The boundaries of the Metropolitan Borough of Bolton were set as part of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, and cover an amalgamation of eight former local government districts; seven Urban Districts from the administrative county of Lancashire, and the County Borough of Bolton. The metropolitan districts of Bury, Salford and Wigan lie to the east, south and west respectively, and the non-metropolitan districts of Blackburn with Darwen and Chorley in Lancashire lie to the north and north-west. The borough is named after its largest settlement, Bolton, but covers a much larger area that includes the settlements of Farnworth, Kearsley, Horwich, Blackrod and Westhoughton, and a suburban and rural element from the West Pennine Moors.

Evidence of prehistoric settlement in the district consists flint tool finds, including a Neolithic flint polisher and hammerhead from Queen’s Park in Bolton, and fragmentary remains of a Neolithic chambered long barrow and a possible round barrow. There have also been discoveries of Bronze Age stone circles, cairns and burial mounds within the area. Archaeological excavations at Cutacre in Little Hulton revealed intact archaeological remains dating to Late Mesolithic and Middle Bronze Age periods. The earliest evidence was represented by a small collection of Late Mesolithic stone tools, comprising nine fragments of worked flint and two pieces of worked chert, which together represent three flakes, one blade fragment, four scrapers, two microliths, and a bladelet core. Evidence for the later prehistoric activity took the form of a small settlement, dated to the Middle Bronze Age. The settlement comprised a single roundhouse and two sequential four-post structures; a small assemblage of Middle Bronze Age pottery was also recovered from the excavation.

Evidence for Roman occupation in Bolton is scarce, with the supposed Roman road alignment, now the A6, as the main indication of any Roman activity in the borough. It was reported in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1807 that several Roman burial urns had been discovered on Breightmet Hill, although this awaits corroboration: there are no adequate descriptions of their discovery, and the urns have since been lost. A single sherd of Roman pottery, however, was recovered from a disturbed context during archaeological excavations at 37-41 Churchgate in Bolton town centre.

It is not certain when the town of Bolton first became established. The name ‘Bolton’ is not recorded until the 12th century, but is thought to be Anglo-Saxon in origin may derive from the Old English ‘bothel’, meaning a dwelling house, and ‘ton’, meaning an enclosure. Fragments of two pre-Norman stone crosses, thought to date from no later than AD 950, were discovered when the parish church of St Peter was rebuilt in 1866, providing some evidence for activity during this period. Writing in 1914, JJT Hill was firmly of the opinion that the site of St Mary’s Church in Deane had been occupied by a Saxon church, but corroborating evidence was lacking; the current church is believed to have been built in 1247.

Bolton lay within the Hundred of Salford at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. A market charter was granted to Bolton by King Henry III in 1251, with a borough charter being awarded in 1253. Town plans of Bolton suggest that the medieval market plots were centred on Churchgate and Deansgate. There were several medieval halls in the district, with the late medieval timber-framed great hall at Smithills Hall providing a fine example. Other surviving late medieval halls in Bolton include Hall i’ th’ Wood, and Turton Tower that originated in the late Middle Ages as a two-storey stone pele tower. There are no complete medieval buildings surviving within Bolton town centre, although several have medieval fabric surviving within later rebuilds. These include the Old Man and Scythe pub, 6-10 Churchgate and the Churchgate pub at 11-13 Churchgate. Part of a burgage plot was discovered during excavations at the former Boar’s Head pub at 37-41 Churchgate. Although no structures were definitively medieval in date, several pottery sherds were recovered from a possible relict ploughsoil.

Bolton was still a small market town at the end of the 15th century, with two annual fairs for horses, cattle and farm produce. In 1540, at a time when the textile industries in south Lancashire were beginning to flourish, John Leland wrote of the trading of ‘cottons and coarse yarns in the market’, reflecting the origins of an industry that was to become of paramount significance to the town’s economy. The regional importance of Bolton during this period is implied by the level of annotation on Saxton’s map of 1577. The surrounding district was characterised by isolated halls and farmsteads set against a background of open-field systems, pasture meadows and large tracts of woodland, with the textile industry gaining increasing importance.

