Monday, 26 June 2017

Poirot Project: The ABC Murders (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.

Due to the various commitments and stresses of life, I’ve had to take a little bit of a break from this project. It’s been over six months since my last Poirot Project post. But I’m pushing on now, and I’m totally sure I’ll get to Curtain by Christmas this year (haha!). In a way, it’s kinda appropriate that I’ve had a six-month break, as that fits quite nicely with The ABC Murders, which is where I’m picking up.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th January 1992. I’ve put inverted commas around ‘series’ here, as the 1992 episodes were a bit of a departure from the previous adaptations. There were only three stories shown this year, and each one was a feature-length adaptation of a novel, rather than the (at this point) standard hour-long short story episodes. It’s now usual to refer to these three episodes as the ‘fourth series’, and they were broadcast in a regular weekly slot that January, but I’m just not sure we really thought of them as a ‘series’ in 1992. In fact, I don’t think we thought about TV in terms of series in the same way at all back then. We had ‘serials’ (usually long-running dramas, often soap operas, where a continuous narrative developed episode-to-episode) and ‘series’ (often sit-coms and crime dramas, where a set of related episodes – most commonly six – were shown weekly, though the narrative wasn’t necessary continuous). But we also had a lot of one-off or self-contained programmes, where a single story was presented (either in one go or in instalments). The BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories were like this, as were The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. I don’t remember ever referring to these as a ‘series’ in the 90s – you’d just say ‘there’s a new Inspector Wexford on this week’, not ‘there’s a new series of Inspector Wexford starting on Sunday’.

But time – and technology – have changed all that. Once long-running shows were packaged up (retrospectively) for VHS, DVD and then streaming, they were divided up into series. So ‘The Dead of Jericho’, ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’ and ‘Service of All the Dead’ stopped being ‘three feature-length dramas shown in January 1987’ and started being ‘Series 1 of Inspector Morse’. And so ‘The ABC Murders’, ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ became ‘Series 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot’. On the whole, this makes sense: these particular episodes of Poirot, like the Inspector Morse adaptations, were shown weekly as a short series, and they were sandwiched between two clearly defined series of eight and ten episodes. But I might have to return to this niggly little point when we move on to the run of feature-length episodes, as they’ve been lumped together into ‘series’ almost at random, in order to better fit the boxset model of TV-watching that we’re all more comfortable with now (at least, that’s the only reason I can think of why ‘Appointment with Death’ is counted as part of ‘Series 11’ and ‘The Clocks’ as ‘Series 12’).

NB: There is no ‘Season 4’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, just as there is no ‘Season 4’ of Sherlock. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I start referring to UK TV shows in terms of ‘seasons’.

Right… that said…

‘The ABC Murders’ was based on the novel of the same name, which was published in early 1936. Just to satisfy the academic part of me, I should say that the edition I’m using here is the paperback edition published by HarperCollins in 1993. This is the first Poirot book I’ve had to go out and buy specifically for this blog project, as (weirdly) I discovered that I didn’t actually own a copy of The ABC Murders. Turns out my Agatha Christie collection is a little haphazard – I own four copies of Death on the Nile, but had to buy ABC.

Although The ABC Murders was published after Murder on the Links, it is narrated by Hastings. Like The Big Four and Peril at End House, it begins with Hastings making a trip back to England and reconnecting with his old friend. As the opening pages tell us, it’s now June 1935, and Hastings has come to England for six months to deal with certain business affairs. However, he soon forgets that was the reason for leaving his wife in Argentina:
‘I need hardly say that one of my first actions on reaching England was to look up my old friend, Hercule Poirot.’
Hastings discovers that some things have changed. Poirot has moved out of lodgings and into a brand new flat:
‘I found him installed in one of the newest type of service flats in London. I accused him (and he admitted the fact) of having chosen this particular building entirely on account of its strictly geometrical appearance and proportions.’
This flat, as we later discover, is in Whitehaven Mansions, EC1 (the postcode area covering City of London, Islington, Camden and Hackney). The TV show had this as Poirot’s permanent address throughout the episodes – though the style and size of the building’s interior changed as the programme progressed – but Christie only moved her Poirot into this ‘newest type of service flat’ in 1935. The 1930s saw a number of new art-deco constructions in central London that might have inspired Christie’s description of a building with ‘strictly geometrical appearance and proportions’ – including Guy Morgan and Partners’ Florin Court, EC1, which was being constructed as she was writing The ABC Murders and which, of course, was used by LWT as the TV version of Whitehaven Mansions.

While Poirot’s residence has changed, the man himself remains curiously unaltered. Hastings is initially baffled by this, exclaiming that his friend looks ‘hardly a day older than when I had last seen him’. This feels, at first, like Christie having a little joke at her famous creation’s longevity. After all, given that Poirot had a distinguished career in the Belgian police force before The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set c.1916), he has to be in his 60s by now – and yet, he seems no different to when he made his first appearance. But it turns out this isn’t the case. In fact, Hastings’s comment on Poirot’s unchanged appearance kicks off a weird little hair obsession that runs throughout the story.

