History - The Origins of Danes Moss

Danes Moss was once much larger than the place we know today. It was larger in its own right as an undrained peatland that approached Macclesfield and the area we now call South Park. It was also larger in peoples’ minds. The earliest surviving map is from 1777 and shows something much more extensive than what we are used to today.

Old map of Danes Moss
Peter Perez Burdett's 1777 map of Cheshire, 'Survey of the County Palatine of Chester'

The name used on this map is the earliest written record of the modern name ‘Danes Moss’ albeit spelt with the defunct long S as ‘Danes Moſs.’ 

Something important about Danes Moss is that – apart from hills and watercourses – this bog ecosystem is one of the oldest features of the local landscape. For thousands of years the town of Macclesfield did not exist, permanent villages did not exist, agriculture in Britain did not exist, the idea of a human-centred world did not exist but this bog did and was a source of life for all creatures around. 

In the 1970s and 1990s research projects into the prehistory of Danes Moss used deep peat samples to excavate buried information about the origins of the bog. Deep peat samples are obtained by boreholes that extract a column of peat from surface level down to the lowest (earliest) layers of peat. Researchers can then analyse the samples for pollen records, surviving plant matter, charcoal records etc. which can help to recreate the history of the bog. 

Danes Moss sits within a basin in the landscape which was created by the retreat of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age around 15,000 years ago.

Deep peat analysis from 1995 demonstrated that the large, shallow basin started forming into reed and fen swamp over 8000 years ago in the post-glacial landscape. This swamp appears to have been colonised by willow and alder trees as the wet basin began to form soils. It is not clear why the site began turning into a mire when it did. The Wetlands of Cheshire (1997) research project speculated that a climatic change caused an increase in rainfall and flooding of the site. The bog grass Scheuchzeria, which was found in the deep peats, indicates freshwater flooding and is followed by Sphagnum-dominated peats which suggests an abrupt change to even wetter conditions. As the sphagnum mosses built up layers of peat over thousands of years the entire site developed into a raised mire with a very wet surface. Hydrologically, the site was and is very important. This is not only because of the huge quantities of water held by the peat and sphagnum but also because Danes Moss sits on a watershed which drains both north into the Bollin and south into the River Dane.

By this time Danes Moss may have been recognisable as the peat bog we know today although it would have been much larger. Before and during the transition to agriculture, humans and other creatures would certainly have hunted for abundant wildfowl on Danes Moss. In her 1976 ‘History of Macclesfield’ C. Stella Davies estimated that Danes Moss was once around 1000 acres in area. 

To give some perspective, the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) citation covers 130.2 acres. The Danes Moss landfill which operated from 1936 until 1995 destroyed about 123 acres. Presently, a development site of around 136 acres on the northern part of the moss has outline approval for 950 homes, a supermarket, school and a link road to join Moss Lane to Congleton Road. The majority of Danes Moss has already been lost to agriculture, peat extraction, waste dumping and housing developments. What remains is about 266 acres. 

Perhaps the earliest sign of human impact on the moss was found in a peat sample five metres deep that was taken in 1995. Researchers noted a marked increase in charcoal deposits around 6670 ± 60 years before present which coincided with decreases in birch and pine pollen. Another sample from 1996 also showed a significant increase in charcoal deposits from the same time period and a decrease in most tree pollen apart from alder and oak. Although some disturbance from natural forest fires would probably have occurred from the earliest times (fire disturbance was recorded in the earliest peat samples), the increase in charcoal and decrease in tree pollens around six and half thousand years ago suggests increased woodland clearance by humans on the edges of the moss. Similar evidence was recorded in peat samples from Lindow Moss (Wilmslow), White Moss (Crewe and Alsager) and Cocks Moss (near Marton). It appears to be a sign of a transition to agriculture away from the ancient hunter-gatherer culture and the beginning of a greater human impact on the world. 

Drawing of a millstone
Quern excavated from Danes Moss during the 19th century construction of the railway now known as The West Coast Mainline

The archaeological finds on Danes Moss have not been as dramatic as those at Lindow Moss. No bog bodies have been found. But an ancient cross bow and iron spearhead were unearthed and during the 19th century construction of the railway through the moss two stone querns used for grinding grains into flour were discovered. 

Through history there have been at least 10 different forms of the name ‘Danes Moss’. 

The most common names were Dunismosse, Dines Moss and Dinsmoss. The name may come from the Old English word ‘dun’ meaning a hill. This may refer to part of the moss which once extended over an upland part of Sutton but may also refer to several hillocks which once marked the site. Early 20th century historian Walter Smith described two mounds (possibly ancient and man-made) called Great Lowe and Pye Lowe close to Moss Lane. No trace of these remain. 

A survey from 1620 refers to ‘a mosse sometime called Knight Mosse’ which may refer to the most northern part of the proposed development site bordering Moss Lane. Another part of Danes Moss was Bailey Ridding Moss, which means ‘the bailiff’s clearing.’ This moss actually extended over Congleton Road across the land where ‘The Rising Sun’ Premier Inn now stands.

In 1261, Macclesfield was granted borough status by Prince Edward the eldest son of King Henry III. Edward was Earl of Chester and therefore lord of the manor of Macclesfield meaning that he essentially owned the town in the name of the crown. The 1261 charter created a new class of men called burgesses. Numbering about 120 (and maybe 500 including their families) out of Macclesfield’s estimated population of 1000 these men were given rights which made them and their families freer than the rest of the population who could not leave the town without permission of the lord of the manor. One of the rights was the right to cut peat for fuel from Danes Moss. This was called The Right of Turbary, the name deriving from Anglo-French turberie and seen in the modern French for peat – ‘la tourbe.’

