In the decades after 1770, when St John’s Chapel-of-Ease was constructed, it quickly became a place of rendezvous for the new industrial entrepreneurs. Perhaps feeling excluded by the older landed gentry, who attended St Mary’s parish church, the textile magnates, led by the elder Robert Peel and his partner William Yates, made this church their own.
And no doubt after Sunday services, they would gather in St John’s churchyard in small cliques, to discuss the textile trade, and to spread gossip about their rivals. And for some years, by cruel episodes, a heart-breaking tragedy was played out right before their eyes, and compounded for the suffering family by the arcane and patriarchal laws of business.
When Richard Calrow first came to Higher Woodhill in about 1790 to set up his mill, he had technical know-how from working as a manager in cotton mills, but he lacked the money. He got around this problem by finding a business partner, Henry Topping. Topping was from Upholland, in Lancashire, and had married his wealthy cousin, Margaret Leigh in 1781. It seems likely that her dowry provided the capital for the new enterprise at Higher Woodhill.
Both Calrow and Topping had two sons each, and it must have seemed that that these four young men could inherit the partnership, and work together to expand the fledgling textile business. In 1800 Henry Topping died, leaving the vast sum of £30,000 to his wife and children. But a double tragedy then ensued, as Henry’s adult sons, William and Richard, followed him to the family grave at St. John’s in 1805 and 1807 respectively. Neither of these two had any children, and the male line of the Topping family had now become extinct.
According to the conditions of the original business partnership, from which the females were excluded, in 1807 the partnership was thereby dissolved, and Richard Calrow now took sole control. In the following year, he bought Burrs Mill from Peel, Yates & Co, and just a few years later, he handed the entire business over to his own sons, William and Thomas.
And for the remaining decade of her life, with only her surviving daughter for companionship, Margaret Topping lived on at Higher Woodhill, and witnessed how the Calrow family business was thriving; and how her own family, who had financed all of this, were now legally excluded, adding irony to heartbreak.
And if you visit the small memorial garden at The Rock now, you can still see, cut in letters of stone, the cold and hard evidence for this long-forgotten tragedy.