The Big Houses Of The Heatons: Priestnall Hey – Part Three Sir James Watts

In 1796 John Watts, a Burnage draper opened a small store on the corner of Deansgate and Parsonage Lane, to sell hand woven ginghams made by his wife and six sons. As time went by the business expanded.  Soon the shop, which he named Watt’s was patronised by the fashionable women of the city and had outgrown its premises, so in 1830 he had a purpose built emporium constructed on what is now the Waterstones premises on Deansgate, calling it The Bazaar. This was opened in April 1832, fitted out for retail and wholesale business, with staff accommodation on the top floor. He, radically, allowed both men and women to sell wares on their own account in departments in his shop. People now understood the concept of browsing a wide range of articles in one business under one roof, and the Department Store was born.

However, he wanted to concentrate on wholesale, so in 1835 he sold his store to three of his managers: Thomas Kendal; James Milne and Adam Faulkner. I wonder if they replicated John Watt’s success?


An opening sale at the new business of Kendal Milne & Faulkner was of stock of the Manchester drapers Hougland & Salmon, who had gone bankrupt in 1833. (Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser 18 August 1837)

However John was not totally out of the retail trade, as the Manchester Examiner and Times of 2 December 1848 is advertising a Christmas sale, or perhaps the Americans did not invent Black Friday. He certainly appears more TK Maxx than Kendals here….


John Watts was born in Burnage in 1763. He married Elizabeth Beesly in 1785 and they had six sons and two daughters. Of those James, William and Samuel carried on their father’s trade.

William Watts, John’s oldest child, was born in 1785 and on 30 August 1818 married Mary Griffith. They settled down at the relatively modest (by Watts standards) Hurst Fold in Burnage


Hurst Fold Burnage then and now,  Copyright Manchester Image Archive/ Google

John, his father came to live with him there and died there in May 1852 by which time WIlliam was also retired from the Drapery trade.

At the time of the 1851 census his boys John, William and Isaac were working in the family trade as warehousemen or clerks. William died in 1859 and was buried with many of his family at Rusholme Church (which is now gone, but once housed Mancunian films and hosted the first ever Top of The Pops in the days it was broadcast from Manchester).

Samuel Watts (born 1801) also entered his father’s trade, and on 22 May 1835 married Mary Jones at St John Deansgate. They start their married life on Barrows Hill in Cheetham Hill, before moving to Chorlton Place on Oxford Street.  In the 1841 Census he describes himself as a Cotton Manufacturer and Silk merchant. Mary Watts died in 1849 and he married Maria Smith in 1850. Next year he has moved back into the suburbs and is living at Cringle Villa in Burnage.


Cringle Villa, which became the Duchess of York Hospital can be seen on the left in the engraving and during its time as the Hospital top right. The map shows its approximate location (Copyright Manchester Image Archive / Google)

However, his ambitions were greater and he built Burnage Hall a few years later, and is living in the Hall by 1858

Burnage Hall (Manchester Image Archive) and its location on the 1848 OS Map and the Entrance To Burnage Hall on Burnage Hall Road, before demolition in the early 1900s, (Manchester Image Archive)

He is a good employer, and invites 450 of his employees and their children to visit the newly built Hall where they play football. Burnage Hall is now gone, but it lives on in name in Burnage Hall Road

Samuel died on 7 November 1864 at Burnage Hall, after having founded the firm of S & J Watts with his brother James.


Sir James Watts at Upper House, Hayfield, Copyright Upper House Hayfield

The success of his brothers was nothing compared to the riches that James was to see. He was born on 6 March 1804 in Ardwick, and married Margaret Anne Buckley (1817-1892)  on 12 June 1832. Margaret was the daughter of Nathaniel Buckley a wealthy millowner from Carr Hill, Micklehurst in Saddleworth.

In 1841 the Watts family are living at Parrs Wood and James describes himself as a merchant. By 1851 they have moved to Heaton Villa, but this is but a staging point to his eventual residence and he only stays there a short while.


Heaton Villa OS Map 1845 and Towards Heaton Villa

In 1843, the then mayor of Stockport, Alfred Orell started building “The Grove” on the site of Cheadle Grove Printing & Bleach works, built in 1760, but the subject of  a bankruptcy, some reports have it burnt down, but this advertisement from the Manchester Courier of July 1843 implies it is in good condition at sale.


