Digging Balderstone Hall

A panoramic shot of the  Balderstone Hall excavations the day before the open day, June 2013

Dig Greater Manchester, our five year community archaeology project funded by AGMA (and the largest such project in England at the moment) arrived in Rochdale this month.

Amidst the showers and some long-awaited summer weather (last seen in 2011), around 300 school children and more than 60 adult volunteers helped uncover the foundations of the 18th and 19th century hall.

The hall, in the hilly land south of Rochdale, has medieval origins and was occupied by the Holt family in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1852 it was bought by Joshua Radcliffe, a local mill owner, who demolished the old hall and built a grand classical-style double-depth, two storey, central-staircase property, reminiscent of many of the fashionable villa residences of the time. In the 20th century its was bought by the local council and used as a library until its demolition.

Balderstone Hall was the sixth DGM site to be investigated, the second this year. In the months between a snowy Moss Bank in Bolton (March) and a sunny Balderstone, we have been working with a number of local societies test-pitting potential sites for later this year and next year in Salford and Tameside. This, though, was a full two-week exploration.

The excavations indicated that the 1852 hall had involved the demolition of much of the older buildings, although some 18th century fabric survived to the rear, north of the site, including a circular well. Once more, despite the documentary references, this was a site which failed to produce any medieval archaeology: perhaps the medieval hall lies close by, and was replaced by a hall on a new site in the 17th century? The earliest material appears to be some of the large number of clay pipes were recovered, with several forms suggesting an early 18th century date. The rear cellared range appeared to be the service area of the hall, with several large fireplaces, and plenty of pottery, mostly 19th and early 20th century stoneware and cream-ware storage jars, jugs, and plates.

One surprise was the volume of architectural fragments recovered from the dig, more than the other five DGM sites so far studied put together. Much of this material came from backfill of the cellar beneath the staircase. It included plasterwork such as decorated scrolls, skirting and architraving, fragments of banister hand rails, spindles, and door fixtures and fittings. On site we had a fireplace with its glazed tiles still in situ and several other areas where decorated floor tiles survived. This was also the first of the DGM sites to have archaeological evidence for internal plumbing.

The impression given by this archaeological evidence is of a mid to late 19th century house of high status or at least of some pretension. The classical stone exterior was matched by a richly decorated interior. However, costs were kept down by the use of brick in the foundations and for the core of the walls. Balderstone Hall thus makes a fine addition to our DGM sites with much potential for further research as part of our workshop training programme.

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