Thursday 12 May 2016

(216) Assheton of Downham Hall, Whalley Abbey, Great Lever and Middleton Hall, baronets and Barons Clitheroe - part 1

Assheton of Downham Hall,
Barons Clitheroe
The first part of this post provides an introduction to the Assheton family and its estates, and describes the houses they owned. Part 2 gives the detailed genealogy of the family. 

The Ashton or Assheton (as the name came to be spelled) family are one of the most important and oldest gentry families of central Lancashire. They take their name from Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester, where they are recorded as holding the manor from the 12th century onwards. It descended to Sir John de Assheton (d. 1427), a knight who fought at Agincourt and was employed as an administrator in France in his later years. His eldest son, Sir Thomas Assheton (c.1403-60), who inherited the Ashton-under-Lyne estate, was bred up as a knight but had very different interests, and in 1446 was given a licence to practice alchemy. His descendants held Ashton until the early 16th century, when it passed to the Booth family by marriage.

Sir John's younger son, Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1425-88), the half-brother of Sir Thomas, was a Yorkist knight with an unenviable reputation for violence and brutality, who held high office under King Richard III but seems to have avoided being present at Bosworth field, when Richard was killed and Henry Tudor seized the throne. His first wife was heiress to the Middleton estate, but he seems to have lived in the early part of his career mainly at Fryton (Yorks NR) where he held appointments in the Honour of Pickering, and later on at Westenhanger (Kent), where his second wife brought him property and he had grants of land from the Crown.

From Sir Ralph the Middleton estate passed to his eldest son, Sir Richard Assheton (d. 1507) and grandson, Sir Richard Assheton (c.1482-1549), both of whom were knights in the military service of the Crown. The younger Sir Richard distinguished himself at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, and commemorated his part in that devastating English victory against the Scots through the remodelling of Middleton church and the installation of a window depicting his troop of archers. Both men, however, received royal pardons for civil offences, suggesting they may have inherited some of Sir Ralph's lack of self-control.

Sir Ralph's second son, another Sir Ralph Assheton (fl. 1501) married Margaret, the daughter and heiress of Adam Lever of Great Lever near Bolton, and they established a junior branch of the family at Great Lever. This Sir Ralph was succeeded his son, Ralph (fl. 1509) and eldest grandson, Ralph Assheton (d. 1559), whose younger brother, Richard Assheton (d. 1579), no doubt a lawyer by training, became one of the senior officials of the Court of Augmentations. Through his position there, he was able to acquire former monastic properties in three counties, including the site of the Cistercian abbey of Whalley, where he converted part of the conventual buildings into a house. In 1558 he also purchased the manor of Downham, which had always been in lay hands. Having no children of his own, he divided his estates between his great-nephews Ralph Assheton (c.1552-1616) of Great Lever, who received Whalley, and his younger brother Richard Assheton (fl. 1595), who received Downham; this established a third branch of the family.

In 1614, Radclyffe Assheton (1582-1645), a younger son of Ralph Assheton (c.1552-1616), joined with his father to buy the manor of Cuerdale near Preston, and there established a fourth branch of the family, so that at the outbreak of the Civil War the family were established on estates all over south and central Lancashire: Sir Ralph Assheton (1579-1644), who was made a baronet in 1620, inherited Great Lever Hall and Whalley Abbey, but sold the former in 1629 to the Bishop of Chester and lived thereafter at Whalley. Another Ralph Assheton (1606-51) had inherited Middleton Hall as a minor in 1618, and was to play a leading role in the Civil War in Lancashire as one of Parliament's Major-Generals. Radclyffe Assheton (1582-1645) was at Cuerdale Hall, and Richard Assheton (d. 1657) was at Downham Hall.

In 1657 Richard Assheton of Downham Hall died without issue and left his estates to Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1611-80), 2nd bt., of Whalley. Sir Ralph also had no surviving children, and since he was on poor terms with his half-brother and heir, he settled the Downham estate on his cousin Richard Assheton of Cuerdale in 1678, while Whalley, which was entailed, passed to the half-brother, Sir Edmund Assheton (1620-95), 3rd bt., a London lawyer. Sir Edmund contested the settlement of Downham, but to no avail, and since he was unmarried and without issue, when he died Whalley passed briefly to his brother, Sir John Assheton (1622-97), 4th bt., and then to his sister's son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1657-1716), 2nd bt. of Middleton Hall. When Sir Ralph died without sons, the Middleton Hall estate passed with the baronetcy to his nephew, Sir Ralph Assheton (1692-1765), 3rd bt., but Whalley was left to his youngest daughter, Mary (c.1694-1776) and her husband, Sir Nathaniel Curzon (1675-1758), 4th bt. of Kedleston (Derbys), and passed out of the family. In 1765 the same fate befell Middleton, when the 3rd baronet died without sons, and the estate passed to his eldest daughter Mary (1741-1823) and her husband, Sir Harbord Harbord, 2nd bt. and later 1st Baron Suffield.

