NOSTALGIA: Rich history of area now occupied by Burnley’s old county court

BANKHOUSE - Roger Frost
BANKHOUSE - Roger Frost

THE information that the former County Court building in Bankhouse Street is on the market again has made me think about the history of that part of town.

The court itself was built in 1908 at a cost of £8,000, a substantial sum in those days, and the building, if not great, is handsome and impressive. Though largely of brick, which is of good quality, the attention to detail in the soaring chimney stacks, the fine bell tower and the beautiful stonework around the windows, makes the building look like a court of justice should. The splendid coat of arms at the front of the building adds to this impression.

In the past buildings intended for the dispensation of justice were designed to be impressive. A trial was a major event and those who were sent for trial were left in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation in which they found themselves. Modern court buildings often lack the majesty, if that is the right word, of their predecessors.

Justice, in turn, has become mechanistic but this building reminds us quite different times.

It is a great pity the County Court building has been allowed to deteriorate – something which has been exacerbated by the failed retail development, once designated as “the Oval”. The site of the court building was included in the land needed for this development, the final completion of which was always a cause of concern for me. We now know it is not now going to happen, at least in its original form, and the Bankhouse Street buildings are back on the market.

They join quite a list of public buildings no longer needed by the authorities that once used them and include Burnley Council’s former offices in Nicholas Street, one of which was once a Magistrates’ Court for Burnley’s County Bench, and it looks as if Chaddesley House, the LCC offices in Manchester Road, are going the same way.

We live in difficult times and one can only hope a sustainable use can be found for the old County Court buildings. When they were built, they also housed offices for the Supervisor of Inland Revenue and Surveyor of Taxes. These latter offices were accessed from Curzon Street whereas the Court was accessed from Bankhouse Street.

The whole area around the County Court was once known as Bankhouse, taking its name from the building which stood on the site of the court before that building was erected. We do not know when the first Bank House was built but there was a property on the site in 1400. It was a farm with outbuildings and we know it was constructed of timber and plaster.

This building, with a few alterations, remained as such until 1721 when the house you see in the picture was constructed. At that time the property became a gentleman’s house. It had lost its farm buildings, which had been moved further up what is now Bankhouse Street, and gardens were constructed around the new building.

Such a development might seem incongruous to us but, in the early 18th Century, the Bankhouse district was seen as one of the more desirable areas of Burnley in which to live. It was away from the then town centre, near St Peter’s; the developments then beginning to take place near the present town centre and the small but significant commercial developments on the banks of the Calder at the bottom of Sandygate.

Nearby, there was good, well-watered farmland and it was in this part of town that there were a number of orchards. The survival of Orchard Bridge, not far from Bank House, is a reminder of this but only tells us a fraction of the story.

Bank House was essentially a farm which, by the early 16th Century, was owned by the Halstead family. They had acquired it, by marriage, from the Pearsons who had been owners in the 15th Century and who had, more than likely, erected the timber dwelling, with its outhouses, already mentioned.

An interesting side story, when considering the site’s later history, can be told. The Pearsons had entailed Bank House so it could only pass through the male line of the family, but, as is often the case, the male line failed in the early 16th Century and Elizabeth Pearson, who might in normal circumstances have been regarded as the heiress, married George Halstead who claimed the property in her name.

There were several court cases which resulted in victories for the Halsteads who secured the Bankhouse estate. By the 17th Century the Halsteads, who were members of the lesser gentry, were running a prosperous farming operation. This can be seen in the inventory of another George Halstead which has survived. It contains references to cattle and sheep farmed there, together with the horses at the farm (there were six of them including colts) and there is mention of wheat, oats, corn and seeds etc.

I think this George Halstead was a medical man who had a practice in south Lancashire, either Manchester or Bolton, and, if it is, we can add the total income from his estate in 1660 was £120. He owned Bankhouse and all its lands, two houses in the Bridge Street area of Burnley, a house and smithy to the east of Burnley and nine other farms in the area, including Habergham Hall, Hood House, Kitfield, Hargher Clough and Smallshaw.

The last named had been in the Halstead family for some time but the inclusion of Habergham Hall is worthy of comment. The Haberghams of Habergham had been an influential family in the Burnley area but the family had fallen on hard times by the early 17th Century. It is supposed they owed money to the Halsteads and the Habergham estate was lost to them in the time of Dr Halstead.

There is, however, a development which involves the Bankhouse estate which is very important in the history of our town and we can take this up at this point. Dr Halstead had a son, also called George, a BD, who was an academic at Oxford. He died, unmarried, leaving his estate to his younger brother, Henry, 1648-1728, who was also a clergyman, the Rector of Stansfield in Suffolk.

This Henry Halstead was the man responsible for re-building the house in stone in 1721 and making the property fit for the residence of a gentleman. Henry was also a great friend of St Peter’s in Burnley and several gifts of property to the church, together with the purchase of the Bankhouse estate by the church, towards the middle of the century, transformed the role of Bank House itself.

This branch of the Halsteads died out with Henry’s son, in 1731, and Charles Halstead of Rowley arranged for St Peter’s to obtain the Bankhouse estate. Bank House itself became the new parsonage for St Peter’s and remained so until Robert Mosley Master became Incumbent of Burnley in 1825. He preferred to live at Royle Hall.

The estate itself, once the farmland of Bankhouse, was developed for housing, mills, shops and workshops as a consequence of the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1819. The income from the sale of property, and rents from leasehold land, made Burnley the richest living in the Church of England, with the exception of that of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a handful of bishops!

Amazing, I think that you will agree, and I have only scratched the surface of the Bankhouse story. More at a later date.