Set on the slopes of the West Pennine Moors just above Bolton, the impressive black and white frontage of the Grade I listed Smithills Hall has a history spanning over 700 years, with plenty of stories and secrets behind it.

This architectural wonder appears to be Tudor, though actually has parts dating from as early as the 14th century, a chapel with Medieval stained glass and a stone supposedly bearing the footprint of a martyr, which is said to ‘bleed’ once a year. Yet it is in this historic haven - free for the public to visit (opening Wednesday-Friday, and also Sunday) - that people can also hire spaces for events, enjoy vintage fairs, a quaint tearoom… and even come to yoga classes! Intrigued?

Smithills Hall

Smithills Hall is cementing its reputation as one of Greater Manchester’s most fascinating historic tourist attractions. Thanks to a dedicated team of staff, volunteers and group the Friends of Smithills Hall, a positive sense of togetherness keeps allowing this place to transform. The last few years have seen the installation of the beautiful Poppins Tearoom – an extension of the already popular tearoom in nearby Horwich - incorporating English Victorian styling right down to the delicate pottery and framed paintings on the walls.  The tearoom looks out onto beautiful gardens; just a small part of the wider Smithills Hall estate – with 1,144 acres of this purchased by conservation group The Woodland Trust in 2015, forging another positive connection.

Other recent developments have included restoring the Victorian splendour of the Smithills Hall West Wing, an enhanced entrance with a reception desk, and full refurbishment of the scenic Devey Room; opening up possibilities for even more events. Other events spaces include The Ainsworth Room – and people can even get married in the Medieval Great Hall and the majestic Tudor Withdrawing Room!

But what is the story behind this impressive building and its array of architectural designs from different eras? Smithills Hall has a long story– made accessible and interactive thanks to the ‘Timeline Exhibition’ now situated in what was the old kitchen area of the hall. Here guests can walk through an extensive exhibition taking them all the way from 14th century beginnings to the present day. Here at HAUNT Manchester, we decided to delve more into that history…

Great Hall

Records about the hall begin in 1335 –then referred to as ‘Smythell’ - when the Radcliffe family took possession of the land from the Hultons. It was around this time the oldest surviving part of the building was constructed; the magnificent Great Hall (pictured above) –  still a sight to behold with its impressive height, black and white interior and wood-beamed ceilings. This is where the whole family would have lived, eating as well as sleeping here, along with their servants. A sense of decorum still existed however, with it believed that the Lord of the family would eat sitting at a table on a raised, decorated platform, and that the family would also sleep at a higher level, above the rest of the manorial household.

Inevitably, the need for more space became apparent and significant building and extension work was applied to the Hall between the 15th and 17th centuries. The construction of the Bower and Solar Rooms adjacent to the Great Hall, for example, could provide the family with privacy. Whilst the Bower room is a low-ceiling ground-floor space ideal for retaining warmth, the upstairs Solar Room was originally used as a bedchamber for the Lord and Lady. However, as the usage of rooms changed over time, it is thought that some of this space was later used for laying out corpses before burial; leading it to become known as the ‘Dead Room’. Little wonder that this is considered to be haunted!

The change undergone by the Hall over time reveals a range of intriguing and unusual histories. For example, the stone walls we see at the sides of the Great Hall today are thought to date from a rebuild overseen by Robert Barton – as the Barton family, wealthy wool merchants, took ownership in the 16th century and had the West Wing added in 1579. It was also under the Bartons that the Withdrawing Room was constructed: a grand space attracting plenty of natural light and covered in decorative wooden panels celebrating the family status, symbols such as deer and acorns linking to the family crest. Rather remarkably, these panels (pictured below) were constructed by specialist Flemish artisans – indicating the wealth of the Bartons at the time.

