Heaton Hall and the Churchill Connection

History books on Winston Churchill have become something of an industry in recent years but Heaton Hall has its own little-known connection to the man whom many regard as the greatest Briton.

In 1916, the then 6th Earl of Wilton, Seymour Edward Egerton (known as Sim), proposed marriage to Winston Churchill’s first cousin, Clare Sheridan. Sim was attached to the Royal Naval Intelligence Unit at that time as he was too physically delicate for active service. Sheridan was a widow with two young children, her first husband, Wilfred, having been killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Seymour was only 20 years old, while Clare was 31. Having not yet reached the age of 21, Sim needed his family’s approval for the wedding. His family was opposed to the match (for obvious reasons), as were some of her family members. Winston’s mother Jennie in particular disapproved of Sim due to his youth and extravagant lifestyle.

Clare’s American mother, Clara Jerome, was a sister of Winston’s mother Jennie – the beautiful and wealthy Jerome sisters were the toast of London society. That same London society found Clare and Sim to be an odd match, when their engagement was announced in April 1917. The noted war correspondent and former soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles A Court Repington mentioned in his memoir that there was ‘much talk of the engagement of Lord Wilton to Clare Sheridan’ by aristocratic ladies such as Mrs (Alice) Keppel, Violet Asquith and others. Whatever his family’s feelings about the relationship, Clare was facing a difficult future as a widow with two young children to raise. Sim was not just young and fun-loving, he was wealthy (although he had a propensity to live beyond his means) and this made him attractive as a future husband. Clare, however, was not one to be easily swayed by money – her own father Moreton was a failed businessman and her late husband had lost his stockbroking business before he went to war. Marriage to Sim would ensure a secure future for her an her children. Her parents, for their part, encouraged the match as they hoped for some security for her.

The engagement did not last long as Clare got cold feet and fell in love with another aristocrat Alexander Thynne, son of the Marquis of Bath, who was subsequently killed in 1918. There is no record of Clare visiting Heaton Hall which would have been unlikely as Sim was living in London at this time. The rural peace of the Heaton estate did not attract him as he preferred socialising in Mayfair to horse-racing.

Clare went on to become an accomplished sculptor and travelled extensively, living for much of her life in Algeria. She never remarried. She wrote many volumes of autobiography and travel writing, some of which are available through online bookshops. Her relationship with Churchill was almost always close throughout their lives – they shared a love of art and he was kind to her when she struggled for money later in life.

Sim eventually married Brenda Petersen, the daughter of a Scottish shipping magnate in August 1917. She was the first Countess of Wilton not to originate from an aristocratic background. They had two children but were living separate lives until both of their early deaths. Sim died in 1927 aged only 31 and his Countess in 1930.

Copyright: Carole O’Reilly 2021

Further Reading

Clare Sheridan (1927) Nuda Veritas London: Butterworth

Lt.-Colonel Charles A Repington (1920) The First World War 1914-1918: Personal Experiences, Vol.1. London: Constable and Company

Anita Leslie (1977) Clare Sheridan A memoir of Clare by her cousin, Anita. New York: Doubleday

Elizabeth Kehoe (2005) Fortune’d Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters London: Atlantic Books

Clare Sheridan in later life. (Copyright: Henry Moore Foundation, Leeds)

Lord Grey de Wilton and the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal

If you take a walk down Prestwich Clough into Drinkwater Park, then walk across to the River Irwell and follow it upstream towards the motorway you will come to what the signposts describe as the ‘Thirteen Arches’. This is the viaduct of a railway, now disused, that went from Clifton Junction to Radcliffe. Peering through the arch that spans the river you will notice a smaller structure a short distance upstream. This is the aqueduct that carried the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal across the river, and this is our link to the history of Heaton Hall.

In 1791 a group of local businessmen and landowners met together to discuss the prospect of building a canal to link the towns of Bury and Bolton to Manchester. It was proposed that a company be set up and an Act of Parliament be sought in order to authorise the canal to be built. An initial sum of £47,000 pounds was soon raised, and the four largest shareholders in the new company were the landowners though whose lands the canal would be built; the Earl of Derby and Sir John Edensor Heathcote (owner of the Wet Earth Colliery at Clifton) subscribed £3,000 each, followed by Lord Grey de Wilton of Heaton House and Dr. James Bent who each subscribed £2,000.

The Act of Parliament was obtained in May 1791 and work soon proceeded on establishing a route and deciding how much each landowner would be paid for the land they gave up for the canal. Lord Wilton and the other landowners, along with some of the most prominent business men such as Robert Peel the elder, attended meetings along the proposed route, the meetings often being held in different inns along the way.

A generation earlier a distant relation of Lord Wilton, the Duke of Bridgewater, had made a fortune by building a canal to link his mines in Worsley to the growing town of Manchester. No doubt the landowners now hoped their investment in the new canal would give a similar boost to their own fortunes, since they all had lands containing coal mines, Lord Wilton’s mines being in Radcliffe.

The results of building the canal met their expectations. ‘In Radcliffe, following the pattern of other canals, mills, factories, coal mines and other enterprises were set up near the canal to take advantage of the improved transport facilities. Many had their own private warves for unloading, coal, cotton etc. ‘ (F. Sunderland;’The Book of Radcliffe’ 1995) The canal ran past Lord Wilton’s mill at Mount Sion, Radcliffe, and by his coal mines in Radcliffe. The Cockey Moor Sough was an underground sough linking his mines at Cockey Moor to the canal at Mount Sion. By the 19th century the the canal was also being used by the 2nd Earl of Wilton to transport stone. In 1830 the shareholders sought an Act of Parliament to convert the canal company into a railway company. After the railway was built the canal continued to be of importance as a coal-carrying operation up until the 1930s, though passengers and other freight used the railway. After the 1930s the canal gradually fell out of use and into a state of disrepair.

The River Irwell, the railway viaduct and, in the distance, the canal aqueduct