Peat had almost certainly been cut for fuel from Danes Moss long before the 1261 Charter but this was the beginning of the formalisation of the process. Danes Moss was part of the common meaning that although it was ‘owned’ by the crown – like the entire country since 1066 – the rights of use were held in common by a defined section of the population. In the case of Danes Moss the commoners were the burgesses of Macclesfield and commoners of Gawsworth and Sutton. Although the records of the right of turbary list the names of those with rights to cut peat the right itself was dependent on holding a specific property in the town. In other words, the rights were attached to the property – the burgage – not necessarily the individual. Access to peat which burns with little smoke would have been very useful at a time when most homes did not have chimneys.

Peat cutting in Shetland. Peat (or turf) cutting for fuel on Danes Moss ended commercially in 1966 and domestically some time in the mid 1970s.

The extraction of peat from Danes Moss began at the edges of the moss nearest to the town. Each burgess had a specific plot that was normally about one rod in width (16.5 feet or 5 metres) with the length being undefined because of the sheer size of the moss. The name of these plots – Moss Rooms – appears to be unique to Cheshire.

This common land system worked well with a small population but by the middle of the 16th century the Moss Rooms were approaching the centre of the moss and threatening to encroach on the rights of turbary enjoyed by other settlements: Gawsworth and Sutton. Disputes over common land could be violent and concerns grew over where one town’s rights began and another’s ended on Danes Moss. In 1582 the boundary between Macclesfield and Gawsworth had to be formally agreed. In 1595 the Corporation of Macclesfield was created to govern the town and began to appoint two ‘Moss Lookers’ who swore an oath to oversee the fair use of the Moss Rooms. The position existed until the abolition of the Corporation in 1835.

Another change by the 16th century was that rights of turbary were no longer neatly assigned to burgesses. Some burgesses had sold or relinquished their rights. Others had sold or subdivided the original burgage plots. A document from 1509 recorded the creation of thirty-four new moss rooms and shows how turbary rights were enjoyed by tenants and sub-tenants. Examples were:

  • Thos. Leversage for his Chiefe house in the Wallgate now in the hands of Henry Dean… 4 roods
  • Sir Jono. Savage for his Chiefe house now in the hands of Mrs. Wood… 4 roods
  • Mr Legh for the Schoolhouse… 1 rood
  • Thos. Aston, Agnes Daniell, and Margery Shoar for 3 tenements of the Duke of Buckingham now in the hands of Widow Bancroft and Leonard Chapman… 3 roods
  • The Duke of Buckingham for his Chiefe house now in the hands of Henry Dean… 4 roods
  • Thos. Marler for his house in Chestergate… 2 roods
  • Robt. Adamson for a tenemt. on the back of the Garret… 1 rood
Black and white landscape view of Danes Moss

In any case, the peat remained useful for domestic burning and for sale. The easy availability of this fuel meant that large sections of the population of the town were late in adopting coal. As late as 1850, James Smith’s sanitary report on the town noted that, ‘There is an extensive bog to the south of Macclesfield, from which much cheap and useful moss is cut and dried and driven into Macclesfield for sale.

Like many common lands, Danes Moss was enclosed in a gradual, piecemeal fashion. A large part remained unenclosed at the 1849 Tithe Award. As late as the 1950s, peat was still being cut from unenclosed moss rooms under ancient rights of turbary.

In the late 19th century an isolation hospital for patients with tuberculosis was built and later a ‘bone works’ was built presumably rendering glue from horse bones. Commercial peat cutting (for pet litter) began in 1904 when the British Moss Litter Company leased a large section of the moss from the Earl of Harrington and eventually purchased the freehold in 1920. A horse drawn tramway was built to cart the peat off the moss and continued to be worked until the mid-1960s. When C. Stella Davies wrote her 1976 history of Macclesfield peat was still being cut on Danes Moss.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) allowed part of Danes Moss to gain the legally protected status of Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on 18th October 1985. Since then, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust has helped most of the SSSI site to begin to recover.

 

References:

– Adams, I.H. (1976) ‘Agrarian Landscape Terms: a glossary for historical geography
– Bryant, Andrew (1831) ‘Map of the County Palatine of Chester from an actual Survey by A. Bryant. In the Years 1829, 1830 and 1831‘ 
– Burdett, Peter (1777) ‘Survey of the County Palatine of Chester‘ 
– Davies, Stella (1976) ‘The History of Macclesfield‘ 
– Leah, Mark and colleagues (1997) ‘The Wetlands of Cheshire
– Morgan, Victoria and Morgan, Paul (2004) ‘Pre-historic Cheshire
– Natural England (2022) Designated Sites View: Danes Moss. Available at: https://designatedsites.naturalengland.org.uk/SiteDetail.aspx?SiteCode=S1003266&SiteName=danes%20moss&countyCode=&responsiblePerson=&SeaArea=&IFCAArea=
– Sainter, J.D. (1878) ‘The Jottings of Some Geological, Archaeological, Botanical, Ornithological and Zoological Rambles Round Macclesfield
– Smith, James (1850) ‘Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the borough of Macclesfield
– Tallis, J.H. (1973) ‘The Terrestrialization of Lake Basins in North Cheshire, with Special Reference to the Development of a `Schwingmoor’ Structure