Heritage is more than bricks and mortar

Buildings can be something we just take for granted. They surround us every day as we walk down the street and live our lives in them. Some buildings are functional and mundane, but others are special and some have unique stories to tell. They reflect the times when they were built, the materials available for their construction, the cost of building land, the fortunes of those who put them up, fashions of architecture, and sometimes, eccentric ideas of builders and stone-masons who worked on them. These are all treasures to be explored at the annual Heritage Open Days in September at participating properties across the country. However, the secret and hidden parts of such places are not obvious as one passes by, or even on entering. By secret and hidden, I mean the extraordinary lives of people who may have lived there over the centuries of their existence.

© G Lowe - Greys Cottage

Seedbeds of great ideas

Country houses of the influential and wealthy such as Blenheim and Chatsworth, Hampton Court and Hardwick Hall were the powerhouses of the times.
Here political and church leaders took part in discussions over the dinner table, which often became the basis for debates in Parliament and later, new law making. Buildings provided a backcloth for decisions that have played a large part in England’s history. But great ideas and new modes of thinking on social issues did not always stem from great houses and palaces. Isaac Newton, with his profound leap forward in mathematics, and his eureka moment on gravity under the apple tree, lived in a modest house, Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.

More modest still is The Grey Cottage, Disley, Grade II listed, and my home for twenty-four years. An attractive stone-built dwelling on the old main route between Buxton and Manchester, before the Turnpike road was built, later the A6. It was originally two cottages. It remains little changed since around 1840 when its present harmonious windows and Georgian front door replaced older styles. 

Tales of local life 

Gradually, there was much to discover about its previous owners and their lives. James Ralston, a calico journeyman working in the local print-works at Strines nearby and originally from Scotland, lived here in the 19th century and kept a diary in beautiful copper-plate handwriting. It was discovered when church records were being sorted and discarded in the 1950s and has since been kept at Cheshire Archives. Ralston’s writings include a record of some incidents of daily life in Disley such as the decision to subscribe to a new clock to be put up on the ancient parish church of St Mary. There is also a gory account of amateur medical intervention in the removal of a sharp piece of metal from his eye incurred at the print-works. Ralston’s friend, Bruce, was called in to perform the operation whereby a metal ring was ingeniously placed to hold the eye open whilst pincers were used to take out the metal, without anaesthetic.This must have been extremely painful but successful on the third attempt! No local NHS doctors’ surgery in Disley in those days!

A notable resident

Many of the details of Ralston’s life and residency at The Grey Cottage were known by local historians. What was not generally known locally, and what I found out many years after moving in, were the details of the life of Allan Monkhouse, author, novelist and literary editor of the Manchester Guardian from 1902. I had seen his name as owner on the deeds of the property, as one Allan Noble Monkhouse. By a series of extraordinary coincidences the facts came to light. Monkhouse had lived here for a few years at the end of the 19th century, with his first wife, Lucie, who died very young of TB. Allan combined his work of literary criticism, theatre reviews and essay-writing at the newspaper with the writing of nine novels and fourteen plays. One of the novels features Disley village and The Grey Cottage by other names, but they are easily recognisable.

There are collections of his literary letters at the newly refurbished John Rylands Library in Manchester written to Monkhouse by famous authors such as Harold Brighouse, and George Bernard Shaw as well as from the theatre critic James Agate on his experiences in France in WWI. Another private collection of family letters is at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside about a branch of the family who were early pioneers in New Zealand, describing the hardships and deprivations they encountered in North Island. These are rich mines of information on prevailing issues including war and culture. Before the days of e-mail and telephones, when letters were the main form of personal communication, the Royal Mail postal service was swift and reliable, even in wartime. Letters sent to France received replies within five days!

Links to our lives and issues

Allan Monkhouse’s plays are still being produced and are relevant to today’s audiences. He belonged to the realist ‘Manchester School’ of playwrights, along with others such as Stanley Houghton and H.E. Bates, addressing social and political issues. ‘Nothing like Leather’ (1913) was produced at the Library Theatre, Manchester, in 2008. ‘Mary Broome’ (1911), concerning women’s equality, ran at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London, in April 2011, exactly one hundred years after its première, and received excellent reviews.

It doesn't take much to uncover the hidden trails of those who lived their lives, on streets such as ours, in times not so long ago. With a few enquiries, facts can easily be found, providing an enduring insight into how people lived and how their thoughts and lives may have influenced our own times. The bricks and mortar are only the outer covers for interesting stories waiting to be discovered.

The Grey Cottage, Hardwick Hall, Woolsthorpe Manor, Cheshire Record Office and John Rylands Library will be open for Heritage Open Days 2011. Please click on the links for opening times and admission details.