Nestled on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Bolton, Greater Manchester, Smithills Hall is one of the oldest and best-preserved manor houses in the North West.
Dating back to the 14th century, this Grade I listed building has been expanded and modified over the years. It showcases a variety of architectural styles from throughout the ages, from Medieval and Tudor, through to Victorian times.
Today, the restored hall serves as a museum, offering visitors the opportunity to explore its numerous rooms and artefacts while also providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of its former inhabitants.
Smithills Hall Museum is not only known for its rich history and impressive architecture but also for the paranormal activity that has been reported in the estate. Many visitors have claimed to have seen apparitions of former residents.
Paranormal activity at the hall has been the subject of several TV documentaries, including Most Haunted (Series 6, Episode 21) and Great British Ghosts (Series 2, Episode 8).
Most Haunted explored numerous tales, including the story of George Marsh, a local preacher who was arrested and interrogated at Smithills Hall during Queen Mary Tudor’s reign in 1554.
Religious persecution was widespread then, and some considered Marsh a heretic. According to legend, after being questioned by Robert, Marsh stamped his foot so hard on the stone floor that it left a permanent mark.
This footprint is still visible today and is said to bleed each year on April 24, the anniversary of Marsh’s death.
Poltergeist activity is said to have intensified when the Ainsworth family removed the stone slab bearing Marsh’s footprint. Consequently, the stone slab was eventually returned to its original location, ceasing the inexplicable events.
Opening Times and Admission
As a popular tourist destination, Smithills Hall welcomes visitors throughout the year.
Smithills Hall Museum is open to the public on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm. The formal gardens and adjacent woods can be visited at any time.
Admission to the hall and its gardens is free, making it an affordable destination for families, students, and history enthusiasts.
Guided tours are available upon request for those who wish to understand the hall’s history and its numerous tales.
Location and Getting There
Smithills Hall is situated on Smithills Dean Road in Bolton, Greater Manchester. Its postcode is BL1 7NP.
Two car parks are within the grounds for those planning to drive to the location, ensuring easy access for visitors.
Several bus services go to Smithills: 525, 526, and 527. These buses depart from Bolton Bus Station in the town centre and stop outside the hall. It’s a relatively straightforward journey for visitors from Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
There is no train station nearby.
Visitors can enjoy a well-stocked souvenir shop, a welcoming cafe, and convenient restroom facilities.
The souvenir shop, situated on the ground floor, offers a diverse assortment of items, including memorabilia and literature related to the history and significance of Smithills Hall. Visitors can purchase keepsakes to remember their visit and gain further insight into the venue’s rich past.
The on-site cafe and tea room is a comfortable space for patrons to relax and enjoy refreshments at Smithills Hall. The cafe caters to a wide range of tastes and dietary requirements. Its menu includes breakfasts, sausage rolls, sandwiches, soups, cakes, and afternoon tea. Furthermore, the establishment’s warm and inviting atmosphere contributes to the overall pleasant experience for guests, providing an ideal setting for socialising or simply taking a break.
The hall’s design and layout cater to various visitors, including those with mobility impairments, ensuring an enjoyable experience for everyone.
The main entrance has a ramp, allowing easy access for wheelchair users and people with mobility challenges. Once inside the building, permanent ramps are installed from the entrance to the reception area, facilitating seamless movement between these two points.
Some ground-floor rooms have steps at their entrance. Visitors with mobility issues can request a ramp.
Two rooms on the first floor are accessible via a staircase. Unfortunately, this may pose a challenge for some visitors with mobility concerns. Photographs of these rooms are displayed at the bottom of the stairs to address this limitation. Those unable to access the first floor can still appreciate the rooms’ historical and architectural significance.
For visitors with a Blue Badge, designated parking spaces are available close to the main entrance.
History of Smithills Hall
The recorded history of Smithills Hall began in 1335 when it came under the ownership of William de Radcliffe. In those medieval days, the sole structure on the property was the Great Hall. Built around a timber frame, it still stands today.
The Great Hall was the central living space where the family and their servants ate and slept. Despite the communal nature of the area, a sense of hierarchy was still maintained, with the family lord seated on a raised platform during meals and the family sleeping at a higher level than the rest of the household.
