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Life on the Johnson Fold estate with the undeserved reputation

“It’s sad that it’s got a reputation in certain parts of Bolton, a very undeserved reputation” 

March 14 2024, 10.30am

Kathleen Thornton was just five when she moved to the Johnson Fold estate in 1952 with her mum, dad and six siblings. There was no tarmac on the road outside 2 Bowland Drive and no steps into the house, meaning they had to use planks to get in. 

But as they’d moved from a tiny two-up, two-down terraced house with a scullery, it was a step up indeed.

“It was a four-bedroom house with a bathroom, toilet and a toilet outside. It was just freedom,” Thornton tells The Bolton Lead. “We lived in a cul-de-sac, at the end, and there were no cars then. That was our enclave. That was our community.”

In north-west Bolton, tucked under the moors and bisected by Moss Bank Way, Johnson Fold is one of the largest housing estates in the town. Thornton’s family moved there when it was significantly expanded in a wave of house building in the 1950s but it was in the early 1930s that it began.

Fearful of serious social upheaval as servicemen returned home following the horrors of the First World War, with the Russian Revolution spooking the British establishment, the country's main political parties promised change. 

Returning servicemen were often faced with rejoining their families in overcrowded, unsanitary slum housing.

Within a fortnight of signing the armistice, Liberal prime minister Lloyd George promised to “make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in”. The new Conservative government in 1919 pushed through the Addison Act, promising subsidies to help local authorities finance the construction of 500,000 homes within three years. The Wheatley Act from the first Labour government in 1924 gave fresh impetus to council house building.


Bolton Corporation began building 650 two and three bedroomed houses and bungalows for older people on farming land it had acquired at Johnson Fold in the early 1930s. 

Correspondence from the time between the council and central government goes under the heading “Housing of the Working Classes”. The government department in question is the Ministry of Health, acknowledging that housing and health were inextricably linked.
Residents moved in soon after but the country was going through the Great Depression. 

Local authorities built 1.1 million homes between the wars but it wasn’t enough to meet demand. A letter in 1937 from Bolton Council to the health department shows that pressure on local government spending was as familiar then as it is now.

A council official wants funding to repair 134 Johnson Fold houses damaged in blizzards the previous month because the tile roofs lacked under-felting. Such felting was included in the original spec, says the official, but removed “upon the Ministry of Health asking for a reduction in the capital cost (it was during the economy period)”.

Go pay for it yourselves, the official is effectively told.

It was the 1945 Labour government that kickstarted council house building, with more than 800,000 new homes achieved by 1951, and new ones for Johnson Fold coming shortly after. There was a change in thinking too. “Housing for the Working Classes” disappeared from letter headings and instead health minister Nye Bevan envisaged more egalitarian estates where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity”.

The new homes in Bolton were initially called the Montserrat estate, enabled by the council’s purchase of land from John Halstead of Hollin Hey Farm in 1948. According to Thornton’s book My History of Johnson Fold, the council paid £4,500. 

The new estate was completed in 1955, writes Thornton, and merged with the old some time afterwards. The houses weren’t perfect, lacking central heating and relying on coal fires, with additional warmth coming from the gas oven in the kitchen. One of Thornton’s neighbours recalls lying under thick army blankets to keep warm in bed, with hot water bottles made out of stone.

But they were far better than what went before, and initial suspicion from the local farmers and cottage-owning residents gave way to a welcome. 

“Mrs Rothwell from Clarion Cottage was most concerned when she found out new houses were to be built bordering her property, but when she saw my mother making great efforts to make a garden, she gave us lots of plants and spare produce such as rhubarb, from which lovely puddings were made by my mother,” writes Thornton. Mrs Rothwell was a “very lovely lady”. 

Thornton and her childhood friends wandered far, over the farmer’s field, through Midge Hall Clough – which they knew as Monty Valley – and over the Cigarette Tunnel. Another colloquially named local fixture, this cylindrical tunnel carries the Dean Brook under Walker Fold Road, which heads up to Winter Hill. 


