I was kindly invited by the University of the Third Age (U3A) to give a talk on the history of Gatley. Aware that there are local historians far more accomplished than me, I didn’t try to cover every detail, but aimed to give a flavour of the people of Gatley and what it might have been like to live here over the last thousand years.
A history of Gatley
In 1818 Gatley weavers joined the Luddite riots. They drilled in Gatley Carrs, which in those days was fields and meadows stretching up to the Mersey and along to Northenden. One night, our crack team of Gatley Luddites marched to Stockport to confront the soldiers and take their arms.
But clearly all did not go according to plan. They got to Stockport, perhaps thought better of pitting their military skills against the armed and trained men of the British Army, turned round and came right back to Gatley.
This exciting episode in Gatley’s military history might have ended there, but it appears the Luddites were betrayed by a man called Pownall because the following summer a troop of Oxford Blues marched into Gatley and formed square in front of the Horse and Farrier.
The Gatley men followed the strategy that had served them well before – they ran away and hid. Two men hid in the Carrs, a man called Ryle hid in hay, Bailey hid in the hencote and Isaac Legh climbed up the chimney of Stone Pale House, all successfully evading capture.
One man – Bradshaw – was taken by the troops. He was sent to Botany Bay, where he was later made a constable and returned fourteen years later.
Why do I start with such an inauspicious tale from Gatley’s past?
I guess we all like to think of the place we’re from as somewhere special, and for us it is. But for me history is about getting to grips with the truth about the past and – as far as I can tell – the truth is that Gatley does not stand out particularly, even from the neighbouring villages. It is what it is, and hopefully we can celebrate that without needing to make it into something it isn’t.
There’s another reason too. The account of this particular Luddite rebellion comes from a book written in the late 19th century by Fletcher Moss. Moss was doubtless something of a local character. He lived in Didsbury where he owned and ran a cheese shop and wrote local histories including of Disbury and Cheadle. His history of Cheadle includes this information – and a good deal more – about Gatley; but it sometimes has the feel of stuff he heard down the pub and perhaps should be treated with a little caution.
Working in Gatley
What would have brought those men of Gatley to the point of drilling in the Carrs and planning to take on the King’s army in 1818?
To answer that, we should go back a couple of hundred years to the early 1600s. We know that the main industry in Gatley – if it can be called an industry on such a small scale – was hand loom weaving. This was a home-based business and the weaving would normally be done by men. It could be hard work. To get a feel for it, visit Styal Mill which – alongside the later machines – has one of the old hand looms and the physical strength required to consistently propel the shuttle across the loom is significant: I can do it a few times, but certainly not for the hours that those Gatley men would have been working all day.
There are also records of buttons being made in Gatley, at least from the 1660s up to the late 1700s, and of silk weaving in the mid 1800s.
In 1750 Gatley got its first factory, but it wasn’t a factory in the modern sense, or even in the 19th Century sense. William Roscoe, from Bradshawe near Bolton established a factory for hand-spinning cotton and linen, using a big Yorkshire wheel. Don’t think of row upon row of mechanised looms, but instead of a place where hand looms could be gathered together in one place instead of being spread out in people’s homes.
The wheel, we’re intriguingly told, was turned by an old man and a girl. Whether this was fixed in the job description; whether they came as a pair and how long they did this for history appears to have lost.
John and Samuel Alcock later established a weaving shed in the same building, which was situated near to Gatley Hall.
So the people of this small village had every reason to be worried by the march of modern technology and how it would change and disrupt their lives – they couldn`t possibly compete against the sort of operation people like Gregg were to set up at Styal.
Gatley’s early days
Let’s go back to Gatley’s early days.
There have been at least three prehistoric artefacts unearthed in Gatley, including a polished stone axe probably dating from the Neolithic period or the early bronze age and an axe-hammer and mace head, both probably early bronze age.
However, there’s no evidence of a settlement at Gatley until much later.
The name “Gatley” means “Goat bank” – the place the goats were grazed. The “ley” in the name has a different origin to other local “leys” such as Edgeley, Romiley, Woodley and Heaviley – where the “ley” comes from “leah” meaning a woodland clearance for a settlement.
So in the early days of Gatley you would probably have bumped into rather more goats than people.
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, Gatley fell within the township of Etchells (which means ‘land added onto an estate’ – agricultural land reclaimed from waste land). Unless you were a small animal, this was probably not a place where exciting things were happening, I’m afraid.
