Victorian Garstang

This article is about the life and times of Mr Albert Simpson JP of Elmhurst, the  one-time gentleman's residence at Bowgreave, south of Garstang. Elmhurst was later converted into classrooms (as part of Garstang High School), and more recently converted into luxury flats.
In 2009 a copy of one of Simpson's photograph albums was discovered in a second hand shop in Southport. Its photos have revealed fascinating, previously unknown information about both Simpson, his family and his home.

Albert Simpson JP, of garstang


The recent discovery of Albert Simpson's photo-album, dating from the 1890's, has been a truly remarkable find for our local history archives. Even though Albert Simpson was easily the wealthiest man in the Garstang area, little, it seems, has been written about him. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to shed a little more light on this rather enigmatic Gentleman.

He was born, in 1839, to Thomas and Maria Simpson, who were Quaker Fustian Manufacturers of 26 High Street, Manchester. Their cotton spinning business appears to have been established by Martin Simpson, Thomas' father, sometime at the end of the 18th Century. By the 1820s the business had branched out into the Preston area, where, in 1855, Thomas Simpson and his young family took up residence at Hutton House. The 1861 Census describes him as a "Cotton Spinner & Manufacturer, employing 750 people" How the business had grown!... and in just two generations!

It was only natural that Albert, the eldest of the children, should be groomed for a responsible post in the family business. By the time he was eighteen, he had assumed a Managerial Position at Hartford Mill, Preston but it was a change in his personal circumstances that brought him to Garstang.

Through Quaker connections he came into contact with Sarah Jackson, the daughter of the late John Jackson, one of the well-known Quaker mill-owners of Oakenclough, where he ran a paper making business. Though the family lived at Calder Bank, and Sarah was local to our area, the two appear have got married in Weybridge, Surrey, on 27th August, 1862. Perhaps there had been some domestic difficulties on the matter of their marriage. There may have been other reasons but they quickly returned to Lancashire and in 1867 Albert and Sarah had decided on building a house on Bowgreave, just south of Garstang. The land had been owned by Albert's late father-in-law, who died in 1845, so it was only natural that they should decide on building their new home on a portion of land on the side of the hill. The result, of course, is the well known Victorian brick-built dwelling known as Elmhurst. Its' name, by-the-way, stems from Thomas Simpson's first family dwelling at Manchester, so Albert had decided on it for his new home. The building was designed in a rather played-down Italian style, no doubt partly inspired by Ellel Grange and other similar buildings. By this time Albert and Sarah had a young family and reference to the 1871 Census shows us that he was 32 years of age and had four children: Marian (born 1863 at Preston), Florence (born 1864 at Preston), Bernard (born 1867 at Catterall) and Martyn (born 1870 also at Catterall). By 1881, Bernard was attending Giggleswick School, whilst Martyn had moved to a Boarding School at Kendal; additionally, Sarah Simpson had bore two more children during the interim: Margaret (born 1872 at Catterall) and Thomas (born 1877 in Bonds). Also resident on that day in 1881 were some of their household servants: Elizabeth Dodd (the family Nurse), Ellen Bury (the Cook), Margaret Taylor and Elizabeth Hall (both Houseservants).

More prominently, Albert's societal position had also taken two important steps during the 1870s. He became a Magistrate at Garstang and also a leading member of the local Conservative Party.

By 1881 a total of 450 people were employed by the Simpsons at Preston. This reduced total, no doubt, was one of the lasting effects of the Lancashire 'Cotton Famine' of the 1860s. Harder times lay ahead for the industry, it seemed, and Albert prepared reports to this effect.

It was actually during the Summer of 1878 that most people in our town, and in the wider area, first heard of Mr Albert Simpson, JP. Back then, inmates of the Union Workhouse were set to work on 'stone crushing' duties in order to qualify for food and a bed for the night. The crushed stone was then taken by the Rural District Council for use on various local roads. Females in the workhouse, it seemed, were not spared strenuous work either.