Hastings notes that Poirot has ‘fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last’, which makes his friend beam with pride and reveal a little secret:
‘REVIVIT – To bring back the natural tone of the hair. Revivit is NOT a dye. In five shades, Ash, Chestnut, Titian, Brown, Black.’
After this little exchange, Poirot reveals to Hastings that he has received an anonymous letter (signed only ‘A.B.C.’) suggesting that a crime will take place in Andover on the 21st of the month. Poirot believes that the note should be taken seriously, and so the two men head over to visit another old friend and begin their new adventure.

Inspector Japp has previously dismissed the anonymous letter, but he seems pleased enough to see his old sleuthing buddies back together again. He gives Hastings a ‘hearty welcome’, but this camaraderie is short-lived. Never mind the anonymous note, we’re back to hair again. Japp’s enthusiastic surprise at seeing Hastings reveals something of a raw nerve in our narrator:
‘Quite like old days seeing you here with Monsieur Poirot. You’re looking well, too. Just a little bit thin on top, eh? Well, that’s what we’re all coming to. I’m the same.’
This does not go down well. Hastings winces, as he believed the ‘careful way’ he brushes his hair ‘across the top of [his] head’ made its thinness ‘unnoticeable’. A couple of pages later, he’s still not let it drop. When Poirot jokes that Japp ‘does not change much’, Hastings can’t resist making a dig:
‘“He looks much older,” I said. “Getting as grey as a badger,” I added vindictively.’
Poirot – tactful as ever – realizes that Hastings is still smarting after Japp’s jape, and suggests that Hastings could buy a toupee. This also does not go down well. Hastings has a massive rant, ‘roaring’ about Poirot’s ‘confounded hairdresser’ and the fact that Japp ‘always was an offensive kind of devil’, and blaming his hair loss on the ‘hot summers’ in Argentina. He eventually recovers his temper and admits he is a bit touchy about his hair, but this doesn’t stop him making several sly digs about other characters’ hair later in the book (he comments on Poirot’s moustaches drooping in the heat, and bitchily notes that Megan Barnard’s hair must have recently been permed, as ‘it stood out from her head in a mass of rather frizzy curls’). Let it go, Hastings, let it go.

Anyway… that anonymous letter… obviously, The ABC Murders isn’t really a book devoted to Hastings’s insecurities about his bald patch. It’s about a serial killer. The letter Poirot receives is only the beginning of the case. As forewarned, there is a murder in Andover (Mrs Alice Ascher), and a copy of the ABC railway guide is left near the body. Shortly afterwards, Poirot receives a letter warning that the next murder will take place in Bexhill-on-Sea.

This type of crime is a complete departure for our dynamic duo. As Hastings himself says:
‘Do you know, this is the first crime of this kind that you and I have worked on together? All our murders have been – well, private murders, so to speak.’
When the murder of Carmichael Clarke at Churston follows Betty Barnard in Bexhill, the pattern of the killings is clear, and Poirot has to face the fact that he is well and truly out of his comfort zone. The victims are unrelated, and appear to have been chosen simply for their initials. The main clue – the ABC guide left at the site of each murder – is more a ‘calling card’ than a clue. Poirot’s investigation has to unfold in quite a different way than is usual, with lengthy ‘conferences’ (with police experts and psychologists) replacing the more common one-to-one interviews. There are discourses on the nature of serial killing, expositions on the motivations of anonymous letter writers, and discussions of ‘deadly mania’ and varying types of ‘insanity’.

And it isn’t just the investigation that’s different. The narrative itself is different. Although Hastings is our narrator, and he pretty much carries out this role as he always did, he’s not the only voice we hear. Interspersed with the first-person reportage of our follicly-challenged friend are short chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’s Personal Narrative’, which are written in third person and describe the movements of a character named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Poirot (and the rest of the gang) have no knowledge of Cust’s existence until the end of Chapter 27, and even then they only have a signature (which they misread as A.B. Case or Cash).

So The ABC Murders offers the possibility of a technique that Christie very rarely uses in her detective fiction – dramatic irony. The readers are aware of a character and a set of actions that are explicitly not known to the detective (or the narrator). From Chapter 2 onwards, we know that there is a man who has the initials A.B.C., and we know he has both a railway guide and a list of names that he’s checking off methodically. The mystery is not whodunit, but (as all those confabs about psychology and motive reminds us) whydunit. What a dramatic departure for Poirot and Hastings! No domestic intrigues or jealous family members, no murderers hiding their true nature under a façade of jovial compliance! Not a country house or an inheritance to be seen!

LOL. This is Agatha Christie we’re talking about.

The ABC Murders is an absolute gem of a bastard of a book. Of course there’s no dramatic irony. Of course the reader doesn’t know the murderer’s name before Poirot does. Of course the question is whodunit (with the ‘why’ turning out to be the most mundane of all Christie’s stockpile of motives). As with a lot of Christie’s ‘trick’ books, rereading this book is a lot of fun, as you spot all the ingredients that you weren’t supposed to notice the first time round. Christie is in cahoots with the murderer, forcing us to investigate the wrong sort of crime, when the real clues were under our nose all along.