So with hindsight, the Civil War - when four branches of the family held five estates between them - was the highwatermark of the family fortunes. By the late 18th century only Cuerdale and Downham were left in Assheton hands. William Assheton (1758-1833), who inherited the estate as an infant, came of age in 1779 and immediately embarked on a remodelling of the old house at Downham. Perhaps because of a shortage of funds, however, his transformation was abandoned unfinished, and he lived in York rather than on his estates. It was left to his son, William Assheton (1788-1858), to bring in George Webster to complete the remodelling in 1834-35, and from this time onwards at least, Cuerdale Hall seems to have been used as a farm only. William was succeeded by his son Ralph Assheton (1830-1907) and grandson, Sir Ralph Cockayne Assheton (1860-1955), 1st bt., who had business interests in the coal and banking industries which brought new wealth to the estate. Downham Hall was restored and remodelled in the years either side of the First World War, creating the house that exists today. Sir Ralph's son and heir, Ralph Assheton (1901-84), combined even wider business interests with a career in politics which saw him serve as MP for three different constituencies between 1934 and 1955. The high point of his ministerial career was three years as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, at what must have been a very demanding time, 1942-45. On his retirement from Parliament in 1955 he was created a peer as 1st Baron Clitheroe, and on his father's death a few months later he inherited the family baronetcy and the Downham estate. In 1984 the titles and estate passed to his elder son, Ralph John Assheton (b. 1929), 2nd Baron Clitheroe, who handed the estate over to his son, the Hon. Ralph Christopher Assheton (b. 1962), in about 2012.

Ashton Old Hall, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire

Ashton Old Hall: engraving of 1794
The medieval seat of the Ashtons was a large house occupying high ground between the parish church and the River Tame, but after it passed to the Booth family in the early 16th century it seems to have passed out of regular use as a gentry house and was eventually converted to tenements. In 1795 John Aikin described it as a building of great antiquity and said it had been erected in 1483, but gave no specific reason for assigning that date to it. At that time, part of the house had until recently been used as a prison and the part which was in use as tenements had been altered to create separate entrances to each dwelling. According to Aikin, "It has two courtyards, an inner and an outer, with strong walls. Over the outer gate was a square room ascended to from the inside by a flight of stone steps and very ancient. It has always gone by the name of the Gaoler's Chapel . . . [but] was taken down in 1793. The house to the inner court is still standing, and in tolerable repair. . . . The front of the old hall adjoining the prison overlooking the gardens and the River Tame [has] a beautiful prospect. On this side of the building are strong parts of immense thickness with numbers of loopholes." When first recorded on a plan in 1824 the house had ranges around three sides of a courtyard, but whether it was ever as extensive as Aikin describes is unclear. The first Ordnance Survey 6" map, surveyed in 1845, suggests that there may not have been room on the site for more than one courtyard.

Ashton Old Hall: Ordnance Survey 6" plan of 1845 showing the surviving fragment of the house.

Ashton Old Hall, Ashton-under-Lyne: west front, shortly before demolition in 1890

The house was repaired and modernized in 1838 for the occasional residence of the Earl of Stamford, to whose family it had descended, and a good deal of old fabric was probably lost at that time; certainly the L-shaped footprint in 1845 was smaller than in 1824. In 1862 John Higson, a local antiquary, wrote a description of the house. The long west wing overlooking the valley had then two small bays and projecting chimney-shafts in its west front, and an apparently 17th century two-storey porch, but was covered with rough-cast coloured black. On its east side the greater part was also rough-cast, but a portion at the south end was of timber and plaster. The roofs were covered with stone slates. The east inner elevation had doors and windows with semicircular heads, and over the door was an escutcheon with the arms, crest, and supporters of the Earl of Stamford, so all this part was probably altered in the 1838 remodelling. The hall is thought to have had a floor inserted in the 16th century, but a portion of the medieval roof remained in 1862, with shaped braces forming quatrefoils in the spaces between the principals and the purlins. 