Unfortunately on its completion Alfred died, and it was sold to James Watts, who rebuilt the upper storey and added two short wings in the early 1850s. He employed Travis & Magnall of Manchester to carry out this work, but on visiting the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace he was taken with the Gothic Court designed by A W N Pugin, and therefore employed Pugin to make substantial alterations. He renamed the house first Cheadle Grove, then Cheadle Hall and then finally settled on Abney Hall. This was after a wry remark made about Sir Thomas Abney by James’ son James “who had entertained Sir Isaac Watts for thirty years”. Thomas Abney was:

..a pious man, and no business or festivity, was allowed to interrupt his religious observances. It was said that “on the day he became Lord Mayor, he withdrew from the Guildhall after supper, read prayers at home, and then returned to his guests”. For thirty-six years he kept Dr Isaac Watts, as his guest and friend, at his mansion at Stoke Newington…


Abney Hall – Stockport Image Archive

Soon after Abney Hall, his business was so successful that he engaged Travis & Magnall once more between 1851 and 1856 to build Watts’ warehouse on Portland Street to house his business. S&J Watts and Company.

This was a true cathedral to commerce and is Peak Cottonopolis.  Each floor of the warehouse is a different architectural style -the ground floor rusticated Italian, the first Elizabethan, second Italianate, third French Renaissance , then once more Italianate. The Watts brothers were successful and they wished to show it. Inside it is the same, a sweeping staircase, balconied stairwell and mahogany counters for displaying merchandise. It still retains some of its splendour as a hotel.


The Watts Warehouse and inside today (copyright Britannia Hotels)

The building cost £100,000 (£11m) to build and inside there was no skimping on stock, the Watts brothers held a wide range of goods:

  • Ground floor: hosiery, linens and carpets
  • 1st floor: dresses, woolens, and dyed goods
  • 2nd floor: umbrellas, bags, corsets, boots and shoes
  • 3rd floor: ribbons, silks and underclothing
  • 4th floor: lace and furs.

In one room alone there were £40,000 worth of ribbons. The trade list ran to 384 pages. Clearly they carried their departmental store ethos into the wholesale trade. They employed 600 staff.


A Watts invoice

James Watts was a very rich man, his income at one point exceeded the GNP of Spain. His next move was on the political stage. He became a councillor for the St James ward of Manchester, rising to mayor in 1855 and re elected to the post in 1856.

In 1857 Manchester hosted the International Treasures Exhibition. Because Manchester does everything best this remains the largest ever exhibition to be held in the world. There were over 16,000 works of art displayed,  Because of its size and someone important had to be found to open it, and that someone was Prince Albert.

The Prince arrived at Cheadle Station on 5th May 1857 and stayed with James during his visit to Manchester. Albert described Abney as “one of the most princely mansions in the neighbourhood.

For his hospitality during his stay Prince Albert gave Mrs Watts a fine bracelet (Whitehaven News 21 May 1857). However, Queen Victoria (who had briefly visited the exhibition, hosted by the Mayor, but not stayed at Abney) was even more grateful, on July 3 1857 the London Gazette announced that James was henceforth to be known as Sir James Watts.

Abney Hall was the place of choice for visiting VIPs to stay, in April 1862, Mr Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, arrived at Edgeley station to address the Lancashire and Cheshire Mechanics Institutes, visit the Watts warehouse, The Exchange and the Free Trade Hall and stayed at Abney. Even Disraeli remarked after Sir James was knighted, that “to see England, one must visit Manchester”. However, we know that anyway.

In his private life Sir James was a strong Congregationalist, he attended many church foundation stone layings, and Sabbath school openings in Lancashire and Cheshire, going as far afield as Congleton, Westhoughton and Lytham. He was also a keen gardener and won many prizes at local shows. He became patron of the Didsbury and District Floral Society

Although he lived in Cheadle, and amassed a vast wealth – his will of 1878 left a fortune of £70,000 (over £8m in 2019), owning Abney Hall, The Shaw in Cheadle, Westwood House in Leek and Upper Hayfield House in Derbyshire (which included Kinder Scout), he retained his connections with Heaton Mersey, both himself and Lady Watts went to weekly services at the Congregational Chapel, Lady Watts was at Chapel the week before she died.

On his death on 7 April 1878 he was buried in the Congregational Church in the family tomb (which no longer exists after the redevelopment of the church grounds). His widow remained at Abney after his death, passing away on 11 January 1892, and was also buried in the family tomb.

His son James, still attended the Chapel, going to Thomas Kendal’s  funeral on 6 July 1891 there, and his uncle Samuel’s interment on 3 May 1880.

Of his children, James Watts inherited the estate and married Anne Hadfield Browne in 1877. He died at Abney Hall in June 1926, his wife dying in December that year. He carried on his father’s business.