After 1086, Etchells was split along the old Hundred boundary of Gatley Brook. The eastern side was held by the Stockports and the western side by the Ardernes.
That western side was later held by the Stanleys until – in 1508 – John Stanley, the sole heir, was killed by a tennis ball. With no rightful claimants, the Crown acquired the land and in the 1556 sold it to the suitably loyal Tattons, who already owned Northenden and Northern Etchells.
In the late 16th century, the court leets and court barons moved to Gatley – it was nearer to Wythenshawe Hall than the old court and presumably handier for whichever Tatton lord had to drag himself out of bed and sort of the problems of the poor folk at the time.
Population of Gatley
We should take a look at how Gatley’s population has changed over time. But here we have a small problem – no-one has ever bothered to record the population of Gatley as it’s never been an administrative area in its own right. In fact, there’s not even anything official to say where Gatley’s boundaries lie – you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. In particular, the eastern boundary with Cheadle could be said to lie along Micker Brook, or – as I would argue these days – along the A34 which has become far more of a boundary.
In 1286, Gatley was a hamlet within the manor of Stockport Etchells – or just Etchells. At this point we’re two hundred years after the Domesday Book’s publication. Gatley had at least six households – probably around thirty people.
The next figures we have are from 1664 for the township of Stockport Etchells, which includes both Gatley and Heald Green. The population of Stockport Etchells was 238 in 1664 and grew steadily to 977 in 1871. In fact, Gatley and Heald Green grew far more slowly than most other parts of Stockport over that 200 year period. The township of Heaton Norris (which includes all four Heatons) started off in 1664 at about the same population as Etchells – 290 – but by 1871 was over 16,000. Across Stockport, only Woodford, Offerton and Torkington had similarly low levels of growth.
Right up to the end of the 19th century, Gatley was a small village surrounded by farmland and not much else.
But all that was to change in the inter-war period. Gatley might have resisted the sort of population growth the Heatons underwent for 200 years, but not for much longer.
A word of warning here – in 1891 we change from having population figures for Stockport Etchells to having the population for Cheadle & Gatley Urban District Council. That includes Gatley, Heald Green, Cheadle, Cheadle Hulme and Adswood. However, the growth in these figures seems to be representative of the growth in Gatley – as can be seen from the age of the houses around the village.
In 1891 the population of Cheadle & Gatley UDC was 8,252. By 1951 that had grown to 45,621 and by 1971 to 60,799. Let’s pause to think about that for a moment. In that period of 80 years, the population increased by over 50,000 – a more-than-seven-fold increase. Vast swathes of fields and open land became housing estates as the area saw one of the highest population growths of anywhere in Greater Manchester from the 1930s to the 1960s. Trucks rumbled incessantly to Gatley Carrs, which was transformed from fields and meadows to a tipping place for builders’ rubble. And, of course, most of us living in Gatley today are only able to be here because of that immense building project.
If we look at just the village Gatley, the population today is around 9,000 – a bit of an increase on the 30-odd people who lived here back in 1286.
As an aside, if we took modern-day Gatley with its 9,000 people and transplanted it back to the time of the first Queen Elizabeth it would be the third largest city in Britain. Only London and Norwich had higher populations back then, which gives us some idea of how not only our area but pretty much every part of the UK has seen growth over the last few centuries.
Gatley and Wythenshawe
Gatley’s relationship with neighbouring Wythenshawe has been a little fraught on occasion. In 1956 householders on Styal Road complained that “children from the [Wythenshawe] Estate invade and strip the private gardens” and demanded a barrier be built between the two communities. No wall or fence was built, but – rightly or wrongly – the epithet “snobs of Gatley” gained a good deal of publicity at the time.
The story was different back in 1643, in the Civil War, and well before the construction of Wythenshawe Garden City, as it was originally called. Three Gatley men – Ralphe Savage, Robert Torkinton and John Blomiley – served in the garrison unsuccessfully defending the Royalist Wythenshawe against the Parliamentarians, though we don’t know if they survived the encounter.
Crossing the Mersey – “I’m still standing after all this time”
I often find myself looking at old buildings and thinking how much better built things used to be, and how relatively poor standards seem to be today. But I think that’s a mistake. By definition, the old buildings we see around today are the ones that have survived; but many more haven’t stood the test of time. Are building standards worse today? Or are we just comparing apples and oranges?
