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Altrincham History Society

Altrincham History


Altrincham is a settlement just off the Roman road from Chester to Manchester in an area that had seventh century Anglo-Saxons settlers from the South. Existing Britons (Celts) probably integrated with the newcomers. Later there were ninth century Norse (Norwegian and Swedish) settlers from the Isle of Man and Ireland to the west and tenth century Danes from the east.

The name Altrincham is Old English meaning 'the homestead of Aldhere’s people' from inga a group of people and ham a homestead, village or estate. It probably has seventh century origins from the early form of the name. It has been spelled about 15 different ways since AD1290, including Aldheringaham.

The name of the town was spelled Altringham up to about 1800 at which time the ‘c’ spelling began to be adopted and both spellings were used until the 1930s. It was pronounced Awtrigem or Awtringeam in the nineteenth century and currently the ‘c’ in Altrincham is pronounced as a ‘g’ and outsiders often spell it as such.

Over the centuries Altrincham has been:

An early Saxon village
A medieval planned borough
A coaching town in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
A canal town from 1765
A factory town from 1800 to 1840
A market gardening town from at least 1799
A world-renowned machine tool producer from 1885 to the 1970s.

During this time the town centre was rebuilt four times.

The Anglo-Saxon settlement was probably established in the Old Market Place by the seventh century and the lines of High Bank and Albert Place at the back of Old Market Place may date from that time. The alignment of Market Street, George Street, Shaw's Road and Regent Road were probably laid out at the time Altrincham was developed as a medieval borough. Market Street and George Street are also parallel to the Roman road, with Regent Road and Shaw’s Road at right angles. A grid pattern was common in towns created in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The outer boundary of the borough may include Anglo-Saxon or medieval field boundaries which themselves may have replaced Roman ones.

A Royal Charter for a market and fair was sealed by Edward I in 1290 and this was followed by the lord of the manor, Baron Hamo de Masci (or Massey) V’s own Borough Charter, which created Altrincham as a borough. Altrincham as a planned medieval new town was probably carved from the manors of Hale, Bowdon and Dunham by the Baron of Dunham Massey to replace the ancient Saxon village and fields. Hamo's object was to improve his finances through more opportunities for local taxes and, no doubt, to improve his standing among other local nobles. The royal market charter included the right to hold a Tuesday market and a fair on the Feast of the Assumption (15th August). The Tuesday market is still held and later Friday and Saturday markets were introduced. Hamo's borough charter made Altrincham a free borough under the Dunham lordship. It is thought that the nearby Roman road which passes on its way from Chester to Manchester may have been deliberately closed at that time by Hamo de Massey to divert traffic through Altrincham to increase local trade in Old Market Place. Altrincham became one of 12 market towns in Cheshire.

The date of the fair was changed in 1319 by another royal charter to the Feast of St. James (25th July) and became known as Sanjam Fair. This was held until 1895 when it was condemned as a nuisance, probably because of too much drinking. The Court of Pie Powder administered instant justice at markets and fairs and settled disputes on the spot. The name is a corruption of Old French Pieds Poudreux meaning ‘dusty feet’, describing itinerant traders who were instantly identifiable from their feet.

The town was administered first by a merchant guild court or port mote appropriate to a trading town. In the fifteenth century this changed to a Court Leet, common across England. The Court Leet administered the town and oversaw local law. The court had important meetings (View of Frankpledge) twice a year to check on household tithing and the assizes, and met every three weeks to administer a petty offences court. The officers of the court had many different responsibilities. Highways and footpaths were monitored by surveyors; commons by common lookers; impounding stray animals by pinders; testing ale quality by ale tasters who also checked bread quality; checking on corn, flesh and fish quality by market lookers; cattle and swine lookers; water supplies by pump and well lookers; fire prevention by chimney lookers. They were also responsible for controlling poaching, muzzling fierce dogs, weights & measures, scavengers and leather curing. There were also constables, Court Bailiffs and the Town Crier. The chief office was the Baron's Bailiff or Steward. The officers were unpaid and the Court Leet could only try minor offences. Constables were active until 1856 when they were replaced by a county police force.

The Court Leet appointed the mayor up to 1937. The list of mayors from 1452 survives, the first two being Masseys and the last being Raymond Littler in 1973. Sir Walter Scott quoted an old derogatory saying about some of the mayors: “I am like the Mayor of Altrincham, who lies in bed while his breeches are mending.” The Court Leet was also responsible for keeping the boundaries of Altrincham defined and used to 'beat the bounds' each year with willow twigs. The last official beating took place in 1921.

