Life inside Lancashire's oldest family home

The history of Parrox Hall, near Preesall, can be traced back almost 600 years
The history of Parrox Hall, near Preesall, can be traced back almost 600 years
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Parrox Hall is situated in the township of Preesall with Hackensall in the north west corner of Over Wyre, a once isolated area in the Hundred of Amounderness.

Hidden behind banks of trees, surrounded by its own farmland in the middle of Preesall, it has been called the best kept secret of Over Wyre, familiar only to older natives of the area who remember it from their childhood as a focus of community life.

Heavily panelled dining room was home to William and Mary chairs and Charles II chairs in this 1962 photograph

Heavily panelled dining room was home to William and Mary chairs and Charles II chairs in this 1962 photograph

Hackensall is first documented in a charter of 1189 AD in which John, Count of Mortain, later King, granted the Manor of Hackensall to Galfridus Arbalastarius, one of his crossbowmen.

Prince John was in the habit of touring the country dispensing justice and exacting fines, backed up by his enforcers, a notorious band of household knights and a private army of crossbowmen, of whom Galfridus must have been a senior member.

The Manor eventually descended from Galfridus (Geoffrey) to one James Pickering, who was blessed with four daughters but no sons, and, on his death in 1479, the Lordship was divided between them.

The eldest daughter Margaret, born in 1439, married to Richard Butler of Out Rawcliffe, received one quarter of the estate including the ‘Parocke House’, the present Parrox Hall, whose existence was first recorded in a document dated 1456, possibly on the occasion of her marriage.

Their descendants still occupy the house to this day, making it the oldest house in Lancashire continuously occupied by the same family.

The original house was probably the east wing of the present building, in the form of a typical Lancashire ‘longhouse’ with buttery and parlour at the north end, then house (living room) and kitchen, followed by barn, stable, shippon, etc., all under the same roof.

On the first floor was a series of interconnected rooms without corridors, with a stair in the north east corner.

The Butlers, who continued in occupation of the Parrox estate for the next 200 years, were a well known Catholic family with connections to other similar families in Lancashire such as the de Hoghtons and the Heskeths, who were recusants – refusing to acknowledge the monarch as head of the Church of England at a time when this was a treasonable offence.

The de Hoghtons gave refuge to the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion and there is strong evidence that William Shakespeare, whose family and certain teachers and schoolmates at Stratford, were known to be of like mind, was living anonymously under the name of William Shakeshafte at Hoghton Tower during 1579–80 as a member of a troupe of players maintained by that family, who may have visited and even performed at Parrox Hall.

The Butlers made the first significant addition to the original house, consisting of a new east-west wing attached to the northern end of the original longhouse, containing two major rooms on each floor as a simple extension of the sequence of room-to-room connections, but with a new staircase needled in at the junction.

An increasing desire for privacy during this period, a luxury in medieval times, would have made the use of curtained four poster beds highly desirable – a tradition which has continued at Parrox Hall to this day with a four poster in every bedroom.

Ellen Butler, inheritor of the Parrox estate, married Dr William Fyffe of Wedacre in 1648, the very year in which Oliver Cromwell decisively defeated a Royalist army at the Battle of Preston, only a few miles away, sealing the fate of Charles I, who was executed in 1649.

Over Wyre had been visited by the plague in 1623 and again in 1633, followed by a devastating outbreak in 1650 with a very high death rate resulting in appeals to the courts of quarter sessions for relief for the support of hundreds of people not able to fend for themselves. We can only imagine the horrors of such an event and the severity of the effect on the tenants of the estate.

In 1643 the Santa Ana, a Spanish frigate of the Dunkirk squadron, with a lost and starving crew, ran aground off Rossall and was eventually helped round into the Wyre by a local man.

Military manoeuvres began immediately: the Earl of Derby rode north across the Ribble at Freckleton with a ‘slender troop of horse’ to take the ship, countered by a Parliamentary force of 400 men under Major Sparrow who, to avoid the cavalry, marched up the east side of the Wyre from the ford at Shard to Hackensall, from where they could only watch as the Royalists burned the ship.

The officers were eventually repatriated but the starving crew were simply turned out into the countryside ‘and were never heard more of’.

Did any find refuge at Parrox? We do not know, but fascinating tales of Spanish ancestry in Over Wyre have persisted ever since.