 Hope Centre at St Andrew's Church. Credit: Will Ritchie Photography / The Bolton Lead


“We only went home when we were hungry,” she remembers. “And nobody had any worries about us because there was a gang of us.”

The siblings were keen swimmers, taught by their mum, who took kids from all over the estate to Bolton Bridgeman Swimming Club. Her only concern was when she was around 10 and her older sister, who looked after her, got married and moved away. But she stayed.

After school came a job in the office at sewing cotton maker J&P Coats at Eagley Mills, around three miles away. Later she worked in the Inland Revenue in the town centre for 31 years, in the collection department, ending up as personnel officer for 240 people. 

“I was very lucky to stay where I was in one place for so long. I had a very responsible job. That was my forte. I loved it. I’m a people person.”

She stayed in one place at home too, until she was 25, then moved to a bedsit, followed by a flat on Gisburn Avenue. When she married she moved to a house on Montserrat Road which she still lives in and now owns. “Three miles in all my life,” Thornton tells The Bolton Lead, sitting in the Hope Centre at St Andrew's Church on Tattersall St, just round the corner.

Marion Burch, 70, used to come here to Sunday school when she was a child, although she wasn’t particularly religious. She’d sing at sermons and enjoyed coach trips to Haigh Hall in Wigan and the school’s subsidised week-long holiday in Pooley Bridge in the Lake District.

Burch was born off Deane Road, around four miles south-east of Johnson Fold, and moved to the estate when she was one, to a house on Tattersall Road. She still lives on the street, although in a different house.

“There were five of us,” she tells The Bolton Lead. “That was a medium-sized family really. There were people with 10 or 11 kids. I still know lots of people here.”

Her mother, like many in Johnson Fold, worked in the nearby Doffcocker Mill, now the site of a McDonald’s. She felt secure with two sets of grandparents nearby.

As kids they’d hide behind a hill on the 18th hole of the local golf course, nicking balls to sell back to the club shop, before they got rumbled. 

“We’d go out on the moors and come back filthy and hungry,” says Burch, echoing Thornton’s memories of an almost bucolic idyll. “We’d take some salmon paste sandwiches and a bottle of water and and go and explore.

“You get a bit streetwise and you learn about nature. I learnt about different grasses and how to tell a field’s boggy because of the grasses growing there. I learnt that by experience – not by being taught it a school. 

“I made lots of friends because there were lots of big families. Even now, certain skipping rhymes come back to me. I’ve got very happy memories.”

Kids aren’t allowed out now, she laments, or they don’t want to go out, distracted by their devices. 


Once Doffcocker Mill, now a McDonald's. Credit: Will Ritchie Photography / The Bolton Lead


“There was no fear. We never heard of the word ‘paedophile’. It was always the flasher in the mac. We used to laugh at them. We thought it was funny. ‘There’s a flasher on the Delph.’ Everyone ran to it. We didn’t really understand what it was, to be honest.”

Burch went to Church Road primary school, which was “quite strict” and then loved secondary school at Whitecroft Road, which had opened in 1955. Something of a watcher and learner, she says the school took a lot of kids from Burnthwaite Children’s Home – later to close in the 1980s following a series of scandals.

“We used to get a lot of naughty children who caused a bit of an uproar. I liked them because it was like a floorshow, all these naughty kids. I felt sorry for them because they were nice kids. It was just unfortunate for them because of what happened in their lives.”

After school she was a punch card operator in Manchester, then worked at a Littlewoods mail order mill, a plastic shoe factory and a towel manufacturer. It was easy to get a job then.

“They used to say: ‘Start tomorrow.’ You’d have a very informal interview and then: ‘When can you start?’ It was dead easy. They used to have placards up outside every building.”

The flip side though was poor employment protection. Her dad, a plasterer in the construction industry, died at 49 because of bad working conditions, possibly asbestos.

