Monday, 25 November 2019

The Blind Man's Road

Two of our local routes were built as turnpike roads in the 18th century by a blind man !

John Metcalf was born in Knaresborough in 1717. Six years later he contracted smallpox which left him totally blind. Known locally as "Blind Jack", he was a man of great accomplishments, especially his expertise as a road builder.
Within a few months of losing his sight, John had gained the confidence to leave his home unaided and within a few years could find his way throughout the town. Making the acquaintance  of boys of his own age, he soon learned to climb trees, joining them in regular forays into local orchards. He learned to ride his father's horses and eventually took up hunting. At the age of 13 he was taught to play the violin, a skill which was to prove a ready means to earn a living.
The deep pools of the River Nidd were popular bathing places and aged 14, Metcalf became a strong swimmer and it was he who was called upon to rescue a drowning soldier who accidentally fell in the river. 
There are numerous anecdotes telling of Metcalf's adventurous life and a popular story relates to a wager with Colonel Liddell, MP for Berwick. Jack won  10 guineas when he walked from London to Harrogate in five and a half days, arriving before the colonel whose journey by coach was slowed by the state of the roads.
Obtaining a four wheeled chaise, he entered the trade of a carrier, initially on local journeys but later transporting fish from the Yorkshire coast to Leeds and Manchester.
Joining the army, he was sent to Scotland during the Jacobite rising of 1745. His duties involved moving guns and entertaining the troops with his music.
On leaving the army, he obtained a stagecoach and driving it himself made a twice weekly journey between Knaresborough and York. 

The Turnpike acts of the 18th century empowered trusts to build and maintain new roads financed by tolls. An act of 1752 authorised a road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge and Metcalf with his experience of the bad state of the roads tendered to construct this three mile section. Despite having no knowledge of roadbuilding, he was awarded the contract and completed the work ahead of schedule. He now embarked on a long career during which he built 180 miles of new roads, often employing innovative methods. He earned more than £40,000 in this enterprise continuing to work until the age of 75. He died at Spofforth near Harrogate in 1810 at the age of 92.
This extraordinary man is commemorated in his home town where a sculpted figure sitting on a bench, holding a surveyors wheel, graces the Market Place.

Fernilee Toll Bar

The road from Macclesfield to Chapel-en-le-Frith was built by Metcalf in 1770. One feature of the road "Blind Jack's Bridge" in Rainow is Grade 2 listed. This is met by another Metcalf road at Horwich End for he constructed the Long Hill route between Whaley Bridge and Buxton. 

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Christie and Watts

Agatha Christie at Upper House, Hayfield in 1913. A digitally colourised photograph

James Watts was born in 1804 and baptised at Ardwick.  It is said that he began his working life at a small weaver's cottage in Didsbury. The rags to riches story seems however, to be a little fanciful. His family did indeed come from a small cottage and farm in Burnage and were gingham weavers who employed some of their neighbours in the enterprise. Longevity seemed to be a family trait; his father lived to be 93; his grandmother 92, and his grandfather 103. The young James was sent to a private school in Salford and then to London to learn the drapery business. On his return, he joined his elder brother in the cotton trade before setting up on his own in Ashton. He was to return to Manchester and join his brother John in a business opened on Deansgate in 1796 and known as "The Bazaar". Specialising in ginghams hand-woven by the family, this is now acknowledged as the first department store in the World. The Watts brothers moved to Brown Street in 1836 selling the Deansgate store to three employees, Thomas Kendal, James Milne and Adam Faulkner. Since the death of Faulkner in 1862, the business has been trading as Kendal Milne & Co. There has therefore been a department store on the site for 223 years.
Watts moved again in 1844, to Fountain Street. James and his brother Samuel were now running the business as warehousemen for finished goods ranging from carpets to flannels and boots to umbrellas. They engaged local architects Travis and Mangnall to build a new warehouse on Portland Street and construction commenced in 1855. When completed in 1858, this was the largest and most opulant of Manchester's grand warehouses in 1858 to Portland Street. Designed in the form of an Italian palazzo, each floor follows a different architectural style and is topped by gothic style pavillions. No visitor could fail to be impressed by the grand staircase rising through each of the five storeys. More than 600 staff looked after finished goods from a trade list 384 pages long. 

An architects model of Watts Warehouse on Portland Street. The model may be seen at the Museum of Science and Industry.

James Watts served as Lord Mayor of Manchester between 1855 and  1857 and was High Sheriff of Lancashire. 

Sir James Watts (centre)

Abney Hall at Cheadle was built in 1847 for Alfred Orell, a wealthy Stockport cotton magnate and politician. When he died in 1849 at the age of 33, his home was bought at auction by James Watts. Travis and Mangnall were engaged in 1850 to extend and modify Abney Hall and in the following year Pugin made further extensive alterations. 

