A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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The isolated township of Great Lever, some 9 miles west of Middleton Church, measures over 2 miles from east to west, and has an area of 866½ acres. It lies chiefly between two small brooks running eastward to the Tonge, which forms the eastern boundary. Lever proper lies in the south-eastern portion, with Burriden to the north, and Priestcroft to the south-west, Lever Edge stretching away to the west. The surface is generally level, falling a little from Lever Edge towards the north, east, and south. The population in 1901, including that of Darcy Lever, was 10,701.
The principal road is that from Manchester to Bolton, passing north-west through the eastern side of the township. Another road goes west along the Edge. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Company's railway from Manchester to Bolton runs on the west side of the former road. The London and NorthWestern Company's Worsley and Bolton branch crosses the centre of the township, going north; and the same company's Bolton and Kenyon Junction line touches the north-western boundary.
The hearth tax of 1666 found fifty-eight hearths liable, of which twenty-one were in the house of 'my lord Bridgeman'; no other dwelling had as many as six. (fn. 1)
Though technically a hamlet of Middleton, and held of its lord, GREAT LEVER, had always a certain independence, and is not usually recited among the hamlets or appurtenances of Middleton as are the rest. (fn. 2) Its early history is obscure; for a time it was held in moieties, and a portion was granted to the priory of Birkenhead. The tenure also is not quite clear. In an early deed, as will be seen, a moiety of Great Lever is said to be held of the lord of Middleton by the fortieth part of a knight's fee, so that the whole would be the twentieth part; with this agrees the rent of 14d. payable in the 16th century to the lord of Middleton, that sum being a twentieth part of the 23s. 4d. due from Middleton to the duchy for sake fee and castle ward. Yet at the same time, in the 16th century, the tenure is stated as the eightieth part of a fee. In a petition of the time of Edward IV Great Lever was said to be held of the lord of Middleton by knight's service, rendering 10s. to a scutage of 40s.—i.e. it was considered to be the fourth part of a knight's fee.
Not far from the year 1200 Leising de Lever, apparently the lord of Little Lever, granted to Leising de Farnworth a moiety of the vill of Great Lever, with common of pasture in Little Lever; the moiety to be held of Roger de Middleton by the service of the fortieth part of a knight's fee. (fn. 3) Descendants of the grantor—Henry, William, and Henry—who appear to be described sometimes as ' of Little Lever,' but usually as 'of Great Lever,' continued to claim the lordship during the 13th century, (fn. 4) after which no more is heard of them in this connexion. Leising de Farnworth probably adopted the local surname, and seems to have been the father of Emma de Lever, (fn. 5) with whose son John the more detailed history of the manor begins in the third quarter of the century. (fn. 6)
Adam, the son of John de Lever, succeeded. He made considerable additions to the paternal lands, more especially in Farnworth. (fn. 7) He had several lawsuits, particularly with Henry de Lever, but was usually successful. (fn. 8) He was followed about 1310 by his son John, (fn. 9) who, dying about the same time, left as heir a son Adam, under age. Roger de Middleton, as superior lord, in 1313 granted to William de Charnock the education of the heir, promising him 20s. a year towards Adam's keep, and engaging to supply clothing. (fn. 10) This was probably the Adam de Lever who was killed, with twenty-six others, in the disturbances at Liverpool on the day after Ash Wednesday 1345, during the visit of the king's justices. (fn. 11) Adam had a son John, living about 1356 to 1370 of whom nothing of note is recorded. (fn. 12) John's son, Adam the younger, obtained the Pilkington lands in Great Lever, thus becoming sole lord of the manor ; (fn. 13) and by his marriage with Margaret Cundcliffe added lands in Anderton to his patrimony. (fn. 14)
Adam had two sons, William (fn. 15) and Henry. The former, who died about the end of 1447, left a son Adam as heir; a minor, but married to Joan daughter of William Garnet. (fn. 16) Adam died early, leaving a daughter and heir Margaret, only two years of age. Sir Ralph Ashton of Middleton, the superior lord, married her to his younger son Ralph, who thus became lord of Great Lever. This transfer to the Ashtons did not take place without persistent opposition on the part of the Lever family. Sir Ralph Ashton, however, in 1467 proved his right to the wardship against Roger Lever son of William and uncle of the heiress. Not long afterwards Roger Lever and a party of his kinsfolk and friends assembled at Lancaster and took the record of the recovery from its place of keeping in the castle; whereupon in 1472 Sir Ralph petitioned Parliament that his right might be safeguarded in spite of the loss of the record. In the suit referred to it was stated that Adam Lever had held the manor of Great Lever of Richard Barton of Middleton by knight's service; that his daughter and heir Margaret being under age the custody of the manor belonged to Richard, and after his death to his executors; then to Sir Ralph Ashton of Middleton. In 1479–80 Roger Lever, called 'of Bolton,' received a pardon for any offences he might have committed; it appears that he was outlawed for murder. The violence was not all on one side, for in 1469 an agreement was made between Sir Ralph Ashton and Thomas Pilkington; the latter was to capture Roger Lever, and if Roger were slain Sir Ralph would bear half the damage or would petition the king to interfere should the death be adjudged a murder. After Roger's death a claim was made to the Anderton estate on behalf of the heir male, a descendant of the above-named Henry son of Adam Lever; but the Ashtons of Lever established their title. (fn. 17)
Ralph Ashton, who, as stated, acquired the manor with his wife, was followed in regular descent by five Ralphs in succession. (fn. 18) The last of them, who was also seated at Whalley, was created a baronet in 1620. (fn. 19) He sold Great Lever and the adjoining estates to Bishop Bridgeman in 1629, (fn. 20) and the manor has descended to the present Earl of Bradford. Bishop Bridgeman, of whom an account will be found among the rectors of Wigan, resided at Great Lever after his purchase, rebuilding the hall and domestic chapel. (fn. 21)
His descendants, however, made little use of it, (fn. 22) and about 1760 a large part of the hall was demolished to save the expense of repairs. (fn. 23) Sir Henry Bridgeman in 1793 obtained an Act of Parliament to enable him to let lands in Great Lever and elsewhere in Lancashire on building leases for 999 years. (fn. 24)
Great Lever Hall stands in a high situation on the north side of the road from Bolton to Manchester, close to the former town. The River Croal flows on its north side along the bottom of the brow on which the house stands, and the site is naturally a defensive one, being directly accessible only from the west.