Albert first came to learn of these matters when a vagrant refused to perform the work. He appeared before the Garstang Bench where Albert reluctantly sentenced him to prison. Afterwards he expressed grave concern about the welfare of the inmates... and before long, another Political football quickly came into being, this time between The Garstang Board of Guardians and the local Conservatives.... led, of course, by Mr Simpson. The whole issue came to head when Albert made a point of visiting the Workhouse to see the working conditions for himself. He took off his coat and with the permission of the Workhousekeeper set-to and performed a whole days stone-crushing himself! What a way for a JP make his point! At the end of the day, he claimed it was far too much to expect of anyone to perform such labourious work... even the poorest in the community, whose dietary deficiencies made matters far worse. Eventually, his views about the harshness and long hours of the work eventually won the day. The Guardians had to concede that the work was too much for men in poor physical condition. Albert had made his point and the working regime was changed.

Albert Simpson was not only a man of moral opinion, he was also a man of political opinion too, and it was on the matter of the local Institute that the people of our area came to hear his views again. During the Spring of 1882, local Garstang Liberals had recently taken to hiring the Garstang Institute for what was later described as '....Political Meetings'. The Institute Building, since 1858, had been managed by a group of Trustees with a view to providing a place where Garstonians could come to read books from their Library or read local Newspapers. The Hall was also used, on occasion, for musical performances, lectures, recitals and the like.

However, the Liberals of Garstang, led, in the main by their leading light, Edward Cartmell, Garstang Tailor and Draper, had used the Insitute to have an open forum on various Political issues affecting the town. On learning of this, Mr Simpson became incensed. This, he thought, was clearly an outright abuse of the Institute's rules. He made a strong verbal protest the following week, when he stood outside the door of the Institute, barricaded it and harangued the Liberals as they made their way towards the Hall. He made it clear to them that the Institute could not be used for 'any Political purposes'. The Liberals were very unhappy to say the least. They'd actually hired the hall.... so surely they had the use of it... whatever their Political persuasions. The Trustees, unfortunately, remained firmly on the sidelines, whist the two groups came to verbal loggerheads with one another in Thomas' Weind. One can just imagine the scenario! Within days, the two Parties were exchanging acrimonious letters to each other in the Lancaster Guardian. It rumbled on and on for most of the summer in fact, but it's chief outcome was the decision of the Garstang Liberals to raise funds and build their very own 'Liberal Club' at Garstang. The new meeting place opened its doors in October, 1889. Naturally, a local photographer was secured to photograph the Liberal bigwigs on the day, and Edward Cartmell, of course, was placed well in front of the group.

As a JP, Albert Simpson was only infrequently seen by the people of Garstang, and only by those unfortunate enough to have been caught committing criminal acts. At any other time he was probably viewed by the populous as a rather private Gentleman who lived in a big house on Bowgreave. Little was seen of him but the photo album shows us that he made good use of his leisure time and he travelled up and down the country on many occasions. Locally, he presided over 'Handicraft Shows' at the Garstang Institute and four of his remarkable photographs of these events have survived to come down to us. They are, I believe, the only internal pictures of the Institute that stem from this period.

By the 1890s Albert Simpson's son, Bernard, had taken control of the main family business at Manchester, though cotton mills were actually in a slow process of decline. In the meantime, Albert appears to have branched out in other business interests. When the Enumerator called in at Elmhurst on the day of the 1891 Census, Albert described himself as an '....East Indian Merchant...'. By then, of course, he'd taken up photography, which brings us to the recent find of the family album.

The old album is without doubt a real treasure trove, because it allows us to see something of Albert Simpson's private life and interests... and how a wealthy Victorian Gentleman chose to live in back in the 1890s. Most of the pictures are contact prints, hand-processed and made from home-made 4 x 3 inch glass plates. Others are enlarged slightly. There was no such thing as 35mm film back then, of course, so Albert had his own darkroom where these charming images were processed and printed. They certainly tell a tale and reveal much of his surroundings both at home and elsewhere.