In August 1651 another dramatic event occurred in Preesall. The Earl of Derby, this time leading an invasion force of cavalry and Manx soldiers, no doubt expecting a friendly welcome from local Royalist sympathisers, landed on Preesall sands in seven ships before marching south in an ill-fated attempt to put Charles II on the throne.

The sailors were left ‘lying about Preesall, drinking and solacing themselves’ under the command of Captain Cotterell, who no doubt billeted himself in the most important house in the area, Parrox Hall.

A Parliamentary force was raised, seizing the sailors and ships along with Captain Cotterell, who was taken to York and hanged as ‘a notorious enemy of parliament’.

The large numbers of musket balls continually being unearthed in the fields around Parrox seem to be the only relics of this encounter.

Dr Fyffe and his wife Ellen were in possession of Parrox during these events, and a fascinating record in the form of a handwritten notebook containing herbal medical remedies attributed to Dr Fyffe, plus many culinary recipes, still survives at the hall.

The large number of treatments for the plague and wounds caused by sword or gunshot date the work to this period, but remedies for many other ailments such as gout or the bloody flux are also included and the book is written in several different hands.

Although known to be blunt, outspoken and irascible, Dr Fyffe’s position during the civil war and Commonwealth is uncertain, but like many others he may have found it expedient to support the de facto government, and a handwritten poem in praise of Cromwell has been found in the archives at Parrox. What is certain is that he was one of the signatories to the Loyal Address of 1660 calling on Charles II to return to England and reclaim his throne.

He was rewarded by being appointed Honorary Physician to King Charles for the county of Lancashire, High Constable and Justice of the Peace. His standing was now high, his influence considerable and prosperity surely followed, as evidenced by the extensive additions and improvements which were now carried out at Parrox Hall.

The main development was the addition of a further wing on the western end of, and at right angles to, the 16th Century east-west wing, producing for the first time the present ’H’ shaped plan with unequal legs.

The new wing consisted of two more rooms on each floor, with at least one, and possibly two, large external chimney stacks capped with decorative fluted brickwork in the contemporary style, the southernmost of which still survives. Again, no corridor access was provided to any of the rooms.

One unwelcome result of the restoration of Charles II was that, in 1662, a new concept in taxation was introduced, the Hearth Tax, intended to impose tax in relation to the prosperity of the taxpayer.

Parrox was assessed as having six hearths, which would account for all the ground floor hearths existing at that time.

The tax was seen as unfair and oppressive and was abolished in 1688, but was replaced in 1696 by the even more unpopular Window Tax.

This was seen as a tax on light and air or ‘daylight robbery’, and resulted in the blocking up of many windows, not least at Parrox where some of the 13 blocked up windows might be due to this imposition, although many can be attributed to internal planning changes.

In 1686 Katherine Fyffe, daughter of Dr William Fyffe, married John Elletson of Burrow, whose family had originated in Broughton in Furness before moving to Lancashire in the mid 17th Century.

He was prosperous enough to be styled a gentleman and his grandfather had actually had the temerity to refuse a knighthood when such a title carried heavy responsibilities and expenses, and was fined as a result.

Her father died in 1671 and, following the subsequent deaths of her elder siblings, all without issue, she inherited the Parrox estate which henceforth descended through the Elletson line by way of her son Roger, who had emigrated to Maryland and then on to Jamaica, then to his son William, born in Maryland in 1720.

William’s brother Roger Hope Elletson, owner of the Hope estate near Kingston, became Lt. Governor of Jamaica in 1766 and died in 1775.

His widow then married the Duke of Chandos, whose descendants thus inherited the Hope estate and later collected the huge sum of money paid to slave owners as compensation for the abolition of slavery.

In December 1720, the year of the birth of William Elletson in Maryland, a great inundation of the Lancashire coast by the sea caused massive damage and loss, with Over Wyre, including the Parrox estate, suffering particularly badly.

Thousands of acres were flooded and hundreds of people made homeless, necessitating the granting of relief over the following two years.

As if that was not enough a unique event occurred in 1744 when part of Pilling Moss was observed to rise up and flow across the adjacent land, swallowing up hundreds of acres and destroying farmsteads in its path, to the great alarm of the inhabitants.