In 1749, diarist Dr Richard Kay suffered a nasty accident in the Irwell just north of Burrs. In his own words:
“… in crossing the River at Gooseford which is much swelled by the late Rains my Horse stumbled in the deep Stream and tho’ he was mostly covered with Water yet Blesed be God I got out safe; I drawed my Boots at the next House and exchanged my wet Stockings for a Pair of dry Ones that I borrowed”.
If you walk for less than ten minutes upstream from Burrs Weir, you come to Springside, where the river gorge abruptly widens out. Just down to your left, and no longer obvious, was the ‘Goose Ford’, where Dr Kay almost came to grief. It was so named because in times past flocks of geese, with clipped wings and fitted with leather shoes, had been marched through here to market, honking noisily in protest.
As you turn right to pass beneath the railway bridge here, you will see a large barn-like structure just ahead. This was the site of Gooseford Farmhouse, one of the homes of the Kay family, and then later of Springside House, which was home to a number of prominent local industrialists.
In 1802, Sir William Henry Clerke (1751-1818), Eighth Baronet, and Rector of Bury, looked out northwards from his Rectory, down towards Bury Ground and Chamber Hall, then the home of Sir Robert Peel, and he was filled with envy. He then penned a letter to his aristocratic patron at Knowsley, Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, in which he lambasted those rich manufacturers ‘whose weight in this County seems to tread fast on the Heels of your Lordships Ancestors’. His words were ironic: the events which followed could have come straight from the pages of the Bible itself, and led to the utter undoing of Sir William Clerke and his family.
He had obtained his living at Bury from Stanley in 1778 as a result of a deathbed plea by his older brother, Lieutenant James Clerke, 7th Baronet, who had died of wounds at the battle of Saratoga, in the War of American Independence. In the years which followed his appointment, William was well placed to witness how quickly entrepreneurs, such as Peel & Yates, applied themselves to the textile business, and went on to make great fortunes. Catching the ‘spirit of the age’, and despite his status as a minor aristocrat, he set himself up to trade locally in meal and flour, and acquired limekilns at Clitheroe, but he clearly lacked the necessary business acumen.
Meanwhile, he bought the freehold of the old Gooseford Farmhouse, which he then demolished, and erecting a grand new country house on the site, known as ‘Springside’. The setting could not have been bettered. As a large natural amphitheatre, it was floored by broad water meadows, on the far side of which curved the Irwell, below an attractively wooded hillside, and a trackway passed the house to cross the river at Goose Ford, via which one could travel to Brandlesholme or Tottington.
But in an age which gave birth to an astonishing number of attractive country houses, with classical features derived from the villas of 16th century northern Italy, William Clerke’s new house at Springside looked more like a County Asylum! It is tempting to believe that Clerke’s own hand lay heavily upon his architect’s blueprints.
Initially, Clerke’s corn dealing business seems to have been successful, but he was probably too trusting of human nature, and whilst his own employees defrauded him, he then extended credit to his customers, who failed to repay him. Eventually, as his business collapsed and his capital was exhausted, his creditors had him committed as a ‘bankrupt’ to the Fleet Prison for Debtors in London, which had an appalling reputation.
Meanwhile, Clerke was to find that Robert Peel and William Yates were ‘treading upon his own heels’, as they now acquired (at a knock-down price, no doubt) both the Rectory and Springside House. And Peel went a step further: in 1803, he had lost his first wife Ellen, and just two years later, he remarried. His new wife was none other than Clerke’s sister, Susannah, and her own family seem to have believed that this marriage might have resulted in Peel paying off the Rector’s debts, so that he could be released from the Fleet Prison.
However, Peel’s daughter from his first marriage did not get on with her new stepmother, Susannah, Lady Peel; and this resulted in a vexatious separation, with the older woman leaving the Peel household, impoverished, to live with friends elsewhere. Meanwhile, all but forgotten, Sir William Henry Clerke languished at the Fleet, still nominally the Rector of Bury, until 1818, when he died there, his debts remaining unpaid.
(NOTE: The late 18th century development of Bury’s Glebe fields resulted in three streets being named after the unfortunate Rector – William Street, Henry Street, and Clerke Street. Only the easternmost part of the latter street has survived, following the clearance of the Union Square area in the late 1960s).