Journey into the volcano

An entry from the diary kept by Lord Wilton recording his Grand Tour in Europe, 1784-1785


Naples, 6th March, 1785

Went with Mr. Clarke to the summit of Mount Vesuvius, as far as Resina in a carriage.  From thence we ascended upon mules to the base of the large dome, where we dismounted and with the assistance of two men with leather belts over their shoulders we walked or rather scrambled up the steep ascent of the crater.

The fatigue of this is excessive as two thirds of every step we took was lost by the ashes giving way and the foot slipping back.  We were an hour and a half upon the mules and an hour and a quarter in getting to the summit of the cone.  The appearance was awful all the way as we ascended the mountain, as the mountain was frequently convulsed and kept continually throwing up quantities of red hot stones with a prodigious noise and an  immense quantity of smoke, but upon reaching the edge of the crater it was tremendous indeed.

The crater is about a mile in circumference and from 20 to 40 or 50 yards deep.  In the crater there is a large cone forming and a smaller one adjoining, both emitting smoke and fire.  There are also several places within the crater from whence issue fire and some smoke with a prodigious hissing noise.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we reached the top of the mountain, where we ate our cold dinner and drank our wine called Lachrima Christi; enjoying the finest view imaginable of the whole Bay of Naples and the islands near it, with the declining sun enlivening and lighting up the different objects in our front; and at our backs the fiery region of this most destructive and burning mountain.

At six we descended into the crater and viewed the opening from whence came the river or stream of red hot liquid lava.  For some way it ran very rapidly, then fell down a rock like a cascade, about 12 feet.  Its motion was slower the further it flowed and at the distance of about half a mile it divided into five streams and stopped in the valley betwixt Mount Somma.

We crossed this liquid upon a small self formed bridge of scoria which had cooled and formed an arch not thicker to appearance than a half crown piece, which we were obliged to step upon to cross the stream, and got into a little sort of cove that sheltered us from the suffocating smoke of the mountain.  In this place we remained for some length of time after it was dark, better to enjoy the tremendous fiery scene, which was much more awful and terrific in the most wonderful phenomenon of nature.

In recrossing the crater we perceived it in most places then red hot under our feet, that is, under the crust or scoria on which we stood.  The throwing up of the red hot stones or lava from the summit of the cone with the crater was attended with a previous convulsion of the earth, which we very sensibly perceived, and some shocks were very strong.

We descended to our mules by torchlight on which we rode to Resina and got back to Naples about 10 o’clock.

No worries about health and safety in the eighteenth century! It is difficult, today, to imagine professional vulcanologists, equipped with protective clothing, crossing a stream of lava with only a thin crust over it, let alone tourists.


The Agents

There is a group of men about whom we hear very little in the printed sources, and of whom there are no known pictures, yet these men were of extreme importance at Heaton Hall.  They were the Agents, the men responsible for the day-to-day running of the  Egerton family estates.

Perhaps the most important of these was William Rogers, the only one to have the designation ‘Agent and Steward.’  Thomas Egerton (later the 1st Earl) inherited at the age of seven, so the running of the estate was in the hands of his mother and William Rogers. No doubt while young Thomas was growing up William Rogers instructed him in the management of a landed estate, and later letters from Sir Thomas to William, once Thomas was an adult, show an obvious affection and trust.  Sir Thomas always addressed his letters to ‘William’, whereas letters to other agents in later years were more formal and always addressed the agent by his surname.

William Rogers oversaw the rebuilding of Heaton Hall in the 1770s and 1780s in the absence of Sir Thomas, since the latter spent much of the year in London, as MP for Lancashire. Being the agent was in some ways like a family business, and the son of an agent was likely to succeed his father in the post.  William had two sons working as ‘clerks’ at Heaton.  One, unfortunately, was killed in an accident in Liverpool while there on estate business.  The other son took over the role of agent from William in the 1790s, but with reluctance Lord Wilton had to dismiss him for alcoholism. It was not so much that he was taking freely from the wine cellar, more that he was not capable of the very responsible position he held.

After the dismissal of the younger Rogers, the available records are not clear about who filled the role of agent.  A Mr. Ellis is mentioned in letters, as is a William Crossley, both in the early 1790s.  Perhaps they were agents; perhaps they held other positions, such as surveyor.  But by the mid 1790s Richard Denham was the agent, and he was followed by a second Richard Denham, whom Baines’ Directory of 1825 records as living at Ainsworth Lodge and being Agent to Lord Wilton.

