Dobcross: a brief history and love story

By John Kirkbride

THE attractive (if hilly) village of Dobcross has for many years been a popular destination for visitors to Saddleworth and is a favourite place for many locals to enjoy the bustle and brass of Whit Friday.

The village also acquired an element of Hollywood glamour in 1979 when director John Schlesinger chose it for the location of some of the exterior scenes for his movie Yanks, starring Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave.

As residents will know only too well, this led to an annual Saddleworth celebration of all things military, which still continues to this day.

Like the rest of Saddleworth, Dobcross was originally part of the West Riding of Yorkshire and for many years was little more than a hamlet, largely supported by the manufacture of woollen cloth.

The name is apparently derived from an ancient crossing over the River Tame that was used by packhorses as they traversed the Pennines from Lancashire to Yorkshire, and refers simply to a place where horses cross.

At the site of the crossing back in the 16th century stood what was probably one of the earliest woollen ‘fulling’ mills in Saddleworth. It was known as Walk Mill because of the way the wool was ‘walked’ in order to thicken it (or ‘full’ it), a process used prior to the introduction of mechanical methods.

At the time the mill was run by the Lawton family, who for many years were pretty much the Rothschilds of Dobcross, buying up land and later moving into the inn keeping business.

I happen to be related to them, as our story will reveal (though I’ve yet to inherit any money)! For anyone interested, most of the family are currently at rest in the cemetery around the village church.

Dobcross became a proper ecclesiastical parish in 1797 and in January 1912 the village got its very own railway station near the bottom of Wall Hill Road.

Sadly, it closed again in 1955 when Beeching’s axe put paid to the Delph Donkey passenger line between Oldham and Delph. On the plus side, the route provides a very pleasant walk to Uppermill these days.

Dobcross has always had its share of drinking establishments but today The Swan (or ‘Top House’) in the village square is the only one that is still a pub.

Near the entrance to what is now Nudger Green was an establishment called The Nudger (what a coincidence)! which was once owned by Oldham-born Olympic swimmer Henry Taylor. Sadly, in the end it sank like a stone.

In 2010 the last pint was also pulled at the popular Woolpack Inn, which at the time had been controversially renamed The Shambles, and has since been turned into a private residence.

Up until the current pandemic, The Swan was still in business, and hopefully it will be again, as it’s a place that holds a special significance for me in terms of my ancestors.

From what I can gather, (and historians, please feel free to correct me if I’ve got this slightly out of skew), during the 1800s and earlier, the establishment we know today was originally called The King’s Head, and across the square was another pub called The Swan Inn.

This other pub was run by George Derbyshire and his wife Emma, who was a member of the prestigious Lawton family. At some point the couple moved over to the King’s Head, taking the name ‘The Swan’ with them, and thus the Top House was born.

In Oldham in 1833, Dr Walter Henry Fox Ramsden was also born, and he went on to become a prominent local figure, acting as Saddleworth’s Medical Officer of Health for 25 years.

He campaigned for cleaner drinking water in the area, and following his death in 1900, it was decided to erect a memorial dedicated to him, which would incorporate a drinking fountain. The chosen location was the square in Dobcross.

Originally from Sheffield, specialist builder Herbert Edward Booth arrived in Dobcross to help with the construction of the monument, and he took lodgings at The Swan while the work was ongoing.

Licensees George and Emma by this time had a daughter named Gertrude, who worked at the pub, and it seems it wasn’t long before Herbert and Gertrude were an item (as they used to say back in the day).The upshot of all this is that Herbert and Gertrude got married and had children, and one of their daughters was my maternal grandmother. So it’s perhaps little wonder that I feel a strong connection to Dobcross, and the area around the square in particular.

It also strikes me as curious that if the council had decided to erect Dr Ramsden’s memorial in Uppermill instead of Dobcross, I might never have been born. (Or have I seen Back to the Future too many times)?

An additional panel was later added to the other side of the obelisk in memory of Dr Ramsden’s grandson, WPB Stonehouse, who was also a local physician, and who died in 1998.

Sadly the memorial has suffered some unfortunate damage in recent years, as a result of wayward sat navs, it would seem.

On the morning of Christmas Eve in 2014, there was gridlock in the village when the monument was toppled from its plinth after being struck by a van. As reported in Saddleworth Independent at the time, the accident left the lantern and stone panels lying in pieces across Woods Lane.

Thankfully Oldham Council drafted in some professional monument menders and the local landmark was restored to its former glory in time for the village’s Whit Friday celebrations in 2015.

Then in September last year a local house was damaged and the monument was toppled yet again as a huge heavy goods vehicle made an ill-fated attempt to negotiate the tiny village square.

Once again the memorial and lamp were sympathetically restored and, as you can see from our photo, have returned to their rightful place as the focal point of this charming Saddleworth village, enhanced by an attractive floral display.

Here’s to the next 120 years (sat navs permitting).

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