A Steeple Chase!

The Steeple Family in Oldham, from 1790 to 1851
This little story is a mixture of hard fact and some personal observations, which won't be too difficult to spot!

The contemporary accounts and records, from diaries, local news and directories all serve to give us snapshots of what life was like, in the late 18th and early 19th century across the country, including both Oldham and Derbyshire.

The pictures are from Victorian publications illustrating contemporary events both in England and abroad. the are intended just to help illustrate the wider context of the story.

Part 1

My Steeple ancestors came to Oldham about 1792, which is corroborated by an entry in Giles Shaw's book, on December 22nd, 1793, in which JOHN Steeple, who founded the line in Oldham, is listed amongst the, "Inn holders and Publicans licensed by the Magisrates", who " .... do thus publicly testify our Attachment to our gracious King and glorious Constitution....." It went on, at length, with more fulsome praise and then, "....... to promise whenever it is in our Power to make known as Enemies of this Country, all Authors, Publishers and distributors of Treasonable and Seditious Writings and do give this further assurance that every Exertion shall be used to prevent in our Houses any converstaion, songs or toasts that may be held out by wicked designing Men to poison the Minds of such honest, industrious Persons, as frequent our dwellings." This was duly signed by 43 licensees in Oldham, and a good number of those from Royton, Crompton, Chadderton, Middleton and Ashton-under-Lyne etc.
JOHN is also found in a little booklet called 'Oldhamers in 1799', which was produced at the time. He is listed as having 8 dependants (7 children and 1 adult). 1792, as the date of his arrival, is also supported by the fact that his 4 older children were baptised in Bradbourne in Derbyshire and the later ones, from 1792, in Oldham. He was determined to play his part in helping Oldham's population growth and his wife, SARAH, gave birth to 14 children, all of whom, except for the last (Jane), survived infancy and many lived into their 60s or 70s. Many of these children presented JOHN and SARAH with a gratifying number of grandchildren.


JOHN was the son of John Steeple and Ellen Spencer, of Griff Grange, and was baptised in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, in 1760. This was the year in which George lll ascended the throne, succeeding his grandfather, George ll. George would remain on the throne for the next 60 years, uintil his death in 1820. JOHN's mother died when he was just 6 years old and his father re-married 3 years later. In 1784, in Parwich, JOHN married SARAH Fernihough who was the daughter of John Fernihough and Mary Golley.

To return to the beginning, my 4 X great grandfather, JOHN, came to Oldham from Bradbourne in Derbyshire, apparently of farming stock. Today, it's a most beautiful part of the county. Many of the villages are still small and quite a number of them are 'off the beaten track'. It's difficult to imagine the 'heavy' industry of coal and lead mining; the smelting of iron and lead; quarries and limekilns etc. Derbyshire's mineral wealth included semi-precious stones which were mined for their decorative value. Not to be forgotten are the county's woollen and cotton industries which were in the forefront of early inventions that would help to transform the trade from 'cottage-industry' to huge, steam-driven mills, in the Lancashire towns around Oldham. When we look at the analysis of Derbyshire, in an early 19th century directory, it is also obvious that there were innumerable other manufacturies and industries, both large and small, also developing and expanding as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum.

What made JOHN leave his home and extended family? I have absolutely no idea. The family had lived in the Wirksworth area for generations and even appeared, according to some of the wills and PRs, to be fairly substantial, at times. Perhaps JOHN felt stifled in Bradbourne and saw business opportunities in the newly expanding industrial areas of Lancashire. After all, he came from near Wirksworth, where the new inventions that would revolutionise cotton production were already being put into practice in nearby Cromford. Oldham was certainly one of those towns that was ready to embrace the 19th century, and all it had to offer, with real vigour. The first steam engine came to an Oldham colliery in the early 1790's just about the time JOHN must have been considering moving away from Derbyshire.

