Who was Lord Ashton? Here’s the story of Williamson Park

A story full of ups and downs, and even a bit of mystery

You may have already heard the story: A very rich man built a monument to his dead wife, sort of cool but also… dull, right? But it seems there’s a little more to the story than just that.

You’ve probably posed for a photo by the Ashton Memorial, or questioned with your mates what exactly it is there for? But like most students, you probably wandered back down the hill and carried on with your day. Look, we’re not judging you, but we’re here to tell you the story behind Williamson Park. Consider all your questions answered.

Who was Lord Ashton?

On a cold day in December 1842, a man named James Williamson was born into an already wealthy family. His father of the same name owned a successful fabrics business, which he would later take control of and transform into an huge enterprise. And soon, he became one of the richest men in the entire country.

He was a particularly shy man. With few friends, he spent most of his days working in the family business. You might be thinking he would be a greedy man, the epitome of Scrooge, hoarding mass amounts of wealth and stealing from the poor. Actually, he was the opposite. With his ever growing fortune, he donated large amounts and made huge contributions to city of Lancaster.

His gifts range from the now rusted green Queen Victoria monument in Dalton Square to the Town Hall. He became High Sheriff in 1885, and as a thank you to the people he served a full breakfast to over 10,000 people. He supplied water to Morecambe in a time of drought, payed his workers a higher wage than his competitors, and even held an annual party on his birthday. His contributions are valued at around £32,000,000 in today’s money.

What happened to him?

James Williamson was elected as Liberal MP for Lancaster, supporting free trade and home rule for Ireland. He was soon given peerage in 1895, becoming a Baron and being given the title of Lord Ashton. However, he had made many rivals in his politics, and with the growth of the Labour party he was the subject of much criticism. Most notably from the Duke of Devonshire, who hated James’ involvement in certain Irish policies, and had suggested that he had bought his peerage with his wealth, to which he adamantly denied.

Over the coming years, he would be a point of focus in the press and would receive constant criticism from all sources. It caused him to completely withdraw from public life, becoming increasingly more recluse and even obsessive, hoarding newspapers with stacks reaching the ceiling.

The publics opinion to him had changed too. His wife, Lady Ashton, gave boxes of chocolates to local schoolchildren to celebrate the opening of the town hall, and were later thrown over the walls to his house in an act of contempt towards him. In 1910, he pleaded to the voters not to hear these baseless accusations from the media, and if they continued he would take his philanthropic nature to somewhere it would be appreciated.

He had grown to hate the town he once loved, the town he had spent his life in, improving the lives of so many. In the following year, he followed through with his threat, putting a stop to his donations. Notices were put in his factories, saying advances in wages would be cancelled, striking employees would no longer be kept on, and only men loyal to the business will keep their job in times of trouble.

For the next 21 years of his life,  he lived as a recluse at his house in Ryelands, where he died in 1930 aged 88. His funeral was attended by well over 2,000 of his employees.

And all were marching in a procession against him.

So what’s the story behind the Ashton Memorial?

His most notable gift. The park, started by his father, used to be a quarry and was now designed to relieve the hardship caused by mass employment at the time. Most people think Lord Ashton built the memorial in dedication to his dead wife, but there’s reason to think this isn’t true, as he had submitted detailed plans to build to the mayor just days after her death, including complicated architectural design drawings, which likely weren’t made during this period of grief.

Instead, it’s likely it was a monument to himself. The growing resentment from the media and the public had made him fear about his legacy. He needed something that would allow his name to be remembered in a positive light, prevent his family from future scrutiny after his death, and to remind the people of Lancaster of all he had done for them.

He never explicitly spoke about his reason why, and after his death all of his notes and journals were burnt. We’ll never know for certain what this monument means and the reason behind it will remain a mystery. But at least we’ve got somewhere to get drunk on warm summer afternoons.

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