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Our History

Our sites through the ages

The Parsonage Gardens

Much of the evidence we have about the gardens is from the residency of Fletcher Moss and photographs of that time. The first record of the house was just after 1646, although there might have been a dwelling prior to that. Some trees were planted in the 19th century – the lime trees, along the wall leading from the Eagle Gate, in 1830 and the weeping ash (now being killed by ash die back disease) in the mid 1830s.

During Fletcher Moss’s time at the house from 1865, as the son of prosperous owners of a corn trading company, to his death in 1919, there was a lodge and a row of weavers’ cottages to the right of the double gates running along Stenner Lane. They were demolished in the 1950s. It was only in the mid 20th Century that the lower lawn acquired its current look.

Black and white photograph of Fletcher Moss on horseback outside a building.
Fletcher Moss on horseback outside The Old Parsonage

Fletcher Moss had a keen interest in natural history, especially birds, nature and wildlife. Hidden near the cedar tree are the graves of some of his dogs. There is a stone for Molly, his horse, but it is not believed that she was buried there.  Other gravestones were damaged ones transferred from St James’ graveyard when it was restored.

After his death, the garden was looked after by Council gardeners based at Fletcher Moss Park whilst the building was used by a variety of Council departments.

The Friends of Fletcher Moss Park volunteers began work in the garden in 2010 while The Old Parsonage was being restored and taken over for community use. Elizabeth Maddock, a volunteer, began transforming the Alpine House which had once been an orchid house.  The volunteers, led by Alan Hill, until 2018, and Heather Stemp, then set about restoring the herbaceous border, followed by all the other beds in the gardens. Funding has been provided by donations, plant sales, North of England Horticultural Society and the Parsonage Trust. Funds from the Council’s Neighbourhood Investment Fund enabled the restoration of the greenhouses for community use and a base for the volunteers.

The garden is now a popular place for photographs of the weddings which take place in The Old Parsonage. 

Fletcher Moss Park

In 1912, the area surrounding the Croft and the Rockery were bought by Alderman Fletcher Moss – hence the name of the park.  In 1915, he gave the 4.5 acres and adjacent land he already owned to the people of Manchester, as long as he could live at the Parsonage and have use of it all until his death. Its subsequent history was still very much tied up with the previous owners who had lived at the Croft for 30 years.

The Williamsons, who moved into the Croft in 1882, were very keen botanists and collected plants from their many travels to the Alps in Europe. They brought back their finds for planting on the sheltered south face of the land below the Croft. Hence the name of the Rockery and the Alpine Café. Although they took many plants with them when they moved to Surrey in 1912, the tradition of alpine planting and botany continued under the auspices of a head gardener and several full time gardeners employed by the council. In the 1950s, the Rockery was developed to its current look.  In 2014 there was £40k from the Council’s Clean and Green fund for investment to remove some trees, replant and repair paths to make the area safe.

Since that time the number of Council gardeners has been reduced to ….….NIL! Having been set up in 2006 to assist the gardeners and act as lobbyists to the Council, the Friends and volunteers have slowly taken on many of the tasks involved in looking after the park.

The Croft

Previously known as Willow Bank, The Croft replaced an old farmhouse which had been inhabited by a Mr Byrch, but owned by the Bamford family.  They sold their estate in 1795, including “Spring Bank” (which Fletcher Moss later renamed “The Old Parsonage”) and The Olde Cock Inn. The Reverend Joseph Newton bought the farm and rebuilt the house naming it “The Croft”, where he lived for 50 years until his death in 1852.

The Croft, viewed from the Rockery.
The Croft viewed from the current Rockery

In 1870, the Croft and 15 acres of land sold for £4,700, but the house and 4 acres of land above the valley were then resold eight years later for £2,500. The Williamsons moved here in 1882 from Fallowfield.

Once acquired by the Council on behalf of the people of Manchester in 1915, it was lived in by a succession of head gardeners and other Council employees. The latest family vacated The Croft in 2022. Discussions with the Friends, Council, Café proprietors and the RSPB are afoot as to the future use of this historic building.   

Emily Williamson

Emily Williamson moved into the Croft with her husband, Robert, in 1882.

Emily was a bird lover, and having been denied membership of the all-male “British Ornithologists’ Union”, she founded the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 to protest against the use of birds for fashion. The meetings of local, like-minded women took place in The Croft. A Society from which men were banned!

Black and white portrait of Emily Williamson
Emily Williamson, founder of the RSPB

In 1891 the RSPCA invited Emily, Eliza Philips and Etta Smith of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk based in Croydon to meet in their offices in London. The societies merged and the nation-wide Society for the Protection of Birds was set up with Emily as Vice President. She held this post for 45 years. The office of the SPB moved from Didsbury to the RSPCA headquarters in Jermyn Street, London. Such was the success of the SPB that a mere 15 years later it was awarded the Royal Charter, becoming the RSPB. In 1921 its initial aim was achieved –the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, forbidding plumage from being imported to Britain. Emily died in 1936.

More information about Emily and the Founding of the RSPB can be found on the campaign website for the Emily Williamson Statue, Wikipedia and “Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feathers”. Tessa Boase. Published 2018.

Robert Wood Williamson

Robert was born in 1856 to a prosperous and illustrious middle-class Manchester family.

A polymath, he was originally an engineer, became a solicitor, then an amateur, but nationally renowned, anthropologist. His main local claim to fame is that he began the Rockery by planting alpines, collected during his and Emily’s many visits to the mountains of Europe.

In 1908, aged 52, Robert retired as a Solicitor and President of the Manchester Law Society, to pursue his interest in anthropology. He travelled to (British) Papua New Guinea to study the Mafulu people who lived in the mountains of the south. However, before he arrived, he heard of the Messina earthquake, the largest ever to hit Europe, with 82,000 deaths. As Emily was in Sicily, he returned home rapidly to ensure she was safe.

Black and white portrait of Robert Wood Williamson.
Robert Wood Williamson, solicitor and anthropologist

He set out again the following year and successfully made contact with the tribe of his interest. Such an intrepid venture by a man of his age and one who had not always enjoyed good health is to be admired. Because of ill health he was forced to cut short his stay with the tribe from three to two months.  His research into the Mafulu people was much admired by leading anthropologists of the time. His two books covering his journey and his observations of the tribe were published in 1912 and 1914 and are still available through the Gutenberg project.

His notes are held by the Royal Anthropological Society (RAS) and the objects he brought back with him by The British Museum. He became the Treasurer of the RAS and later its Vice President.

The couple left The Croft and Didsbury in 1912 to live in Brook, Surrey. He died in 1932.