Ashton Old Hall, Ashton-under-Lyne: south front, a reconstruction drawing of 1910.
Image: Victoria County History/University of London

Higson thought the south wing was probably early 16th century. In his day it had three square-headed windows on each floor of two trefoiled lights, and was flanked at each end by a round tower standing a little in advance of the main wall, and rising considerably higher than the roof. The walls of the towers were about 2 ft. 6 in. thick at the bottom, and the interior was square to the height of two stories, above which it finished off as a circular tower. The roofs were of stone with a central finial, and the towers had evidently served the purpose of garderobes. In the late 19th century the south side of the south wing appears to have had larger three-light windows inserted, with pointed heads on the first floor.  In 1824 part of the east wing also survived, but this had been demolished by the time of Higson's description. 

By the late 19th century the house was surrounded by railway lines, and it was pulled down in 1890 by the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway Company, to make way for improvements to Park Parade Station, unfortunately without being properly recorded.

Descent: William de Kirkby granted temp. Henry II (1154x1189) to Orm, from whom by descent to Sir John de Assheton (d. 1427); to son, Sir Thomas Ashton (c.1403-60); to son, Sir John Ashton (d. 1484); to son, Sir Thomas Ashton (c.1447-1514); to co-heirs in the Booth and Hoghton families...Sir George Booth (d. 1652), 1st bt., acquired both moieties c.1596; to grandson, Sir George Booth (d. 1684), 2nd bt and 1st Baron Delamere; to son, Henry Booth (d. 1693), 2nd Baron Delamere and 1st Earl of Warrington; to son, Hon. George Booth (d. 1758); to daughter Mary (d. 1772), wife of Harry Grey, 4th Earl of Stamford; to son, George Harry Grey (d. 1819), 1st Earl of Warrington; to son, Hon. George Harry Grey (d. 1845); to grandson Hon. George Harry Grey (d. 1883); to kinsman, Harry Grey, 8th Earl of Stamford, who sold to Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Co.

Great Lever Hall, Lancashire

Great Lever Hall stood on high ground between the River Croal and the Bolton to Manchester road, close to the former town. The site was a naturally defensive one, being directly accessible only from the west.

Great Lever Hall: shown on 1st edition 6" OS map surveyed in 1846.

Of the house of the Levers and Asshetons probably little or nothing survived the 17th century rebuilding by Bishop Bridgeman about 1630 and later changes, and much of the Bishop's house is said to have been demolished in 1760. By 1911 the house had a very irregular plan and the greater part of the building was then said to be of modern construction, with elevations of brick or stucco. The house was divided into three portions, the oldest of which was used as the rectory for the parish of Great Lever. The eastern wing was entirely modernized and used as a Conservative Club, while a north-west wing, at right angles to the older part of the house, had been converted into cottages. 

Great Lever Hall: watercolour of the house in the 19th century, Image: Trustees of the Bradford Estates.

The rectory did, however, retain on the south front a portion of the 17th-century timber facade built by Bishop Bridgeman, bearing his initials and the date 1631 in two ornamental panelsthe timber construction of the house also showed on the north side. The timber front of the rectory facing the court was coved at the first floor, and there was also a cove under the gable. The black and white 'timbering' of the gable was just paint on plaster, but the walls were genuine half-timbering. On both the ground and first floors, the house had long strip windows of thirteen lights, with the sills of the three outside lights at each end being higher than the rest; by 1911, most of the windows had been replaced but a few were still old. The lead of the diamond quarries was very broad and painted white, with a white fillet painted on the glass on each side. The roofs of the old portion of the house, as well as of the chapel, were of grey stone slates, and the chimneys were of red brick.  

Across the courtyard from the south front was a detached building containing the domestic chapel built by Bishop Bridgeman in 1634 and consecrated two years later, with a house attached. The position of the chapel could imply its having originally formed part of the south wing of a courtyard house, but there seems to be no other indication that the house was so planned. By 1911 the chapel was entirely detached and the court open at both ends, and it was probably always so. 

Great Lever Hall: the west front of the hall in 1939, when it was clearly derelict, and perhaps in the process of demolition.

