‘You can do research can’t you?’ This question, thrown at me by my first boss in March 1990 was, had I known it, a moment that would define my career and change my life. The occasion for this query was the prospect of a commission by the leader of Tameside Council, Roy Oldham, to write a three volume history of the borough. I was working for the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit and completing a PhD part-time. The unit was in the midst of a large re-organisation, having just pulled out of an Employment Training contract that underpinned most of its archaeological work in Greater Manchester. Many of the staff were being laid-off. However, my boss, Phil Mayes, was looking for a suitable victim to spend three years researching and writing these volumes on Tameside. Which is why, many months later, I found myself in the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-under-Lyne.
Whilst exploring the archaeology collection in the museum archives I had found some notes by a local antiquarian and flint collector, Seth Radcliffe. In front of me were several loose pages from his notebook. Roughly six by ten inches, these pages contained sketches and notes of flint tools he had discovered over many years around Mossley, his family home. These recorded three Neolithic or early Bronze Age flints (a thumbnail scraper, an oval scraper, and a leaf-shaped arrowhead) from the moorland at Moorgate in Carrbrook and from the Quickedge area of Mossley, found between 1906 and 1911.
The first antiquarians to take an interest in the history of the Tameside area (the nine towns of Ashton, Denton, Droylsden, Dukinfield, Hollingworth, Hyde, Mottram, Mossley and Stalybridge) were Canon Raines, Thomas Percival and William Marriott. In 1767 Canon Raines sketched the earthworks at Buckton Castle on the hills above Stalybridge and recorded the finding of treasure below the site (more of this is a later blog). Percival surveyed the castle earthworks shortly afterwards. From the southern edge of the borough Marriott provided a rather confused description of a number of antiquities on Werneth Low in the early 19th century. These included stone tools found when a number of prehistoric burial mounds were destroyed.
In the late 19th century two local antiquaries, Mr R Jackson and Mr Seth Radcliffe began gathering material, both being active flint collectors in the Pennine uplands of the Borough. They were following a trend set by John Aitken and James Binns who first realised in 1874 that the flints of the central Pennines were of human manufacture. The most famous and thorough of the Pennine flint collectors was Francis Buckley, who made copious notes, most of which are now held by the Tolson Memorial Museum. He also conducted the first scientific excavations of Mesolithic sites in the Pennines.
Seth Radcliffe was collecting flints from the moors around Mossley as early as 1895, when he showed some items he had found at Featherbed Hill to a meeting of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society at Cheetham’s Library. He showed further items to the society in 1898, which he had collected from Brown Edge and Quick Edge. Though he became the local postmaster of Mossley in the 1900s Seth continued to collect ancient artifacts from the local area. He appears to have roamed over much of the central Pennines between Pule Hill and Buckton Moor until 1914 and many of his finds are now held by Tameside Museums.
Sadly, though Seth was a keen local historian little of his surviving material covers his flint collecting. The pages I was looking at in Portland Bain were all that was known from half a life-time of collection. Nevertheless, it represented the start of the scientific investigation of Tameside’s past and the beginning of my discovery of the borough’s rich archaeology and the characters who made and saved its history.