Susan Buckley Watts (1840-1904) married a cousin, Nathaniel Buckley of Carr Hill to become Susan Buckley Buckley (her mother was Margaret Anne Buckley also of Carr Hill).

Nathaniel and Susan were living at West Bank in Heaton Norris in 1881 so perhaps we shall meet them once more in a later tale.

Emma Watts (born 1834) at married James Carlton on 24 November 1858 at Heaton Mersey Congregational Church He was a Home & Colonial Merchant and they moved to Knutsford, another marriage fitting the business, Susan a millowner to produce the goods, and Emma someone to export them.

James Watts Junior’s son James (1878-1957) married Margaret Frary Miller who was Agatha Christie’s sister. Agatha paid many visits there, and it was Abney Hall which provided the inspiration for many of her manor house murder mysteries, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding  was inspired by:

superb Christmases they were for a child to remember! Abney Hall had everything! The garden boasted a waterfall, a stream, and a tunnel under the drive! The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions……how deep my gratitude to the kind and hospitable hostess who must have worked so 
hard to make Christmas Day a wonderful memory to me still in my old age. So let me dedicate this book to the memory of Abney Hall, its kindness and its hospitality.

From the foreword of the Adventure of the Christmas pudding

The Mysterious Affair At Styles  borrows its country house setting from Abney, and introduces Hercules Poirot to the world, and Christie even admits that what is considered her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came from a suggestion by James Watts that the criminal should be a Dr Watson type character, and of course Miss Marple is inspired by Marple Hall.

It was at Abney Hall that she returned after suffering her breakdown, and mysterious disappearance from her home in Berkshire and resurfacing at the Harrogate Hydro after ten days with amnesia. Under the headline “Three Year Gap in Novelists Memory the following article appeared in the Sheffield Daily Independent on 17 December 1926.


Even Watts relatives were barred from the hall that day! It has never been established why she disappeared, the most recent theories suggest it was depression brought about by her husband’s (Colonel Archibald Christie), philandering. However all the parties took the reasons to their graves and we will never know.

James Watts died in June 1926 at Abney hall

As we have seen above James’s father purchased Upper House at Hayfield in Derbyshire.


Upper House , Hayfield  Copyright

This was a farmstead dating back to the 14th Century and the Kinder family. Somewhat contraversially Sir  James Watts had neighbouring farms compulsorily purchased and demolished when he became Mayor. James, his grandson, owned Kinder Scout at the time of the Mass Trespass in 1932.

It was not only the landowners that opposed the right to roam, but also the municipal water companies who feared mass access. (but even  then James Watts had campaigned against reservoirs being built in the area, in order to protect his grouse shoot, and had protection clauses inserted in the bill to build this as it passed through the Lords)

In those days Kinder was more remote, and people had died crossing it, not being found quickly enough. It was not until 1951 that the Peak District National Park was created and access rights negotiated, and 2000 until the Countryside Rights of Way act was passed.

James Watts Junior’s nimbyism also stretched to Abney Hall, and he campaigned unsuccesfully against the sewage works and cemeteries being built near his grounds. I don’t know what he would make of the motorway passing through them…

James Watts, the grandson, sold Abney Hall to Stockport council  for £14,000 in 1955, ending the Watt’s family connection. It was used as Cheadle Town Hall until 1974, when Stockport council took it over, and moved much of the furniture to Bramall Hall and Lyme Hall, much of the grounds were sold off – only about one tenth of the original grounds remain. Today it is used for offices by Bruntwood.  The last James Watts of Abney hall died shortly after in 1957.

1897 & 1916 OS Map vs 2019 Google Map of Abney Hall. Note the sewage works have been built despite James Watts’ protests in 1916

S & J Watts continued to trade until 1960 when it merged with a local rival to become Cook & Watts and in 1969 Cortaulds took them over. For many years the warehouse lay derelict until Britannia Hotels moved in. It hasn’t a had a great reputation as a hotel, being in the vicinity of Sackville Street, and during the 1980s it was better known for the room service provided by the ladies of that area than as a romantic destination.

Copyright Allan Russell 2019












Author: allanprussell

Big houses in the Heatons and others that take my interest.

13 thoughts on “The Big Houses Of The Heatons: Priestnall Hey – Part Three Sir James Watts”

  1. A great job. Love reading the history of all the houses. I am hoping you will research West Bank house as I used to go to school there. It was a lovely house with beautiful grounds.


  2. A well researched and crafted piece summarsing the life of the James Watts and his family and their ties to Heaton Mersey and Cheadle.


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