A Clean Sheet

Historian Andrew Simpson goes for a stroll in Heaton Mersey, along the Didsbury Road of 1848, to see how the passage of time can erase the industrial blots on our landscape.

Historian Andrew Simpson goes for a stroll along the Didsbury Road of 1848 and sees how the passage of time can erase the industrial blots on our landscape.

Now, as daft as that might sound, it is possible to recreate such a walk using census returns, the OS map for the period and the tithe documents.

It’s the tithe map in particular which has helped me with this imaginary stroll, past St John’s and down to the bleach works. The map, based on a survey undertaken by Charles Crawley in 1848, details the ownership of the land; the tenants who worked it and the use to which it was put.

In total, the township of Heaton Mersey consisted of 2,108 acres, of which only 1,840 were subject to a tithe payment to the church. Of this 1,840 acres, 670 were farmed as arable and 980 were meadow and pasture, leaving 100 acres for buildings, 50 for roads and 40 for railways.

The map describes the size of each field and its rateable value, along with who owned or rented the properties spread out across the township. Armed with the map, I know that as I make my way east along the Didsbury Road of 1848, I’ll pass by a mix of meadow and arable land with the odd little orchard. The Griffin is already there, but St John’s church is being built.

And if I so choose, I can wander down the lane to the assorted bleach works.

The thing about industrial archaeology is that it can turn up in the most unexpected places and come as a total surprise to people living nearby. Sites employing hundreds of people, which once hummed with purpose and had a history stretching back centuries can vanish, leaving almost no trace.

They soon become all but forgotten and their rediscovery can be a revelation. What helps is to have someone in the know, and David Harrop is one of those people. On a recent expedition around Heaton Mersey he came across a mystery bell which may have belonged to the bleach works.

Today, standing beside the cottages of Park Row and Park View, it’s hard to picture what must have been a noxious and noisy part of our industrial heritage. At the time of our walk, they were bleaching, dying and printing cloth: one of dozens of cotton processing and finishing plants along the banks of the Mersey. The river must have been lifeless and filthy with pollutants.

The river is cleaner nowadays: the fish have returned and the site of so much human activity has been reclaimed by nature.

There will be plenty who remember it as a going concern and some who may even have memories of working there, well into the twentieth century. All of which matters greatly; especially given the onward creep of new development. In time, the site will once again be occupied by new buildings, but the stories of those who worked at the former bleach works should be preserved.

All of which just leaves me to thank David Harrop, who has an impressive collection of memorabilia from two world wars and the history of the Post Office, some of which is on permanent display in the Remembrance Lodge in Southern Cemetery. Picture; detail of the 1848 tithe map of Heaton Mersey, compiled by Charles Crawley, 1848 and redrawn by Frank and Teretta Mitchell, 1978