Before I move on to the adaptation, just a couple of other things I like about Christie’s novel (aside from the fact that Hastings is back! and this time he’s paranoid about his hair!)

A few of the Poirot stories refer back to earlier stories (in more or less spoiler-y ways, depending which one you’re reading). The ABC Murders pulls off the interesting trick of referring to stories that have yet to be published (or even written). In Chapter 3, Poirot outlines his ‘ideal’ murder case:
‘“Supposing,” murmured Poirot, “that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he is dummy, has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?”’
Hastings isn’t convinced.
‘“Well,” I said. “I can’t see any excitement in that!”’
If Hastings isn’t enthused by this teaser for Cards on the Table (which was published in November 1936, just ten months after The ABC Murders), Japp has a bit more fun coming up with future plotlines for the detective:
‘“I shouldn’t wonder if you ended by detecting your own death,” said Japp, laughing heartily. “That’s an idea, that is. Ought to be put in a book.” “It will be Hastings who will have to do that,” said Poirot, twinkling[.]’
Now. There’s an idea.

In some previous posts, I’ve had a bit of a muse over Hastings’s financial situation, and the reason why he spent so much of the 20s apparently mooching off Poirot. A while ago I suggested that Hastings might be upper middle class, but without any real family money or property. His lack of aptitude or enthusiasm for a career may have left him cash-strapped and in need of free board with his illustrious associate. It seems in The A.B.C. Murders that Hastings is still trying to make a go of things in South America, though his ranch has been struggling due to the ‘world depression’. (That he’s left his wife to manage things for six months on her own isn’t too much of a surprise – after all, Poirot slyly suggested that in Peril at End House that Mrs Hastings is the real business brain in that family.) As I’ve said, we don’t learn very much about Hastings’s background in the Poirot stories, though we can deduce certain things from his character. There is a little nugget in The A.B.C. Murders though – a blink and you’ll miss it moment that confirms my suspicions about Hastings’s class and status.

Towards the end of the novel – just before Poirot meets Cust for the first time – he and Hastings overhear some children singing a song about catching a fox. Poirot comments that fox-hunting is a ‘strange sport’. Hastings is quick to defend the practice, attempting to claim that it isn’t really as cruel as it sounds. So far, so upper-crust English gent. But then, when Poirot asks if people really hunt foxes in England, his friend says: ‘I don’t. I’ve never been able to afford to hunt.’ Poor old Hastings – follicly and fiscally challenged as ever.

One final little detail that always makes me giggle before I move on (though it’s probably just me): after Poirot receives the letter warning them about Bexhill, the Chief Constable of Sussex (one of the many people drawn into the investigation) demands that the local constabulary keep a watch on any small shopkeepers with a ‘B’ initial, and also that they keep tabs on all strangers arriving in Bexhill. The local superintendent immediately objects:
‘With the schools breaking up and the holidays beginning? People are fairly flooding into the place this week.’
Nous aurons besoin d’un bateau plus gros, mon ami.

So on to the TV adaptation… ‘The A.B.C Murders’ was written by Clive Exton and directed by Andrew Grieve. With that team at the helm, it probably goes without saying that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. All of the key elements of the story are included, and the changes that are made are necessary to fit the format (and chronology) of the TV series as a whole.

Just as in Christie’s book, we begin with Hastings arriving back in England after a period of absence. However, as we’ve not reached Murder on the Links yet, Hastings hasn’t actually moved to Argentina. Instead, he’s been on holiday to South America for six months. His old friend picks him up at the station, and the two have a warm reunion. Hastings is meant to be staying at a hotel, but Poirot won’t hear of it:
‘There is no hotel, mon ami. Until you regain your apartment, you stay with Poirot!’
This neat little switch allows for some of the dynamics of Christie’s novel to be replicated in the adaptation (despite the fact that TV Hastings hasn’t yet left home for good). It means that Japp can beam with pleasure at being reacquainted with Hastings – and also that he can comment on his thinning hair without it seeming out of place. Part of this exchange is retained from the source material, though the TV-Hastings lets it drop a lot quicker than his literary counterpart, but the earlier reference to Poirot dyeing his hair is removed (presumably because his pride in doing this wouldn’t fit with the hint dropped in the adaptation of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ that Poirot is surreptitiously tinting his barnet).

What does have to be dropped, though, is the reference to Poirot having moved to a new flat. Obviously, within the TV series, he hasn’t moved at all, and so they return to a Whitehaven Mansions that is familiar from previous adventures. Similarly, the reference to Poirot having previously retired to grow vegetable marrows is removed, as we’ve not got to that yet in the TV series. Oddly, one of the more domestic scenes between Hastings and Poirot is also removed (despite the fact that this would have fitted in well with the on-screen version of their relationship). In Christie’s novel, after the misdirected Churston letter arrives, Hastings decides there’s no time to waste, and so bursts into Poirot’s bedroom and starts packing his friend’s clothes into a suitcase. To be fair, Hastings is only following suit here – after the Bexhill murder, Hastings wakes up to discover his friend standing over him, offering to bring him a cup of coffee.