Following the wish of the last Lord Stamford the Court Leet was revived as a ceremonial institution in 1977. Today the beating of the bounds takes place on the second Sunday in July, following boundary markers. The Court Leet also carries out the other duties listed above and meets regularly to present reports on the town’s management of everyday activities in the current day, thus continuing its ancient tradition. Altrincham became a Local Board of Health in 1851, an Urban Sanitary District in 1884, an Urban District Council in 1894, a Municipal Borough Council in 1937, and part of Trafford Metropolitan Borough on its creation in 1974.

The borough charter created burgesses who were freemen of the town. Burgesses had a house on a burgage plot and held a Cheshire acre strip (2.1 statutory acres) in the town field to the northwest and southwest of the original small built-up part of the borough. Burgesses were tradesmen or tradeswomen, often with farming interests, who fixed and agreed tolls and trading arrangements with the lord of the manor. The burgesses used Hale Moss, a waste heath immediately to the east of the town, for grazing and turf cutting. Burgage plots existed down both sides of the curved part of Old Market Place and Church Street and buildings still sit here on these plots such as The Old Market Tavern, the Old Town Hall and the shops opposite. The plots also existed on both sides of Market Street and George Street. Burgage plots in Altrincham were two perches by five, ie 33 feet wide by 82½ feet deep. Eventually double, one-and-a-half, and those of a half, quarter or one third of an original burgage size also existed. In its early years, besides freemen, there were also a number of unfree men called tenants-at-will, formerly villeins.

In 1348-49 the Black Death affected the area and the population was reduced from its peak of about 650 people in 1300 down to two thirds or less. It is likely that some burgage plots were abandoned or combined with others at this time. By 1700 the population had returned to about 500 but by 1801 had recovered to 1692 people.

The first lords of Dunham Massey, the de Mascis, recruited men from Altrincham as solders fighting the wars against Wales and Scotland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Altrincham men fought for the Parliamentarian Sir George Booth in the Civil Wars. No battles took place in the Altrincham area but Civil War armies camped several times on nearby Bowdon Downs, now largely built up but at that time an open heath. Nearby actions were the siege of Manchester in 1642, the siege of Wythenshawe Hall in 1643 when a few Altrincham and Hale men were in the Royalist garrison, with a skirmish at Davenport Green and battles at Warrington, Tarporley, Middlewich, Nantwich and Knutsford.

In 1621 Altrincham was described by Webb as ‘a fine little market town’ but in 1666 was described by the Cheshire historian Sir Peter Leycester as ‘a nest of beggars’, possibly because of the Booths allowing cottagers to settle on unused land or the economy was run down. Thomas de Quincey, who spent his childhood in Manchester and wrote ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’, passed through on a market day in the summer of 1814 and was ‘delighted by the gaiety of the scene’.

The town was rebuilt in the seventeenth century. Wooden buildings were replaced by brick in the late eighteenth century with the building of the Bridgewater Canal and increased wealth. By the early nineteenth century the town was divided into Higher Town around Old Market Place where trade was carried on and people lived, and Lower Town around George Street where artisans lived. Getting goods between the two was not easy because of the steep bank between them known as Hollow Bonc or Hollow Bank.

Farming had been important in the district since before Roman times and even by the late nineteenth century there were piggeries in the town. Cattle were also reared for meat, milk and cheese and there were a few farms and shippons in the middle of the town. By the late eighteenth century the Altrincham and Timperley areas were also noted for their market gardens, especially for onions, carrots (Altrincham Carrot), celery, lettuce, rhubarb (Timperley Early) and later on potatoes (Bowdon Downs) and strawberries. In 1851 there were 16 square miles of market gardens around Altrincham and eight tons of onion seed and potatoes were being sown per year. The Bridgewater Canal was extended to Altrincham in 1765 and barge transport enabled produce to be sold in Manchester, the first industrial city in the world and expanding rapidly. In 1910 there were 157 market garden businesses in Altrincham and Sale. Commuting to Manchester also took place by canal and road, before the coming of the railways. From the late 1830s high quality suburban housing was developed for the cotton manufacturers of Manchester who found the area desirable to live in away from the smoky city.

Spinning and weaving of wool, worsteds and cottons took place in Altrincham, including much handloom weaving from the mid-eighteenth century, subsequently in cotton mills. In the mid-eighteenth century one of the major occupations was woolcombing by hand. In 1793 the principle manufacturing in Altrincham was quoted as worsted yarn and worsted cloth. Cheaper wool imports from Ireland caused their downfall and they began to be replaced by cotton spinning. By 1800 there were three cotton mills and the number of inhabitants was up to about 1700. Local cotton mills were hit by competition with Manchester and they closed in the 1840s, which may have led to a resurgence of home weaving by redundant spinners and weavers. Manchester itself was hit by the cotton famine of the 1860s because of the American Civil War.

