‘A Genteel Residence’: Merchants’ Homes in Early-Nineteenth Century Manchester

By Thomas McGrath, PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in History at MMU

The study of the home and the domestic sphere can tell us so much about the lives of those who have come before us. In the same way you open up a doll’s house to explore inside; we can metaphorically open up houses in the past to what was going on within that domestic space, and what it can tell us about the people who lived there. My thesis examines the homes and domestic material culture of merchants and manufacturers in Manchester and Liverpool in the period c.1780-1880. This blog post will touch upon some of the wider themes of my research regarding the changing location of elite residences by examining the homes of Sir Thomas Potter, a merchant and Manchester’s first mayor.

A Potted History of Sir Thomas Potter

Thomas Potter was born at Tadcaster, near York in 1774. He was the son of John Potter and Anne Hartley and the family lived on an extensive farm named Wingate Hill (also referred to as Wengate Hill). Potter followed his father’s footsteps and he eventually took sole control of the farm. However, around 1803 he decided to join his two brothers, William and Richard, in Manchester. The brothers entered into the mercantile world with a capital of £14,000 given to them by their father and this early investment secured their future successes.

Thomas Potter, c.1838 (m74022: Manchester Local Image Collection)

Potter became involved with several other merchants and manufacturers through his Unitarian connections with the Cross Street Chapel. He formed the ‘Little Circle’ with men such as John Edward Taylor, Archibald Prentice, Absalom Watkin and Joseph Brotherton, where they shared ideas and thoughts based on philosophical teachings. The group supported Taylor in his foundation of the Manchester Guardian in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and the subsequent legislation which restricted the press.

Potter was a keen supporter of the 1832 Reform Act which granted Manchester its first Member of Parliament. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 enabled Manchester to form its own corporation which Potter was a part of. In 1838 he was elected as the first Mayor of Manchester, eventually serving two terms and he was knighted in 1840. He died in 1845 and was buried in Ardwick Cemetery. The cemetery itself was converted into a recreational ground after its closure in the late 1950s and Potter’s remains lie with around 80,000 other underneath a football pitch.

Potter’s Homes in Manchester and Salford

The various different locations where Potter lived in Manchester and Salford are reflective of wider residential patterns of Manchester’s wealthier classes in the early-nineteenth century and they mirror his changing status and concerns in life. In 1810 when his first wife, Elizabeth (nee Palmer) died; the Potters were living on Oldham Street. Today this street lies in the heart of the Northern Quarter and it was formerly one of the main retail streets in the city but in the early 1800s it was lined with townhouses and it led to relatively undeveloped district of Ancoats. This was a central location and it was close to his warehouse on Cannon Street (now under the Arndale) and the Manchester Exchange as well as the amenities of the urban town.

A decade later Potter had left the centre of Manchester and moved a few miles west of the town to Salford. There he lived on Adelphi Street on the banks of the River Irwell. In the early-1820s this part of Salford was considered attractive countryside and Potter’s house was surrounded by open fields. By the 1820s many of Manchester’s wealthier residents were replicating this move from urban to suburban/rural. Salford and its districts were not the only popular locations for the elite, other places to the south of the town such as Ardwick and Chorlton Row (later Chorlton-upon-Medlock) were popular, as was Broughton and Cheetham to the north of Manchester.

Pigot’s map of Manchester and Salford, 1821. Potter resided on Adelphi Street at this time and the development of the land around it can be seen through the new streets on this map.

By this time Potter had remarried to Esther Bayley and they had four children together, as well as two daughters from Potter’s first marriage. Like many of his contemporaries, Potter moved his young family out of Manchester to avoid the pollution caused by heavy industry and the rapidly increasing population. However, as James Pigot’s 1821 Map of Manchester and Salford shows, the land around Potter’s home in Adelphi Street was already being laid out with a network of streets, which highlights the rapid development of Salford. St. Philips Church would later be built in this spot between 1822-1824. The maps are part of the wonderful collection of digitised material made available by the John Rylands Library and the University of Manchester Special Collections.

Buile Hill

Potter’s final home was at the Buile Hill Estate in Seedley and Pendleton, Salford. In 1825 Potter commissioned the architect Sir Charles Barry to design a country house to stand at the centre of this estate. By this time Barry had already constructed a number of important public buildings in Manchester such as St. Matthew’s Church and the Royal Manchester Institution (later Manchester City Art Gallery). Later in his career Barry’s other local buildings included the Manchester Atheneum and the Unitarian Chapel on Upper Brook Street. Some of his more famous works are; the Houses of Parliament, Cliveden and Highclere Castle. By choosing Barry as the architect of his home, Potter was making a clear and definitive statement about his wealth, status and taste. Buile Hill was completed in 1827 and it is thought to be Barry’s only example of a Greek, neo-classical house.

Buile Hill as seen in Twycross’s ‘The Mansions of England and Wales’ (1847)

The house was depicted in Edward Twycross’s The Mansions of England and Wales: The County of Lancaster, Vol. III (1847). The book gave descriptions and presented lithographs of several, large country houses and villas across the areas covered by the hundreds of West Derby and Salford. Twycross’s volumes also covered the rest of Lancashire, Cheshire and Cornwall. It was thought he intended to cover other counties in England and Wales but this never came to fruition and he died young. As such only 52 copies of the five-volume series were ever published, making surviving copies of the books extremely rare; especially as the books have often been broken up and the lithographs sold separately. The John Rylands Library hold a copy of Twycross’s publications. The image of Buile Hill from the publication shows the house without the large porte cochère (covered porchway) which was likely added during extensions made in the 1860s.

Buile Hill continued to be occupied by the Potter family until 1877 when it was sold to John Marsland Bennett, a merchant and another former-mayor of Manchester. The Bennett family sold the house and grounds to the Salford Corporation in 1902. The house was used as a natural history museum and the grounds landscaped as a public park. In 1975 the house was turned into the Lancashire Mining Museum and the cellars were converted into replica of underground mines. It closed in 2000 and unfortunately, Buile Hill house has sat empty since.

Buile Hill today (Thomas McGrath, 2020)


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