architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, Lancashire, landscape, Observatory, Summerhouse

The Observatory, Haigh Hall, Wigan, Lancashire

On the edge of the town of Wigan stands Haigh Hall, described in 1745 as a ‘good old house and wood in a very pretty situation’. On rising ground above Haigh Hall (pronounced Hay) there once stood a substantial landscape feature which housed an observatory. A pair of paintings with an interesting history help tell the tale. 

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Creative Commons License. Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore, oil on canvas, 1750, 20 3/4 in. x 14 1/2 in. (527 mm x 368 mm). Purchased 1896, NPG 1036.

Lady Bradshaigh (née Bellingham, 1705-1785) was a close friend of the popular author Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela was one of the bestsellers of the day. In 1750 she asked the artist Joseph Highmore to paint Richardson, but in tribute to their friendship the writer asked that Sir Roger and Lady Bradshaigh and their home also be included in the portrait.

Sir Roger and Lady Bradshaigh by Edward Haytley, 1746. Courtesy of Wigan Archives and Local Studies, B81.909. Look closely at the top right hand corner.

The Bradshaighs had recently been painted by Edward Haytley (aka Heatly, Hatelely) as shown above, so they had a second version painted to be used by Highmore in his painting of Richardson. Curiously, it varies in significant detail: the couple have changed their outfits, Sir Roger (1699-1770) strikes a different pose, and Lady Bradshaigh is attended by her pet fawn instead of her dog. A constant in both paintings is the folly, top right.

The painting above is now in the collection of the Museum of Wigan Life (the other is in a private collection) and it is possible to see the observatory in some detail. The folly looks to have been constructed as an eye-catcher in the form of a sham ruin and consists of a central pavilion, pierced with an arch, and flanking walls with arches. By the 1770s it was known as the Observatory, possibly after some rebuilding work in the 1760s, for which accounts survive. Haytley’s portrait, painted in 1746, shows Sir Roger with a telescope, giving further evidence of his interest in the firmament. As so often, there was a claim of countless counties being visible from the structure; 18th century accounts disagree as to whether it is 12 or 13.

The Observatory at Haigh Hall, drawing by Thomas Whitehouse, 1826. Courtesy of Wigan Archives and Local Studies, PC2010.411.

A sketch dated 1826 shows this remodelling of the central pavilion to create a room with large windows, and this building is reminiscent of Robert Adam’s Ratcheugh Observatory for the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle. It is not known when the building disappeared, but by the late 19th century there was another observatory on the site, a simple wooden tower built for Lord Crawford (1871-1940)*, also a keen astronomer. A tiny fragment of this later structure survives but the 18th century observatory has literally disappeared: Wigan Archaeological Society has tried in vain to find its foundations.

In the 18th century visitors to Haigh Hall were fascinated by a material called cannel (or candle) coal which was mined on the estate. This was an extremely dense form of coal, used for the usual purposes of providing heat and light (it burned very brightly), but also as a decorative material that could be carved into ornaments and was often passed off as a rare black marble.

This bust of Henry VIII, attributed to Robert Town (active 1756-1767), is made of the local seam of cannel, a fossilised material resembling jet, found in the coal seams near Wigan, Lancashire. Museum number 35-1870, ©V&A Museum.

At Haigh Hall it was used for a much larger project: the building of a summerhouse for Lady Bradshaigh. What made the summerhouse such a novelty was that although made of coal, it was entirely clean to the touch, and much was made of the fact that young ladies could sit in it without leaving a mark on ‘their most delicate vestures’. It must have been built sometime between 1742, when Sir Roger took over the estate, and 1772 when it is described by a visitor. Sadly no trace remains, and one can’t help but wonder if it ended up on the fire once it became unfashionable.