The adaptation seems a bit coy about showing Hastings and Poirot popping in and out of each other’s bedrooms, folding each other’s clothes and bringing each other coffee in bed. So we lose the lovely ‘regard what you have done to my pyjamas’ line from Christie’s novel. Instead, it’s replaced by a similarly domestic (but less boudoir) scene of domestic harmony, in which the two friends do the dishes together while discussing the case.

The investigation is also played out on similar lines to that in Christie’s original novel, but with some changes made here and there to keep the episode to time. The murders and anonymous letters follow the same pattern as in the book, and the ‘Legion’ of interested parties formed to assist Poirot is retained, though it meets for the first time with much less preamble than in the novel. Miss Lemon is sadly not present in this episode, but she was also absent from Christie’s novel, despite having made her debut appearance as Poirot’s secretary the previous year (George is also missing from Christie’s novel, by the way – it’s almost as though these surrogate Watsons are just sent away the second Hastings sets foot in England).

Some things are cut from the adaptation. Many of the investigators are cut, with their roles being conflated into the all-purpose Japp (a common occurrence in the early episodes of the series). A lot of the early interviews, particularly those conducted in Andover, are also cut, as are the lengthy conferences on the nature of serial killers and mania. Presumably the programme-makers thought they were on safe ground excising most of the explanations of ‘the “chain” or “series” type of murder’ in 1992. The psychology of serial killers might have been brand-new when Christie was writing her novel (the German term Serienmörder was coined in 1930), but it needed little exposition in the early 90s. (First principles, Clarice. What does he do, this man you seek?)

However, the episode is very clear on when it is set (August 1936, which doesn’t really give Hastings time to have had a six-month holiday since their last case, so it’s a good thing I’ve given up on any sort of coherent timeline), so the programme-makers needed to keep some sense of the ‘newness’ of this type of murder investigation. To keep things concise, they give a flavour of the more academic discussions of A.B.C.’s crimes through a number of shots of newspaper stories and headlines.

Despite the condensed investigation and the chastened Poirot/Hastings relationship, the episode does a good job in capturing the flavour of Christie’s novel. There are trains everywhere, and much of the ‘action’ consists of the gang running back and forth to catch trains to other destinations. There are plenty of fab shots of steam trains hurrying across the countryside, and a number of head-to-heads with Poirot and Hastings discussing the case in various train carriages.

In addition to this, an attempt is made to keep the feel of Christie’s narration style. On the whole, the episode follows the dynamic duo’s perspective, just as the book was told through Hastings’s first-person reportage. However, interspersed throughout are little scenes of the man we’ll come to know as Cust going about his daily business in a more and more suspicious way. This is a nice touch, and a good way of remaining faithful to Christie’s novel, but it does lead to a slightly annoying anachronism early on. When we first see Cust, he is in the cinema. The man on the screen exclaims:
‘That’s where you’re wrong. I am the Dorset murderer! I killed Lily James, and all the others, and now I am going to kill you!’
Cust is enraptured by this, his excited face picked out in the flickering glow of the screen, while the rest of the audience remain obscured by shadows. The snatch of dialogue we’re given allows us (perhaps) to spot that the film is Black Limelight, which is about a series of random murders carried out by a madman and which spark a sensationalist press frenzy. It’s a very apt film to use in this first introduction to Cust, and it plays along with Christie’s game. But it came out in 1939. Sigh.

(We see Cust in the cinema again towards the end of the episode. This time he’s watching Number 17, which came out in 1932. I can only assume from this that the programme-makers wanted to suggest that Doncaster was somewhat behind the times.)

What about Cust though?

The casting in this episode has its ups and downs. But Donald Sumpter’s portrayal of Alexander Bonaparte Cust is just perfect. He is exactly the character I imagined when I read the book. In particular, Sumpter manages to capture the darkness of the character – Cust is a man who, unusually for Christie’s fiction, is utterly broken by his experiences in WWI. The scene in which Cust has a conversation with a younger man about the Churston murder is retained (though it’s conducted in a library, rather than in a public gardens, in the TV episode), and it conveys perfectly the sense of a man mentally unravelling:
‘“Sorry, sir, I expect you were in the war.”
“I was,” said Mr Cust. “It – it – unsettled me. My head’s never been right since. It aches, you know. Aches terribly.”’
Other casting is also good. Pippa Guard makes a good Megan Barnard (though she’s a tad more forceful than her literary counterpart), and Nicholas Farrell (in his first of two Poirot appearances – he’ll be back for another train-based adventure in The Mystery of the Blue Train) is a good choice for poor old Donald Fraser.

Where the casting falls down, though, is with Franklin Clarke (played by Donald Douglas). Christie’s Franklin was ‘a big fair-haired man with a sunburnt face’. When everything’s out in the open, Poirot describes ‘[t]he daring adventurous character, the roving life […] [t]he attractive free and easy manner – nothing easier for him than to pick up a girl in a café’. This really doesn’t fit with the character as portrayed by Douglas, who ditches ‘free and easy’ for ‘uptight and serious’. Annoyingly, the episode actually draws attention to this problem. After Cust’s arrest, Poirot throws a question over his guilt by asking whether or not Cust would have been able to flirt with Betty Barnard and persuade her to remove her own belt:
‘Can you imagine Monsieur Cust, as you English say, getting off with a pretty young girl?’
No we can’t. But neither can we imagine the staid old Franklin Clarke out on the pull on Bexhill beach.