But why Oldham and not somewhere else? Again, I've really no idea. He had no siblings who had already made the move; he was the first to bear the name 'Steeple, to be recorded anywhere in the Oldham area. Perhaps there was a less obvious reason and he knew someone, totally unconnected with family, who encouraged the move; we'll probably never know.
Oldham, in the latter half of the 18th century was little more than a village where workers were mainly employed in the hatting trade, in agriculture and the woollen and fustian industries. The sketch map of Oldham in 1756 shows a township of tiny hamlets and a string of scattered buildings along the roads radiating out of Oldham towards Rochdale, Manchester, Ashton under Lyne and Saddleworth. The Parish Church, dating back to the 14th century, is shown on the bend of the road going towards Saddleworth and Ashton, along Goldburn and through Holebottom. Oldham, at that time, was very well known as an important centre for the manufacture of hats.
Baines tells us that, in 1765, there were no mills in Oldham (ie. there was only 'cottage industry' where workers plied their trade in their own homes, hatting, spinning and weaving, etc.). Baines estimated that, "The population of the town or village of Oldham in 1796 was about 2250, and the number of dwellings about 400." By the time of the 1801 census the 'rural' picture had already changed dramatically and the vast majority of the population were employed in either trade or manufacture with only a tiny number employed in agriculture.

A few mills had already been built but they were still relatively small, being no more than two storeys high and worked by either horse or water power. Their operatives usually numbered somewhere between 10 and 40 hands. However, labourers, and weavers who had worked from their homes, were already beginning to leave the countryside and head for the town where there were better opportunities for employment. In the next 25 years more than 60 new mills would be built. All would be bigger; all would spin cotton and all were steam powered. In total there would be 140 steam engines across the town, in both manufacturing and mining.

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Arkwright's water frame of about 1769 - necessitating the industry to become factory based rather than 'cottage industry'.
This new invention followed, and improved upon, Hargreaves' revolutionary 'spinning jenny' which he had invented in 1765

(Note from publication: "The introduction of machinery marked a great advance in the industrial development of the country, though the innovation was by no means welcomed by the workers. About the year 1765, a spinning machine - the 'jenny' - was invented, which, at first, set six, and soon afterwards twenty five spindles simultaneously in movement, and could be used in the homes of the workmen. But later machines required to be housed in factory buildings, and thus there sprang up a new system of labour that spread with remarkable rapiditiy")

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George lll

King George lll (1760 to 1820)

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The infant trades and industries had one pressing need, before they could really start to grow, and that was for better transport of goods, both raw materials and the finished products. Canals and good, well maintained roads were the answer. A number of new Turnpike Acts were passed enabling the construction of important new roads including one from Manchester to Oldham as early as 1734 and, by 1794, one from Manchester to Huddersfield via Greenacres.

Transporting heavy loads, by road, even good, well maintained roads, was still problematical. Increasingly large quantities of materials and products were constantly needing to be moved around with, as yet, only horse drawn wagons. The solution lay in transport by water. The Duke of Bridgewater had already built his canal, transporting coal from his mines to fuel hungry markets. Oldham needed a canal. In the 1790s, the canal from Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne was opened and an arm linking it to Hollinwood (Oldham) was constructed. Oldham was now able to transport the heavy goods and materials, such as coal, that the new industries were demanding,

When John first started to think of coming to Oldham, perhaps in 1790/91, the workers in the cottage-industries in hamlets were enjoying a relatively prosperous few years. Harvests had been decent or even good and the home-based, hand-loom weavers and hatters could still command reasonable prices for their own products. The majority of fabrics woven by the handloom weavers, in Oldham, were the heavy, cotton based 'fustian' materials which were, traditionally, a combination of a cotton weft and linen warp. The raw materials were frequently 'bought in', often from Manchester based suppliers.