Take for example the case of the Cheadle bridge. It wasn’t (and isn’t) in Gatley, but it has a Gatley link.
Gatley itself never had a bridge over the Mersey, but we did have a ford. Coming from Didsbury, it was possible to ford the Mersey by the Carrs, then travel along a long-vanished road called Watery Lane towards Handforth. The Mersey has long-since been re-routed so the site of the ford is no longer on the path the river takes – it’s thought to be in a bunker on a golf course near Millgate Lane in Didsbury.
But back to the bridge over the Mersey, which was on Manchester Road, near Parrs Wood. The first bridge was built by the Highlanders in 1745. It lasted an impressive 11 years: in 1756 it collapsed and killed the ferryboatman.
Once bitten, twice shy – you might have thought they’d do a better job second time round. But no, the second wooden bridge, built shortly afterwards, was washed away by a flood and killed Mary Astle of Gatley as she crossed it in a cart.
By the time they got to the third bridge, you would really have thought they’d do a proper job.
“The last two bridges only lasted a few years. Let’s not make the same mistake three times in a row. Let’s do this one properly and built something that will last down the ages.” they might have said.
So the third stone bridge was built in 1777 by Mr Chandley of Cheadle, but as the scaffolding was being taken down, it fell on him and killed him. I’m not sure if it was the bridge or the scaffolding that fell on poor Mr Chandley – who would probably have benefited from a few more health and safety regulations, but either way the bridge was being replaced a few decades later.
The fourth bridge was erected in 1861.
Travel and transport
In many ways, travel didn’t get much better.
The first chance to get half-decent roads arrived in 1753 – but they were turnpikes so you had to pay to use them. The first turnpike in 1753 ran north-south from Cheadle Bridge down what’s now Manchester Road, along Cheadle High Street and down Wilmslow Road and Schools Hill towards Handforth and Wilmslow.
Gatley had to wait nearly 70 years more to get its first turnpike – the current A560 (Gatley Road) in 1820.
Public transport came late too. The railways came through first in 1864, cutting off the ford across the Mersey and massively reducing the size of Gatley Carrs. These lines ran east-west and didn’t stop – Gatley residents could only wave as the trains passed by.
To get their own public transport, the residents of Gatley would have to hang on until 1896, when the postmaster started running a cab service. From 1898 to May 1904 a Mr Potts ran a bus service with an omnibus he bought from the Manchester Carriage and Tramways Company. By then, the tram had come to Gatley.
By March 1904 trams were running from Stockport through Cheadle and terminating in front of the Horse and Farrier in Gatley. The tram wasn’t quick and wasn’t even particularly reliable: Stockport’s electric trolley buses were prone to the cable carrying the power coming detached from the overhead wires. But worse was the frequent failure of the back axles – something that sounds painful and today would doubtless (and probably quite rightly) trigger multi-million pound law suits.
The Styal Line running between Crewe and Manchester opened in 1909 as LNWR competed against the Midland company and included stations at Heald Green and Gatley. Even then, though, Gatley didn’t quite get a station to call its own: it was called “Gatley, for Cheadle” until 1974.
In the 1920s and 1930s there was an explosion in the number of bus companies running services across Stockport and Gatley’s tram service succumbed to the competition, shutting up shop in 1931, though elsewhere around Stockport some tram services survived for another twenty years.
By the 1970s, the car was rapidly becoming king and the “Cheadle crawl” as cars took up to half an hour to get through Gatley and Cheadle was an unwelcome side-effect. So the major new roads (the last ones to be built in the area) must have been a welcome improvement. Kingsway had been extended south of the Mersey in 1959 and then two major new motorways – the M56 and M63 – were opened in 1974. This Sharston by-pass scheme included the Kingsway interchange, which was junction 10 of the M63. The M63 was renamed the M60 in 1999.
And that’s where I’ll stop. There’s much more we could cover. We could look at the bigger houses, the parks and gardens, Gatley Carrs, religion, commerce, war memorials or – a topic close to the heart of Fletcher Moss – cheese-making.
Like thousands of other places across the country, it’s fair to say that Gatley is pretty ordinary sort of a place. There were no battles fought here, no great buildings built, no world famous heroes or artists. But, it’s a good place to live and I’ll take that any day.