“Lovely, little, dirty Darren.”

31 Aug

  Pick a town – any town. Now visit it. This was what Chris and I more or less did in the summer of 2012, when we travelled around North-West England by public transport. One of the towns we visited, almost at random, was Darwen in east Lancashire. On the map it’s a dot between Bolton and Blackburn. On the nearby motorway ( the M65) you could speed by it without realizing its existance. It’s simply a small town nestling in a Pennine valley.

  In 1878, the Darwen News printed a poem in local dialect:

                                                                              ” ‘Tween two hillsides, both bleak and barren,

                                                                                  Lies lovely little ” Dirty Darren.”

  In Lancashire dialect, the name Darwen is pronounced Darren and locals still refer to themselves as Darreners. The poem sums up the paradox of the place. Although it became known as a centre of industry with many polluting factories and mills, it is also in a beautiful moorland setting and is much loved by the people who live there. Darreners keenly guard their distinct identity especially against any enchroachment by the much bigger town of Blackburn just to the north. So it was to Darwen, Lancashire that we travelled, not Darwin, Australia, as some people had assumed when we told them of our “holiday” plans. What would this little town have to offer?

  Darwen might be a bit down at heel now but along with its neighbours it shares a glorious past by being an important jewel in the crown of “King Cotton.” Darwen was an archetypal cotton town. When I was a kid I used to imagine that such mysterious places were actually built from the soft material reserved for shirts and sheets! Now I know it’s a term reserved for places involved in Britain’s and the World’s first large scale industry — the manufacture of cotton ( and woollen) cloth. A perfect climate ( ie  wet!), the easy availabilty of raw materials, fuel and power and a nearby large market for the product, laid the foundations . Then came the invention of textile machines and the entrepenarial spirit of northern businessmen who concentrated the workforce, materials and equipment in one place to create the world’s first factory system. So, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the landscape of Lancashire and adjoining counties was transformed into a region of almost 300 factory ( or mill) towns, forming the vanguard of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The industry went global and was the source of much of  Britain’s wealth and power in the Victorian era. Lancashire mill owners used to boast that they met the needs of the home market before breakfast, before devoting the rest of the day to lucrative exports.

  So, Darwen and its neighbours became “Mill Towns” dominated by huge, square topped, brick mills with their square towers ( for dust extraction) and their tall, circular chimneys. They dwarfed every other building. The church was no longer the commanding focus of these towns. Workers, including many women, flocked in from the countryside to work in these new cathedrals of industry. On a work day the overwhelming sound in the streets would be of clogs clattering on cobblestones as the mill-workers flocked to their jobs on the spinning and weaving machines. I learnt all about this era at school, both as a pupil and as a teacher. Thus I was fascinated by the idea of visiting Darwen and other ex-mill towns. We got there in the nick of time! Chimneys and mills once dotted Darwen by the dozen, but now only one remains. First the American Civil War of the 1860’s dried up the supply of cheap cotton, then later, in the 20th century, foreign competition and boycotts largely killed off a once spectacularly successful industry. It seemed that we had missed the funeral and were only just in time for the fag-end of the “wake.”

  Mill closures averaged almost one a week throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Explosives experts such as “Blaster Bates” ( no relation) became briefly famous for blowing up chimneys. Films and records were even made of their exploits. I actually watched and listened to some of them, not realising that they were really about the destruction of part of our country’s  heritage. By the 1980’s the Cotton Industry in much of Lancashire, including Darwen, was a mere memory. The mills had closed and the campaign for clean air had gathered pace, such that there was no big objection to hundreds of chimneys and factories being reduced to rubble. Fortunately, the heritage/conservation movement came along at the eleventh hour. In the case of Darwen, it secured the preservation of the town’s most successful textile factory along with its impressive Venetian- style chimney. The India Mill still has a powerful presence in the little town. It has now been transformed into a modern business centre and stands as a lone memorial to the days of “King Cotton.”

  So what is Darwen like? Well, it’s an average northern industrial town. It is not particularly pretty but neither is it particularly ugly. It has a few grand civic and public buildings — the Town Hall, Market Hall, Library and Museum — all echoes of a more prosperous era. It has some very nice large houses on the edge of town near the countryside, while closer to the centre, the terraces built for the original factory workers, still march dramatically up the hillsides. Many are now being restored and modernised. Darwen, like many other similar places, is hanging on by its fingertips following the traumatic collapse of its main industry and source of income. It is trying to re-invent itself. The old market hall now has a modern shopping centre next to it, the old Victorian Art College is being converted into apartments, and as I’ve mentioned, the only surviving mill has been reincarnated as a business centre. Many of the churches and chapels that served the spiritual needs of the mill workers and the miners have now either closed or been amalgamated. We visited St Peters Church, which, as the warden, Bill, pointed out, is actually 3 churches pushed into one. He took great delight in telling us which features — the font, the pews, the pulpit etc — came from which church. I think he enjoyed having some interested “tourists” to talk to. But behind all the fascinating detail was the story of declining congregations which reflected the wider decline of the town itself. Even the dead have played their part in the re-invention of Darwen. In order to create a large green space in the middle of the town, something which is in short supply, the graves in the churchyard have been cleared and their inhabitants reinterred in the main cemetery. At first, when we asked about the absence of graves, Bill told us that Darreners were so miserable that they were too mean to die! That’s another good thing about the place — a dry sense of humour.