Methodism, originally greeted with suspicion and some rough treatment of the preachers, was finally established in Oldham, and the first Wesleyan chapel built, in 1775. According to his journal, the Reverend John Wesley made his first visit to Oldham in 1779 on Easter Day, the 4th April. He wrote, ".......... was a solemn festival. In the afternoon I preached at Oldham, to such a congregation as I have not seen since I was in the Cornish amphitheatre." He came back to preach in Oldham at Easter the following year, then again in April 1782. At Easter in April 1784, he again preached in Oldham although , " ........ it blew a storm and poured down with rain......" It was 1788 before he returned to preach in Oldham again but, in May 1786, when he was preaching in Yeadon he wrote, "..... such a company of loving children I have nowhere seen, but in Oldham, near Manchester." His final visit was on Good Friday, 2nd April, 1790 when he preached at the new Meeting House, on Manchester Street, and wrote, "The new House would in nowise contain the congregation; but I preached to as many as it would contain ......" It appears that John Wesley made a strong impression on Oldhamers and that the townspeople made an equally strong and favourable impression on the minister.

Life revolved around work, annual festivities and church celebrations. There was the annual 'wakes' with the decorated rushcarts; New Year and Twelfth Night were midwinter celebrations, more important than what we now know as 'Christmas Day'; there was Easter and May Day to look forward to. For most of the inhabitants local events were still of far greater importance than happenings overseas and there was still a strong sense of national loyalty and patritotism. Supporters of the perceived ideals behind the French Revolution (began 1789), known as Jacobins, were assaulted or abused when they voiced their radical opinions. First and foremost in people's thinking was the price of the staple commodities in food; the cost of yarn to weave and the price they would get for the finished piece of cloth. The weather was a constant factor to be watched. Extremes of any kind meant damaged harvests of grain, fruit or vegetables. Deficient harvests meant shortages and high prices. Although many villagers would probably be self sufficient, or virtually so, in garden produce and hardy fruit, they were dependant on the wheat and flour, from the more fertile regions of Lancashire and Cheshire, that was sent to market in Manchester and then brought to Oldham by dealers. All of which pushed the prices up even in years of reasonably good harvests harvests.

Possibly, JOHN saw all that was happening and understood that better and greater business opportunities would present themselves to anyone in the 'right place at the right time'. Perhaps it was this recognition that prompted him to transport his own family to a township, comprising a number of small scattered hamlets, whose collective population would have risen massively, to 32,000, by 1831. (note: Quoted numbers, from 1790 to 1831, seem to vary widely. Exact figures are hard to establish with accuracy as many just refer to 'Oldham' and don't clarify either the area boundaries, the hamlets included or the information source).

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fall of the Bastille 1789

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fall of the Bastille 1789

1789 ................ the Fall of the Bastille in Paris

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Although at the time that JOHN came to Oldham the most important occupations were hatting and weaving, the damp climate and readily availabe local coal made a winning combination that was just waiting for the trigger that would make Oldham synonymous with 'cotton' across the world. The coal would fuel the steam engines; the damp would help the cotton fibres cling together, without snapping, in the spinning process. James Hargreaves' spinning-jenny and Richard Arkwright's water-frame (which successfully 'mechanised' the process of preparing the raw cotton for spinning), were already well established in the industry, dating from the last quarter of the 18th century. The spinning-jenny could produce the yarn for the weft and the water-frame produced the stonger yarn for the warps but, the real catalyst for change, in Oldham, was Samuel Crompton's 'mule'. The mule was a combination, of the working principles behind the jenny and the water-frame, which enabled the production of the fine yarns with which weavers could produce the lighter fabrics, the demand for which was increasing. It was the introduction of Crompton's 'mule', and its subsequent modifications, which eventually led to the construction of the enormous cotton spinning and weaving mills, powered by steam engines which, with their tall, thin chimneys belching dirty smoke, are forever associated with Oldham of the middle and late 1800s.

However, just as JOHN must have been arriving in Oldham, all of that was still a little way in the future and Oldham was only on the threshold of the 'Industrial Revolution'; Yorkshire Street was still under construction but would replace Goldburn as the main thoroughfare out of the already expanding Oldham. It's hard to believe that he could have in any way anticipated just how different life could become and what sweeping changes would follow, in the next 50 odd years, changing the social, economic and political scenes so radically.

