Thursday, 5 July 2018

Rediscovering our rural past, Thomas Ellwood and Mrs W C Williamson

We owe a great debt to the historians of the late 19th century who captured the memories of the people who lived in south Manchester when most of it was still countryside.

Thomas Ellwood and Mrs Williamson were working at a time when the rural communities of Chorlton, Burnage, Fallowfield and Rusholme were on the cusp of disappearing.

Within a generation they had all but gone and with it was went a rich storehouse of stories and popular culture.

Today what was left is fast fading from living memory, so with in another decade I doubt that there will be any left who remember the blacksmith on Beech Road or being sent to one of the local farms to collect fresh milk and butter.

This makes it exciting when there comes along an opportunity to give a wider audience the chance to read about that rural past.

Thomas Ellwood lived here in Chorlton and during the winter of 1885 into the spring of ’86 he collected and wrote accounts of Chorlton dating back into the 17th century.

These were published in the South Manchester Gazette and are available in Central Library, but they are on microfilm which makes them a tad more difficult to read.  Some of the articles reappeared in various church magazines but I have yet to find a complete set outside the Gazette.

In the case of Mrs Williamson her work appeared in a slender edition in 1888 and I have only been able to put my hands on one copy again from Central Library.

However Bruce Anderson whose local history site I have mentioned from time to time has digitized his own copy along with a number of other histories of Burnage, Fallowfield and Rusholme and they appear on Rusholme and Victoria Park Archive at

Sketches of Fallowfield and the surrounding Manors, Past & Present’ By Mrs Williamson, “gives a very interesting account of how Fallowfield developed from fields between Rusholme & Withington in the 14th century, gradually becoming a desirable neighbourhood with church, chapel & schools in the third quarter of the 19th century. 

There are three maps, 1818, 1843 and 1885 that illustrate the changes during these years.”

She lived in Fallowfield with her husband, Professor William Crawford Williamson FRS. He was an eminent Victorian scientist who was appointed as the first Professor of Natural History (Geology, Zoology and Botany) at Manchester in 1851. 

Williamson was one of the great Victorian naturalists who knew and actively corresponded with Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz, T.H. Huxley and other great scientists of the day. 

He also knew John Dalton and famously tended the great man during his final days, feeding him broth and other liquid sustenance. Williamson trained as a doctor and practised as an eye surgeon as well as pursuing his studies in the natural sciences.”

It is a wonderful book because it draws on the memories of those who experienced that rural life, and was a great help to me when writing my own account of Chorlton in the first half of the 19th century.*

And so for anyone wanting a vivid firsthand account of the handloom weavers of Burnage or the rush cart ceremony of Rusholme, Mrs Williamson and Bruce’s site have got to be worth a visit.


Pictures; Chorlton from the collection of Tony Walker, cover of Mrs Williamson's book from the collection of Bruce Anderson

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