In 1432, Ralph de Radcliffe, a descendant of William de Radcliffe, inherited the property. He is thought to have added the Bower and Solar rooms. These 15th-century additions were built adjacent to the Great Hall, providing his family with much-needed privacy. The Bower Room, a low-ceiling space on the ground floor, features a large fireplace. The Solar Room, on the upper floor, originally served as the bedroom for Ralph and his wife.
In 1480, Johanna Radcliffe, the last of the Radcliffes to own the hall, married into the Barton family. This union marked the beginning of the Barton era at Smithills. Her grandson, Andrew Barton, implemented significant renovations to the hall after inheriting it in 1516, along with his father’s prosperous woollen business. One of his remarkable contributions was the creation of the large Withdrawing Room. Part of a two-storey wing built around 1520, the room boasts panels featuring carved portraits of the Barton family. He also created the chapel.
In 1659 the hall passed to the wealthy Belasyse family through marriage. The Belasyses, however, rarely spent time at Smithills, and the hall began to deteriorate. The Great Hall was converted into a brewery, and other rooms were utilised for weaving.
In 1722, Joseph Byrom, a Manchester merchant, acquired the hall.
The Byrom family resided in Kersal in Salford and owned Smithills for several generations. They preferred living in Kersal, so the hall was once again rented out to tenants, and parts were used for weaving.
In 1801, Richard Ainsworth (1762 – 1833), a member of the renowned Bolton family, acquired the Smithills estate. The family had amassed considerable wealth through their thriving bleaching business. The estate encompassed an extensive moorland that extended up to Winter Hill, the primary water source for Ainsworth’s bleach works. The acquisition of this water source, rather than the Smithills Hall itself, likely was the main driving factor behind his purchase.
Richard Ainsworth died in 1833, and Smithills passed to his eldest son, Peter Ainsworth (1790 – 1870). Peter retired from the family’s bleaching business and turned his attention to politics, serving as MP for Bolton from 1834 to 1847. Peter Ainsworth became the first of the Ainsworth lineage to live full-time at Smithills. In 1856, the chapel suffered a devastating fire and was rebuilt.
In 1870, Peter Ainsworth died, leaving no direct heirs, leading to the transfer of his estate to his nephew, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth (1839-1926). Richard made Smithills his home and engaged the esteemed Victorian architect, George Devey, to refurbish and extend the west wing.
George Devey was also responsible for the design of a coach house and stables. In 1966, this structure was repurposed into a restaurant known as Smithills Coaching House. The restaurant ceased operations in 2012, after which the building was transformed into residential dwellings.
Colonel Ainsworth passed away without heirs in 1926, and the estate passed to his sister’s grandson, John Francis Combe (1917-2005). The transfer was made on the condition that his father, Nigel Victor Combe (1873-1951), and the entire family adopt the Ainsworth surname. They agreed to this stipulation. Nigel Ainsworth became a trustee for his son and managed the estate. However, like so many large estates, it was too expensive to run and was sold to Bolton Council in 1938.
Restoration work on the older sections of the hall allowed part of it to be opened as a museum in 1963. During the 1990s, the museum expanded into the Victorian area of the building.
In the Area
When planning your visit, it is essential to note that area around Smithills Hall is home to many other attractions.
The hall is situated on land on the edge of the Smithills Estate (Smithills Country Park). Spanning around 2,000 acres, the estate stretches from the hall to Winter Hill and offers many outdoor recreational opportunities. Owned by the Woodland Trust, it is home to diverse species of plants and wildlife.
Adjacent to the hall is the Ravenden Plantation, a densely wooded valley offering a peaceful retreat from the urban hustle. Whether you want to take a leisurely walk through the forest or capture some lovely photographs, the Ravenden Plantation is an ideal location.
Smithills Open Farm, located just a few hundred yards from the hall, is a perfect destination for families. The farm provides an opportunity to meet and feed various farm animals.
Moss Bank Park provides a wide array of entertainment options. With its miniature railway, playgrounds, tennis courts, and bowling greens, it gets excellent reviews from people of all ages and interests.
History enthusiasts should visit Barrow Bridge Village. This picturesque model village in Bolton was built during the Industrial Revolution to house mill workers. It provides a vivid snapshot of the industrial past of the UK. Visitors can stroll through the historic village, take in the architecture, and learn about the area’s rich heritage.