The interior arrangements of the house had been so much altered that the original plan could not be determined in 1911. The ground floor had low rooms with old oak beams running across the ceilings, those in the kitchen being very massive and of great length. The floors both upstairs and down were very uneven owing to subsidence caused by local mining. The dining-room had some oak panelling under the window, and high up on the wall over the fireplace were two small shields, one on each side, with the arms of Bridgeman. Upstairs, the library was a handsome room running across the house and lit by a long window at each end. This room, which was under the timber gable facing the courtyard, was richly wainscoted on the west side and at the two ends, the detail consisting of pilasters framing square panels, with a richly carved frieze along the top under a classical cornice. The fireplace had Ionic pilasters, and the ceiling was of plaster divided by beams into four bays, the two end ones having ornamental plaster-work, and the middle ones being plain. In the bay at the west end of the ceiling were the arms of the see of Chester on a large shield surrounded by strap-work with four smaller shields, one at each corner, bearing the arms of Bridgeman. Another room on the first floor was also panelled in oak, but was less rich in detail.  Samuel Pepys, writing under date 10 November 1662, refers to some heraldic glass in the windows at Great Lever, but this had disappeared by 1911.

Great Lever Hall: the house and chapel in 1907. Image: Bolton Libraries & Museums.
The chapel was built of brick on a stone base, and was separated from the house by a courtyard paved with cobbles. It formed the eastern half of a building the rest of which is thought to have been used as a house for the chaplain. A stone wall at one time inclosed the court on the east side, but later gave way to a lattice screen. The brickwork of the outer walls of the chapel was yellow-washed, and the roof was covered with grey stone slates. Inside the chapel was quite bare in 1911, and it was lit by an eight-light window at the east end with stone mullions and double transoms, and square-headed six-light mullioned and transomed windows on the north and south walls. A description of the chapel in 1787 says it had then fallen out of use, although marriages had been held there as late as 1767. 'At the end, opposite to the altar' says the writer, ' is a gallery formerly for the use of the family, and a bench runs round the chapel below.' By 1911, the gallery no longer survived, but its position was marked by coupled roof-trusses about 5 ft. apart at the west end. The ridge of the roof did not coincide with the centre line of the chapel, but was slightly to the south of it, making an irregular gable at the ends. The ends of the two roof-trusses rest on the wall in the usual way on the south side, but on the north they projected in front of the wall and carried the roof in the form of a penthouse further forward over the entrance doorway. This may have served originally as shelter to a doorway higher up in the wall, giving access to the gallery from the outside, the bricked-up opening of which was still visible in 1911. 

Great Lever Hall fell into very poor repair and it was finally demolished in 1939 or just afterwards. Efforts were made to find a way of preserving the chapel but this was also taken down just after the Second World War. Even the site on which the house stood has gone, quarried away for the widening of the A666.

Descent: Adam Lever (d. c.1450); to daughter, Margaret (d. c.1483), who later married Sir Ralph Ashton, kt.; to son, Ralph Ashton (fl. 1509); to son, Ralph (or Richard) Ashton (fl. 1533); to son, Ralph (or John) Assheton (c.1523-87); to son, Ralph Assheton (c.1552-1616); to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1579-1644), 1st bt., who sold 1629 to Rt. Rev. John Bridgman (d. 1652), Bishop of Chester, who rebuilt it.... Earl of Bradford (fl. 1939), who demolished the house.

Middleton Hall, Lancashire

Middleton Hall was situated a little to the south of the church in the centre of the little town; it was a house of some size, taxed on 18 hearths in 1666. It was already dilapidated in the late 18th century, and after being partially rebuilt it was used as a house for Lord Suffield's agent until it was pulled down in 1845, when a cotton factory (Albany Mill) was built on the site. 

Middleton Hall: shown on the 1st edition 6" map surveyed in 1844-45, on the eve of its demolition.

An account of the house written immediately before its demolition describes it as an ancient structure erected at different periods, the oldest part being of timber and plaster, with later additions in stone. A south front, which was of brick, was added at the beginning of the 19th century by the first Lord Suffield. The house contained some good panelling and plaster ceilings, and a large stone chimneypiece with the date 1587. The original timber house is said to have been built round two spacious courts, and was approached by bridges over a moat. The great entrance hall was described about the year 1770 as 'resembling a ship turned upside down,' from which it appears that it had rested on crucks. However, it would appear that before 1845 much of this house had been demolished, for the plan above shows no courtyards and little evidence of the moated platform mentioned in the account.

