Park's Heritage Lottery Fund award has to be welcome

Thompson Park, Burnleu
Thompson Park, Burnleu
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On Monday of last week it was announced that Burnley Council had been awarded £861,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding for the restoration of Thompson Park, writes local historian Roger Frost.

The whole scheme will cost £1.9 million and work is to start later this year. It is scheduled to be finished in the early summer of 2018.

Thompson Park is a Grade II Listed Park and the intention of the funding is to restore one of Burnley’s most recent parks, and to celebrate its heritage. The park is not quite 87 years old so it might be thought that there is little heritage associated with it. Nothing could be further from the truth as the land now occupied by Thompson Park has a history which can be traced to at least the latter part of the Middle Ages.

In the early days there was no park in this part of Burnley, at least not in the sense that as we might understand the term. But there was a property on the site as early as 1311. This is detailed in the Inquisition Post Mortem of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, and it tells us that the buildings – house, farm buildings and garden - which became Bank Hall, was occupied by a John de Wheteacker (Whitaker). John leased eight acres of land, at this site, from Earl Henry at four shillings per year.

Of course there are no remains of this property today but the site of Bank Hall is well known. The original building would have been a timber structure and, it seems that this was replaced, possibly in the 16th Century, by the Woodruff family. They built another timber house which, it appears, was not unlike Rufford Old Hall, which is near Ormskirk in Lancashire. This house remained until the 1780s when the stone house – the one that, in 1919, became the Bank Hall Maternity Hospital – was built by the Hargreaves family, the owners some of the largest coal mines in Burnley.

The reason for mentioning all this is that Thompson Park is built partly on the Bank Hall Estate which, in the early days, was restricted to a sizeable plot of land on the right bank of the original course of the river Brun. Other property, on the left bank of the river, was also included. They were; the lower part of Sand Hall (or Sandholme) Green and a small part of Lower Ridge Farm. The latter stood just off what is now Belevedere Road and the part of the park which is on Lower Ridge land is that which is accessed directly from Ormerod Road.

The Sand Hall Green land is the property adjacent to the attractive tree-lined section of the Leeds and Liverpool. This land runs from the Queen Victoria restaurant to the Godley canal bridge on Ormerod Road. Sand Hall Green was an ancient piece of land which stretched in an easterly direction towards the Ridge. Much of it is now occupied by Queen’s Park and the present Bank Hall Park, the site of the famous coal mine.

The families who have occupied this land are also of interest. Little can be said of Henry de Lacy’s tenant of 1311 though he might have been related to the Whitakers of High Whitaker or the family which came to own the Holme estate in Cliviger. The Woodruff family was one of Burnley’s more significant families by the 16th Century though they did not have the status of the Towneleys of Towneley Hall. Like them, however, they were prominent Catholics and several members of the family were persecuted for their religious views. It is thought that the timber Bank Hall in which they lived had a number of priest holes and that the Woodruffs, like the Towneleys, used them to protect the priests who visited the district at the time when they were persecuted.

Eventually, the Bank Hall estate fell into the hand of the Hargreaves family which owned some of Burnley’s more important coal mines. Then, in the 1830s, that family died out, they were succeeded by General Scarlett, the soldier who commanded the Heavy Brigade in the Crimean War, and his brother-in-law, the Rev. William Thursby whose descendants took over the running of the family firm, later known as the Exors of John Hargreaves, almost to nationalisation just after the Second World War.

It is, therefore appropriate that the Heritage Lottery Fund has chosen to make the grant it has to the restoration of Thompson Park. The land now occupied by the park has a written history which goes back at least to 1311 when the property was owned by Henry de Lacy, the Regent of England when he died in 1310. Bank Hall played a significant role at the time, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when the Catholics were persecuted. After that, and after it was rebuilt, Bank Hall became the home of Burnley’s most famous soldier, General Scarlett, and, after his death, the house became one of the homes of one of Burnley’s important commercial families, the Thursbys. After a period when the house served as a military hospital it became Burnley’s much loved maternity hospital until it closed in 1993.

Thompson Park itself was opened on 16th July, 1930, by the then Mayor of Burnley, Alderman Henry Robinson Nuttall, the principal of the firm of Nuttall and Crook Ltd cotton spinners and manufacturers of Rosegrove Mills. The park had been designed by the Borough Engineer, Arthur Race and was paid for by the bequest of James Whitham Thompson, also a cotton manufacturer of Trafalgar Shed in Burnley. It is after Mr Thompson, that the park is named.

Mr Thompson, who died in 1920 as a result of an accident when alighting from a tram at Westgate, left the sum of £50,000 to Burnley Corporation expressing, the wish that the town purchase land in the Bank Hall area upon which a public park might be built. It has been suggested that the idea for a park came to him when he was travelling on an open-topped tram on Colne Road. From that vantage point he noticed the amount of land – then not used for very much – which was so near to the town centre.

It was an ideal site for a park, but Mr Thompson must have been aware that, when General Scarlett was alive, he allowed local people to use the grounds of Bank Hall for picnics on sunny days in the summer. A key was available for picnickers to gain access to the park via the now blocked-up gate opposite the site of the Cannons. The site of the gate can still be determined in the high wall just above the Burnley weir on the River Brun.

So some of the land had been used as a park in the middle years of the 19th Century. It can, in fact, be argued that the large gardens surrounding the rebuilt Bank Hall of the 1780s had the status of a private park from at least that time. In that respect Thompson Park is one of the several Burnley Parks which were once private parks. The others are; Towneley Park, which can as a hunting park be traced back to before 1400 and Scott Park, which is essentially the redesigned gardens of Hood House.

The award to Burnley Council of £861,000 for the restoration of Thompson Park is to be welcomed. I know that a number of people have worked very hard for this. Congratulations, to them all!