What Did the Romans Ever Do For Heywood?

The Romans occupied Britain for almost four centuries (AD 43-409), and physical reminders of that era are scattered around the country, from Hadrian’s Wall to York to Chester to Bath. The remains of the fort at Mamucium (Manchester) show that city was an important regional hub for the Romans. and archaeological traces of their occupation have even been found within the boundaries of Heywood.

Of course, Heywood did not exist as a named settlement at the time, but the Romans were obviously active in the wider area. Would it be reasonable to assume that the sandals of legionary soldiers touched Heywood soil at some point during those centuries of occupation?

Just before the Romans arrived in Britain in AD 43, most of the area in what is now northern England was controlled by the Brigantes, a Celtic people whose name could mean either ‘hill dwellers’ or ‘people of Brigantia or Brigit’ (a Celtic Goddess). The Brigantes had a tribal centre north of the York area but dominated a confederation of semi-autonomous smaller tribes in northern England by conquest and political strategy.

Distribution of northern tribes prior to Roman conquest. (Richmond, Roman Britain)

Cartimandua, A 1st-century queen of the Brigantes, joins with Caesius Nasica, commander of the IX Legion.

AD 68 saw the first serious Roman military activity in the northwest. Initially they had formed an alliance with the Brigantian queen Cartimandua around AD 48 and viewed the north as something of a ‘buffer zone’ between themselves and the Picts in Caledonia. However, a Brigantian factional war resulted in the downfall of Cartimandua in AD 69 to an anti-Roman faction, and the Romans invaded under General Agricola. For about 14 years they engaged in rigorous military action to conquer the north of England. Brigantia was erased from the map and the northwest became a frontier of the Roman Empire.

Roman forts were established by AD 80 at the northern settlements of Manchester, Ribchester, Lancaster, Kirkham, Burrow in Lonsdale, and Castleshaw (near Oldham), and by AD 130 the conquest was completed when all the hill territories had been garrisoned. There was a significant Roman presence, including civilian settlements (vicus or plural vici) that were home to such people as shopkeepers, administrators, prostitutes, pedlars, and the families of soldiers. An important vicus was situated in what is now the Deansgate area of Manchester.

Roman Britain c.150 AD.

There are a few remaining visible traces of the Roman period in Lancashire, including fragments of walling at Lancaster, various stretches of road, and there is a modern reconstruction of part of a fort in Manchester’s Castlefield heritage precinct. Most other sites have been completely lost due to later development. There are no Roman structures in Heywood, so what evidence is there that they were ever in the area at all?

The first possibility is with local roadways and tracks. During the Roman occupation of Britain the fort at Manchester became a central strategic hub in the national road network, and the Lancastrian road network grew around the two main routes from south to north. The courses of these major Roman roads were used for later constructions, such as hedgerows, field boundaries, and stretches of modern highways (for example, the A56 from Manchester through Prestwich).

A few remnants of the roads still exist (including part of the Manchester-Ribchester route in Bury), but it is presumed that the eventual network was more extensive than is currently known, enabling smaller parties to use a number of ‘short cuts’ between the major routes. The landscape would have already been criss-crossed with earlier tracks and paths used by the local tribes.

Heywood sits somewhere between the two former major roads to Ribchester and Castleshaw, and it has been speculated that secondary routes could have run much closer and even through land in what is now modern Heywood. The map below, based on a 1985 Rochdale borough archaeological survey, shows a presumed Roman road running westwards from Littleborough towards the Roman road from Manchester to Ribchester. This road runs along the route of what is now the Rochdale and Bury Old Road at the top of the valley to the north side of the Roch, which would have probably been a prominent route from ancient times when the unbridged Roch presented more of a barrier to overland travel.
Map based on archaeological survey and historic accounts of Roman roads in vicinity of Middleton. Routes of 'presumed roads' are speculative. (C. Dawson)

Another road from Manchester is thought to have passed near Middleton town centre before heading through part of the old Hopwood lands and Trub Smithy (now Castleton) towards Littleborough, Blackstone Edge and eventually to a fort at Ilkey, Yorkshire. Again there is some uncertainty over the route of this road, which was first mentioned in the records as a ‘great highway’ by Roger de Middleton in 1240. The historian Rev. John Watson wrote in 1781 that a road ran from Manchester to ‘near the foot road to Middleton... crossing over the meadows to Middleton Hall, and over Barrow Fields, as the foot road goes over Hopwood Demesne to Trub Smithy...’ The location of this road, however, remains unclear.