By the 17th century Bolton had become a marketing and distribution centre not only for the established woollen trade but also for the emerging cotton industry. Despite a setback in the Civil War, when it was sacked by a Royalist army in 1644, Bolton had a thriving agricultural and textile economy by the late 17th century as the town emerged as the seat of a high-quality fustian industry, and the source of the largest contingent of ‘country manufacturers attending the powerful Manchester market’. An enumeration of the inhabitants of the Bolton in 1773 calculated that the town contained 946 houses with a population of 4,568. It was also during this period that Bolton gained a reputation for being a centre of Puritanism, becoming known as the ‘Geneva of Lancashire’.

William Yates’ Map of the County Palatine of Lancaster of 1786 provides the earliest survey to show the general layout of Bolton. This shows that settlement was focused along the southern bank of the River Croal at the junction of Deansgate and Churchgate with Bradshawgate. This is likely to reflect the layout of the medieval settlement, with some ribbon development along Bradshawgate.

The next available map of Bolton is that surveyed by G Pigot, and published by Baines in 1824. This shows that the town had experienced rapid growth during the early 19th century. The layout of the streets and the configuration of the buildings surveyed by Pigot imply that development may in part have been ad hoc, and lacking urban planning. Conversely, the map also shows several streets on the urban fringe to have been laid out in a more regular pattern, but awaiting development, suggesting an element of town planning.

The textile industry was the basis of Bolton’s huge economic and population growth after the late 18th century. The first water-powered cotton mill in Bolton was established in 1777 on the River Croal in the Great Bridge district of the town. The success of St Helena Mill attracted other entrepreneurs to the locale, and the Great Bridge district of the town centre became an early focus for Bolton’s emerging factory-based cotton industry. Many other local watercourses also provided locations for early textile mills, including the River Tongue on the south-east side of the town, where Dam Side Mill (known subsequently as Lever Bridge Mills) was established in 1784. The Dean Brook at Barrow Bridge was also utilised by textile manufacturers, and a mill had been established on the brook by 1790, which was supplemented before 1800 by a long, four-storey mill that was powered by a 42ft-diameter waterwheel.  

Rural factories were also proving to be an important and distinctive element in the expansion of Bolton’s cotton industry during the early 1800s. One such factory complex was established in the valley of the Eagley Brook to the north of the town in 1802-03. Initially comprising a three-storey mill that housed some 4,500 mule spindles, the site was expanded significantly in 1818 and again in 1822-25, increasing the number of spindles to around 28,000; the remnants of this mill complex survive as three Grade II listed buildings. During the same period, a large mill complex was established upstream at Egerton, which was noted for its massive iron waterwheel, considered to be the second largest in the country.

Experimentation with steam power, initially as a means of pumping water from a reservoir over a waterwheel, allowed manufacturers to erect mills closer to Bolton town centre, and five such mills had been established on Bradshawgate on the south-eastern fringe of the town centre by 1802; these mills were all demolished during the construction of the Bolton & Blackburn Railway in the 1840s. One of the first mills in Bolton to be powered entirely by steam was Spa Mill, built on the south-western fringe of the town in 1801. Other early foci for steam-powered mills were the Mill Hill district, to the north-east of Bolton town centre, Flash Street, Ashburner Street, Spring Gardens, Bury Street and Turton Street.

By the 1840s, the factory-based textile industry had begun to spread on the southern and western sides of Bolton, as the town extended its influence over a network of satellite manufacturing towns and villages, such as Westhoughton, Farnworth and Kearsley, although the first steam-powered cotton mill in Farnworth had been established in 1828 by James Rothwell Barnes. This extension of Bolton’s influence was paralleled with growth in north Bolton, with a major concentration of mills emerging in Halliwell, including the Halliwell Mills of Greenhalgh & Shaw, founded in 1852. Another important group was also established at Astley Bridge during this period, including the New Mills that were founded by TM Hesketh in 1857.

The main branch of the textile industry in the Bolton district was the spinning of medium counts from long-stapled cotton for the quality trades. Bolton was also recognised as an important centre for fine weaving as well as spinning, and is reputed to have preserved into the 1890s one of the last surviving groups of handloom weavers. Bolton was the fourth largest weaving town in south Lancashire by 1891, and became the centre of a weaving belt that extended from Wigan and Leigh across the county to Rochdale, Bury and Radcliffe. By 1914, Bolton was acknowledged to be the premier weaving town in south Lancashire.