  Darwen is a friendly place. People are open and welcoming. Older residents were very happy to talk about  their town’s history, which they are proud of. Not only did it have the once thriving cotton industry, but it also had mining, a rail link and some of the first steam trams in the world. I tried to imagine them chugging up and down the hills taking the Darreners to and from their work. Now all this has gone. However the locals retain a strong sense of their identity and Blackburn is almost a taboo word. It must grate that their local Municipal council is now officially called ” Blackburn with Darwen”, rather than “Blackburn and Darwen” or just plain Darwen. People are determined to retain their town’s individual identity and to not just become a suburb of their bigger neighbour.

  One thing that everyone is aware of and proud of, is that the famous Indian independence leader, Gandhi, came to their town. The Mahatma visited Darwen in May, 1931. He had been invited up by local mill owners, the Davies’s, to witness the hardship caused by India’s boycott of British goods as part of its independence campaign. They thought Gandhi would be moved by the suffering throughout the Lancashire mill towns that had been decimated by the embargo. Gandhi got a warm reception. He empathised with the unemployed workers: “They treated me as one of their own.” It was as if the workers realised it was not India, but their own greedy and irresponsible mill owners who were really responsible for their plight. Although he was moved, Gandhi refused to change his country’s stance.  When some old weavers told him how bad things were, he simply replied: “My dears, you have no idea what poverty is.”

  The severe suffering of the 1930’s Depression has now gone but the pride of Gandhi’s visit lives on. Even the man serving us in Bolton’s Waterstones had heard about it! Blackburn may have once won the Premier League but it never had a visit from Gandhi!

  However for me it’s Darwen’s history as a cotton town and its magnificent setting beneath the high Pennine moors that make it special. As our bus chugged down Bolton Road into the centre, Darwen announced itself through two eye-catching landmarks on either side of us. To the left, on a high, bare hill- top stood Darwen Tower. This tall observation tower was erected to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 but also to commemerate the freeing up of the moors to public access. We climbed up to it later on in our visit and the views of the hills, moors, reservoirs and the towns in the valleys, are wide-ranging and magnificent.  Meanwhile to the right stood the 300 foot India Mill Italianate chimney and the giant mill itself. Surely this wasn’t right? Weren’t we supposed to be visiting a dingy little town devoid of charm and interest? It was a promising start to our mission to be tourist trail-blazers in a town virtually ignored by most other holiday-makers.

  India Mill was once just one of scores of others employing hundreds on its spinning machines. Opened in 1868, it was reckoned to be one of the finest in Europe. By some miracle it survived the wrecking- ball. It was actuaaly in operation until as late as 1991. The mill and its chimney are prime examples of the flamboyant confidance of the Lancashire Cotton industry in the middle of the 19th century. As its name suggests, it mainly served the Indian market. It was opened by a Marquis with many lords and ladies in attendance. A vast exhibition of art covered 3 floors including paintings by Gaindborough, Van Dyck and Durer. The ornate red-brick chimney took 14 years to build and cost £14,000. An ex-Mayoress of Darwen told us that they had a dinner dance on top of the chimney when it was finally completed, with food, equipment and people pulled up by pulley! It was in a bad state of neglect when it was inspected in the early 1990’s. A monumental pointing job was urgently needed! Today it looks splendid and is apparently the home of a nesting pair of Peregrine falcons.
  Places like the mill, the chimney, the Observation Tower, the Victorian public buildings and the ranks of terraced houses, give Darwen its sense of history and atmosphere. As well as Gandhi, it has  been visited by Charlie Chaplin who performed at the theatre in the early 20th century. The Beatles also played there in 1965, headlining “The Greatest Teenage Dance” organised by Darwen Baptist Youth group at the Cooperative Hall. George Formby found his wife there and it has been the setting for the TV sleuthing series ” Hetty Winthrop Investigates”. Now Chris and I have included it in our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass tour of 2012. So it has had more than its allotted “15 minutes of fame” It may never be the classic tourist destination and will not provide glossy pictures for magazines, but it’s still has quite a lot to offer for those willing to dig just below the surface. We enjoyed it anyway!

2 Responses to ““Lovely, little, dirty Darren.””

  1. Anne Weldimg February 6, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    You missed one of the most famous of Darwen’s industries, i.e. paper and wallpaper manufacturing and Darwen was also the home of Crown Paints! As the textile industry declined, Crown was one of the largest employers. The chemical industry was also important in the town, with ICI being another important employer for many years. Having said all that, you captured the feeling of Darwen and the determination of the locals not to allow the town’s identity to disappear. Darwen will never become part of Blackburn if the people have anything to do with it! There is a Facebook page dedicated to the town, past and present, where a group of Darreners exchange their experiences and post photographs of the town, both past and present. Worth a look

    • scrapstu1949 February 7, 2016 at 10:51 am #

      Thanks for your comments onmy blog about Darwen Anne. We stayed there on a short tour of Lancashire mill towns, using our bus passes. We were inpressed by how proud people were about their town. I’ll look up that Facbook page. It sounds interesting. Best wishes– Stuart.

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