Richard Denham worked as agent until 1842, when he when he was succeeded by a Mr. Hampson, who remained as agent until 1873.  After 1873 the post of agent was held by Richard Denham Walker.  This man was the son of Mr. Walker who was the agent at the Egerton family’s estate in Batley, Yorkshire, who had married Emma Denham, daughter of the elder Richard Denham.  He was succeeded in turn in 1889 by his son Walter Egerton Walker, who was the agent at the time Heaton estate was sold to Manchester Corporation in 1902.  Behind the altar in St. Margaret’s Church is a memorial to his son, who was killed in action during the first World War.


The door shown here at the far end of the entrance hall was the door into the Agent’s office.  It was from here that all estate business was conducted.  Whereas all other rooms in Heaton Hall have wooden floors, the entrance hall has a floor of flagstones. There was good reason for this. There would be frequent callers on business to see the agent or his clerks; tenant farmers would come here to pay their rent; business men who rented the various mills belonging to the estate paid their rents here, or consulted about changes they wished to make; estate workmen would come in for instructions; and once a week the managers of the coal mines in Radcliffe would come to pay in the money they had taken from sales.

Lord Wilton also owned estates in Batley, as mentioned above; Holywell in North Wales where he had lead mines; Fathinghoe in Northamptonshire; and the original Egerton family estate, Wrinehill in Staffordshire.  Each of these estates had an agent in charge, and each of these agents had to submit their accounts and transmit income from the estate they managed to the agent at Heaton.  The agent at Heaton ran the Heaton estate, the largest, but ultimately he was responsible to Lord Wilton for all the estates.

Building Heaton Hall – Bricks and Mortar (and other materials)

Although at first glance it might not appear so, Heaton Hall is a brick-built construction. The South Front is faced with stone ashlars, attached to the underlying brick with iron ties; while the North Front has been covered in rendering.  Recent renovation work to the latter has revealed the exterior brickwork for the first time in 200 years, although interior brickwork has been visible in the West Wing ever since the fire of the 1980s.

The original bricks were probably hand-made on site, using clay dug from the ground and pressed into wooden moulds, then fired.

The stone for cladding the South Front, and larger blocks for features such as the stone columns of the portico, was sourced from the Warrington area. One letter of 1777, by William Tilley of Warrington, refers to ‘a load of 24 tons of stone for Sir  Thomas. ….. I expect they will be at Manchester by next Monday, ‘ and another letter, six months later, informs that 384 pieces were ready for transport to Manchester. Shipment was by canal from Stockton Heath.

From an inspection of architectural detail on the South Front, an observer will soon notice that some carvings are of a paler colour.  These are not, in fact, stone carvings, but a form of hard ceramic, ‘Coade Stone’, named after the London family that manufactured them. Sir Thomas Egerton would have chosen them from a pattern book, and had them shipped from London to Liverpool, from where they would have been sent by canal to Manchester.

Timber for joists, beams, rafters and so forth would in all likelihood have come from trees felled on the estate and processed at the estate sawmill near Heaton Gate.  More decorative woods, the mahogany for doors, would be imports.

The building work at Heaton incorporated an innovative technique which would become quite commonplace, but which at this time was new; the use of iron girders as load-bearing joists. This is one of the features that makes Heaton Hall important architecturally, since this is a very early example.


The picture above of brickwork in the interior of the West Wing (the plaster having disappeared as a result of the 1980s fire) shows how the plasterwork was added.  The numerous small holes between the bricks contained wooden pegs to which thin strips of wood were fixed.  This provided the framework which bound the hand-applied plaster to the walls.

Other necessities of construction work came from various manufacturers according to their specialities. Iron railings and gates were installed  by Stanley and Gale, Ironmasters, of Birmingham, who also installed the bell system.  The grates for the fireplaces throughout the Hall were supplied by Henry Tobin of Leeds.

In the course of the building work the main contractor would, as in the construction industry today, call in subcontractors for specialised work; masons, carpenters, glaziers and other craftsmen with particular skills. During the period of construction there would have been a steady stream of such men coming and going, all overseen by the watchful William Rogers, trusted Agent of Sir Thomas.

The Billiard Room

Since Sir Thomas Egerton bought a billiard table from Gillows of Lancaster in 1771, a year before he embarked on the rebuilding of his home, it would seem that this room has always been used as a billiard room.


Around the room are large oil paintings set into the wall, which is why, perhaps, they remained in the Hall when it was sold off to Manchester Corporation in 1902.

The paintings are by a Polish-born artist, Michael Novosielski, who had originally been employed by the architect of Heaton, James Wyatt, to assist in the decoration of the building that made his reputation, the Pantheon in London. At this stage in his career Novosielski  was a theatre scene painter, who later became an architect in his own right.

These paintings in the Billiard Room at Heaton are the only works of Novosielski that are known to survive.

Building Heaton Hall – a long term project

Building work to transform the old 17th century house began in 1772 continued for well over a decade.

