Between 2011 and 2015 a three stage archaeology project, funded by the Peel Group, was undertaken at the Worsley New Hall site in Salford. This project explored the hall, its gardens and its grounds.
The New Hall was built for Francis Egerton, the first Earl of Ellesmere (1800-1857) between 1840 and 1845. Ellesmere was from the landed gentry, he was the second son of Lower Gower, and had held political office between 1828 and 1830 as Chief Secretary for Ireland and Secretary at War. The Earl of Ellesmere had inherited the Worsley Hall estate in 1833 (which included the Worsley coal mines, the Bridgewater Canal and several thousand acres of farmland west of Salford) and set about creating an estate centre befitting his new status.
The result was the third hall on the estate, to add to the 16th century timber Old Hall and the late 18th century brick hall built by the Third Duke of Bridgewater (the canal Duke). A Gothic-style mansion with formal landscaped gardens, the New Hall was described in A Guide to Worsley: Historical and Topographical (1870) as ‘comparable with any of the mansions of the nobility in the north of England; it is an ornament to the county in which it stands.’
The hall was designed by the architect Edward Blore (1787-1879), a country-house architect specialising in Tudor and Elizabethan styles. Most of his clients were drawn from the gentry and peerage, and his work included the remodelling of Buckingham Palace in 1831. It cost just under £100,000. The grandeur of the New Hall was matched by its gardens. These were laid out in the 1840s to designs drawn up by another fashionable designer – the landscape gardener William Nesfield (1793-1881). Nesfield specialised in formal gardens and developed at Worsley an elaborate parterre in front (to the south) of the hall occupied the top two of six terraces leading down to a boating lake. Nesfield is best known for his landscape garden work at Castle Howard, Kew Gardens, Kinmel Hall and Witley Court. The Worsley New Hall gardens, however, predated all of these sites. There was also a 10 acre walled kitchen garden and glass houses growing cucumbers, grape vines, melons and peach trees..
Archaeological excavations focussed upon the foundations of the hall. These revealed the cellar area of the hall, including the remains of its central heating and a later electric lift. Fragments of elaborately decorated window lintels and chimney stacks were a reminder of the gothic style of the hall. One surprise was the discovery of a large retaining wall, added to the front of the house as part of the landscaping. Another was the uncovering of a lower cellar where huge stone arches supported the hall structure. These features were presumably designed to stop the hall slipping down the hill. Work was also undertaken on the formal gardens. This focussed on recovering pathways around the hall on the top terrace and the foundations on the large fountains on the lower terraces, fed by water from the Blackleach reservoir several kilometres to the north.
After the death of the 3rd Earl of Ellesmere in 1914 ownership passed to his eldest son Lieutenant-Colonel John Francis Granville Scrope Egerton, the 4th Earl. However, the New Hall was never again lived in. It was used as a hospital in the First World War run by the British Red Cross, treating 884 patients. Left empty between the wars in 1939 and 1940 it was used as an army training base in the by the Lancashire Fusiliers as a training ground, the County of Lancaster Home Guard in 1941 and 1942. In 1943 the hall was damaged by fire although it was used by American troops early in 1944. By this date the hall was very run down. It was sold to a local scrap merchant from Ashton-in-Makerfield for £2,500 and was systematically demolished between 1946 and 1949. The rest of the site was split between the Middlewood Scout Camp and the kitchen gardens, which had been turned into nurseries in the 1930s and later a garden centre.
With the leasing of the site to the RHS a new round of research has begun and once more University of Salford archaeologists are involved in recovering the history of the site. This time archaeology and geography students will be capturing memories of living, working, and playing in the hall grounds and gardens. Details of the RHS Garden Bridgewater memories project, and how to contribute, can be found here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/bridgewater/rhs-garden-bridgewater-memories-project