A lengthier and more detailed description of the house was given in W.H. Ainsworth's The Lancashire Witches (1849), which although a fictionalised story seems likely to be accurate and is worth quoting in full: 
"Middleton Hall, the residence of Sir Richard Assheton, was a large quadrangular structure, built entirely of timber, and painted externally in black and white checker-work, fanciful and varied in design, in the style peculiar to the better class of Tudor houses in South Lancashire and Cheshire. Surrounded by a deep moat, supplied by a neighbouring stream, and crossed by four drawbridges, each faced by a gateway, this vast pile of building was divided into two spacious courts, one of which contained the stables, barns, and offices, while the other was reserved for the family and the guests by whom the hospitable mansion was almost constantly crowded. In the last-mentioned part of the house was a great gallery, with deeply embayed Windows filled with painted glass, a floor of polished oak, walls of the same dark lustrous material, hung with portraits of stiff beauties, some in a costume of an earlier period, among whom was Margaret Barton, who brought the manor of Middleton into the family; frowning warriors, beginning with Sir Ralph Assheton, knight-marshal of England in the reign of Edward the Fourth, and surnamed “the black of Assheton-under-line” the founder of the house and husband of Margaret Barton before mentioned, and ending with Sir Richard Assheton, grandfather of the present owner of the mansion, and one of the heroes of Flodden; grave lawyers, or graver divines - a likeness running through all, and showing they belonged to one line - a huge carved mantel-piece, massive tables of walnut or oak, and black and shining as ebony, set round with high-backed chairs. Here, also, above stairs, there were long corridors looking out through lattices upon the court, and communicating with the almost countless dormitories: while, on the floor beneath corresponding passages led to all the principal Chambers, and terminated in the grand entrance-hall, the roof of which being open and intersected by enormous rafters, and crooks of oak like the ribs of some “tall animal," was thought from this circumstance as well as from its form, to resemble "a ship turned upside down." The lower beams were elaborately carved and ornamented with gilded bosses and sculptured images, sustaining shields emblazoned with the armorial bearings of the Asshetons. As many as three hundred matchlocks, in good and serviceable condition, were ranged round the entrance-hall, besides corselets, Almayne rivets, steel caps, and other accoutrements; this stand of arms having been collected by Sir Richard’s predecessor, during the military muster made in the county in 1574, when he had raised and equipped a troop of horse for Queen Elizabeth. Outside the mansion was a garden, charmingly laid out in parterres and walks, and not only carried to the edge of the moat, but continued beyond it till it reached a high knoll crowned with beech-trees. A crest of tall twisted chimneys, a high roof with quaintly carved gables, surmounted by many gilt vanes, may serve to complete the picture of Middleton Hall."
Two drawings of the house, made nearly half a century after it was demolished, but apparently based on dimensions recorded before it was pulled down, have also come to light in recent years. These are not readily reconciled with the descriptions above, but do seem to accord with the appearance recorded on the Ordnance Survey plan reproduced above. They make it clear that a significant portion of the house dated from the late 17th century, and was built of brick or stone. It seems likely that when the house was remodelled for the use of Lord Suffield's agent in the early 19th century it was greatly reduced in size, leaving only the fragment which appears in these drawings.

Middleton Hall: the north (entrance) front, as reconstructed in 1887 from measurements made before demolition. Image: Glen Hopkins.

Middleton Hall: the west side elevation, as reconstructed in 1887 from measurements made before demolition. Image: Glen Hopkins.
After demolition, the sculptured chimneypiece of 1587 from the hall was acquired by Middleton Corporation and installed in the Sessions Room attached to The Old Boars Head inn, Rochdale Road, where it remains today; some of the panelling was moved to Turton Tower in 1844 and is also still there.

Descent: John Barton; to daughter, Margery (fl. 1480), wife of Sir Ralph Ashton (c.1425-88); to son, Sir Richard Ashton (d. 1507); to son, Sir Richard Ashton (c.1482-1549); to son, Richard Ashton (c.1511-50); to son, Richard Ashton (1536-63); to son, Sir Richard Assheton (c.1558-1617); to son, Richard Assheton (c.1578-1618); to son, Maj-Gen. Richard Assheton (1606-51); to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1626-65), 1st bt.; to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1651-1716), 2nd bt.; to nephew, Sir Ralph Assheton (1692-1765), 3rd bt.; to daughter, Mary (1741-1823), wife of Sir Harbord Harbord (1734-1810), 2nd bt. and 1st Baron Suffield; to son, William Assheton Harbord (1766-1821), 2nd Baron Suffield; to brother, Edward Harbord (1785-1835), 3rd Baron Suffield; to son, Edward Vernon Harbord (1813-53), 4th Baron Suffield, who demolished the house in 1845 and sold 1848 to Peto & Betts, railway contractors; on their bankruptcy in 1861 the estate was broken up and sold.