Abney Hall

James Watts joined the executive committee of the Art Treasures Exhibition which was opened by Prince Albert in May 1857. The Prince Consort was the guest of Watts at Abney Hall which he describes as "one of the most princely mansions in the neighbourhood". This occasion was followed by the Queen granting James Watts,a knighthood. Other guests at Abney Halle included Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone and author E. M. Forster.

Upper House at Hayfield is a former farmhouse and later a hunting lodge, built in 1794. It was part of the Kinder Estate acquired by Watts in the mid 19th century. Much of the land was sold or compulsorily purchased for the construction of Kinder Reservoir although the house and woodland remained in his possession.

Upper House
Both Sir James Watts'  son and grandson were  called James. In in 1902, the  younger James married Margaret Frary Miller, sister of Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie nee Miller was born in 1890 at Torquay, Devon. Her father Frederick was described as "A gentleman of substance". She was largely educated at home by her mother, Clara although after her father's death in 1901 she was sent to school in Torquay and later Paris. She met Archibald Christie, a WWI pilot, at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford and they married in 1914.
Agatha Christie had an early ambition to become a writer but it was not until 1920 that her first book, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was published. She wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, becoming the best selling novelist of all time. Her works have been translated into a record 103 languages and have sold two billion copies.
In 1926, her husband, Archie, having begun an affair, asked for a divorce. After a quarrel on 3rd December, she disappeared from home. Her car was found above a quarry and inside were an old driving licence and clothing. A hue and cry ensued with more than 1000 police officers, 15,000 volunteers and a number of aeroplanes searching the countryside. The story filled the newspapers for the next 10 days and rewards were offered. Eventually she was traced to the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate where she was registered under an assumed name. She then sought refuge at Abney Hall, home of her sister and brother-in-law and her privacy closely guarded. It is bellieved that she had been suffering from either amnesia or a nervous breakdown. Public opinion however, assumed a publicity stunt or an attempt to embarass her husband. 

Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie

Divorced in 1928, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan on a trip to Baghdad and they married in 1930. She continued to write under the name of Agatha Christie. She was appointed CBE in 1956 and in 1968 her husband was knighted for his work as an archaeologist with his wife taking the title Lady Mallowan. She became Dame Agatha Christie in 1971.

Agatha Christie was a frequent guest from childhood at both Abney Hall and Upper House, the former being the inspiration for the country house settings of many of her novels and at least two of her stories are based there. Many of her characters took their names from Derbyshire locations and families. On her railway journeys to Hayfield, she passed through Marple and named her famous amateur detective after the town.

Today, the Upper House is in  private ownership and serves as a wedding venue. Abney Hall  is used as office space although the public can visit during the Heritage Open Weekend in September and the grounds are open all year. Watts Warehouse has, since its conversion in 1982 been known as the Britannia Hotel. Kendal Milne's Department Store now trades as House of Fraser, the building on the original Deansgate site is a vast Waterstone's bookshop. Agatha Christie's detective novels are ever popular and her play, "The Mousetrap", has been performed in London's West End, continuously since 1952.


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

The House Of Wonders

Quaintly named, "The Stones" is an attractive street in the centre of Castleton village in Derbyshire. Here in 1926, Randolph Osborne Douglas, opened part of his home as The Douglas Museum, The House of Wonders.

The House of Wonders at The Stones, Castleton

On display was his vast collection of ephemera, including many miniatures that he himself had made including a working engine that would fit inside a thimble; The Lord's Prayer engraved on a thread and a greenhouse complete with plants, small enough to stand on a thumbnail. He had collected African weaponry, mineral samples, ships in bottles, locks and keys and many other items. For a small fee, visitors were shown around by torchlight. 

Randolph Douglas with a group of visitors

Douglas had been born in 1895, the son of a Sheffield silversmith. He worked himself, at Hadfield's steelworks, until joining the army in 1916.

At the age of 8, he had seen Harry Houdini, the great escapologist, perform at the Sheffield Empire and thereafter he aspired to emulate the star. He became a self taught locksmith and his skills became known to Houdini with whom he corresponded regularly. After a show at Nottingham, Houdini travelled to Sheffield, invited to witness a new act that Douglas had devised. His step-mother dressed him in a straight-jacket secured with chains and padlocks and he was then suspended upside-down from a beam in the attic of his home before proceeding to escape. This was soon to become one of Houdini's most popular acts.

Douglas performed on stage himself on a few occasions as The Great Randini but only at small local venues. His first appearance was at the age of 16 at Catholic Young Men's Smoking Concert. A heart condition led to an early discharge from the army and he was no longer strong enough to perform on stage. He returned to the steelworks, married his wife Hetty and in 1926 moved to Castleton.

Randolph Douglas died in 1956 and the museum continued to be run by Hetty until she passed away in 1978. The museum closed and became a private house, the collection passing to Buxton Museum where it is on occasional display together with the Houdini correspondence


 This article first appeared in our Newsletter, January 2017

Monday, 4 November 2019

Prepare For The Invasion

 We are grateful to Dr. Gaynor Andrew for providing a copy of this World War II information leaflet.