These niggles aside, it’s still a great episode and a good adaptation of a very enjoyable book. I feel I may have waffled on far too much about this one (that’s what comes of taking such a long break from writing about Poirot), so I’ll end (as I often do) with some of the little details that made me smile.

Of course, I have to mentioned Hastings’s cayman.

Hastings has brought this ugly-looking specimen, which he calls Cedric, back from Venezuela as a gift for Poirot. There’s quite the story behind it as well – but Poirot and Japp seem a wee bit reluctant to hear it. Poirot is also rather unsettled to discover that he is expected to display Cedric in the middle of the ‘geometrical appearance and proportions’ of his cherished apartment.

For some people – like my husband Rob, who was watching this episode for the first time – it’s the resolution of the running Cedric joke that gets the biggest laugh. For me, though, it’s the moment when Poirot complains about the cayman’s smell and Hastings proudly announces that he’s doused it in some cologne he found in the bathroom. Poirot’s face is the perfect picture.

Cedric aside, my other favourite little snippet comes near the beginning of the episode. After Poirot and Hastings have their little reunion, we cut to Japp hard at work in his office. Except he’s not really – he’s taking down a shopping list being dictated over the phone by his wife, Emily. And he’s not happy about being asked to keep sausages in his desk drawer.

Good old Mrs Japp. If Mrs Columbo could get her own show, I have no idea why Emily Japp Investigates was never made.

And on that note, I really do think it’s time to move on. Two more episodes to get my teeth into for this ‘series’. Get my teeth into… do you get it? Well, you will do shortly.

Next up: ‘Death in the Clouds’

Friday, 16 June 2017

Saving Bailey’s Wood, Manchester

This is a bit of an unusual blog post – don’t worry, I’m going to get back to blogging about Hercule Poirot very soon – but I wanted to write a bit about a new project that I’ve started, as I’m really quite excited about it.

In April, myself and a small group of residents from Charlestown in North Manchester decided to start a new Friends of Bailey’s Wood group to save and protect a patch of semi-natural ancient woodland that (we think) is pretty special. I’ll be posting about upcoming activities and projects on the group’s Facebook page as we go along. But this is a bit more of a personal post, because I wanted to write about why I think Bailey’s Wood is so special.

Where is Bailey’s Wood?

Since this blog is read by some people who don’t live in Manchester (or even in the UK), I’d better start with the basics. Bailey’s Wood is in Blackley in North Manchester – specifically, it’s in the area historically known as Charlestown, just opposite Boggart Hole Clough (it’s also in Charlestown Ward according to current municipal boundaries).

To be honest, even a lot of people in North Manchester don’t know where Bailey’s Wood is. Boggart Hole Clough is pretty well-known, but Bailey’s Wood just isn’t (and this is a big part of the problem – and I’ll say a bit more about this below).

What is Bailey’s Wood?

Bailey’s Wood is one of Manchester’s last remaining semi-natural ancient woodlands. It runs through a steep ravine, carved out over millennia by a little brook (and more on that shortly as well). It’s a regional site of biological importance, with birds (such as the greater spotted woodpecker and the nuthatch), bats and butterflies making it their home. At the moment, there’s very little information about the flora and fauna of Bailey’s Wood, as there hasn’t been any sustained surveying done for some time. Some conservation work has been done by Manchester City Council’s Irk River Valley Project (as the brook is a tributary of the River Irk), but the project has tended to focus on sites around the Irk itself. There’s still an awful lot to be discovered about what lives in Bailey’s Wood.

A Brief History of Blackley

So… now for the bit that gets me really excited. Here comes the history part…

Once upon a time – okay, in the three centuries following the Norman conquest – the township of Blackley was a deer park, an enclosed area that was regulated by the king’s forest law and kept by the nobility for the purposes of hunting. Medieval deer parks were enclosed by wooden fences (known as ‘park pales’), and often included pasture land and woodland, as well as hunting grounds. In 1322, we have a record of the Blackley deer park that measured it at seven miles in circumference (it took in what is now Blackley, but also much of Crumpsall, Harpurhey and Moston, and also Heaton Park and Alkrington Wood). There was pasture land for 240 cattle, as well ‘eyries of eagles, herons and hawks’.* It was also still partially wooded, staying true to its name – ‘Blackley’ probably derives from the Old English words blaec and lēah, meaning ‘the dark clearing in the woods’.

These are not medieval deer. Nor do they live in Blackley. But you get the idea.

