on the role of a slightly more formal gardens, with flowers, paths and benches. The adjoining buildings, including Church House, were shielded from view by rows of trees.

Dan Lane Gardens survived as a little oasis for over 30 years, until it was surpassed by larger and more varied recreation fields and facilities, including those off Wardour Street and those which still belonged to the Howe Bridge Mills on Flapper Fold Lane for the use of their workers. By Dan Lane Gardens was cleared for a car park, the final remains of the old slums were also being wiped from the town. It was a long process and there were some residents of the town in 1962 who were living in conditions not too dissimilar from those in 1902.

When I started writing this article, I thought it would just be the history of a lost park. I did not realise it would tell the story of health and sanitation in this town and the living conditions of our ancestors. The creation of this garden in 1910 highlights the beginning of the great social gains and improvements to welfare made across the first half of the twentieth century.

Researched and written by Dr Thomas McGrath

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Sources:

  • https://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Atherton/indexr.html
  • Leigh Chronicle, 22 April 1865, p.2
  • Leigh Chronicle, 19 July 1895, p.4
  • Leigh Chronicle, 5 June 1896, p.5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 1 August 1902, pp.4-5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 8 August 1902, pp.4-5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 22 September 1905, p.8
  • Leigh Chronicle, 8 October 1909, p.8
  • Leigh Chronicle, 19 May 1910, p.5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 16 May 1913, p.2
  • Leigh Chronicle, 3 April 1914, p.6
  • Leigh Chronicle, 9 September 1914, p.3
  • Dr John Lunn, Atherton: A Manorial, Industrial and Social History (1971)
  • http://www.findmypast.co.uk
  • Collections in Archives: Wigan and Leigh (Leigh Town Hall)