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The International Writers Magazine: Rustic England

Castleton: A Brush with local history
P Farrell-Vinay

On the Castleton Road near Rochdale is a nursing home called The Hurstead. To one side a path ran to the reservoirs of what was once The Rochdale Water Company. Beside the path was a pile of very large stones.
"You like painting don’t you? Come and look at this."
She was in her seventies, puffy, and breathless. She had once been a beauty. "have you ever been to Castleton? Well that," pointing to a tiny oil painting, "is Castleton Parish Church. The first one. The medieval one."

I looked. It showed a tiny stone chapel atop a hill. When she died her first husband’s family cleaned out the house during the funeral and nothing was ever seen of the picture again.
Image: Samuel O' Neil

She was Hilda, the eldest surviving grandchild of Samuel O’Neill. Her second husband – Henry - owned the Rochdale Water Company and the house went with it. It was mid-Victorian with heavy wood embellishments, alcoves and windows. The kitchen was dominated by a big farmhouse table. She gave us ice-cream and strawberries there.

Her grandfather, Samuel O’Neill was born in 1824 in Oldham, Lancashire. He worked his way through Walshaw Mills in Oldham and then left to make his fortune in Germany by managing a mill at Linden near Hanover. He was an inventive man: he invented the "leather picker" ("still in use in most underpick looms" in 1906) and "Beaverteen" a kind of very rough and hardwearing cloth which emigrants intending to try their luck in the Australian goldfields were encouraged to buy. In 1880 he had returned to Britain and established himself in Castleton. By 1901 he was living in Oaklands House Castleton, Rochdale. Not wishing to be simply another cotton mill owner he had established himself as a manufacturer of paper tubes, much in demand to wrap textiles and thread round.

It was the glue. He would get up at 6 with his sons and go down to Linden Mill and mix the glue. It was what stopped the tubes from buckling". Only Samuel and his sons knew the formula.

He had several sons: Victor, Adolf, and Walker, and a daughter: Fanny, all born in Germany. None would carry on the family business in Castleton. Victor would retire to an enormous house in Cheshire, Adolf was simple. By 1899 Walker was 40 and in love.

She was a Lancashire girl from an old Catholic recusant family. She was very beautiful. His father knew none of this, for Samuel was vehemently anti-Catholic with all the loathing that Protestant extremism could muster. Also he had been brought up in an era of Kulturkampf. Walker would be the first to defy the old man. Only an older sister had ever left home before and that was in order to marry a Protestant Swiss. In twenty years no-one in the family had ever defied Samuel O’Neill.

But the girl was dying of consumption. On her deathbed she pleaded with Walker to rebuild the Parish Church. Distraught but determined, he agreed. He would oppose the old man. He pledged the family name to half the £700 cost of the rebuilding of a new Catholic Church in Castleton: St Gabriel and all the Angels in Smalley Street. The rest would be found by a Mr H. O. Wilson, the Manager of Trows Printing nearby. Mr. Wilson had already bought the land for the "School Chapel" and left it free from debt.

"If you like Catholics so much then go to Rome and stay there," was Samuel O’Neil’s only related response. Walker, a Alderman, a J.P. the heir apparent to the Company, packed his bags and left for Rome in 1903 on an allowance of £24,000 p.a. It was an age in which children could be banished from not only the house but even the country.

In Rome, Walker learned to charm. He was received into the Catholic Church, won an (unpaid) appointment from Pope Pius X as a Chamberlain of the Cope and Sword, and became a Vatican diplomat. He was responsible for much of the negotiations surrounding the visit of George V to the Vatican – the first English King to visit the Vatican since the Reformation. For this he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Sylvester.
He bought a large house and imported his sister Sarah to manage it. He never married.
While setting up his establishment he saw a likeness of the dead girl and bought it.
The stones of the medieval church were deposited near the reservoirs of the Rochdale Water Company.

Some facts:
. Samuel O’Neil paper tubes is now Linden Mill, Station Rd Milnrow, Rochdale Lancashire,.
. The chapel I saw in the picture was on a steeper hill than the one on which St Gabriel’s now stands.
. Maybe the stones, were from somewhere else. Here is where they were:
. It is interesting that Henry Braddock, Hilda’s second husband was from an old Catholic family, and the stones were on his land: he owned the waterworks.
. Trees now grow where they lay and the water tanks have given way to houses.

© P Farrell-Vinay January 2009



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