The big question is whether the Observatory and Summerhouse were one and the same building; no early visitor mentions both. The 1796 estate map shows a structure in the location of the folly shown in the portraits, but with no detail. The building in the portraits shines golden, and certainly doesn’t appear to be coal black. The Crawford Muniments in the National Library of Scotland, currently uncatalogued, may reveal more in due course.

Haigh Hall is now a very popular country park

The handsome hall (remodelled in the 1820s) is currently empty and in need of a purpose after a failed hotel venture.

Examples of cannel coal and the painting of Sir Roger and Lady Bradshaigh can be seen in the Museum of Wigan Life

* Sir Roger died without issue and the baronetcy became extinct. The estates passed, via a niece, to the Earls of Crawford and Balcarres.

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10 thoughts on “The Observatory, Haigh Hall, Wigan, Lancashire”

  1. Susan Kellerman says:

    This is a very interesting post. The Haytley painting is full of fascinating detail: what book is Lady B holding? What is the bird sitting on the chair? Is it significant, ie was it a family pet, did it feature on the family coat of arms, or is it symbolic? Lots of detail of formal garden layout. And note the rainbow, whose ‘end’ lies just beyond the folly on the hill.
    As for the cannel coal, is there any evidence of any other use as a building material? Was it found in other parts of the country, or anywhere abroad? If it could be found anywhere else in Europe, might it also have been used in garden structures? In a park in Slovakia, in an area with a long tradition of iron ore mining, a late C18 garden temple was built with corrugated iron, and garden statues were also made from cast iron.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks for commenting Susan. The double portrait is fascinating and full of detail, as you say. There are birds on the crest but I couldn’t say with any certainty if that is what the one perched on the chair represents. It is interesting that the accoutrements and outfits change in the two portraits of Sir Roger and Lady B; sadly I have not discovered why. The formal gardens were recorded by Knyff and Kip, easily found online.
      I have found no other evidence of buildings made of cannel coal. Possibly the Bradshaighs, who owned the seam, were the only people who had the means to use it so liberally.

  2. Garance says:

    You really are educating us Ms Flaneuse. Cannel coal is a new sculpting material to me … and I find Town’s bust of Henry VIII most attractive. Made even more eye catching by the emerald neck piece he sports.

    I love the idea of ladies in their finery sitting on coal and coming away unsullied – by the materials of the summerhouse, if not their follies in that space!

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Garance. It was new to me too, it’s good to keep learning!

  3. Grace Ellis says:

    Dear Editor ,was just reading the June copy of Garden Illustrated
    on page 35 there is mention of Slindon or Nore Folly in Sussex
    Its been restored by NT – so Im sure it is on your radar But I thought I would mention it anyway Thanks for your recent email

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Grace, I haven’t seen this article so will look out for it. I have not visited the folly for many years but hope to revisit once we are all safely out and about again.

  4. Alan Davies says:

    Very interesting site, well designed as well. I’m a lifelong explorer of Haigh and the hall’s grounds. I’m gathering all my research for a book on Haigh Cannel. I have large amounts of it part filling my garage if anybody wants any!
    In my Flickr Haigh album amongst natural history shots are historical images and Cannel related items.
    Cannel is formed from lake deposits, pond weed for example. One or two small bungalow type houses have been built from it in the US, there’s even a town there called Cannelton. Indians carved it into pendants at Ohio 3000 years ago.
    Wigan Museum has an example of Town’s Henry VIII busts, bit of a production line!
    Alan Davies

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Alan and thanks for this really interesting comment. Good luck with your research. As you have a garage full of the stuff (and I didn’t dare rub the bits in Wigan Museum!), can you confirm that you really could rub cannel coal against a lady’s dress with no dire consequences? I didn’t know about the seam in the US, fascinating stuff. I will enjoy looking at your photos. Thanks again.

      1. Alan Davies says:

        Yes it’s just like jet when polished, amazing material

    2. Grace Ellis says:

      Dear Alan really found your comments interesting and your photographs amazing
      a much overused word- but in this case well deserved

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