Silk weaving also took place in a number of houses in the nineteenth century. The finished articles from Altrincham would be small braid such as ribbon. The industry peaked in the 1830s and from 1870 it began to suffer from competition from abroad and from the development of artificial fibres. The last braid works closed in the 1980s.

A Weslyan Chapel opened in 1788 in Chapel Walk, now Regent Road and still remembered by the Chapel Street road sign. St. George's Church of England was built in 1799 in what became Church Street as a chapel-of-ease to St. Mary's, Bowdon. The first incumbant was Oswald Leicester who had started the first Sunday school in the county in a cottage in Thorley Moor Lane, now Ashley Road.

The building of substantial houses started in the late 1830s when the Earl of Stamford sold off land in Bowdon. The railways responded to this by building the first commuter line in the North West to Altrincham which opened in 1849.

Some improvement of town administration came with the Town’s Meeting, which started in the eighteenth century and assisted the Court Leet with policing, roads, and health matters and employed an Overseer of the Poor. The Vestry of St. George's also assisted with administration. Following cholera, typhus and dysentery outbreaks in the 1840s the Board of Health was formed in 1851 and took over the duties of the Town’s Meeting and the Court Leet, leading to the Court Leet becoming ceremonial apart from electing the mayor. It authorised the production of 15 very accurate maps of Altrincham with an accompanying Book of Reference, which enabled health planning to be carried out and the rating of all properties. Work started on clean water supplies and sanitation and by the late 1870s most new houses were built with a water supply, a water closet and a gas supply. The duty on beer was discontinued in 1830 and this enabled anyone to brew. By 1850 there were eight pubs but no proper water supply or sanitation for most people in the town centre. By 1870 there were about 45 pubs and off-licences in Altrincham.

Altrincham Urban District Council was formed in 1894 and met in Old Market Place until 1900, taking over the duties of the Board of Health. The Town Hall in Market Street dates from 1900 with an extension of 1930. refurbished in 2006. Altrincham became a Municipal Borough in 1937 and became part of Trafford in 1974.

Bull and bear baiting, dog and rat fighting and cock fighting were still taking place in the 1830s, as well as bare fist fighting. The town wakes led to two early racecourses being built, one remembered by Racecourse Road. Altrincham has a successful football team which was formed in 1891 called The Robins. The town had early theatres, a music hall and cinemas. The oldest amateur theatre is the Club Theatre which was established in 1896 as the St. Margaret’s Church Institute Amateur Dramatic Society. The Garrick started in 1913 and erected the Playhouse on Barrington Road in 1932, the first purpose-built amateur theatre in Britain. The first full time cinema was at The Central Theatre in Shaw's Road in 1907 and later there were four other cinemas: The Hippodrome, The Picture Theatre, The Regal and Hale Cinema now all gone. The town now has a new cinema and an ice rink, both opened in 2006.

The Altrincham Agricultural Show first met behind The Swan at Little Bollington, then later on a field now Groby Road, Altrincham, then on The Devisdale, Bowdon. It ran from 1861 to 1966 and farmers came from as far afield as Scotland, Cornwall and Norfolk to show cattle at what was known as the Altrincham Show. The Altrincham Carnival was held from 1924 to 1932 and Altrincham Festival started in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

An industrial area, known worldwide began to evolve from 1880 as Broadheath, before the development of Trafford Park. Famous names, mainly in engineering, included George Richards (machine tools, especially very large vertical borers), Thorton Pickard (cameras), Luke & Spencer, Tilghmans (shot-blasting machinery), Linotype (typesetting machinery), Kearns (machine tools), Budenbergs (pressure gauges) and Churchills (precision grinding). They brought much work to the area, with up to 15,000 employed at the peak of about 1960 before collapsing in the mid-1970s. Today the former industrial area is partly a retail and business park.

Seamons Moss Endowed School was established in Oldfield Brow in 1764 by a will of Thomas Walton, Saltmaster, and closed in 1938. It took boys from eight to eleven initially, later to 14 or older if going to university. The school set high standards and besides the usual subjects it taught Greek and Latin. The two modern Altrincham Grammar Schools also have an excellent academic record, the Girls opening in 1910 and the Boys in 1912. South Trafford Collage specialises in Hospitality, Sport & Recreation, and Health Care and has about 10,000 students.

Altrincham today is a residential, retail and office town offering supplies and services for the surrounding townships of Hale, Hale Barns, Bowdon, Oldfield Brow, Broadheath and Timperley, and is a commuter town of some character connected by Metrolink fast tram service to Manchester, eight miles away.

Altrincham, a History, D Bayliss (Ed.), Willow Publishing, 1992
Bygone Altrincham, C Nickson, 1935, republished by E J Morten, 1971
History of Altrincham and Bowdon, A Ingham, 1879
Stranger’s Guide to Altrincham, C Balshaw, 1858, republished by E J Morten, 1973