History of the Oaks Hotel or 'Tay-pot Hall'

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AS the writer of Peek Into The Past I realise readers like to read about anniversaries of which there are inevitably many. I know I have missed a few but one has recently come to my notice with which many of you will connect.

An article in "Reach Out", Briercliffe Parish Church's monthly magazine, informed me the building which had been offices for the former Burnley Rural District Council re-opened as the Oaks Hotel in Reedley in June 1984. The author was no less than Miss Jean Siddall, who was, for many years, Burnley's Reference and Local Studies Librarian, so I am sure the information is correct.

The building we now know as the Oaks Hotel has an interesting history. It was built, not as council offices, but a private house for Abraham Altham JP, founder of Altham's Trours, the travel firm which is still based in Burnley and has agents throughout North-East Lancashire.

Abraham Altham was the son of the village schoolmaster of Haggate in Briercliffe. He was born in 1841 but John Altham, Abraham's father, died in 1849 and, as was often the case in those days, the family was split up. Abraham went to live with his grandfather, Abraham Rawson, a farmer and shopkeeper at Holt Hill Farm, also in Briercliffe.

At the age of nine we find the future retail and industrial tycoon described as a "scholar", but he received little more than what we would now call an elementary education. In 1853, Abraham was sent to work at Catlow Quarries where he learned the skills of a stonemason under the guidance of his uncle, John Duerden.

At this stage in his life there was little expectation that Abraham's future would have been any different from that of other boys of his class and education, but everything changed when the young man got involved in the expanding tea industry. It might seem that tea was an odd source of wealth but, in the 1850s, it was becoming the respectable drink for respectable working families.

It had long been imported from China and India but tea had been very expensive and became the drink of the wealthier classes – especially ladies. The establishment of British tea estates, together with the popularisation of tea by those who opposed the drinking of alcohol, brought the price down.

Abraham Altham is said to have walked to Liverpool (or Preston) with a handcart, bought a chest of tea there and made his way back to Briercliffe where he graded it and sold it to family and friends around Haggate. This was such a success that other chests of tea were bought and Abraham started selling to householders in Briercliffe and Burnley Lane.

In 1864, Abraham (who was only 23) bought the business of Robert Wilson, a wholesale grocer with premises in Bridge Street, Burnley. Soon a partnership was formed (going by the name of Holgate and Co.) of which Abraham became a leading member, but in 1872 he set up on his own account again.

Within only a few years Abraham's business included wholesale grocers, retail shops and he had premises in Burnley, Blackburn, Leeds, Bradford and Halifax. At one time he owned 64 retail branches in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and Altham's became the Tesco of its day – the largest grocers in the country.

Abraham Altham was not happy with that as he also started what became his travel business and invested quite heavily in the cotton manufacturing industry in Briercliffe and Burnley. However, he became ill in April 1884. He did not recover and died at the age of 44 in 1885.

At the time of his death Abraham's new house was being completed. He called it "Oakleigh" but everyone knew it as "Tay-pot Hall" and it is said the stained glass in the magnificent staircase window contained a panel which depicted a pot of tea, the commodity which had made Abraham Altham.

The building remained a private house for some years. The Althams moved to Reedley Hall but, in 1914, Oakleigh was the home of Mr William Henry Haslam, a partner in the Burnley cotton spinning and manufacturing firm of Haslam Brothers of Cog Lane in the town. In 1926, the owner was Mr Joseph Nelson of the great Nelson cotton manufacturing family.

It was in 1941 that the Rt Hon. The Earl of Derby K.G. opened Burnley Rural District Council's offices at Oakleigh. Previously, the council, which had been established in 1894, had operated from what had been the Poor Law Guardian's offices in Nicholas Street, Burnley. The council, which served the rural parishes of Burnley (Briercliffe, Cliviger, Worsthorne, Hapton, Higham, Sabden, Reedley Hallows etc) remained at Oakleigh until 1974 when the Rural District Council was merged into what are now Burnley and Pendle Borough Councils.

I would have to admit I am not sure what went on for the decade 1974 to 84, but we do know that, in June of the latter year – just 25 years ago – the Oaks Hotel opened as the flagship facility of the Blackburn-based Thwaites' Brewery. The building is well worth a visit – and not only for its facilities as a hotel, restaurant and leisure centre. That magnificent stained glass window (slightly altered) is still there and many of the rooms on the ground floor retain their Victorian character.

Until recently there was an impressive portrait of Elma Yerborough (the daughter of Daniel Thwaites) who brought the brewery to the Yerborough family. This has gone because Thwaites no longer own the Oaks, but Abraham's House – the house in which he never really lived – is still with us for us all to enjoy.