The rich history of a secluded mansion in Manchester

From colonial merchants in the Congo to an illegal suffragette sleepover, one grand house takes us on a journey into the past

By Thomas McGrath

Denison House stands behind dense, manicured hedges in suburban Rusholme. It is just one of many old mansions that were once home to Manchester’s rich and powerful. If you walk along Denison Road, you can catch a glimpse of it — since 1986 the building has been used as the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China. Look out for tall, black gates with gleaming plaques and two pillars bearing its name. Over the centuries many people have called it home. And we've spent the past two months piecing together its fascinating history.

Let's start at the beginning. Denison House was built in 1862, standing in a generous four-acre plot just on the edge of Victoria Park. Contrary to what its name would suggest, the park was not an open public space. There were no squealing children, promenading sweethearts breathing in the perfume of summer blooms, or happy crowds of people enjoying themselves. It was a private, gated-residential development designed to appeal to Manchester’s super-rich.

The Victoria Park Company was founded in 1836 by a group of eight private investors, including Joseph Denison, whose name was given to both the road and house. The development was the first of its kind in the country, which meant the Company had to get an Act of Parliament to establish the legal status for their venture.

The Company purchased 146 acres of land from the Birch Estate in Rusholme, along with parcels of land in Chorlton-upon-Medlock and Moss Side. Speculative property development was advertised as “a very safe and profitable investment” and they offered £100 shares to investors for a lifetime interest.

The “profitable investment” was not to be. The Victoria Park Company failed in 1838. For a time it was a “no man’s land,” the lodges and roads, being untended to, fell into weedy disrepair. In 1845 it was taken over by the Victoria Park Trust.

By the 1850s the Park covered one-fifth of the area of Rusholme. It had gas lighting and paved streets. The public still could not entirely enjoy these features freely: non-residents had to pay a toll to enter, and the residents of the Park employed their own police constable. This served as a tangible reminder of the class divide and enforced the sense of a closed community.

This change of park ownership did not diminish its popularity: 35 houses were built there between 1837-1845 and another 40 houses between 1846-1865. It certainly appealed to John Coupland Rodgers, the elusive man who built Denison House. He spared no expense for the grand structure. There were 11 bedrooms, four entertaining rooms, a ballroom, a conservatory, hot and cold running water, two baths, two water closets, five basement rooms, stabling for four horses, a coachman’s house and “the finest carved and oak dining room in the country.”

The house is built from pale sandstone rubble in a neo-gothic style. Its eclectic array of architectural features was typical of Victorian houses: Tudor-style hoodmoulds above the windows, gothic tracery on the impressive double-height staircase window, an irregular roofline and canted, rectangular bay windows. Rodgers lived there for a few years, before it was sold in 1867.

A Colonial Connection

James Frederick Hutton (1826-1890) purchased Denison House in 1867 and he renamed it Mon Repos (‘my place to rest‘). Hutton was born into a wealthy mercantile family in London. The family had been trading on the West Coast of Africa since the late-eighteenth century and this cross-continent connection was to shape his life.

In 1852 he went on a two-year expedition around numerous British territories in Africa and upon his return to Britain, he married Catherine Mary Jones (1825-1865) and moved to Altrincham where the couple started their family. Hutton later married twice more; in 1868 to Edith Ellen Bennett (1848-1871) and in 1871 to Annie Thornton (b.1848).

Hutton’s firm, J. F. Hutton & Co., traded cotton goods manufactured in Manchester with different colonies on the West Coast of Africa. Hutton threw himself into international trade and he joined the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. He was subsequently appointed to the Board of Directors and eventually served as its president. He was not afraid to oppose the government’s international policies that were potentially detrimental to trade.

In 1875 he was a prominent figure in the Chamber’s opposition of the government’s plans to cede Gambia to France and was also one of the founding members of the National African Company and the British East Africa Company.

Somehow during all this, he played an active civic role in Manchester, serving as a Justice of the Peace and he was heavily involved with Manchester’s Geographical Society. In 1885 he was elected as the first MP for Manchester North, as the Conservative candidate, but he was defeated by his Liberal opponent in an election in 1886.

