Sir James Watts

Sir James Watts of Manchester acquired the Kinder estate in the mid 19th Century. He was a hugely successful textiles merchant whose income at the turn of the century was bigger than the GNP of Spain. Manchester was at the heart of the cotton industry, with the suitable damp weather and the proximity of the Manchester Ship Canal creating huge wealth in the city, which was known as “Cottonopolis”. James Watts’ main textile wholesale warehouse was on Portland Street, Manchester, built 1851-56 by architects Travis and Magnell. It was the largest of the many warehouses in Manchester, and was exceptional in its lavish design and quality and is used today as The Britannia Hotel. It is a considerable landmark in Manchester city centre, with its unusual combining of architectural styles on each of the five floors of the building.

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As Lord Mayor of Manchester between 1855 and 1857, James Watts was very involved in the Great Art Exhibition held there in 1857, and hosted Prince Albert and Prime Minister Disreali during their visit, both at his home, Abney Hall, and for a shooting party on his Kinder Estate. A certain legend exists in Hayfield about providing the Consort with a hot shower during his stay, as running hot water was not the norm, and protocol needed to be observed!

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It was during this visit that James Watts received his knighthood. Afterwards, Disreali wrote that “to see England, one must visit Manchester.” Prince Albert described Abney Hall as “one of the most princely mansions in the neighbourhood”. King Edward VII and Prime Minister Gladstone also visited Abney in subsequent years.

In 1871 Sir James Watts became High Sheriff of Lancashire, a powerful political position, responsible for law and order and military duties. It is the oldest secular title under the House of Windsor in England and Wales, dating back to the House of Plantegenet in 1154. By 1908, under King Edward VII, the position was superseded by that of Lord Lieutenant, and since then the title has become largely honorary.

James Watts married Margaret Anne Buckley on 16 December 1832 and had five children who survived. His eldest son, James, born in 1878, married Madge Miller, Agatha Christie’s sister, in 1902 and they had a son born in 1903, also James, and known affectionately as Jack, who continued to live in the north and become the MP for Moss Side in Manchester. The Watt’s line ended in 1961 with the death of Jack.

JAMES WATTS & UPPER HOUSE

Sir James remodelled and extended his home Abney Hall, in Cheadle, in the early 1850’s. He changed architects at the end of the redesign to incorporate the highly detailed Gothic elements of the fashionable Pugin and Minton. He used Farlands, down the road from Upper House, as his country retreat until the reservoir was built and Upper House began to be redesigned in collaboration with his eldest son, James, in 1905. The house received a much simpler treatment than Abney, as was the fashion at the time.

They set about transforming it, adding, amongst other things, the castellated Gate House, and incorporating most of the woodwork from a late Medieval church, apparently from Cheshire, into the Great Hall, where it forms a highly eccentric piece de resistance. The tower to the front stands in the centre of a long range. They took great pains to erect the tower so that the sundial in its centre is accurate at the time of the summer solstice. The angles in the architecture of Upper House’s entrance hall bear witness to this feat, as indeed the detail and flourishes over whole house are testimony to their ideal of the perfect country retreat. The entire setting of the house, the levels, castellations, and its vistas, are studiedly connected to its environment, which is magnificent in the extreme.

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Upper House is one of the most unique properties in Britain, fashioned by a man with great confidence in his own style, a wealth of personal highly connected friends to entertain, and a serious interest in art and collectables. The remaining Arts and Crafts stained glass in Upper House, seen prominently in the Game Keepers Cottage and the Medieval Banqueting Hall, bear the names and crests of landed gentry, local nobility, and wealthy industrialists, all of whom got invited to Watt’s shooting parties.

By the mid 20th Century, James’ son Jack had little time for traditional hierarchies, and Hayfield testimonials describe him as more likely to share a sandwich with the beaters than join in with the guests for lunch at Watt’s shooting parties. In 1958 he sold Abney and Upper House and moved to London. He was elected Conservative MP for Manchester Moss Side and entered Parliament on 8th October 1959. He died suddenly in office on 7th July 1962. During his short office he campaigned against wasteful expenditure in the public sector, supported chiropody in the National Health Service and spoke out against unfair dismissal of women in public employment.

When Abney Hall and Upper House were sold in 1958, the remarkable antiques and furnishings of both were auctioned, the catalogue of which can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Some pieces were distributed amongst Stockport’s other great houses, including Lyme Hall and Bramhall Hall. Any sold today are sold with the provenance, and are very expensive.
Abney Hall was sold for £14,500 to Cheadle and Gatley Urban District Council which adapted it to become the Town Hall. Today it is used as offices, and is open to the public under the auspices of the Civic Trust’s Heritage Open Days scheme, usually in the third week of September every year. The grounds are open all year round and have recently been granted a licence to hold outdoor fitness classes and bootcamps, as an alternative to leisure centres and gyms.

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Upper House sold for £7,000 and was owned for a year after the sale by a gentleman with his wife and family. It was then owned from 1960 by Moosia and Yol Von Achten, who undertook the expensive task of bringing mains electrics from the nearest settlement and making it more habitable. Moosia was a goddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia before escaping to England, where she met her German husband while working in a Manchester bank. Paul and Nicola Hudson bought the house in 2000 and have spent years lovingly updating the interiors.

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