Circa 1790 to 1810
Of JOHN's first 20 odd years in Oldham I've found very few verifiable details. The earliest references I have found, to JOHN or any of the family, are limited to the baptism records, his inclusion, dated December1793, in Giles Shaw's book (referred to earlier) and his name in the 'Oldhamers in 1799'.

At the same time, in the 1790s, but across the channel, France was in the throes of a Revolution which would see the monarchy overthrown and executed with 'terror' on a grand scale. The Republic of France had been proclaimed in 1792 and King Louis had been executed in January 1793. France was already in conflict with Britain and all-out war with France was imminent.

Supporters of the principles behind the French Revolution, both in England and in France, were known as Jacobins. In England, patriotism was paramount at this stage and those suspected of being Jacobins were treated with the utmost suspicion and distrust.Enormous numbers of the British population were fearful of the impact of their radical beliefs on the stability of government and the social structure of this country.

Those with most to lose on this side of the channel, mainly the landed gentry, were determined that the unrest amongst the English working population wouldn't lead to revolution in England. Demands for both social and economic reform, better working conditions, shorter hours, fairer wages etc., were all ruthlessly suppressed by the nervous and more affluent 'masters' in society. As a result, any groups of workers, meeting together to formulate demands for better wages and conditions could be seen as potential radicals bent on overthrowing the present system of government and be imprisoned. One of the names that came to be known at this time of unrest was that of John Knight. He was a staunch Radical and went to prison on several occasions, on account of his political beliefs and activities, over the ensuing years of struggle for social and political reform.

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JOHN had hardly settled into Oldham, with his family, when 1795 saw a disastrous harvest. The next 5 years saw the harvests also fail in 1799 and 1800. To make the situation worse, the intervening years saw harvests that weren't good enough to compensate. There were serious food shortages, work was disappearing, costs were rising and payment falling. Starvation and desperate hardship was an ever-present reality for the working families of the township.

By 1810 SARAH, JOHN's wife, had given birth to twelve of his fourteen children and all were still alive. In 1807, his second son, also called John, was the first of his children to marry and his bride was Sarah Pendleton (a farmer's daughter from Thornham). They married at St Mary's, the Parish Church, in Prestwich in 1807. In 1808, on the baptism of their own child Mary, in Middleton, John was recorded as a butcher, living in Chadderton. Fourteen months later, on another baptism entry in Middleton, he was recorded as a butcher living in Tonge. He would remain in Middleton until his death in 1866. Three of his own sons would also become butchers in Middleton.

Back in Oldham, and there were well established weekly markets, dating from before 1790 and originally along Main Street (roughly where High Street was in the 1800s). there was also an annual cattle fair. By 1804 the weekly market was established in 'Old Market Place', where it would remain for the next 30 years. On a map of Oldham, dated 1804, The habitation of Oldham is very similar in shape to that of the sketch map of 1756, except that what were once tiny scattered hamlets are now beginning to draw together along the lines of the roads. The more densely occupied areas are still clustered around Market Place, the church and the roads leading away from the hamlets.

Sunday schools in Oldham dated back to the mid 1780s when the vicar at St. Mary's, Oldham (the Rev. Thomas Fawcett), together with Messrs. Henshaw and Messrs. Clegg, of local hatting concerns, started a school in the old Grammar School. The schoolmaster was a Mr. Frith, whose main job was to teach the children to write. During the next couple of years Sunday Schools were opened at St. Margaret's in Hollinwood, one at St.Peter's and one by the Methodists. In these schools the children were taught the rudiments of writing and arithmetic.