In 1878 Hutton’s intimate knowledge of Africa secured him a lucrative position with King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was expanding his personal territory in Africa, and he was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State. Leopold requested Hutton and Sir William Mackinnon to become members (and funders) of “The International Association for advancing civilisation and commerce up the Congo.”

Hutton and Mackinnon were the only British men involved with the Association, which was firmly rooted in Eurocentric ideologies that empire-building was akin to spreading civilisation. Leopold’s claims over the Congo were approved by other international powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885.

The Conference attendees had the stated aim of improving the lives of the native peoples of Africa. In reality, they were orchestrating a grab for natural resources. This marked the start of the period known as ‘The Scramble for Africa’, where Britain, France, Germany and others carved up the continent for their own imperialist gains.

From 1887, Hutton served as the Belgian Consul in Manchester but his relationship with Leopold and the Congo reveals his somewhat two-sided character. In 1884 Hutton invited his friend Henry Morton Stanley to speak to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in British colonies. The British slave trade itself had been abolished earlier in 1807. Stanley also acted as Leopold II’s agent for the Congo.

Stanley and Hutton took part in this public celebration to mark the end of Britain’s involvement in slavery, but both continued to profit from the exploitation of the native peoples of Africa. Leopold II ran a horrific regime in the Congo and he grew rich from extracting ivory and rubber. In the Congo, the main source for rubber came from the white rubber vine, but harvesting from a vine was more difficult than from a tree. Despite this, Leopold II imposed very high productivity rates for workers.

Millions of Congolese people died from the brutal working conditions, which were enforced by Leopold’s personal military police force, Force Publique. There were cruel and unnecessary punishments, and workers had their hands cut off for missing their quotas of rubber.

James Frederick Hutton died in Egypt in 1890. His fortune was made by shipping goods between Manchester and Africa. In the end, his corpse made that final journey back to the city. Like the mummies of ancient Egypt, it was enclosed in a number of coffins weighing over a tonne. He was buried in St James’s churchyard, Rusholme.

Renting Denison House

After Hutton’s death, Denison House was let to tenants. George Bolden, a cotton mill owner, resided there with his family and five servants between 1890-1895. Following them were the Sternberg family who lived at Denison House between 1896-1899. They paid a considerable sum of £120 per year to rent the house, which was roughly 10x the annual salary of one of their housemaids.

Siegfried Sternberg (1854-1922) made his wealth as a shipping merchant. He was born in Hanover, Germany and in 1889 he married Luise Zander (1867-1953). The couple had three sons, Adolph Edgar Joseph (known as Edgar) (1890-1916), Rupert Oswald (1893-1916) and Harold Edwin (b.1897) who were all born in Manchester.

The Sternbergs were part of a large community of German-born residents of Manchester that had flourished since the early-nineteenth century, which by 1914 stood at approximately 4,000 people. Like Sternberg, many German emigrants were wealthy merchants and even though they were well assimilated, they still tended to live near each other. Local historian Maurice Spiers estimated that one-third of the residents of Victoria Park in the mid-nineteenth century were of German origin.

The outbreak of the First World War altered the relationship between the communities. In May 1915 there was considerable anti-German rioting, looting and wilful destruction of German-owned property across Manchester and its suburbs. To some extent this was a classist attack restricted to working-class districts. Victoria Park, still gated and enclosed, was not targeted during these violent outbreaks of xenophobia.

The wealthy residents of the park did not escape scrutiny though. A letter written to a Manchester newspaper complained that British women were maintaining their friendships with German women. They could be found walking in Victoria Park to “hob-nob with the German women, and sigh for peace that Germany may hear.”

Siegfried Sternberg had become a British citizen in 1913 and his two eldest sons both died in 1916 fighting for Britain. Perhaps owing to anti-German sentiment, the only surviving son, Harold changed his surname to Stamford in the early 1920s. The German community in Manchester was destroyed by the First World War and “the ill-will” prevailed until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Census Lodge: The Suffragette Sleepover, 1911

In 1899 Denison House was purchased by Rose Hyland (1843-1911) who lived there with her sister, Mary Fitzsimons (1853-1914). Hyland renamed Denison House Holly Bank, which was a name she was fond of. It had been the name of her former home on Oxford Place and another house she owned on Conyngham Road.