Whalley Abbey, Lancashire

Whalley Abbey: view by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1727

In origin a Cistercian monastic house, established in 1296 and dissolved in 1536. In 1553 the abbey buildings were sold for some £2,151 to John Braddyll of Brockhall and Richard Assheton of Great Lever, and the latter converted the abbot's lodgings into a mansion called Assheton House. There were alterations in 1588 and again in the early 17th century, and when Ralph Assheton came to live here in the 1660s he demolished the church and other buildings, retaining the chapter house range, and may have laid out formal gardens around the house. Edmund Assheton who inherited in 1692 was responsible for further alterations, but thereafter little seems to have been done to the house until John Hargreaves altered it in the 1860s. Assheton House and most of the abbey ruins were acquired by the diocese of Manchester in 1923 for an education and conference centre, and the RC diocese of Salford acquired the west range and adjoining lands in 1922, with the intention of converting it into a Catholic church, although in the end it remained the church hall for a temporary church of 1926 in the grounds.

The house is approached from the west by two medieval gateways; the outer gate of c.1320 and the inner gate of 1480, which appears to have been altered in Elizabethan times. The house itself incorporates substantial parts of the abbot's lodgings, which appear (from dendrochronology) to have been largely built c.1480-1510, but there are several post-Reformation stages as well, when medieval fragments, including windows and doors, were re-used and mixed with new work. The principal rooms are at an upper level, over an undercroft.

Whalley Abbey: north front of the Assheton house, from an old postcard.

On the north front, a block to the left of the entrance has at ground-floor level a window of three lights with cinquefoil tops beneath a flat head and hood-mould, probably reset. Beside it is a door, perhaps also reset, looking 15th century. The mullioned and transomed windows above, and the full-height embattled bay around the corner on the east side, are, however, Victorian. Back on the north side, the principal entrance is at first-floor level. A handsome flight of steps leads up to a porch with round arches. This is obviously 17th century, probably the work of the 2nd baronet who inherited in 1644. It was he who built the long gallery on the east front. Immediately west of the entrance is a projecting wing with a shaped gable with ball finials and a horizontally-set oval. This is the work of Sir Edmund Assheton, who inherited in 1692, with a Victorian bay window added. A second porch, probably re-set, leads into the ground-floor rooms. The adjacent wings with shaped gables appear to be the work of the Hargreaves family in the later 19th century.

Whalley Abbey: east front of the Assheton house from an old postcard

Moving to the east side, there is masonry probably of medieval date, large mullioned and transomed windows, and a buttress with the date 1588. The 19th century door has beside it a partially blocked archway, and there are other obvious signs of disturbance as the junction with the abbey ruins is approached. On the west side of the house are large mullioned-and-transomed windows once filled with very fancy glazing bars, perhaps of the 1830s, which can have admitted rather little light; these seem now to have been removed.

Whalley Abbey: west front, showing the windows with elaborate early 19th century glazing bars.

Things are not a great deal clearer inside. The first-floor entrance hall is later 19th century in tone and very handsome, with two tall stone arches forming a screen to the east and another framing the stair on the south. The drawing room on the east side is lavishly fitted up in Jacobean style. On the west side the hall also looks Victorian, and very impressive, with a huge fireplace, screen with gallery above, and much panelling. However close inspection shows that the roof-trusses and timber-framing of the east wall in the gallery are probably 16th century; the trusses are arch-braced with collars and kingposts. The soffits of the principals are deeply moulded, and the trusses are braced on each side of the ridge. The purlins and carved wind-braces are, however, 19th century. There is timber-framing in the other walls, but it is not clear how much of it is original.

Whalley Abbey: the Victorian gallery of the hall, also showing one of the 16th century roof trusses.
Image: Dr Kate Ash-Irisarri

Downstairs, two large rooms beneath the hall and drawing room are divided by a corridor reached from a splendid 15th century archway with a deep hollow moulding. On the east side is the chapel, formed in 1970 by Lawrence King and John Hayward, who were working together on Blackburn Cathedral. On the west side is a huge room with very large, closely-spaced and roughly-chamfered ceiling timbers. A big stone fireplace is probably 19th century but it has a beautiful re-set 15th century window beside it. Following acquisition by the diocese, the east wing was converted into a residence for a warden by Robert Martin and later adapted as guest accommodation; some of the rooms have timber-framed walls.

North of the house is a spacious outer courtyard. Its north range, by the inner gatehouse, looks Elizabethan. The earliest evidence for it is the Buck engraving, which shows it incomplete, with a gap between a building attached to the gatehouse and a range further east. This gap range was completed and converted to stables in the 19th century and then further converted into visitor facilities and offices in 1990-91 by Gordon Thorne. The attached east range, also shown by Buck, was converted to staff accommodation in 1981.

