Last weekend, wanting to go somewhere different but not too far away, I decided to visit the RHS Bridgewater Garden, a relatively easy 10-mile drive from home and somewhere I’d never previously been to. Developed on the site of the former Worsley New Hall and its lost historic grounds Bridgewater is the RHS’s fifth garden, and being under the impression that it had been established quite some time ago I was surprised when I later learned that it only started to be developed five years ago.
The history of Worsley New Hall dates back to the 19th century when it was built for Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere. Replacing an earlier classical-style building from the 1760s the New Hall was designed by architect Edward Blore, with the foundations being started in 1839 and the first stone laid in April 1840. An Elizabethan Gothic-style mansion, the building was completed by 1846 at a cost of just under £100,000, the equivalent of £6.7million today; the earlier building was demolished between December 1844 and August 1845 and a section of what is now the A572 runs over the former site of it.
Just as grand as the house, the magnificent gardens were landscaped over a 50-year period with landscape designer William Andrews Nesfield, one of the most sought-after of his profession at the time, being involved in the project from 1846. Over the years the sloping grounds to the south of the hall were developed into a formal terraced garden set off with ornate fountains and accessed by a series of steps and gravel paths, while beyond the terraces landscaped parkland extended to a lake with an island which was reached by a footbridge.
Worsley New Hall was visited by Queen Victoria twice, first in 1851 and again in 1857. For her first visit the Queen and her party travelled from Patricroft station to the Hall via the Bridgewater Canal on a Royal Barge commissioned by the Earl of Ellesmere, with a landing stage being specially built on the canal bank, and in honour of her visit the canal water was dyed blue. On her second visit, after attending an Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester, she planted a North American giant redwood tree in the Hall’s lawn in memory of the Duke of Wellington but sadly the redwood didn’t grow well in the British climate. In 1869 Edward, Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra visited the Hall then forty years later, after opening the Manchester Royal Infirmary, they made a second visit to inspect the Territorial Army’s East Lancashire division in the grounds of the Hall south of the Bridgewater Canal.
During the first World War John Egerton, 4th Earl of Ellesmere, lent Worsley New Hall to the British Red Cross and it became a hospital for injured soldiers. The grand spacious rooms were used as wards, food was provided by the kitchen gardens and the terraced gardens and parkland were used for recreation. The hospital closed in 1919 and the building was left unoccupied then in 1920, after incurring various death duties, the 4th Earl started auctioning off various items of furniture and fittings. Paintings and further items of furniture were relocated to other properties also owned by the Earl and the Hall’s library and surplus furniture were sold at auction in April 1921.
In 1923 the Worsley estate including the New Hall was sold to Bridgewater Estates Limited, a group of Lancashire businessmen, for £3.3 million. Several attempts were made by them to sell the property during the later 1920s and the early 1930s but sadly these all came to nothing and the Hall continued to lie empty, slipping slowly into decline. With the advent of World War II the War Office requisitioned parts of the building and the grounds and during 1939 and 1940 the site was occupied by the 2nd and 8th Battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with around 100 troops based there. In 1941 and 1942 the 42nd and 45th County of Lancaster Home Guard Battalions used the site, constructing storehouses for explosives in the grounds, while the lake and other parts of the grounds became Middlewood Scout Camp.
Sadly the existence of Worsley New Hall was soon to come to an end. Already weakened by dry rot and subsidence and damaged during the military occupation a fire in September 1943 badly damaged the top floor of the building, leading to calls for tenders to demolish it. Finally in 1944 it was sold to a scrap merchant for £2,500; demolition started in 1946 and by 1949 the hall had been razed to ground level, with debris used to fill in the basements. A footbridge which connected the New Hall with Worsley Old Hall estate at the far side of the road was demolished at the same time and 800 tonnes of stone from the New Hall was taken to be used in the construction of council houses in Southfield, Yorkshire.