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Canal settlement: A study of the origin and growth of the canal settlement at Barnton in Cheshire between 1775 and 1845.

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posted on 2015-11-19, 09:13 authored by D. A. Iredale
Map makers often left Barnton off their plans of Cheshire, though neighbouring places all appeared. Tourists avoided the township, remaining, on the important high ways that encircled but did not touch Barnton. Historians and topographers hesitated to include the place because they found little to quote except population and acreage. Barnton crept into works only when completeness demanded the township's presence, as in Ormerod's History in 1819 and on the early Ordnance Survey of 1840. Presumably the settlement seemed unworthy of inclusion on account of its long history of poverty, its minute area, its lack of gentry and clergy, and its down-to-earth, workaday atmosphere that provided nothing of interest to contemporaries. Barnton had not the lush farmland of High Leigh or the old-world charm of Great Budworth High Street or the great rock salt mine of Marston. It had no city walls like Chester nor massive residence like Alderley nor ancient castle like Haltonnor indeed historic heathland like Rudheath. The place had no famous cotton factories like Stockport nor silk mills like Congleton. Its population could not rival Frodsham, Runcorn, or Mantwich. Its men did not become learned divines well-known authors, or clever inventors. Thus it stood in the background of contemporary thought. Hence the canal settlement provides unrivalled examples for a study of a community. Famous or notorious places like Chester and Manchester exhibit distorted images because contemporaries worked so hard to give an acceptable account of these towns for themselves and for posterity that it remains difficult to remove the curtain of prejudice, local pride, zealous criticism, and deceit which surround the reports and histories. Barnton had its showpieces. It is unavoidable to avoid noticing Barnton Manor, the tenant farmers, William Leigh's new house, the religious revival, reforms of local administrative machinery, the two immense canal tunnels. Such things proved to be the pride of the inhabitants. Yet it remains essential to slip away from the guided tour to see what the people avoided showing, to move from the parlour to the kitchen, or perhaps to wander into the back yard and peep into the waste bin. Barnton guides would not point out these fascinating and instructive points partly because they would hardly think them interesting and partly because they might feel ashamed. Yet unfortunately the rubbish, the filth, the cast-offs of one generation give a more adequate idea of society than can all the carefully-tended and lovingly-prepared exhibition pieces. Without rejecting the beautiful and upright, without being deaf to the descriptions and advice of contemporaries, it is necessary to keep an ear open for whispered conversations and furtive confessions, to see what goes on when the lights go out, to probe the impressive facade of family pride. In this way Barnton men and women become not the saints that gravestones speak about nor merely he shadowy figures in tax returns, not the scoundrels who threw up slum Property and attended cock fights, nor indeed the nonentities who made up the labouring population of England, but human beings with very much the same thoughts, ideas, sins, failings, the same saving graces and kindlinesses that have characterized people in all ages. The dead come alive, and their society too lives again. In the long run and in essentials Barnton society after 1775 could possess few points radically to distinguish it from past, contemporary, or future social experiments, because human nature, the human mind, remains the same in all centuries. On account of environment and influences peculiar to the age, however, the social organization must exhibit certain noticeable idiosyncrasies.


Date of award


Author affiliation

Historical Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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