Township Information - Ashton
There has been considerable dispute about the origins of the town's name. Ashton is fairly clear - village of or surrounded by ash trees. It is 'under-Lyne' that is contentious. It possibly refers to the boundary line between Lancashire and Cheshire. However the forest of Lyme once covered this area, so the derivation could be from either, or both. In fact the town's full name was not widely used until the mid 19th century to distinguish it from other Ashtons.
Ashton was a very small market town from medieval times until late in the 18th century. The centre lay around the Parish Church of St. Michael's, which was probably mentioned in the Doomsday Book. In the adjacent square stood the Market Cross, but the rest of the town consisted of little more than 'four narrow dark streets' being Crickets Lane, Scotland Street, Albion Street and part of Old Street. Ashton Parish, however, covered a large area having four divisions, Town, Audenshaw, Knott Lane and Hartshead, which included Mossley and part of Stalybridge.
Ashton became a Parliamentary Borough in 1832 - the first local town to do so. By 1847 it had become a Municipal Borough with an elected Council - the Town Hall dates from this time. Strangely, the new Borough did not officially apply for a Coat of Arms until 1926 when one was granted.
Ashton's growth in the period 1770-1850 was phenomenal. Its population increased by 300 per cent between 1770-1800 reaching 8,000, and then rocketing to 36,000 by 1851. This was the result of the Industrial Revolution, for Ashton developed as an important centre of the cotton industry which employed most of her new inhabitants. Ashton's other major industry was coal mining. The town lies on the South Lancashire Coalfield. In the early 19th century there were numerous collieries around the town, Lordsfield and Heys being examples. Local coal was particularly useful as coal-fired steam engines replaced water power in the mills.
Ashton became exceptionally well served by communications. By 1811 it was the centre for three canals and by the 1860s had four railway stations. A virtually new town grew up to the west of the old centre - the wide intersecting streets of Old Street, Stamford Street, Cavendish Street and Warrington Street being developed by the Lord of the Manor, the Earl of Stamford. Housing and sanitary conditions, if very poor until late in the 19th century, were often better than in most factory towns. Indeed, the Communist leader Friedrich Engels said of Ashton in 1844 'it has a more satisfactory appearance than that of most factory towns'.
Gradually industry developed in the villages that surrounded Ashton at Hurst, where the Whittaker family built a considerable cotton business; at Park Bridge, where Lees' iron works flourished by supplying textile machinery; and later at Ryecroft and Waterloo, where large mills were built.
Ashton was prominent in successive movements in the 19th century which aimed at improving work and living conditions. Ashtonians were at Peterloo, and the town developed a reputation for violent strikes, notably in 1842 when, along with Stalybridge, the town's workers were the first to 'turn out' in what became a nationwide strike. The town was a stronghold of the Chartist movement which sought the vote for all adult males - out of a population of less than 23,000, only 650 had the vote. In 1848 a policeman was killed in Bentinck Street at a time when local Chartists thought a national revolution was likely. The town boasted the presence of two of the leaders of the factory reform movement, the MP Charles Hindley, and the Methodist minister Joseph Rayner Stephens, himself a Chartist sympathiser.
The Mason family came to the area in 1776 from Derbyshire, settling in Stalybridge. Thomas Mason had become a mill owner of some importance by the time his third son, Hugh, was born in 1817. At the age of 10, Hugh was working in the mill but he then went to school before working as a bank clerk. At 21 he joined the family business. From the first he became the dominant force, showing the same energy that would make him 'the most powerful man in the business, social, religious and political life of Ashton'.
By 1853 the Mason family had built the two Oxford mills at Ryecroft, excellently appointed and which, 10 years later, were run by Hugh alone, his father and brothers having retired. Mason built up what he saw as a model, industrial community around his factories, with comfortable housing and recreation facilities for his workers. These included a sports ground, children's playground, swimming and washing baths, and on Ann Street, an Institute which housed a library, smoking and chess rooms, at a cost to Mason of £4,500. In 1871 he became the first local employer to give his workers Saturday afternoons off - a step which other employers often, reluctantly followed. Mason's workers certainly enjoyed better conditions than others in the town, but he expected them to follow his own strict moral codes; there were no public houses in Mason's community and all Ashton knew what was meant by an 'Oxford Education'.
Mason was a passionate Liberal and a Nonconformist in religion, worshipping at the Congregationalist Albion Chapel along with many other powerful Ashtonians. He was mayor from 1857-1860 but, despite being the most prominent local Liberal, he resisted attempts to nominate him as a parliamentary candidate until 1880 when he was elected MP for Ashton. Mason was a stern man with little time for those who opposed his views, particularly Tories and Anglicans, his arch-enemy being the local Tory leader Isaac Watt-Boulton. Ashton political life was particularly bitter in these years with Mason bearing the brunt of the Tory attack. Mason died in 1886. Even on his death bed he was in dispute with the Tories over his election defeat.
Ashton saw great improvements between the years of Mason's mayoralty and his death. In 1861 the Infirmary was opened; in 1862 the new Albion School; in 1870 the Public Baths; and in 1873 Stamford Park. The Library, then in the Town Hall, opened in 1882. Improvements were also made in housing conditions and, in almost all cases, Mason's influence and the example offered by his own community were to the fore.
The Twentieth Century
In the early 20th century Ashton developed most of the other facilities that shape modern life. In 1902 the first electric trams ran in the town and the sewage works opened. The next 30 years saw the first council housing estates and the building of many new schools, notably Stamford and the Grammar School. By 1925 even outlying districts like Waterloo were served by electricity. Three years later the area's most famous landmark - Hartshead Pike - was restored.
This period, however, witnessed the collapse of the cotton industry and the town was forced to develop a variety of light industries to take the place of cotton as the town's main employer. Many mills were converted from cotton to other uses; for example Whittakers Mill which became 'Cake-a-Pie' Confectionery.
The most tragic event in Aston's history occurred in 1917 when a munitions factory in the West End blew up killing 47 and injuring 350 - an event known around the town for years as 'the great explosion'. The town lost hundreds of men in both World Wars and was bombed in 1940.
In the post-war era Ashton has seen a great deal of re-building and modernisation in the town centre. The terrible slums of Charlestown have gone - the last evidence of the living conditions of most nineteenth century Ashtonians. In 1991, the town's population was just over 44,000.