HISTORIAN Thomas Holt once described the old Besses toll bar and neighbouring tavern as the “hub of the village with the streets radiating from them like the spokes of a wheel”.

Historically, Besses had been one of a number of hamlets within the ancient manor of Pilkington ­— which later joined with Whitefield as part of a township in the large parish of Prestwich-cum-Oldham.

The area took its name from an old inn which was, according to historians Paul Hindle and Harry Wilkinson, kept by a lady named Bess, and located near a barn that served as a local landmark.

The inn’s original name is thought to have been the Dog Inn or Bowling Green, but was officially renamed the Besses o’ th’ Barn Inn in 1821.

Mr Hindle and Mr Wilkinson further note that the inn was demolished in 1939 and the site is now an ambulance station.

Sitting on the gateway to Besses and Whitefield, and straddling Bury New Road and Bury Old Road, lay an elegant and iconic toll house.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: Besses Junction in 1880 with toll bar in the centreBesses Junction in 1880 with toll bar in the centre

It was erected by the Turnpike Trust in 1827 and built by local stonemasons F.M. and H. Nuttall.

Turnpike trusts were set up by acts of Parliament throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and created bodies empowered to collect road tolls to maintain principal highways.

In his history of Pilkington Park, the late Mr Holt noted “of the six toll bars that stood on the way between Bury and Manchester, Besses was the most ornate”.

He further wrote that many of the residents and visitors to Besses had relied on the Gothic toll bar clocktower for the time, adding that it was a “conspicuous landmark” of the period.

B.F. Buttery in his ‘Whitefield - Souvenir Handbook’, published in 1951, wrote that the toll house had “two gates which were opened and shut as the traffic required”.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: A map of the Besses area from 1898A map of the Besses area from 1898

Speaking to the Prestwich and Whitefield Guide, Glenn Worth, author of The History of Whitefield Pubs, once recalled: “Years ago tolls were collected to pay for the building and upkeep of the roads. But eventually the first local councils, local boards, became responsible.

“The toll bar was a landmark for years and years, and there is a story that a traction engine driver who pulled up there one day was so angry that the toll keeper couldn’t work out his toll that he drove straight through the barrier.”

The striking toll house building was later demolished in 1881 after the dissolution of the Turnpike Trust.

Although the structure is long gone, two magnificent stone gargoyles were rescued from the building and found their way onto Goodrich House in Clifton Road ­— later part of Prestwich Hospital.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: A view looking towards Besses Junction along Bury Old Road in the 1960s. On the right is Findlay’s the grocer and on the left is the Junction Inn. Photo courtesy of Ian PrattA view looking towards Besses Junction along Bury Old Road in the 1960s. On the right is Findlay’s the grocer and on the left is the Junction Inn. Photo courtesy of Ian Pratt

Behind the toll house was the Stone Pale Tavern ­— which took its name from the stone ‘pele’ keeps and watch towers built to keep out medieval Scottish border raiders.

The pub was a converted farmhouse and first mentioned in documents from 1780.

Later renamed the Junction Hotel, the pub’s most famous landlord was Harry Allen ­— Britain’s last executioner ­— whose name was above the door from 1952 to 1963.

Harry was born in Yorkshire and after working as bus driver changed his job to become a hangman.

During his career he was chief executioner at 41 hangings and assisted in another 53.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: Besses Junction in 1963 before the controversial road widening schemeBesses Junction in 1963 before the controversial road widening scheme

In 1956 the Junction Hotel was rebuilt with the reconstruction uniquely taking place around the old building so that it could remain open.

The pub was put up for sale in 1997 before closing and becoming a Chinese restaurant.

Surrounding the Besses junction were a number of shops and businesses.

These included the Nuttalls stonemason’s firm operating from 178 Bury New Road until the 1950s, and the Rose and Crown pub on the corner of Clegg Street which became Findlay’s Grocers.

There was also Bromey’s sweet shop, ‘Chippie Dicks’ chip shop, Sam Patterson’s butcher’s shop, the Co-op grocers, Mrs Woodruff’s cake and sweet shop, Billy Nuttall’s newsagent, the Bradwell family cloggers, and a herbalist.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: Besses Junction in 1992Besses Junction in 1992

Nearby there was once a ginnel which led to an abattoir where cows and calves were held for slaughter.

Coach firm Turner and Greenwood also ran coaches between Bury and Manchester, from Turner Street, from the 1830s to the mid 20th century, a had a garage there until the mid 1960s.

Many of these shops and buildings were lost during projects to widen the roadway at the junction and construct the Victoria Square Shopping Centre in the 1960s and 70s.

Prestwich and Whitefield Guide: Besses Junction from Bury New Road today. Photo: Google MapsBesses Junction from Bury New Road today. Photo: Google Maps

Today Besses junction looks very different but still sees thousands of commuters pass through it everyday.

Thankfully, however, they no longer have to pay for privilege.