In my kitchen cupboard there’s a special china mug bearing this message: “Mothers hold their children’s hands a while and their hearts forever.” It was a gift from me to my Mum-in-law. She loved it, and when she died, it came back to me. I bought it from Worsley Garden Centre Gift Shop which used to be located on the site of the current RHS Bridgewater, Salford, Manchester. Do you remember the gift shop and garden centre before it closed? I think the building was located somewhere between the walled gardens and a lawn near the Head Gardener’s Cottage. The surrounding area was pretty wild back then but it felt so safe and enclosed inside those massive fourteen foot walls. I can remember letting go of my children’s’ hands and releasing them to play in the rows of plants and fruit trees. Afterwards I had a nice cup of tea, and we shared some chips, from that little café at the side.
These memories are about 16 years old, but recently I was privileged to chat with a lady whose memories of that place are ninety years old. Her story pre-dates the relatively recent history of Worsley Garden Centre and goes back to an era when the site was occupied by the grand mansion and gardens of Worsley New Hall. I believe her account is among the oldest, if not the oldest, of those which are still being recounted in person to this day. Others have generously shared their memories in a special study called Worsley New Hall Project which is described as “a joint venture between the University of Salford and Peel Holdings Ltd to research and promote historical sources relating to Worsley New Hall, built in the 1840s as the Lancashire seat for the Earls of Ellesmere. The project took place between March and December 2012. An archaeological excavation of the site ran alongside the project. These pages provide information about the historical sources uncovered during the project.” The team gathered information, put timelines together and collected oral stories. Their website is packed with information and gives snapshots of several stories, many dating back to WW2,and Ted Loder (1903-1995) has written an astonishing account dating back to 1928.
It’s been a while since I accompanied my husband on a pilgrimage to see his beloved Auntie Doris. She had a birthday coming up and we arranged to join her for afternoon tea. Her pleasant ground floor apartment, not far from Oxford, overlooks a lovely enclosed courtyard. We devoured great wedges of Waitrose sponge cake and bemoaned the mutual failings of our hydrangeas this year. Despite enduring health battles she’s slim, smartly dressed, jolly and animated. A handsome woman by any standard, you would never know she’s 93.
Recently she’s become very excited about the development of RHS Bridgewater. She’s watched the BBC documentary about it and wants to show us some very old photographs and share her personal memories of this place. With some delight she explains: “Until the age of nine I lived in a street in Kersal, Salford. There wasn’t much there in those days, just a few streets, a church and then miles of open moorland.” She chuckles for a moment then adds: “I’m a Northerner really.”
“On Saturdays I used to go shopping in Manchester with my Auntie. Every time she would stop to pose next to the statue of John Dalton in Piccadilly Gardens. It was just a bit of a joke and we would laugh about it. She would turn sideways and ask me if there was any family resemblance to him, especially around her nose which was a very prominent shape. There were stories in our family about us being descended from him and something to do with him being colour blind and researching colour blindness. This runs in our family and I can remember my Auntie mentioning Daltonism, but I didn’t really understand what she was talking about at the time. One of my relatives is researching our family tree and I think they’ve found a connection. Years after I used to go shopping in Manchester I heard they moved Dalton’s statue to somewhere else."
I’m inclined to believe that Auntie Doris could be descended from John Dalton as she has the intelligence and analytical mind of a scientist; she speaks clearly and with great certainty. Her memory is so sharp and she doesn’t hesitate over the details of the story. She’s spot on with her John Dalton assertions. The Science and Industry Museum states that: “John Dalton (1766–1844) was a Manchester-based scientist whose pioneering work greatly advanced our understanding in multiple fields of research. His surviving apparatus and personal items are now in the Science Museum Group collection.” They go on to say that he researched, among other things, colour blindness. According to Historic England, Dalton’s statue was moved from Piccadilly Gardens and relocated to the forecourt of Dalton College in 1961.
Doris dances through the decades for a while, delighting us with ancestral stories. She recounts details we could never know and never find out for ourselves, things not recorded anywhere, they exist only in the deep archives of her mind. They are of no historical significance to anyone else, but they are an absolute treasure trove of priceless moments to us. These are her people stories; our people stories. They make the ordinary alive again, it’s like magic. A borrowed hat for a wedding, a silver tray on a hall table, a table for two in the recess under the stairs, a nervous train journey, a christening, fears of the “workhouse”, paying for medical care in the days before the NHS, separation and loss, kindness and laughter. She’s like a living library, an absolute marvel.
We ask about her connection to RHS Bridgewater: “Both of my Dad’s two sisters went into domestic service when they were very young, that’s how it was for girls and women in those days, there wasn’t much choice. Auntie Flo was taken on as the cook at the Head Gardeners’ Cottage next to Worsley New Hall and we went to visit her from time to time when I was a little girl.”
“I remember the funny roof of the Cottage, I can picture it now. The big house, Worsley New Hall, was very grand but we never went inside it.” “I was only three years old the first time we visited Auntie Flo at the Head Gardeners’ cottage in 1931. I remember going outside to play croquet on the lawn. I tried to join in but the wooden croquet stick was really heavy and I was just too little to pick it up. These old memories are so clear; I can see them in my mind, like it was yesterday.”
“I have photos of us all on some steps outside the Gardeners’ Cottage. Me, my brother, Mum, Dad and Auntie Flo. She is the one with wispy hair. She was only little but she seemed tough and strong. Sadly I’m the only one left now.”
Today, the Head Gardeners’ Cottage with the distinctive roof design which Auntie Doris remembers has been lovingly restored. For locals like me it’s a significant feature in the grounds of RHS Bridgewater and I’m so pleased it’s been saved. It serves as both a landmark, visible from a favourite canal path walk, and a sort of touchstone which orients me to the past. It’s a stunning piece of architecture with a proud history. On a recent visit the cottage was temporarily closed to the public but, together with my husband, I was able to see the lawns where Auntie Doris would have played as a young girl. We strolled through the walled gardens and walked besides the vacant platform of land where the grand mansion would have been and tried to imagine what it must have been like for a young girl from Salford some ninety years ago.
Header image: RHS Bridgewater (Michael Garlick)