Burch got the bug for travel when she worked in Newquay for a summer, joining the NAAFI to provide services to military personnel in Germany and Cyprus before returning to Johnson Fold, where she was a dinner-time assistant at the local school for more than 20 years, chopping up sausages and supervising break times, getting to know a lot of the children “probably better than their parents did”.

Perceptions of council housing had already begun to change by the time Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. As municipal historian John Boughton told The Blackpool Lead last month, social housing was no longer seen as “top of the tree” for working-class people, who increasingly aspired to own their home. Growing unemployment increased poverty on the estates. Many – maybe most – got a reputation for being rough, whether deserved or not.

Flaws with Right to Buy

The conditions were ripe for Thatcher to create the social revolution that was right to buy. Although it had been possible for tenants to buy their homes since 1936, sales were limited. But following the Housing Act 1980, the right to buy at big discounts was extended to five million people across the country. Unsurprisingly, one in three people took up the offer.

Right to buy created working-class support for the Conservatives and directly led to the current housing shortage crisis. Councils were forbidden from using receipts from house sales to build new ones, and social housing stock remains woefully depleted to this day. It also contributed to a social shift in Johnson Fold. 

Many people who bought their house stayed in it, looked after it, and reinforced their stake in the community. Others sold their homes to private landlords and neither they nor their tenants shared the same commitment to places like Johnson Fold.

Burch, like Thornton, was one of the former. She was a founder member of a residents association in 1986 when modernisation of houses led to a spate of thefts and “a lot of the bad lads up here at the time had got into trouble”. 

At a meeting around that time with a council official in the building in which she now sits, “a brick came through the window and landed at his feet. It was dangerous and could have hit his head but a picture says a thousand words and I think we got what we were after.”

She was also a founding member of a credit union that now operates Bolton-wide as Hoot. 

“I like to think we did a lot of good up here,” says Burch.

There’s an inherent dilemma in reporting about estates and antisocial behaviour – the danger of contributing to stereotyping versus the danger of glossing over people’s very real problems. 


“I like to think we did a lot of good up here." Credit: Will Ritchie Photography / The Bolton Lead


In 2018, the Bolton News reported a meeting of concerned residents at the Hope Centre where police were told about a drive-by shooting, car thefts, windows being smashed and acts of intimidation. 

In 2020, the Manchester Evening News said three bus services were temporarily stopped because youths had been throwing bricks at the operators’ vehicles. 

Strongly exaggerated

And earlier, in 2009, a local woman took a story to the media about reporting antisocial behaviour only to be met with indifference from the authorities and death threats from those she complained about.

Long-serving Bolton councillor Roger Hayes, whose Smithills ward includes Johnson Fold, says: “It was strongly exaggerated and a lot of the decent people I know in Johnson Fold were very annoyed by it, because they felt she did a lot of damage.”

Some residents’ concerns are more about a gradual decline, a growing absence. The residents association is now defunct. There are few shops. 

There is only one bus service going through Johnson Fold and it doesn’t go down Chorley Old Road, where many people go to Morrisons or see their doctor, so they are forced to change at Moss Bank Way. 

Edible Estates, a food project launched in 2014 teaching people how to grow their own vegetables, is no more. There are even fewer kids on the streets since Covid, some observe.

There is little youth work save for a couple of Bolton Council sessions during school holidays. 

Diane Ball, chair of the leadership team at St Andrew’s Church – where she has worshipped since 1976 – talks about the importance of advertising those sessions

“If they don’t get the numbers of kids in they’ll remove that provision,” says Ball. “Even one two-hour session during the half term is worth having as long as they let people know it’s on, because we need this stuff. 

“Our heart is breaking for the estate. It’s like no one seems to care. 

“The people who have been involved in residents and community associations in the past have kind of done it, used their energy and are more tired but there’s no next generation.”

The latest closure is social housing provider Bolton at Home’s UCAN centre, which provided free use of internet and computers, training courses, and help with housing issues, benefits and money matters. 

The centre was shut last December because of falling user numbers, said Bolton at Home, and “the availability of other community support services in the area, including our pop-up UCAN service at Sabden Garden”.