Textile finishing, particularly bleaching, was also a major industry in the area. With the introduction of new methods of textile production, a new landscape emerged. Buildings such as mills, high-status mill owners’ houses, large estates of workers’ housing, commercial buildings and institutional buildings were constructed, as well as associated industries such as bleach and dye works and new modes of transport such as the canal system, railways and tramways.

National industrial decline after the 1920s had a significant impact on the area, resulting in the closure of numerous textile mills. Suburbs grew up around Bolton’s 19th-century urban centres, particularly after the mid-1940s. More than half of the district’s terraced housing has been replaced, with many sites redeveloped for modern housing, and others now in commercial or industrial use. In many areas industrial remains have been swept away and greened over or replaced by housing, so that it is often difficult to appreciate today how industrial the area once was.

The Heritage Assets of Bolton

“Bolton has a distinctive and diverse heritage, ranging from its stone built model villages in its Pennine fringes, its architecturally distinctive mills and former industrial sites to its grand civic centre. A local list will capture the heritage that is cherished by the local community and help understand its significance for today and future generations” 

Jackie Whelan. Conservation Officer for Bolton

Agricultural Landscapes of Bolton: Farms and Vernacular Cottages

With the exception of ancient halls and Bolton town centre, farms represent the earliest form of settlement in the district. In some areas the distribution pattern of farms has remained. Vernacular cottages are historic, modest homes built using local materials. Cottages usually appear in isolation as a single building with a garden, but are also found in short, sometimes uneven, rows. Where old farm buildings and cottages have survived within urbanised areas, they serve as a reminder of historic agricultural origins of the area. Any evidence relating to this agricultural landscape is important. Evidence for this includes:

  • farmhouses;
  • barns;
  • stables;
  • workers cottages;
  • weavers cottages with rows of windows to the upper floor;
  • boundary treatments;
  • methods of enclosure.

Elite dwellings (grand houses)

An elite dwelling is a grand house, usually associated with a wealthy family. The house is usually set within formal gardens or parkland with lodges, granges and other associated buildings. Some of these date to the medieval period (such as Smithills Hall) but many in Bolton date to the 19th century and were built by wealthy industrialists. These buildings vary in design and materials, but sites are likely to retain the following evidence:

  • grand standing buildings of historic interest such as historic halls, post-medieval clothiers houses The homes of wealthy 19th-century industrialists;
  • ancillary buildings such as stables, coach houses, lodges or cottages;
  • garden or parkland features may also be present, including boundaries and paths.
  • could do with some details on common design features here from Jackie

Terraced Housing

Terraces are rows of houses with a unified front. They were mostly built in the late 18th to early 20th centuries. These were often built to accommodate Bolton’s industrial workers, particularly in the 19th century. The quality of buildings ranged from sub-standard back-to-back houses to model estate cottages. Terraced housing once formed a significant element of the urban landscape in the Bolton. Surviving remnants are an important reminder of the industrial heritage of the region and evidence of this type of asset can include:

  • rows of terraced houses ranging from back-to-back cottages to middleclass residences;
  • within larger areas of terraced housing, there is potential for the survival of other buildings from the same period such as chapels and schools. This is something to look out for.

Villas/ Larger Detached Houses

Villas and detached houses are substantial, higher-status houses that were historically the homes of Bolton’s middle classes. They are typically set in large gardens and are detached or semi-detached. In the mid-19th century, these homes were built in areas with easy railway and tramway access, which resulted in long streets of such houses. Prior to this, these larger middles-class houses were built in a more dispersed pattern. This type of house also includes vicarages and the residences of squires. Many examples of this type of house remain in Bolton today. Look out for:

  • standing buildings of historic interest, including architect designed residences of local, regional or national importance;
  • larger detached or semi-detached houses set within their own grounds;
  • historic boundary treatments and historic gateposts (some of which may retain the names of the houses).