In the early fourteenth century, Blackley township was in the barony of Manchester, so the deer park would have been a hunting preserve for the lords of Manchester. But this wasn’t to last. Around 1355, areas of pasture land in the park began to be granted by indenture, and the forest was cut back to make room for farmland. By the fifteenth century, Blackley was no longer under the domain of a single lord, instead being shared by a number of landowners – including families that will be familiar to anyone who knows their Manchester history, such as the Asshetons and the Byrons. In the following century, John Leland would bemoan the deforestation of what had been the Blackley park, writing:
‘Wild bores, bulles, and falcons, bredde in times past at Blakele, now for lack of woode the blow-shoppes [forges] decay there.’*
The Byrons continued as the subinfeudatory lords (technical term) of Blackley until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when it all started to go a bit tits up (probably not a technical term) for them. Sir John Byron inherited the Blackley lands in 1566, but wasn’t fantastic with money, and so the Blackley lands were sacrificed so that the family could afford to keep their properties elsewhere. By 1603, the Blackley estate was vested in the hands of Peter Legh of Lyme, Richard Assheton of Middleton (and his son) and John Holt of Stubley, and it began to undergo an alienation (i.e. it was now possible for the lands to be carved up and sold from one party to another, rather than remaining as a hereditary estate).

Booth Hall

The alienation of the Blackley estate saw it divided up between a number of well-to-do families. Blackley Hall and its demesne was owned by the Asshetons, and then sold to the Leghs of Lyme (after that it had a weird and sordid little history until it was eventually haunted and destroyed brick-by-brick by persons unknown in the mid-1800s). Alkrington Wood and its estate was sold to the Lever family in 1627, who erected Alkrington Hall (still standing, and my absolute dream house) on the estate. The Heaton estate (including Heaton House) was owned by the Hollands, and then inherited by Thomas Egerton (later 1st Earl of Wilton), who swelled his estate by marrying the daughter of Sir Ralph Assheton and acquiring most of the Crumpsall portion of the old Blackley estate (and, most notably, Heaton Park, in which he constructed Heaton Hall).

In the early part of the 1600s, Humphrey Booth of Salford, a wealthy fustian merchant, purchased part of the Blackley estate. As well as being a very successful businessman, Humphrey Booth the elder was also a philanthropist. During his lifetime, he made several grants of land for the benefit of the poor in Salford, and his legacy lives on in the various charities he and his grandson set up. Booth endowed a chapel-of-ease in Salford, which is now the Sacred Trinity Church. Before his death in 1635, Humphrey Booth the elder made over the estate to his son (also called Humphrey), who built a mansion house on the site of an older farmhouse – the house was probably completed in 1640, as there was a timber beam bearing the legend ‘HB AB [Ann Booth, wife of Humphrey-the-son] 1640’ on the front of the original building.

The original Booth Hall was a two-storey gabled house, built in brick. One description of the house stated that it stood ‘on a beautiful site which is screened from the waggon way which passes its garden boundaries by prosperous woods’. William Crabtree’s ‘Plan of the Booth Hall Estate’ (1637) gives an indication of what the site looked like just before the construction of Booth Hall – two buildings form a farmstead, which is surround by pasture land and bordered by a line of woodland at its northern-most edge. Comparison with William Johnson’s later ‘Plan of the Parish of Manchester’ (1818-19) shows that the woodland follows the line of a small brook, which sits in a deep, unfarmable ravine.

I don’t have images of Crabtree or Johnson’s plans, but this slightly later map by George Hennet (1829) gives you the idea:

Between 1640 and 1700, Booth Hall and its estate were owned by the Booth family (I won’t go into details about this – suffice to say it’s Humphreys all the way down). At the end of the seventeenth century, the final Humph (the son of the cousin of the grandson of Humph I) sold part of the estate to Reverend John Legh of Tyldesley and leased another portion to John Knowles before dying childless. When Rev. Legh died in 1714, Knowles acquired the entirety of the estate.

If the sixty years of Humphs were confusing, the next hundred years are almost impossible to get your head around. It looks as though the estate was split for a time, with one part (the outlying portion of the estate) passing from Knowles through a serious of indentures and leases to men named Ralph Seddon and William Patten, until it was bought for £240 by John Diggles, a linen draper. The other portion, which contained the ‘capital messuage and demesne’ (i.e the bit with Booth Hall on it), went through an even more baffling series of mortgages and leases, being at one point the property of Richard Worthington, who was John Diggles’ brother-in-law. By 1719, John Diggles appears to have owned the entire estate (including the hall). He bequeathed it to his son Thomas, who bequeathed it to his nephew John, who bequeathed it to his nephew Thomas Bayley (along with a gold watch, an amethyst ring and a chamber organ with eight barrels).

Thomas Bayley died on 22nd November 1817, leaving his property to his three sons. They promptly put the Booth Hall estate up for auction. There were no takers, but the estate was later sold to Dr Henry (Thomas Bayley’s son-in-law) for £9000. Clearly Dr Henry didn’t much fancy living in Blackley (or he only bought it so he could sell it on and stick one in the eye to his late father-in-law), as he sold it to Edmund Taylor of Salford within a couple of years.

I promise it gets easier now… The Taylor family owned the Booth Hall estate for most of the rest of the nineteenth century, and expanded the estate by purchasing more of the surrounding land. By the 1870s, it was the property of John Taylor (who I think was the grandson of Edmund), who seemed to have a terrible time of things.