Despite the number of houses lost under Right to Buy, Bolton at Home – now a housing association but originally owned by the council – remains a strong force in the area. 

The Bolton Lead asked it more than two weeks ago for information on the size of its Johnson Fold estate, and recent and planned investment, following it up with a request about repairs and any mould reported. But it did not provide the details.

Across the borough Bolton at Home owns, manages and maintains 18,000 properties. According to its annual report, it spent £20.6 million on repairs, maintenance and improvements between April 2022 and March 2023. Some 99.02 per cent of emergency repairs were responded to within 24 hours, and a less impressive 53.65 per cent of urgent and routine repairs were completed within seven days (if urgent) or 21 days (routine).


Bolton at Home owns, manages and maintains 18,000 properties. Credit: Will Ritchie Photography / The Bolton Lead


According to Bolton at Home’s website, reports of damp, condensation and mould are rising, due to “delays in inspections and non-urgent repairs caused by the repairs backlog from the pandemic, higher fuel costs leading to underheated homes in some cases, and greater awareness of damp and mould health risks following the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak, who was found to have died from prolonged exposure to mould in his Rochdale home”.

The housing association insists it is making good progress on the backlog of inspections, has formed a dedicated damp and mould scheme, and made other improvements to its processes.

The Hope Centre, in its 90-year-old church – renovated in 2005-07 – remains one of the last facilities in Johnson Fold. We’re at Hub at the Hope, which runs from 9am to 1pm on Wednesdays and is still finding its way after the pandemic. It’s a community cafe, a designated warm space and is open to anyone, religious or not, says Ball.

The previous week its monthly repair cafe was busy, people bringing in everything from three-legged stools to broken necklaces. There was a qualified electrician on hand to fix Hoovers, sewing machines and radios.

“We’re still finding our feet,” adds Burch. “We’ve only being going 18 months or so. We’ll move slowly and see what people need rather than throw everything at it and it not work.”

From the Hope Centre, Pauline Salati, 71, recalls the “good solid houses” her family and neighbours moved into in 1953. Bevan would have been pleased – her dad, a corporation gardener, lived near a borough engineer and an accountant.

“Even now when I have work done, people say, my god, these houses are solid,” says Salati. “And of course everyone’s garden was beautiful. They really looked after their gardens. 

“I can remember my dad going out with his push lawnmower. It was inch-perfect, the garden. There was a man with his rose bushes next door. People came round and inspected them to make sure there was no rubbish.”

As a child her rural recollections differ from Burch’s only in that her sandwiches were filled with jam, not salmon paste – “happy days for us”. She joined the army for six years after school. Her brother was a joiner, apprenticed to her uncle. Her sister joined the RAF.

Salati trained in Aldershot before being sent to Germany – “the best posting ever” – and Leamington Spa. She returned to Johnson Fold in 1982 with a different outlook on life, getting involved in youth work, securing funding for all-weather sports pitches and later becoming secretary of the Johnson Fold Strollers football team.

Salati’s family bought their house for £5,000, like many in her area. “But lots of people rent them out to others and they don’t care,” she says. “It’s very sad, the amount of rubbish flying everywhere compared to 50 years ago. People don’t clean up.”

Bins are knocked over in the park, quad bikes rip up football pitches, but there’s “no policing any more”, no park rangers. People drive over grass verges and churn them up.

“It’s awful now. I walk round with the dog and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”

She’s complained to the council and her MP without result. She and her brother pick up litter and she’s giving some thought to restarting a residents’ committee but is sceptical it’ll get a hearing from the authorities.

A better bus service would be an instant improvement for Johnson Fold, most agree, as would more shops and youth facilities. Less stigmatising would help too. 

“It’s sad that it’s got a reputation in certain parts of Bolton, a very undeserved reputation,” says Hayes. “Yes, there are people we’d rather not have around. Of course there are. There are in most parts. But there are also some very good people.”

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