The first steam engine in Oldham is said to be that installed at the colliery of Messrs. Jones & Co., on Broadway Lane, circa 1792. Similarly, the first steam engine used in a cotton mill was installed in 1794 by William Clegg. By 1800 another 6 steam engines had been installed in the town. In the first half of the 19th century the hatting industry, in the town, was strong and continued to flourish, with Thomas Henshaw operating one of the principal businesses. The industry specialised in the making of quality hats made of wool and fur. In 1807 Thomas Henshaw made a will in which he directed that £20,000 should be used to endow a Bluecoat School in either Oldham or Manchester. A year later, in 1808, he added a codicil in which he added a further £20,000 for the same endowment. He took his own life in 1810. The terms of the will required that none of the money in the bequest should be used for buying the land or building the school itself. His will was contested, by his family, on the grounds that he had shown signs of insanity for a period of nine years at the end of his life. The dispute dragged on and by 1827 the interest on the fund had increased its total by £35,000. It was not until 1828 that a subscription list could be opened to raise the money to actually start building the school.

Coal was to become one of Oldham's major industries and two Welsh men, John Evans and William Jones, had already acquired colliery rights, in Oldham, before the 1770s and begun to mine coal. They weren't the only ones to see that coal mining would prove very lucrative and, between 1771 and 1813, the number of Oldham collieries grew from 14 in number to 25. Coal mining might have made life comfortable for the proprietors of those mines but the reality of life for the workers below ground can hardly be imagined; children, as young as 6 years old, crawling through the galleries, with chains wrapped around them, dragging the wagons of coal to the lift shaft. Fatalities and accidents were an almost -every-day occurrence. It would take another 2 decades before it was made illegal for children under 10 to work underground.

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Oldham's industry and population was growing at an increasing rate and it was soon apparent that what was needed, and needed urgently, was more space, ie., more land on which to expand and build. The eyes of the men of business turned towards the 'common' land, the land which had been held by the community for generations. An Act of Parliament, for the enclosure of six desolate and sparsely inhabited moors, or Commons, namely, Greenacres Moor, North Moor, Lower Moor, Higher Moor, Sarah Moor and Hollinwood Moor, was granted and enacted by 1807. The Lord of the Manor received, by far, the largest entitlement. This effectively removed the rights of ordinary folk to pasture their animals, collect kindling or use the open land for any leisure activites. There was no common land set aside for possible use by the community, as a whole, at a future date.

The construction of Union Street was completed in 1810. Up to this date there had been just 7 principal streets: Manchester Street, High Street, Yorkshire Street, West Street, King Street, Henshaw Street and George Street, along with about 30 less significant streets.

Although business men were making the most of the opportunities, the working man and his family were still living with the constant struggle of long working hours, just to earn enough to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Hours were long, conditions hard and pay was poor. In the mid 1790s, despite all the advances, there were poor harvests and an economic depression which led to inflated prices for staple goods such as flour. In some instances it is more than probably that the situation was exploited by some dealers for personal financial gain. These price increases made flour both scarce and more expensive. Poverty and starvation faced many in the local hamlets and violence erupted from time to time. Provisions dealers had their windows smashed and deliveries of food and grain were hijacked and sold at what was deemed a a 'fair price'. The proceeds were then handed over to the owners of the hijacked consignment.

On one occasion, in 1795, after one such incident, the magistrate in Oldham orderd up a troop of light horse and some of the crowd that had gathered were arrested. As they were marched off towards Manchester the crowd tried to rescue them. During this unsuccessful attempt the troops used their swords and fired pistols into the crowd, leaving several seriously wounded. Soon after this incident Publicans in the town received notice that all licensed premises should close at 7pm and people should be off the streets by 9pm unless they had a very good reason to be out.

Wheat itself was so scarce, at any price, that there were national directives issued by the government saying that wheat and flour shouldn't be stockpiled, that only enough for immediate needs should be bought and that to eke out what there was, it should be mixed with other cereals and potatoes to make flour. Poor Relief was overwhelmed and insufficient to meet the demand. Many of the young men 'took the king's shilling' and joined the army in the hope of escape from poverty. The situation remained desperate throughout the 1790s and the year 1800 was known locally as the 'barley time', as wheat was so expensive that the flour had to be made from barley instead.