He was robbed by a servant:

Manchester Evening News (22 Aug 1871)

And one of his staff got in trouble for blowing an engine whistle on Oldham Street:

Manchester Evening News (24 Nov 1871)

And that’s not to mention the servant who drunkenly confessed to a murder he hadn’t committed or the prize fight on the estate that attracted over 300 spectators.

Perhaps part of the problem was that, at some point, John also acquired an estate in Wiltshire – I’ve not had the time or energy to work out whether this was an inheritance or a purchase – and so seems to have been splitting his time between Booth Hall and The Rocks in Marshfield, where he was known as ‘Squire John’ and had considerably less trouble with his servants.

John Taylor died in 1881, aged just 37, and his estate passed to his son Darcy Edmund, who was still only a child. From what I can see, the family had pretty much decamped to Wiltshire by then, as when Darcy had his coming-of-age party in 1890, the papers reported that he and his mother had ‘resided wholly’ in Marshfield since John’s death. Sure enough, that same year, Darcy and his mother auctioned off all the furniture at Booth Hall (oh no, not the walnutwood drawing-room suite!) and announced their intention to let out the hall.

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (17 May 1890)

In 1893, the whole estate, including the mansion house, was put out to auction. And a surprising customer came forward: Manchester Corporation purchased 145 acres of the estate for £10000, with the intention of turning the land into a ‘pleasure ground’ and ‘health resort’ for the people of North Manchester. This portion of the estate was Boggart Hole Clough, which is still a council-run park. The corporation didn’t buy the northerly portion of farmland or Booth Hall itself (because no council in its right mind would buy a park that included an old mansion house).

Darcy Edmund Taylor continued to own the now-empty Booth Hall until 1902, when the Prestwich Poor Law Union (or Prestwich Guardians) purchased the house and 33 acres of land for around £8300. The Prestwich Guardians bought the land for the construction of a new infirmary to care for the sick of the Prestwich Union Workhouse (now North Manchester General Hospital). Humphrey Booth’s house was pulled down, and a new hospital building (costing around £71000) was erected and opened in 1908.

I’m going to leave the history of Booth Hall there, because its life (and much-protested demise) as a hospital has been recorded and celebrated by people far better than me. It’s enough to say that anyone who lived in North Manchester before 2007 will have some story to tell you about Booth Hall Children’s Hospital. The hospital was closed in 2007, and the main buildings were demolished in 2014. The hospital’s gatehouse was the last building to be removed, this year. There is now a Taylor Wimpey housing estate on the site.

A sidenote

Before I return to the forest, I just want to have a final moment of bafflement. The fight to save Booth Hall Children’s Hospital was waged throughout the 80s and 90s, and I remember clearly being told when I was younger that the hospital was named after its founder, Humphrey Booth.

It seems that this is a common story, and it has been replicated in some surprising places. The story goes that a certain Humphrey Booth, a man soaked through with the milk of human kindness, bought and donated a piece of land in Blackley for the purposes of building a free hospital for the poor. Perhaps the weirdest version of this story is found on the NHS Central Manchester Foundation Trust’s website, which not only gives Humphrey Booth a ‘caring nature that has passed through generations’, but also a birthdate (1851) and an epitaph. An exhibition at the People’s History Museum offered further details: this Humphrey Booth bought the land in 1909 because his family had previously owned the property, but he gave it to the sick and poor of North Manchester.

As you can see from the pointlessly detailed history I’ve given above, this is an utter work of fiction. The Booth family died out in 1700, and while I’ve no doubt Humphrey Booth the elder had a ‘caring nature’, he didn’t even live to see the construction of the mansion house, let alone the children’s hospital (which was first conceived of some three hundred years after Humph I bought his land in Blackley).

No. Boggart Hole Clough was bought by the corporation, and Booth Hall was bought by the Prestwich Poor Law Union. And both of them paid market value for the land, as the vendor was a wealthy landowner who wanted shot of his Manchester estates so he could spend more time in Wiltshire.

But the myth of Humphrey Booth persists. In a lot of ways it’s similar to another piece of North Manchester fiction. There is a persistent story that, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Earl of Wilton donated a part of his estate (Heaton Park) for the recreation and enjoyment of the people of North Manchester – some people will even tell you that the earl placed a covenant on this gift so that the evil council could never take this wondrous bounty from the poor people he cared so much about.

No. This is another fiction. In the 1890s, the Earl of Wilton had bankrupted himself repeated, and offered up his land for sale at auction. When there were no takers, his son begged Manchester Corporation (repeatedly lowering the price) to buy the land, suggesting that they could knock down his Georgian mansion and build new houses – or even use the land for coal mining. Eventually, the corporation purchased Heaton Park and Heaton Hall (oh… turns out a council would buy a park that included an old mansion house after all) in 1902. But they didn’t pull down the hall, and they didn’t use the land for housing (or mining). Heaton Park, like Boggart Hole Clough, is still a council-maintained park, and Heaton Hall is now a Grade I listed building. Admittedly, the council hasn’t really been able to look after the hall as well as we might have liked – but at least it’s not a bloody coal mine.

