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The Unicorn Hotel at Altrincham
The Old Market Tavern that stands in Altrincham's historic Old Market Place, was formerly known as the Unicorn Hotel (Figure 1). The building is one of several Grade II listed buildings in the area and dates from the early 19th century, although an inn had stood on the same site for centuries before, when the area was a delightfully rural public roadside, 'public' environed with a profusion of vegetation and a purling stream.
The stream that ran outside the inn turned a small water wheel. It joined the stream from Hale Moss which fed mills at Mill Street and around 1620, it was channelled a further three miles to feed the lake, moat and mill at Dunham Hall.
The inn was run by the Eaton family from around 1600 ( possibly earlier) to 1675. It had seven rooms - five bedrooms, a dwelling house for cooking and the selling of drink, and a small parlour which was used as a private dining room for customers. The inn was then taken over by William Lupton and family until 1723, when the lease came into the hands of Thomas Walton. He sub-let the inn to Robert Newall around 1730. During this time, the name of the inn is uncertain, and it wasn't until 1764 that the name ‘Unicorn Inn’ first appeared on the lease to Ann Newall, Robert's widow.
Other licensees between the years 1782 to 1911 included John Barrow, Catherine Barrow, John Sheldon, William Pownall, Sarah Pownall, Richard Plester, George Massey, James Harvey, Fanny Harvey, Clara Fray and Charles F. Redford.
Did Guy Fawkes visit the Unicorn Inn? Local historian Alfred Ingham wrote:
"It is a matter of surmise whether Guy Fawkes, after having been wounded at the “little affair” at Malpas, stopped at that ancient and still celebrated hostelry, the Unicorn, to refresh the inner man. Most probably he did and drowned the sense of his injuries in libations of choicest canary".
Over the years the Unicorn was the setting for many notable gatherings. In 1763, the Bridgewater Canal Commissioners held their first meeting at the inn, where they discussed extending the waterway to Altrincham. The successful completion of the project two years later stimulated the development of market gardening in the area, 'supplying fruit and vegetables to the fast growing cotton metropolis of Manchester'. The produce was transported in barges and night soil was brought back to fertilise the fields of Altrincham. The canal was also used for the importation of slates and other constructional materials and by 1767, warehouses had been built along the canal at Broadheath, the first step in Altrincham's industrialisation.
In 1764, a meeting of ‘Gentlemen in the Counties of Chester and Lancaster’ was held at the Unicorn, to consider an application to turnpike the section of the main road from Crossford Bridge to Altrincham. As a result, the Washway Turnpike Act was passed in 1765, and a toll house was erected at Crossford Bridge the same year.
It is thought that Thomas de Quincy, aged three, stayed at the Inn in 1802. He revisited Altrincham in 1814, travelling by stage coach from Manchester to Chester and never forgot how the market place had made him feel as a young child, watching from a window above with his nurse. He later referred to it in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
Fruits such as can be had in July, and flowers were scattered about in profusion; even the stalls of the butchers, from their brilliant cleanliness, appeared attractive; and the bonny young women of Altrincham were all trooping about in caps and aprons coquettishly disposed. The general hilarity of the scene at this early hour with the low murmurings of pleasurable conversation and laughter rose up like a fountain to the open window, left so profound an impression upon me that I never lost it.
The Unicorn Inn was rebuilt in the early 1800s with livery stables to the rear. It became a popular staging post for coaches travelling between Chester and Manchester. The business also served as a hostelry, courthouse, auction house ( Figure 2), excise office and recruiting station. Public meetings were also held there, for prominent citizens such as the mayor or local groups including the court leet.
In 1844, George Massey – the enterprising manager of the Unicorn Hotel – introduced gas to Altrincham. A modest generator plant was built to the rear of the building, to both manufacture gas and illuminate the frontage of the hotel. When the Altrincham Gas Works was formed in 1846, the company bought the gas plant from Mr Massey. Two years later, Massey was elected Mayor of Altrincham – no doubt in recognition of both his public service and his resourcefulness in providing a new and efficient means of lighting to the town.