In the years between 1790 and 1810 (and until 1826) the affairs of the group of hamlets that made up Oldham were still administered by the Vestry. This was a committee comprised of the minister and churchwardens together with a number of other officials such as the Overseers of the Poor, and the constable. The Vestry had the responsibility for making sure that the church was kept in good repair, for levying rates for poor relief and the maintenance of the highways. They kept records of baptisms, marriages and burials, and dealt with settlement issues as well as the many other everyday affairs of a parish. All these written records and accounts were kept in the 'Parish Chest'. The Parish Chest was, literally, a chest with 3 different padlocks, the keys of which were held by the minister and two other churchwardens.

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Snippets from William Rowbottom's diary for 1790 to 1810:

William's diary was written as a private and personal journal and not intended for 'public consumption'. Most of his entries are short and mainly concerned with the rising price of food, the plight of the workers, the weather and with who had died when, where and how.

1790 .......July 26th "This day there was a concert of music at Blackridings, near Cowhill."

1791 ........ January "Several poor families subsisting nearly without coals. It is owing to the gentlemen of Manchester having a dispute with the Duke of Bridgewater."

1791 ...... July 14th " A most dangerous riot broke out at Birmingham owing to some gentlemen celebrating the French Revolution. It was celebrated in manchester, London and most of great towns on the above day" (my note: the riots took place on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789)

1792 .........."A riot at Manchester June 4th but little damage except pulling up a few innocent trees which grew in the square and impiously placing them at the Dissenters' Chapels"

1793 ..... January 9th, "Owing to the expectancy of an approaching war the lots for this part of the Lancashire Militia were this day drawn at Rochdale."

1793 ...... August 11th, "The relentless cruelty exercised by the Fustian Masters upon the poor weavers is such that it is exampled in the annals or cruelty, tyranny and oppression for it is nearly an impossibility for weavers to earn the common necessities of life so that a great deal of families are in the most wretched and pitiable condition."

1793 ..... October 16th, "This day being Oldham fair, owing to the fineness of the weather was numerously attended but owing to the scarceness of money very little business was done except in the Military line for there never was so many recruiting sergeants at any one time here.

1794 ......September 10th, " Lady Horton gave an elegant quiver of arrows which were shot for in the park at Chadderton Hall and won by Mr. Thackery and the same day Thomas, son of Thomas Tetlow, was killed by the kick of a horse. He was imprudently plucking hairs out of its tail at Dolstile."

1795 .......... May 1st, "Mr John Lees of Church Lane paid his first payment as part of the purchase for the Lordship or Manor of Werneth. there was ringing of bells and other demonstrations of joy in the occasion. Price paid £30,000"

1795 ....... June 3rd, "The city of Copenhagen nearly destroyed by fire."

1795 ....... July 28th, "A cart belonging to Mr. Richard Broome, bread baker, of Oldham, was on its way to Delph with a load of bread, it was surrounded when near that place by a crowd of women who took the loaves from the conveyance, sold them to the bystanders at the rate of 2d per pound, and when the stock had been dispossed of handed the money to the party in charge of the cart."

1797 ......... July 24th, "On Monday the author of these memoirs very narrowly excaped the Fangs of Death but through the interposition of Almighty God, miraculously escaped."

1799 ......... July 6th, "John Farrand of Oldham undertook for a wager to walk from Oldham to the Newcross Manchester, 6 miles and a half, in 1 hour and 6 minutes, which wager he won by 3 minutes."

1799 ......... November 1st, "This day the mob assembled again on the new road leading to Ripponden. they came chiefly from Saddleworth and they took possession of eight loads of flour which was coming to Oldham, which they retailed out on the road at 2s. a peck."

But it couldn't have been all bad .......... and one of the highlights of the year was the annual rushbearing festival with its noisy celebrations. Fresh rushes were gathered and spread upon the floor of the Parish Church, where they would remain until they were replaced the following year.