The invention of the 1851 Humphrey Booth and the myth of the benevolent Earl of Wilton reveal a bizarre faith in the philanthropy of the gentry. I find it fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I get that people might find it easy to imagine the council as a bureaucratic municipal overlord (part Ministry of Truth, part Kafka’s Castle) – but, and this cannot be stressed enough: rich people in the past just weren’t as nice as you think they were. When they were skint or they wanted to move to Wiltshire, they gave no more thought to poor people than they did to their walnutwood drawing-room suite.

Back to Bailey’s Wood

This lengthy history of the Booth Hall estate in Blackley is actually a history of Bailey’s Wood. As you’ll have spotted, the presence of woodland around Booth Hall is a constant feature of its history since the 1600s. Early maps show a sprinkling of woodland around the hall, particularly around the banks of the brook that sits in its steep ravine.

When the Ordnance Survey charted the land, the wood was more clearly defined. Here it is in 1845 (present, but unnamed):

Note the line of trees along the brook that rises at Dam Head farm (one of the longest-surviving farms, which was finally cleared for a new council estate in 1974), and also the thick semi-circle of forest that surrounds the fields at the back of the hall. You can also see the attempted encroaching of industrialization to the west – there’s a bleach works next to the Rochdale Road (Hennet’s 1829 admittedly less accurate map showed this area as fields).

By 1891, the woods had acquired a name:

The name Bailey’s Wood doesn’t appear in any of the wills or indentures attesting to the ownership of Booth Hall. This Ordnance Survey map, which wasn’t published until after the Taylors had left the building, is the first evidence of the name I can find. It’s possible that the map-makers were following some local tradition of naming the woods – perhaps Bailey was a farmer from Lea Grange or White Moss Farm – but perhaps it’s more a throwback to one of the hall’s previous occupants.

Perhaps the OS surveyors had seen this map (sorry for the image quality):

This is taken from William Yates’s 1796 map of Lancashire, considered to be the earliest accurate map of the county. As the map was being prepared, landowners were offered the opportunity of paying a guinea to have their names inscribed under their estates.* You can just make out Ashton Lever’s name underneath Alkrington Hall at the top – and there, underneath Booth Hall, is the name ‘T. Bayley, esq.’

Acquiring a name (whether it was from Thomas Bayley or some forgotten farmer) didn’t actually change the woods all that much. Comparing OS maps surveyed in 1906, 1915 and 1938 shows an area that is plodding its way to modernity – but the semi-circle of forest remains resolutely unchanged.

The coming of the hospital did little to change Bailey’s Wood, and you can catch a glimpse of the forest in some early pictures of the nurses hostel (which was built much closer to the treeline than the main infirmary buildings).

Thanks to Tricia Neal for this image

In the second half of the twentieth-century, the remaining farmland was given over to council housing. A school (St John Bosco’s RC Primary School) now sits at the edge of the forest, bordering the remnants of the old farmland. Booth Hall is now a new housing estate. But the forest is still there… in fact, after the demise of the bleach works (and its afterlife as a mill and then a factory), the forest has swallowed up even more of the land. Bailey’s Wood now stretches out to Rochdale Road and is bigger than it’s been for centuries.

So why do we need to save it?

Surely, with such an incredible pedigree stretching back to the days of a medieval deer park – never mind the fact that it’s a semi-natural ancient woodland and regional site of biological importance – Bailey’s Wood must be a much-prized green space enjoyed by the local community and visitors alike.


Here’s how you’re welcomed to Bailey’s Wood when you enter by the Grange Park Road entrance:

And here’s how you’re welcomed when you arrive by the Ranby Avenue entrance on Crosslee:

The woods have been sorely neglected and painfully mistreated for the past few decades. The lack of signs or proper entrances are only the beginning… the site is a mecca for fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour, and the edges (on the site of the old bleach works, which is now in private ownership) have recently seen all the trees felled without license.

And that little brook, tributary of the River Irk, that carved out the ravine? It was part culverted in the 1930s when Charlestown Road was constructed. And now the culverts are blocked and streambed is silted over. You can see there’s meant to be a stream there, but no water flows.

It’s absolutely gutting.


As I said at the beginning of this post, myself and a small group of local residents have decided it’s time for a change. We’ve set up a Friends of Bailey’s Wood group, and will be doing our first community clean-up event on Saturday 15th July at 10am. We have big plans for the future – we want to clean up the mess, we want to survey the flora and fauna, we want new signs and entrances, and we want to get the brook flowing again. We want children and families to enjoy the woods again, and we want the local area to celebrate and appreciate its history.

It’s a big job, but we think it’s worth it. We do need more support though, so if you’d like to join in or just support us from afar, please like our Facebook page or consider joining our group.

* Some of the information here is taken from the booklet, Booth Hall and Boggart Hole Clough: From Medieval Private Deer Park to Urban Public Park, which was commissioned by Taylor Wimpey and prepared by Fiona Wooler and Richard Newman of Wardell Armstrong Archaeology.

* And some of the information here is taken from the Rev. John Booker’s A History of the Ancient Chapel of Blackley in Manchester Parish, published in 1854.

* Thank you to Paul Hindle for introducing me to this map, and for explaining the landowner names.