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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.haighwoodlandpark.co.uk
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 https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Resident/Museums-archives/Museum-of-Wigan-Life/visiting-the-museum.aspx
* Sir Roger died without issue and the baronetcy became extinct. The estates passed, via a niece, to the Earls of Crawford and Balcarres.