Sir Thomas Egerton, like most people of his class, lived away from home a great deal of the time.  For most of that time he lived in London, particularly during the parliamentary year of November to June, since he was one of the two MPs for Lancashire.

The chief contractor of the building work was John Turner of Manchester, closely monitored and aided by Sir Thomas’s trusted Agent, William Rogers.  Sir Thomas, despite his absence, maintained a close interest in, and control over, the progress of the work, as the following two extracts from his letters illustrate.

Sir Thomas to William Rogers, April 1775: ‘… I rejoice to hear you have got so far forward with the building.  I dare say Towneley will pay due attention to it now he has not Weston to hinder him.  I told Robinson he was to put down on paper what timber would be wanted and to give it to you and that you would order it…”

Sir  Thomas to William Rogers, May 1778: ‘William, I received your letter last night. … I certainly do not mean at present to go on with the other wing, but as we have hitherto had great difficulty in getting the large stones, I told John Turner he might send the dimensions to Sefton, and when woking in the quarry he got one that would suit us he might put it aside till he got a load, and then send it to Heaton.  If he sends the small stones he has acted contrary to my orders, and John Turner must stop any more coming ….’

Sir Thomas and his family, by living away, escaped a great deal of the disturbance of living on a building site, but his mother remained at Heaton. To allow her to escape the tumult of living amid the building work, in 1773 he took out a lease on a house in Quay Street, Manchester, and Lewis’s Directory of 1788 shows that the Dowager Lady Egerton was still living there in that year.

No doubt she came back to Heaton whenever her son returned home and the house was made comfortable again.  As the following extract from a letter of 1778 to William Rogers shows, building work was put on hold, or much reduced, when Sir Thomas came back to Heaton; ‘…. I am glad to hear you go on so fast at Heaton. As it will be some time before we get down, you will, I conclude, have got the rubbish away and make the place look very neat…’


The Music Room

The Music Room was completed in  1789 by Samuel Wyatt, elder brother of James, and clerk of works at Heaton. Sir Thomas Egerton was a great lover of music, and an able performer himself, particularly on the cello. Subsequent generations of the family continued the musical tradition at Heaton, musical ability continuing to run in the family.

The room was inaugurated in August 1789 with a concert comprising some of the Lord Wilton’s favourite musical works, with Lord Wilton (as Sir Thomas became in 1784) being one of the cellists.

One of the gems of the room is the Samuel Green organ, seen in the picture above, which was taken on one of the guided tours of the Hall.  The organ case decoration features a portrait of Handel, Lord Wilton’s favourite composer. The organ  was modernised in the 19th century, when further stops were added.


Building Heaton Hall – where the money came from

Sir Thomas Egerton came of age in 1770 and quickly embarked on rebuilding Heaton Hall, a late 17th century house, into the house we see today.  In its day it was the latest in modernity, designed by the young architect James Wyatt. This project required a great deal of money.

The sale of timber from the his Wrinehill estate, the original family seat, raised  £6,500, a considerable sum of money in the 1770s, and this has often been cited as the starting point in financing the new building.

But in 1771 Sir Thomas received an unexpected inheritance.  A cousin, another Thomas Egerton, owner of an estate at Harleston in Staffordshire, died without a direct male heir, and the estate passed Sir Thomas Egerton of Heaton House.

A survey of the estate valued it, for sale, at £15,108.  Very shortly afterwards a second, three-day survey was made by William Rogers, the Agent at Heaton. (William Rogers had been responsible for running the Heaton estate since Sir Thomas had inherited it at the age of seven).

This survey valued the estate at £526 ‘yearly value to let’, and at £730 ‘yearly value for sale.’  The custom of the time was for the sale value to be around 30 years rent.  In 1772 the Harleston estate was sold for £19,000, a sum worth around £1.2 million in today’s money.  This was a good starting point from which to finance the building of the new Heaton Hall.

Grand Lodge

Grand Lodge, the impressive entrance to Heaton Park.

Grand Lodge, the impressive entrance to Heaton Park.  When the owners of great country houses built such grand entrances to their parks it was with the intention of creating a grand impression of their estates.  The visitor came through the grand gateway and was then treated to a long drive through the park, which they could admire, until at last they caught site of their destination, the big house.  Today Grand Lodge is a minor entrance, used only by pedestrians and cyclists.

The Cupola Room, Heaton Hall

The Cupola Room

The Cupola Room

The Cupola Room is on the upper floor of Heaton Hall in the centre of the building.  The view from the window is south facing and looks out over the park.  It is probably the most important room in the house, being a rare survivor of a short-lived fashion in the 1770s and early 1780s for ‘Etruscan’ style decoration. The room was originally the private sitting room of the Dowager Lady Egerton (Sir Thomas Egerton’s mother).