Descent:  Richard Assheton (d. 1579); to great-nephew, Ralph Assheton (c.1552-1616); to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1579-1644), 1st bt.; to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1611-80), 2nd bt.; to brother, Sir Edmund Assheton (1620-95), 3rd bt.; to brother, Sir John Assheton (1622-97), 4th bt.; to nephew, Sir Ralph Assheton (1651-1716), 2nd bt. of Middleton Hall; to daughter Mary (1695-1776), wife of Sir Nathaniel Curzon (1675-1758), 4th bt.; to second son, Assheton Curzon (1730-1820), 1st Viscount Curzon; to grandson, Richard Curzon-Howe (1796-1870), 1st Earl Howe, who sold 1836 to John Taylor of Moreton Hall in Whalley, who bequeathed it to his business partner, John Hargreaves (1839-95), whose son sold it about 1900 to Sir James Travis Clegg (1874-1942), kt, who sold 1923 to Diocese of Manchester; transferred to Diocese of Blackburn, 1926.

Downham Hall, Lancashire

Downham Hall: the entrance front of 1834-37 by George Webster of Kendal. Image: Pendle Heritage
A seat of the Assheton family since the 16th century. An H-shaped house, which at first sight seems early 19th century, although research by Giles Worsley has shown that elements of a 17th century structure survive, while a stone tower recorded in 1779 may point to medieval origins. A survey drawing of 1779 shows mullioned windows and large external stacks, the plan a typical hall-and-cross-passage arrangement, with the stone tower attached to the parlour. The transformation which began in 1779 included the demolition of the tower, the insertion of sash windows etc., but the work was not completed and the house may have been uninhabitable until 1834-37, when George Webster of Kendal completed the job by remodelling the main (north) front with a single-storey portico of unfluted Greek Doric columns and a tripartite doorway to the projecting pedimented centre. This is flanked by projecting two-bay wings. The old carved shields let into the wall above the porch carry the arms of Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and are reputed to have come from the ruins of Sawley Abbey.

Downham Hall: garden front, 18th century with a 20th century porch. Image: Angus Taylor/Historic England.

At the back, the window details change, perhaps suggesting they belong to the 18th century alterations. The masonry indicates Elizabethan walls, with traces of mullioned windows, and the classical porch is a modern one designed by Tom Mellor. The schoolroom wing was added in 1880, and the whole house was thoroughly restored and improved in 1910, possibly by Mervyn Macartney, who was rebuilding the church for the Asshetons at the time. The interiors were partially redecorated in Adam style by Miss Frith, either at the same time or a few years later, in the 1920s; as part of these changes, the drawing room was enlarged and a dining room created from two smaller rooms; the latter is used as the setting for a continuous sequence of Assheton portraits from the 16th century to the present day. A fine library survives from the Webster period, with Grecian bookcases of alternating height and projection painted dark green and gold. The staircase is of plain oak and mahogany. The early 19th century buildings of the Home Farm stand close to the hall and there is a 17th century barn among them. The small park was laid out on rolling land with beech avenues of 1721 and clumps of trees of 1805 and later.

Descent: Henry Dyneley sold 1545 to Richard Greenacres and Nicholas Hancock; sold 1558 to Richard Assheton (d. 1579); to great-nephew, Richard Assheton (fl. 1595); to son, Nicholas Assheton (c.1590-1625); to son, Richard Assheton (d. 1657); to kinsman, Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1611-80), 2nd bt. of Great Lever and Whalley; to cousin, Richard Assheton (c.1642-1710); to grandson, Ralph Assheton (1696-1729); to son, Ralph Assheton (1720-58); to son, William Assheton (1758-1833); to son, William Assheton (1788-1858); to son, Ralph Assheton (1830-1907); to son, Sir Ralph Cockayne Assheton (1860-1955), 1st bt.; to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1901-84), 2nd bt. and 1st Baron Clitheroe; to son, Ralph John Assheton (b. 1929), 2nd Baron Clitheroe.

Cuerdale Hall, Lancashire

The house is now a two-storey farmhouse of brick and stone, with slate roofs. The present building is said to date from a rebuilding in 1700 for a junior branch of the Assheton family, but it may incorporate some elements of the earlier hall house (which was taxed on 12 hearths in 1666) and was much altered and extended later. The house is now roughly T-shaped, and the earliest work is in the west wing. Inside, the house preserves two fine dog-leg staircases and one small panelled room upstairs. An 18th century sundial, formerly at Cuerdale, is now at Downham. The house has long been let as a farmhouse and divided into two dwellings, and is now surrounded by modern farm buildings, but still belongs to the Asshetons.