The Textile Industry

The rise of the textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries had a significant impact on the development of Bolton’s landscape. Prior to the 18th century, this landscape was mostly agricultural. Even before industrialisation, however, textiles were being produced in rural handloom workshops, an activity that continued after the introduction of textile mills. The town of Bolton is best known for cotton spinning. Most mills were large, multi-storey complexes with attached buildings for power looms, engines and offices. Many mills and bleach works were situated in the valley bottoms to access the water needed for manufacturing processes. Heritage assets associated with the textile industry include:

  • weavers cottages (sometimes with long strips of windows to the upper floor);
  • mills and associated structures;
  • bleach works and associated structures;
  • warehouses;
  • water features commonly associated with industrial sites including arrangements of reservoirs, weirs and leats.

Extraction Sites

Extraction sites in Bolton tend to be long-lived and were established early, many before 1894. Stone quarries were present at Montcliffe and the adjacent Pilkington Delf near Horwich by the mid-19th century, and both sites are still worked today. This category of site may also include coal mining, which was prevalent across the western part of the district, especially in Hulton and Westhoughton. Extraction sites made a significant impact on the landscape. Evidence of extraction sites in the landscape incudes:

  • disused shafts;
  • the standing buildings relating to various extractive industries such as historic processing equipment, pithead structures and administrative buildings;
  • spoil tips and evidence for subsidence;
  • evidence of earlier transport infrastructure, such as railway lines and tramways.


Institutional sites are those sites that serve communities. These sites my date from the 19th or 20th century and often make a positive contribution to the landscape. Schools and hospitals, for example, can be substantial buildings set on large sites and civic and municipal buildings can also be imposing structures, forming landmark features at focal points of urban centres. Churches and mosques, especially those with a spire, tower, minarets or Qubba may be features of the landscape that are visible from a great distance. Institutional sites almost always contain buildings and can include:

  • schools and universities;
  • places of worship;
  • medical complexes and nursing homes;
  • civic and municipal buildings;
  • police, fire and ambulance stations;
  • community centres;
  • public baths and wash-houses;
  • parish halls;
  • day centres;
  • youth clubs;
  • boundaries and railings and other features like lych gates;
  • cemeteries (some may have important headstones or sculpture).

Open Spaces (recreation and sports grounds, playing fields and public parks)

Formal recreation grounds were first created in Bolton in the second half of the 19th century and some sites may still include some early features. Today, playing fields, sports grounds and recreation grounds can offer welcome open green space within otherwise built-up areas. The perimeters of playing fields, sports grounds and recreation grounds may respect or incorporate earlier boundaries relating to field systems or settlement, reflecting the historic landscape of an area. Some sporting facilities dating to the 19th and 20th centuries, such as bowling and tennis clubs may be incorporated into the layouts of residential areas. Open spaces are often very important to local communities, some features to look out for include:

  • pavilions and clubhouses;
  • bandstands;
  • pagodas;
  • buildings relating to former historic grand houses such as stables, coach houses, glasshouses and ice houses, lodges and gatehouses;
  • historic sports grounds;
  • associated boundary features such as railings and gateposts.

Modes of Transport

New modes of transport developed in the 18th and 19th centuries such as the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal, and the new railways had a significant impact on the landscape and industry of Bolton. Although some areas of the canal are now backfilled and no longer in use, historic features associated with the canals may survive, including the impressive flight of locks at Nob End in Little Lever. Similarly, there were a number of railway lines throughout Bolton that are no longer in use, some of which were associated with the collieries. Areas of track or associated structures may remain as evidence of these historically significant modes of transport. Remaining evidence may include:

  • 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century structures, such as lifting equipment along the canals;
  • Boathouses;
  • features that facilitated the use of horse-drawn canal boats;
  • locks;
  • lock-keepers’ cottages;
  • bridges;
  • cuttings;
  • aqueducts;
  • tunnels associated with canals.

Railway heritage

Horwich, in particular, developed an important centre for the railway industry after 1884, when the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway set about constructing a large complex for erecting and maintaining locomotives, and led to a dramatic increase in the town’s population. This huge works was largely cleared in the 21st century, although remaining evidence for former railways across the district may include:

  • railway stations;
  • warehouses;
  • rolling stock housing;
  • maintenance sheds;
  • signal boxes;
  • station masters’ houses;
  • offices;
  • associated hotels.