The album itself contains some thirty eight pages, though the first four or five appear to have been torn-out at some point. Each sheet contains a selection of Alberts prints, some are full size, whilst others are cut-down into various shapes with nothing more sophisticated than a pair of scissors. These were then gummed into place forming what we may call a 'multi-page photo-montage'. The first picture on the first page is dated July 1890. The others, through to the end of the album, take us to about 1898 and not much later. His subject matter ranged from his two beloved dogs, Beauty and Laddie, who feature in and around the gardens, through to his fine selection of well-kept thoroughbred horses, Bessie, Jet, Onyx, Jessie and Punch. His children also feature greatly, sometimes as single portraits and on others arranged as a group. Marian, who never married, was always on hand as subject matter, either in the gardens or outdoors on a walk. It has to be said that she sometimes looked rather bored by it all on one or two of the photographs! However, a particularly revealing portrait appears on the first page and shows Marian's features very clearly as well as her expensive, refined hat. Margaret, the youngest of the children, appears as well and a short visit to Garstang with the camera on a Sunday afternoon appears in the album, showing the old cobbled streets and shopfronts. Naturally Elmhurst and its gardens also feature in the album and these have proved to be every bit as interesting as the other pictures just described. The shrubs and trees were also photographed at different times of the year and each with the dogs in the foreground. A large pond was also located in one corner of the garden, though it was actually big enough to be called a lake! Another feature was the Victorian Rockery at the rear of the gardens and this seems to have been Albert's own creation. It even had a 'water feature' known to the family as 'The Fountain'. Remember, 'rockeries' were still something of a novelty back then in the 19th century.

Evidence shows us that the tower, added to the west side of the house, was in the course of completion at the time the album was underway and later photographs were taken from the 'Tower Bedroom' during a particularly severe winter. Snow is visible on all sides and these could date from the January of 1895 when the north of England suffered a very harsh winter. Many rivers froze solid, including the Wyre and the Lune. Also visible in the album is a large, Victorian style greenhouse which was located to the rear of Elmhurst, where Albert kept a large collection of exotic plants. Family members were photographed there from time to time, including a well arranged shot of his brother Oswald Simpson and his wife. All, of course, are dressed in the finest, period apparel.

Many local views were snapped by Albert's camera during the 1890s, including Sandholme Bridge, Claughton, St Michaels, Glasson Dock and Scorton. Woodacre Great Wood also seems to have been a great favorite with Albert during the Summer months. On these occasions he also took his camera to the Trough of Bowland.

Other pictures were taken when the family got in their horse and trap and made off for a day trip. Several pictures show the Hamps Fell Hospice at Grange-over-Sands, the Fairey Steps at Beetham and Furness Abbey no less. Other interesting pictures were taken in the Bristol area, where Albert's Mother, Maria Simpson, had her family roots. A fine picture shows her palatial residence, Sunnyside, which appears next to another shot of Clifton Suspension Bridge. It comes as no surprise, in fact, that Albert's youngest son, Thomas, attended Clifton College during this period. He appears in another group picture, with his friends, each wearing those typical Public school caps. Albert even visited the College himself, photographed his son's room and also took the trouble to photograph the College swimming pool! Another picture shows Thomas' Swimming Instructor, a certain Mr Sleasby. More pictures show Margaret in her Sunday best riding suit at the front porch of Elmhurst and another dressed up as an old lady! Perhaps she appeared in local amateur dramatics at the Institute!

Perhaps the saddest picture is that of Florence's grave at St Thomas' Church, Garstang. She died in 1886 of illness, aged just twenty two.

When Sarah Simpson died in 1899 the family was left in mourning and the photographs in the album finally come to an end. But Albert, then aged sixty, was quick to remarry. On October 4th, 1900, at Ormskirk, he tied the knot for the second time to Lillian Emma Dilworth. She was not a local girl (she was actually born in Newcastle-under-Lyne in Staffordshire) but lived at Bay Horse, the daughter of David Dilworth, who was a fellow Quaker. Lillian was much younger than Albert, of course, and at thirty five years of age this may have caused some 'domestic difficulties' with Marion, then of a similar age. Whatever the reason, Albert and Lillian left Garstang altogether and made their new home at Burghill Grange, Herefordshire. Albert died there on January 20th, 1924. He was aged 85.

Marion Simpson, Albert's surviving daughter, is thought to have spent the rest of her life at Garstang, and sometime after her death in 1946 the local Education Authority secured the use of Elmhurst which had been empty for a time. It first saw use as classrooms for local children in 1954. It has, of course, been recently renovated and converted into flats.

What, we may ask, would Albert Simpson have said about that?

Paul G. Smith