Joseph Ashworth, Mayor of Leigh, 1913-1919, taken from 'The Man Who Made Leigh Beautiful' by Julie McKiernan, Past Forward Issue 72 (2016)
On the 27 February 1885 the Editor of The Leigh Journal, Solomon Partington, reported on a meeting he had attended at the Co-op Reading Room, with other influential businessmen and community leaders, to discuss their concerns about Leigh’s children having nowhere to play.
On the same day one of those children, Joseph Ashworth, turned 14 but was already working as a cotton piecer. He lived in Bedford, which was a densely populated area of small terraced houses dwarfed by the surrounding brewery and mills and filled with fumes from the iron foundry where his father worked as a machine fitter. At the end of a long working day, young Joseph had to meet his friends on the streets or find an unattended building site where they could play. If they satisfied their urge to wander with a trip to nearby Lions’ Bridge, they had to be careful to keep to the walks as stepping half-a-yard off was considered trespass.
Joseph’s father, who could remember the town still surrounded by meadows, may well have attended the public meeting at the Drill Hall when members of the newly formed Leigh Park and Recreation Ground Committee addressed an enthusiastic crowd about the need for a public park to improve the health of the people. They decided to petition the 4th Lord Lilford, Thomas Littleton, for a plot of land near Lion’s Bridge, which he agreed to rent to them for 10 shillings per annum on condition that it was fenced.
So, in August 1885, the Leigh Local Board met to discuss his offer. Whilst they deliberated in the old Town Hall, Solomon Partington and his friend, John Drabble, led a ‘Thousand Lads of Leigh’ march past the building, with Joseph Ashworth amongst those who carried their bats and balls and cried ‘we want a playground’. Sadly, the board decided that they couldn’t afford to enclose and maintain the land when they were already struggling to finance the town’s sewage, gas and water systems so the offer was declined.
Joseph never forgot his involvement in the campaign and his strong Wesleyan Methodist beliefs soon led him to take up a life of community service - first as a preacher and later as a politician. Although only 5’4” and slight of build, he had remarkable energy and stamina and despite a new and demanding job as Secretary and Manager of the Leigh Friendly Collecting Society, he became one of the most active social reformers in the town. He was elected a Member of Leigh Borough Council in 1904, became a Justice of the Peace, joined the Leigh Liberal Association and chaired Leigh Relief Committee and the Leigh After-Care Committee.
In 1911 Joseph returned to his earliest cause when he joined the new parks and Bowling Green Sub-Committee to negotiate for a plot of land to create a park. He realised that public funds would be better spent on improving housing and transport so he appealed to the wealthier inhabitants of the town, who despite profiting from the labour of their workers, rarely offered much towards their welfare. In August 1913 he published an article, ‘Making Leigh Attractive’ in which he stated, ‘Those who have made their money in the town are under obligation to do something to make it tolerable and attractive.’
In November 1913, aged 42, he was elected the youngest Mayor since incorporation and the first working Mayor. In his inaugural speech he said, ‘We can and must provide at least one park for all the citizens, where they can retire at the end of the day and enjoy the healing touch nature gives.’ Within six weeks he called a special meeting with the town council to tell them that he had successfully negotiated a deal with the 5th Lord Lilford, John Powys, to give Leigh a public bowling green and a park.
He had done, single handedly, what no other civic leader had managed to achieve in nearly thirty years but he was determined that the burden of paying for it would not be put on the ratepayers. He insisted that rich and poor alike must work together as a community to raise the necessary funds and risked personal financial ruin by ordering 100 park benches from Harrison McGregor’s because he was confident he would find enough donors to buy them. He was still selling them on the opening day on the 5 June 1915 but had managed to raise £1,350 of the £1,500 required, no doubt to the relief of his wife and daughters.
At the opening ceremony he said that the park would, ‘bring a new pleasure into our lives and create an atmosphere that will stimulate our thoughts and energies on making the town worthy of the pride we should take in it.’ Joseph certainly took pride in his achievements that day but it was only one day during almost five years of a long and brutal war.
Joseph became Leigh’s longest serving Mayor, serving six consecutive terms during which he encouraged local men to enlist as Chairman of the Leigh Parliamentary Recruiting Committee and considered the validity of their reasons for not doing as Chairman of the Local Tribunal. When he finally relinquished his chain of office one might have expected him to take things easier in peacetime but in 1922 he stood, unsuccessfully, for election as a Liberal MP. Despite such a full and active civic life he still found time to listen to music and play bowls, both of which he could do at his beloved Lilford Park.
He died on 3 May 1939 aged 68 and is buried in Leigh Cemetery. Joseph once complained that it was incredible that a town the size of Leigh was ‘without a single public memorial or statue of any distinguished citizen’, so it seems fitting that there are now plans to erect one to a man who would probably be the last person to think he deserved one – Joseph Ashworth.