Withdrawing Room

It is also Robert Barton who was said to have questioned The Reverend George Marsh on suspicion of heresy… leading to a rather grisly tale. George Marsh was a Protestant preacher, a dangerous status at the time considering that the ‘Marian Persecutions’ were underway in England– as the Catholic Queen Mary was on the throne and seeking to crush Protestantism. Therefore, when a warrant was issued, accusing Marsh of heresy and demanding his arrest; Robert Barton, in his role of Justice, ordered his servants to attempt the arrest– as Marsh worked and lived locally, born in the parish of Dean near Bolton. However, Marsh handed himself in at Smithills Hall itself, and was ‘examined’ by Barton in an upstairs chamber known as the ‘Green Room’. Following this, on being dragged downstairs to his fate, George Marsh was said to have stamped on the floor outside what is now the Withdrawing Room – a gesture to affirm his faith - and reportedly left a footprint in the stone, that being the story behind the mark that can still be seen today.

Marsh was burned at the stake in Chester in 1555, and since then, the ‘footprint of faith’ (the plaque above it is pictured, left) has collected many strange stories; including the rumour that it ‘bleeds’ once a year!  It has caused so much unease in fact that the stone was even for a time removed from the house and thrown into the nearby river – only to be later retrieved and reinserted, although the wrong way around.  Perhaps this is the reason why the footprint no longer appears to be facing the right way?

Footprint Of Faith

In terms of religion, Smithills has a chapel of its own, again dating from the early 16th century, with some of the original stained glass remaining. However, the interior itself has largely changed, considering that the chapel suffered a catastrophic fire in 1856 and had to be considerably rebuilt. The centuries of history on this site are worth noting however, especially as human bones were found under the adjacent floor of the Withdrawing Room, suggesting that a cemetery could have even been attached to the chapel in Medieval times.

The long and varied history of Smithills Hall has unsurprisingly inspired a number of ghost stories– and considering its former role as a family home, it has been a place of death and grieving as well as birth and life. A psychic once reported seeing a couple in 15th century dress in the Great Hall – and considering that John Barton (of the Barton family who owned the hall for nearly 200 years) had died in The Battle of St Albans, it has been suggested that one of these figures may have been his ghost coming back to visit. Other sightings have included a man at the top of the stairs near the Green Room; the room where George Marsh was questioned prior to his death. No wonder this is considered to be the most haunted area in Smithills! Further reported activity includes a ‘pushing’ ghost in the chapel, a man with white bushy hair in the shop and the sound of horses passing the house – perhaps a ghostly reminder of the threatening troops of Prince Rupert marching past, as they did in 1644, plunging the population of Bolton into disarray following the Siege of Lathom House. It was reported at least half of the local population were killed during this terrifying time.  Given the range of stories attached to the hall then, it is a popular location for psychics, paranormal groups and can even be hired for the evening. Popular television series Most Haunted has also filmed here.

In the 16th century, Smithills passed into the hands of the Shuttleworth family for a time. Meticulous records of the household actually reveal interesting, and somewhat macabre, events. For example, in 1591 it was recorded that Lady Shuttleworth had been prescribed ‘syrup of lemon’, suggesting that she had fallen ill. The records over the course of the year indicate various measures taken to try to relieve her – yet April 1592 marks the date of a payment of 2s 4d to Thomas Marsh… the man who made her coffin. Detailed expenses accounts therefore give us greater understanding of the course of life and death at Smithills.

Smithills Hall

By 1659 the hall was in the hands of the Belasyse family – and the Great Hall even became a ‘Brew House’ for a time. Then the 17th Century saw Smithills purchased by the Byroms of Manchester, who kept it until 1801 – when the Ainsworths took over. Ainsworth is a prominent name in Bolton, as the Ainsworth family made their fortune during the Industrial Revolution, setting up the bleachworks at nearby Barrow Bridge, providing a much more time-and-cost-effective chemical method of bleaching cotton compared to the manual process. Man of the house Peter Ainsworth even became nicknamed ‘The Opulent Bleacher’!