Hyland had been a resident of Victoria Park since 1885 and her story was one of rags-to-riches. She was the daughter of an Irish immigrant and as a child, she had lived in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, where she worked as a barmaid in her parents’ pub on Red Cross Street. In 1870 she married Christopher Hyland (1831-1877) who was a drysalter (someone who produced a range of chemicals). He died just seven years later and left his widow a fortune. When Rose died in 1911 her estate was valued at £237,109 which is roughly equivalent to £24 million today.

Rose Hyland dedicated herself to philanthropic work, and she held a long-standing position on the Manchester Board of Guardians. Her charity extended closer to home and in 1901 she donated part of the land around Denison House to be turned into allotments for the working classes.

Hyland and her sister were keen supporters of the women’s suffrage movement and they enjoyed a close friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst, who at one time was a neighbour in Victoria Park. It was noted that Hyland’s “beautiful house was open day and night to militant suffragists, and her sympathy never failed.” She also donated huge sums of money to the Women’s Social and Political Union which was founded by Pankhurst in 1903.

Hyland became involved in some of the more radical tactics for raising awareness of the suffrage movement. In 1909 she publicly announced that she would refuse to pay taxes as long as she was denied the vote. The bailiffs arrived at Denison House to remove some furniture to sell at auction and Hyland used this as a publicity stunt.

She arranged for a cart to take away her possessions and it was followed by the defiant parade of Mary Gawthorpe and a Miss Halliwell, both wearing purple, green, and white, into the city centre. The story made national newspapers and Hyland repeated the action with some property she owned in Blackpool. Her social position and her fortune protected her from any adverse outcome from her actions that otherwise would have resulted in imprisonment.

On the night of the census in April 1911, Hyland allowed fellow suffragette, Jessie Stephenson, to use Denison House as a refuge for women who refused to fill out the census. This was part of a nationwide suffrage campaign, in which some women argued that if their votes did not count, then they would not be counted in the census. The “sleepover” at Denison House was especially important as it gave women somewhere to go if their husbands, family members or landlords would not allow them to break the law by refusing to be recorded in their own homes.

Hyland’s other house on Conyngham Road was used and Rose stayed there along with 77 women and 11 men. At Denison House, which was nicknamed “Census Lodge”, 155 women and 52 men spent a night with Stephenson which was filled with debates, singing and dancing. The women were amicable to the police, who were served coffee, and to the press, who were given a tour of the house and took photographs.

Rose Hyland died a few weeks later in 1911. In her will she left bequests to 50 charities amounting to around £187,000 in modern money. However, they could only receive the money if they could prove that within 12 months of her death, they had employed two women on either their committees, boards or managing bodies. Several societies and institutions failed to uphold Hyland’s request and they did not get the money.

She left a codicil in her will that if this happened, then the money should instead go to the Manchester and Salford Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, which provided funds for the defence of poor prisoners at the police courts. Hyland’s sister, Mary Fitzsimons continued to live at Denison House and she was also a member of the Board of Guardians and an official in the Catholic Women’s League and the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society.

Denison House Today

Around 1915 Denison House became a home to many, albeit on a temporary basis. The house had been converted into a private nursing home for expectant mothers and from 1924 it was used by the Manchester and Salford District Nursing Institution.

In these pre-NHS days, nursing and maternity homes were the safer alternatives for those who could not afford the fees. For the next forty or so years, rooms which were once James Frederick Hutton’s bedroom and Rose Hyland’s ballroom were recorded as the birthplace for generations of Manchester’s residents. It was later used as a nurses’ home.

The new role of Denison House also communicated the changing nature of Victoria Park in the inter-war period. The tolls were scrapped and eventually the gates and lodges were removed. The looming mansions were converted into healthcare and education facilities or into hotels and lodging houses. Their expansive gardens were carved up and sold to property developers who built suburban semis.

Denison House was fortunate to receive a Grade II listed building status in 1974 that protected it from demolition, a fate that befell many properties in Victoria Park at this time. Its colourful history is contained in the walls and its rooms, which are hidden to outsiders. From colonial merchants in the Congo to an illegal suffragette sleepover, the lives of its former residents are forever tied to it.

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