Descent: Radclyffe Assheton (1582-1644); to grandson, Richard Assheton (c.1642-1709); to grandson, Ralph Assheton (1696-1729); to son, Ralph Assheton (1719-58); to son, William Assheton (1758-1833); to son, William Assheton (1788-1858); to son, Ralph Assheton (1830-1907); to son, Sir Ralph Cockayne Assheton (1860-1955), 1st bt.; to son, Sir Ralph Assheton (1901-84), 2nd bt. and 1st Baron Clitheroe; to son, Ralph John Assheton (b. 1929), 2nd Baron Clitheroe


J. Burke, Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies, 2nd edn., 1841, pp. 19-22; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 2003, pp. 827-29; F.R. Raines, The journal of Nicholas Assheton of Downham, 1848; T.D. Whitaker, An history of the original parish of Whalley, 1876, passim; VCH Lancashire, vol. 4 (1911), pp. 338-47, vol 5 (1911), pp. 151-61, 182-87 and vol. 6 (1911), pp. 381-88, 552-58; J.M. Robinson, The country houses of the north-west, 1991, pp. 178, 187, 221; A. Taylor, The Websters of Kendal, 2004, pp. 103-04, 195-97; C. Hartwell, M. Hyde and Sir N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Lancashire - Manchester and the south-east, 2004, p. 159; C. Hartwell & Sir N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Lancashire - North, 2009, pp. 277-78, 691-97; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries on Sir John Assheton (d. 1427); Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1425-88), Sir Thomas Assheton (c.1403-60), Nicholas Assheton (1590-1625) and Ralph Assheton (1901-84), 1st Baron Clitheroe; History of Parliament biographies of Ralph Assheton (d. 1559), Richard Assheton (d. 1579), Richard Assheton (1654-1705), Sir Ralph Assheton (c.1606-80) [sic], and Sir Ralph Assheton (1652-1716), 2nd bt.

Coat of arms

Argent, a mulled sable pierced of the field.

Can you help?

Here are a few notes about information and images which would help to improve the account above. If you can help with any of these or with other additions or corrections, please use the contact form in the sidebar to get in touch.

  • If anyone can supply further illustrations of Ashton Old Hall, Great Lever Hall or Middleton Hall, or any further evidence about the development of these houses, I should be very pleased to hear from them.

Revision and acknowledgements

This post was first published 12 May 2016 and updated 14 November 2016 and 17 June 2023. I am most grateful to Glen Hopkins for additional information and images about Middleton Hall.


  1. Nick

    I have an ancestor who worked as Nanny and Nurse to the Assheton / Barrett families at Downham Hall / Skipton Castle. I do not have a great deal of information about her but do have some photos of Downham Hall when Princess Mary visited in 1927. Have you come across any records for members of staff in your research? We are talking around the early to mid 1920's. Her name was Mary Irene Tyzack and was probably taken on by Sir Ralph Cockayne Assheton and his wife. If you can let me have an email address I can send you the photos I have.

    Kind regards

    Chris O'Hara

    1. If you use the contact form in the right-hand side bar to contact me privately I will send you my email address. Unfortunately I can't reply offline to comments posted here.

    2. I have not come across any household records from the 20th century and imagine that if these survive, they are likely still to be held by the family.

  2. Thank you Nick for your conscientious account. I as part beneficiary was able to buy out my co beneficiaries of the 7th Lord Suffield Will Trust. Sir Harbord Harbord son of formerly known Sir William Morden, is the head of the assent of property and rights part of which are the significant collection of Assheton family records known as E7 Assheton of Middleton. The records are lent by me to the Greater Manchester Records Office, GMRO. Richard Harbord is researching a book on the Assheton family. Regards Robert Philip Morden The Hon Robert Harbord-Hamond

    1. Thank you for getting in touch, Robert. If you or other members of the family are able to supply further illustrations of Ashton Old Hall, Great Lever Hall or Middleton Hall, I should be very pleased to incorporate them in my text. And if you spot any errors, please let me know! Nick Kingsley

  3. Hi Nick. Very interesting read. I was wondering if you happen to know anything about the little building with a chimney which appears beside Whalley Abbey northeast gatehouse in the view by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1727? The abbey pamphlet says it has medieval origins and is much adapted but there is little else on it. Thanks.

  4. I live in Assheton Avenue in Audenshaw. Thank you for this great history lesson!


Please leave a comment if you have any additional information or corrections to offer, or if you are able to help with additional images of the people or buildings in this post.