The dominant feature of the Old Market Place from the seventeenth to late nineteenth century, was the Butter Market. It was erected in 1684 by Henry, Lord Delamer. It had a courthouse on the upper floor and the butter sellers were accommodated on the lower floor. In 1849, the Earl of Stamford built Altrincham's first town hall and a new market on the site adjoining the Unicorn Hotel. The decaying Butter Market was demolished, and its bell was hung in the turret of the new Town Hall.
By 1852, the Old Market Place had become the centre of the town’s economy ( Figure 3). Alongside its shops, inns, and offices, traders would bring their goods to be sold every Tuesday and Saturday. On a less tranquil note, the location remained the scene of public floggings with a prison lock up and the stocks located nearby.
Moves to connect the town to the railway network gained pace in 1845, when the Act of Parliament for the construction of the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR) was passed. On 28 May 1849, the first steam train left Manchester and the 65 passengers, all invited guests, alighted at Altrincham station for refreshments at the Unicorn Hotel.
The first Public Health Act was passed in 1848. In 1850, Altrincham residents petitioned the Board of Health in London to ask for an Inquiry, with a view to the application of the Act to Altrincham. Many houses had been erected without proper water supply, drainage or sewerage system. The request for an Inquiry was granted and Robert Rawlinson, Superintending Inspector of the Board, was sent to survey the town. He attended a meeting at the Unicorn Hotel to sound out public opinion, then used the feedback in his final report. The report was an essay of thirty two pages, and it recommended a number of reforms including the creation of Altrincham’s Local Board of Health in 1851. The full text of Rawlinson’s report can be seen at the Trafford Local Studies Centre in Sale (Figure 4).
On 23 October 1880, Stamford Park was opened with great fanfare. The Mayor led a procession through the streets of Altrincham, accompanied by members of the Court Leet, the Local Board, and a large number of tradesmen. After the procession, 150 guests attended a celebratory banquet at the Unicorn.
The annual three-day Sanjam Fair (‘Feast of St James’, ‘St. James Fair’) also took part in the Old Market Place. By royal charter granted in 1290, Baron Hamon de Massey had been granted a market, and a fair of three days duration on the eve, the day and the morrow of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary, but in 1319, the date of the fair was changed ro the Feast of St James, the Apostle. At the start of celebrations, both the Mayor and burgesses would assemble on the steps of the Unicorn Hotel, while the Mayor read a proclamation to formally open the fair. Following a procession through the market place, the officials would then gather for a luncheon at the Unicorn. Travelling showmen, music and merry-go-rounds would fill the Old Market Place, but it became a source of annoyance for peaceful folk who lived in the neighbourhood. The Sanjam Fair continued until May 1895 when, following a petition by the Altrincham Urban District Council, it was abolished by order of the Home Secretary.
In 1887, whilst traveling from Tatton to the Altrincham Railway Station, the Prince and Princess of Wales stopped at the Old Market Place to hear the local Sunday school children sing. Lively election gatherings also took place there – one of which resulted in paving stones being thrown through the windows of the Unicorn. The hotel was used as a husting by Coningsby Ralph Disraeli ( nephew of Benjamin Disraeli) when he contested the Altrincham seat in the General Election of 1895.
In the age of the motor car, the Unicorn was officially appointed an Automobile Association Hotel; however the advert seen in this photograph ( Figure 5) illustrates its use as both a stables, as well as a garage for cars.
Altrincham History Society Occasional Paper 22: Three Centuries of Public Houses in Altrincham
Don Bayliss: Altrincham a History
Basil D Morrison: Looking back at Altrincham
Pat Southern: Altrincham, an Illustrated History
Don Bayliss: A Town in Crisis
Charles Nickson: Bygone Altrincham
Alfred Ingham: Altrincham and Bowdon with historical reminiscences of Ashton on Mersey, Sale and surrounding Townships
Frank Bamford: The Making of Altrincham 1850 – 1991
Altrincham History Society Journal No. 35
Altrincham History Society: Tour of Altrincham
Steven Dickens: Altrincham in 50 buildings
Charles Balshaw: Strangers Guide and complete directory to Altrincham, Bowdon, Dunham, Timperley, Baguley. Ashley, Hale and Bollington