Of the first house of the Levers and Asshetons probably little or nothing remains, the oldest part of the present building being the work of Bishop Bridgeman, who rebuilt the house about 1630. The building has suffered very much from neglect and alterations. The plan is now one of great irregularity, and the greater part of the building is of modern construction, with elevations of brick or stucco. The house is divided into three portions, the oldest of which is used as the rectory for the parish of Great Lever. The eastern wing is entirely modernized and used as a Conservative Club, while a north-west wing, at right angles to the older part of the house, has been converted into cottages. There is nothing of interest in the east and north-west wings, but the centre (south-west) portion of the house, or rectory, retains a portion of the 17th-century timber front as built by Bishop Bridgeman, bearing his initials i.b with the date 1631 in two ornamental panels. The rest of the rectory portion of the house has been a good deal altered, and is faced with brick or stucco. Opposite the principal front across the courtyard is a detached building containing the domestic chapel—built by Bishop Bridgeman in 1634 and consecrated two years later—with a house attached. The position of the chapel would almost suggest its having been originally situated at the east end of a former south wing of a house built on three sides of a courtyard, but there seems to be no record of the original hall having been thus planned. The chapel is now entirely detached and the court open at both ends. There has been so much destruction and rebuilding, however, that it is difficult to say what the plan of the house was in Bishop Bridgeman's day. The timber front of the rectory facing the court is about 28 ft. wide and stands on a stone base 4 ft. high. The wall is coved at the first floor, and there is also a cove under the gable. There are no barge-boards to the gable, and the black and white filling is only paint on plaster. All the timber below, however, is genuine, including the tiebeams of the gable. The composition escapes the uniformity and monotony of a good deal of halftimber work by the use of straight uprights on the ground floor and reversed curved braces above, but more especially by the treatment of the long windows of thirteen lights, the sills of the three outside lights at each end of which are higher than the rest. The lead of the diamond quarries is very broad and painted white, with a white fillet painted on the glass on each side. The roofs of the old portion of the house, as well as of the chapel, are of grey stone slates, and the chimneys are of red brick, one of them, the principal stack on the south front, being of some architectural merit. ' The timber construction of the rectory house also shows on the north side. Most of the windows have been renewed and have moulded wood mullions, but some, with plain chamfers, are old. The interior arrangements are so much altered that the original plan of the house has been quite lost. There are no very remarkable features on the ground floor. The rooms are low, with old oak beams running across the ceilings, those in the kitchen being very massive and of great length ; one of them is supported by a modern post, presumably replacing an ancient one. The floors both upstairs and down are very uneven owing to sinkings occasioned by mining operations. The dining-room has some oak panelling under the window, and high up on the wall over the fireplace are two small shields, one on each side, with the arms of Bridgeman. The staircase is cramped, and is obviously not the original one. Over the dining-room is the library, a handsome room running across the house at this point, and lit by a long window at each end. This room, which is under the timber gable facing the courtyard, is richly wainscoted on the west side and at the two ends, the detail consisting of pilasters and square and oblong panels, the latter along the top under a classic cornice, and elaborately carved. The fireplace has Ionic pilasters, and the whole is a good specimen of Renaissance woodwork. The ceiling is of plaster divided by beams into four bays, the two end ones having ornamental plaster-work, and the middle ones being plain. In the bay at the west end of the ceiling are the arms of the see of Chester on a large shield surrounded by strap-work with four smaller shields, one at each corner, bearing the arms of Bridgeman. The east wall has apparently been rebuilt after the demolition of the part of the house on that side, and is quite plain. Another room on the first floor is also panelled in oak, but is less rich in detail. (fn. 25)
Samuel Pepys, writing under date 10 November 1662, refers to some heraldic glass in the windows at Great Lever, but this, if it were ever placed there, has now disappeared. There is now no painted or heraldic glass in any of the windows of the house. (fn. 26)