Under three generations of The Ainsworth, Smithills Hall changed considerably – with a number of redevelopments and extensions to the buildings funded by the family’s considerable wealth. Under Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth (the nephew of Peter Ainsworth), George Devey was the architect appointed to lead the late 19th century transformation, which included new bedrooms for staff, improvement to entrances and repair to the chapel. The gardens and grounds, which cover 48-hectares and can still be enjoyed today, were also enhanced. Devey went onto complete a second phase of work in 1882-1886, and it was during this time in 1885, that the notable American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne paid a visit to the hall.

The Ainsworths certainly enhanced the grandeur of the place, whilst Devey’s clever design work has allowed the building as it stands now, to combine architectural work from across the eras in a uniform way. Colonel Ainsworth’s room was still based in Robert Barton’s 16th Century extension of the building, yet his taste for grandness and display can still be seen today, the room decorated with various hunting memorabilia – along with a rather unnerving story. It is said that the room is still haunted by Colonel Ainsworth’s ghost, as every so often the arrangement of glasses on the table is disrupted and one upturned. Perhaps Colonel Ainsworth pouring himself a drink? Next door is the impressive room of Mrs Ainsworth, with an array of beautiful windows and great attention to interiors, including original tiling around the fireplace designed by William De Morgan. The artwork involves various birds ascending to flight, thought to be a key symbol of positivity at the time.

Records suggest Mr and Mrs Ainsworth to be a rather formidable couple, with one story being that the servants and staff of the house were instructed to await their entry in the Chapel each Sunday morning. On the days in the winter when their entry took a while, it can be expected that the chapel was a rather cold place to be! Another story is what happened when Colonel Ainsworth closed the road over the moors leading to Winter Hill in 1896, intended to protect his grouse shooting. This caused a public outcry against land ownership and infringement, leading to a demonstration of an 8,000-strong crowd marching on the moors on the 6th September 1896, and an even bigger crowd of 12,000 on the 13th September. Now known as the ‘Winter Hill Mass Trespass’, at its longest, the procession was said to stretch for 1.5 miles.

Despite these stories, what was clear about the Ainsworth’s is the enhancement they brought to the hall, and the sense of family life there. Mrs Ainsworth was said to love children and animals, with the grave of her beloved dog ‘Little Bess’ still visible in stone within the house itself. The library adjoining the couple’s rooms was also significantly added to during this period; with libraries an important social symbol amongst landed gentry families. Visitors today can see a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs displayed within, containing an account of George Marsh and his death.

Smithills Hall Exterior

Smithills Hall went onto be the first building in the area to have electric lighting installed in 1904. However, it was also becoming increasingly expensive to run and maintain, leading the house to be sold to the Bolton Corporation for £70,600 in 1938. Plenty was to happen to the hall however, before it became the museum and event space we know it as today. The West Wing was actually used as a home for elderly ladies, before becoming a workshop space for people with learning difficulties under the Department of Health and Social Security up until 1990. It was during the 20th Century too that the group Friends of Smithills Hall was established, aiming to keep the heritage of the place alive. It’s President up until 2005 was the last Ainsworth John Francis Ainsworth, who was followed by Sir William Burton Nigel Goring - still linked to the Ainsworth’s, as his mother was the sister of John.

But why not visit and experience that history and heritage for yourself? From the impressive Timeline Exhibition to organised Ghost Tours led by the Friends of Smithills Hall, there are plenty of ways to delve into both the past and present of this atmospheric place.  Artisan Fairs are held in the hall on select Sundays, there are school-holiday activities and even a garden party, open to all and taking place on the 7 July for 2019.

For more information, visit the websites: and

Opening Times:

Wednesday, Thursday & Friday: 10am – 4pm

Sunday: 12am – 4pm

Bank Holiday Mondays: 12am – 4pm

HAUNT Manchester has also enjoyed other visits to Bolton, including finding out more about the 'Bolton's Egypt' exhibition at Bolton Museum. Read our earlier article 'Step inside the only full-scale replica Egyptian tomb in Europe and explore Egyptology – at Bolton Museum'  here.

By Emily Oldfield, with thanks to Bolton Museum and Libraries Service, Smithills Hall and Friends of Smithills Hall

Images (with the exception of images 2,3&4) © Bolton Council.  From the collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services




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