If there were Roman roads close to Heywood, they would have been minor routes. There is no direct physical evidence that they existed, and suggestions of the north-Roch track are based on the discovery of hoards of Roman coins in that area. Various Roman coins were found during construction work on Crimble Hall in 1810, and the discovery of a hoard of around 1,000 low-denomination coins by workmen near Plumpton Wood in 1856 was described in the Manchester Guardian as ‘the largest find of Roman coins ever made in Lancashire’. Unfortunately many of those coins were brittle, and they shattered when the labourers smashed the urn open with their spades and then stole the contents.

Another significant discovery was made in the Hopwood area in 2011, when a metal detectorist found a phallic figurine made from lead alloy which has been officially recorded as:
‘Lead alloy phallic figurine probably dating to the Roman period. The figure is very roughly cast and is very stylised with simple circular indented eyes with eyebrows, virtually no nose and an indented line for a mouth. The figure has a flat stomach and the upper body appears to have the remains of a tunic with damage to the hem and the lower half is naked with a very exaggerated erect phallus. The figure is 60cm long, 40cm wide and the weight is 93.7g.’
Lead alloy phallic figurine, found near Hopwood and probably dating from the Romano-British period. (Portable Antiquities Scheme)

It is important to remember that there is no evidence to suggest these objects had been in the same spot since Roman times. It is quite possible that they were deliberately or accidentally moved in later centuries.

Of course, these are only the documented finds. It is possible that there are still artefacts in the ground somewhere around Heywood, and some finds might never have been reported. For example, Roman coins are said to have been found on Siddal Moor, long before the school was built there in the 1960s. The problem is that a lot of the land around Heywood has been churned up for agricultural use for centuries, disrupting any potential subterranean artefacts.

So there were possibly two small Roman roads or tracks that skirted the boundaries of modern Heywood, and there have been a few artefact finds within those boundaries. It is not known how or when those artefacts were deposited, but it is clear that the Roman Conquest touched the local district in some way. With a major road to the west and another to the east running from the regional hub at Manchester, it is inconceivable that people would not have moved through the area that is now Heywood during almost four centuries of Roman conflict, trade and occupation.

   Related pages   

  • Bury Archaeological Group, 'Roman Road' (website) 
  • Thomas Codrington, Roman Roads in Britain, 1903. 
  • Cliff Ivers, 'Middleton's Missing Roman Road', Middleton Archaeological Society. 
  • John Just, ‘The Roman Road in the vicinity of Bury’, Manchester Literary & Phil. Society Memoirs, S2. 6., 1839. 
  • B.Pearson, J.Price, V.Tanner and J.Walker, ‘The Rochdale Borough survey’, Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, volume 1, 1985, p. 103. 
  • I.A. Richmond, Roman Britain, London: Penguin, 1963.
  • Anne S. Robertson, An Inventory of Romano-British Coin Hoards, Royal Numismatic Society, London, 2000.


Lapinbizarre said…
In the early 60's, I assisted the Bury Archaeological group at the excavation of a round barrow on high ground above the A56 on the east side of the Irwell valley. As I recall it was a little north of the ruin of Grant's Tower. Two coins turned up next to the track that ran by the barrow. One was a small bronze Northumbrian coin; the other a small Roman bronze coin of around 300 AD. I knew their precise identification at one time, but no longer. The artifacts from the dig were deposited at the Bury Museum. Roger Mortimer
Chris Dawson said…
Thanks - was that anything to do with the 'coin findspot' marked on the map Roger?
Lapinbizarre said…
It was in the Edenfield area, which does not appear to be close to the spot marked on the map. The excavation was executed around 1961, give or take a year.
Lapinbizarre said…
The Bury Archaeological Group's History pages notes that "in the 1960s, a Bronze Age burial site at Whitelow Hill in Walmersley". I assume that this is the barrow to which I am referring.
Lapinbizarre said…
And again. Search "Whitelow Cairn Ramsbottom" on Google Maps (and, I assume G Earth) and it will take you directly to it. The lane directly to its east is Bury Old Road.
Chris Dawson said…
Thanks Roger. Lucky you. If I was still around Heywood I'd be out chasing up historical sites.
Anonymous said…
if anyone has any land in the mentioned areas that would allow me to search i would be very gratefull, contact me via email.
Anonymous said…
roger im the detectorist who found the figurine, ive been emailing bury Archaeological group
for some time to try and get on some digs with my detector but never had a reply. do you still have any contacts there ?

Robin Kerr said…
when my brother and I were growing up on Daniel St. in he 1950s, we both found coins that were attributed to the Romans, when we moved to Canada. We found them on Bank St. if my memory serves me.