The chapel, which is dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity, is built of brick on a stone base. It stands about 40 ft. to the south of the house, from which it is separated by a courtyard paved with cobbles. A stone wall at one time inclosed the court on the east side, but this has now given way to a lattice screen. The chapel occupies the east portion of a detached building, the total length of which is about 57 ft-, and the western half of which is a dwelling-house, now a cottage, with a timber front to the courtyard. The brickwork of the outer walls of the chapel is yellow-washed, and the roof is covered with grey stone slates. Inside the chapel is now quite bare, and a movable wood floor has been inserted above the original tiled one, which raises the floor level about 10 in. The interior, which measures 27 ft. in length and 16 ft. 6 in. in width, is lighted at the east end by a window of eight lights with stone mullions and double transoms, under a four-centred arch with external hood-moulding. The lights of the two lower tiers have rounded heads, those in the head of the window under the arch being plain. There is a square-headed six-light window on each side of the chapel, north and south, with stone mullions and transoms, the heads of the top lights only being rounded. The entrance is at the west end of the north side, the doorway having a four-centred arch, and the door being the original one of oak, nailstudded. The glass is all plain and in square quarries. The walls and ceiling, which partly follows the line of the roof, are plastered. A description of the chapel written (fn. 27) in 1787 speaks of it as being no longer in use, but of marriages having been solemnized there before 1764–7. 'At the end, opposite to the altar, to which there is an ascent of two steps,' says the writer, ' is a gallery formerly for the use of the family, and a bench runs round the chapel below.' The gallery no longer remains, but its position is marked by the coupled roof-trusses about 5 ft. apart at the west end. The ridge of the roof does not coincide with the centre line of the chapel, but is slightly to the south of it, making an irregular gable at the ends. The ends of the two roof-trusses rest on the wall in the usual way on the south side, but on the north they project in front of the wall and carry the roof in the form of a penthouse further forward over the entrance doorway. This may have served originally as shelter to a doorway higher up in the wall, giving access to the gallery from the outside, the bricked-up opening of which may still be seen. There is a door out of the chapel opposite the entrance into the adjoining house, which may have been originally the house of the chaplain. A bell belonging to the chapel is still kept at the hall, though it has not been in use for a very long time. It may have hung from the projecting ends of the chapel roof principals over the doorway. It bears the inscription RAF ASH TON CS K.
To the west of the hall is a stone boundary wall and gateway, on the head of which are the initials of Bishop Bridgeman (i. b.) and the date 1631, as on the timber front of the house. Farther to the west again was until recently one of the finest barns in the district, with timbers of enormous size. Part of this, however, has been demolished to make way for a new schoolhouse, and the portion which remains has been refaced at the end and between the timbers in brick, but enough is left to show the strength and massiveness of the original timber construction.
Robert son of Roger de Middleton, who may have acquired the right of Henry de Lever, (fn. 28) about 1300 granted to Sir Roger de Pilkington and Margery his wife all his lands in Great Lever, with a moiety of the waste. (fn. 29) In 1332 Roger de Pilkington, son of Sir Roger, granted the same to his brother Richard. (fn. 30) A later Sir Roger de Pilkington in 1378 exchanged his lands in Great Lever with Adam de Lever the younger, receiving from the latter certain lands in Kearsley; the exchange was to be for life only, but the Pilkingtons do not seem to have had any further interest in the township. (fn. 31)
BURNDEN was an estate of the priory of Birkenhead. Robert the prior granted to Siward son of Robert the chaplain of Deane an acre in Great Lever by the hill of Burnden, above the road from Bolton to Lever, and land by Bolton Brook, at a rent of 6d. on St James's Day. (fn. 32) The Burnden family are mentioned later, but about 1300 their estate was sold to Adam de Lever. (fn. 33) Lands in Burnden were afterwards held by a branch of the Lever family. (fn. 34) Priestcroft also gave a surname to the family who held it of the local lords. (fn. 35)
The Hultons of Farnworth had a small estate in Great Lever, (fn. 36) which in 1611 was stated to be held of Sir Richard Assheton of Middleton, by the hundredth part of a knight's fee. (fn. 37) Richard Chisnall held land here in 1587; (fn. 38) and Andrew Lever was a freeholder in 1600. (fn. 39)
In 1787 the Duke of Bridgewater paid half the land tax; Ellis Crompton and Thomas Boardman were the other contributors. (fn. 40)
As already stated, Bishop Bridgeman provided a domestic chapel at the hall, which for a time appears to have been used by the residents, who were almost all his tenants. (fn. 41) Apart from this there seems to have been no church or chapel in the township till recent times. For the Church of England St. Michael's was consecrated in 1851; the Earl of Bradford is the patron of the rectory. (fn. 42) St. Simon and St. Jude's, built in 1900, is in the gift of trustees.