Blackburn: Town History

Backburn is situated in the county of Lancashire to the north of the West Pennine Moors. Although the city of Preston, the administrative town of the county, is located around 9.2 miles to the west, Blackburn is the largest municipality in what is known as East Lancashire. The town is bounded on other sides by smaller towns, including Accrington to the east and Darwen to the south, with which Blackburn comprises the Blackburn with Darwen unitary authority. 2.5 miles to the north of the town centre is Wilpshire and the small village of Langho, just within the boundary of the Ribble Valley. A number of even smaller localities are sometimes considered extended suburbs of Blackburn, including Rishton to the east, Great Harwood to the north east and Mellor to the north west. Rishton, Great Harwood and Accrington are part of the local government district of Hyndburn. 10 miles further to the east lies the town of Burnley.


Blackburn town centre:


Blackburn is served by a newly redeveloped train station located in the town centre next to the bus station and served by Northern Rail. The nearest train station on theWest Coast Main Line is Preston. Blackburn has three junctions with the M65 motorway. The town is less than an hour’s drive from Manchester and Blackpool and just over an hour away from Liverpool, Leeds and Chester.


Blackburn Cathedral :


Located in the midst of the East Lancashire Hills, some areas of the town are characterised by steep slopes. The town centre is located in a depression surrounded by a number of hills. The area of Revidge to the north can be reached via a steep climb up Montague Street and Dukes Brow to reach a peak of 218 metres above sea level. To the west, the wooded Billinge Hill in Witton Country Park is 245 metres, while Royal Blackburn Hospital in the east has a vantage point of 202 metres. These figures can be considered in the context of other hills and mountains in Lancashire, including Great Hill (456 metres), Winter Hill (456 metres), Pendle Hill (557 metres) and Green Hill (628 metres).



The River Blakewater, which gives its names to the town, flows down from the moors above Guide and then through the areas of Whitebirk, Little Harwood, Cob Wall and Brookhouse to the town centre. The river was culverted during the industrial revolution and runs underground in the town centre, under Ainsworth Street and between Blackburn Cathedral and Blackburn Bus Station. On the western side of the town centre the Blakewater continues under Whalley Banks and through the Redlam area before joining the River Darwen outside Witton Country Park and continuing on to join the River Ribble at Walton-le-Dale.


The geology of the Blackburn area yields numerous resources which underpinned its development as a centre of manufacturing during the industrial revolution. Mineable coal seams have been utilised since the mid-late 16th century. The coal measures in the area lie on a bed of millstone grit, which has been quarried in the past for millstones and, along with local limestone deposits, used as a construction material for roads and buildings. In addition, there were deposits of iron ore in the Furness and Ulverston districts. The Blackburn area was subjected to glaciation during the Pleistocene ice age, and the sandstone-and-shale bedrock is overlain in much of the area by glacial deposits called till (which is also called “boulder clay”) of varying thickness up to several tens of feet. Glacial outwash (sand and gravel) also occur in small patches, including along Grimshaw Brook.


Coat of Arms :


The coat of arms of the former Blackburn Borough Council has many distinctive emblems. The arms displays Argent a Fesse wavy Sable between three Bees volant proper on a Chief Vert a Bugle stringed Argent between two Fusils Or. On the crest, a Wreath of the Colours a Shuttle Or thereon a Dove wings elevated Argent and holdingin the beak the Thread of the Shuttle reflexed over the back and an Olive Branch proper. The latin motto of the town is ‘Arte et Labore’, correctly translated as ‘by art and by labour’ but often translated as ‘by skill and hardwork’.


The motto, granted on 14 February 1852 to the former Borough of Blackburn, is poignant as Blackburn, once a small town, had risen to importance through the energy and enterprise of her spinners and manufacturers, combined with the skill and labour of her operatives. The Borough of Blackburn was formed by the amalgamation of the County Borough of Blackburn, the Borough of Darwen, part of the Turton Urban District and the parishes of Yate and Pickup Bank, Eccleshill, Livesey, Pleasington and Tockholes from the Blackburn Rural District. Other notable features include:


Three bees in flight. The bee is an emblem of skill, perseverance and industry. “B” also stands for Blackburn; and further, as the Peel family sprang from this neighbourhood and bears a bee in flight on its shield, the idea naturally suggests itself that Sir Robert Peel had adopted the Blackburn bee.


The shield is silver or white, and thus emblematical of calico, the product of the Blackburn bees during the industrial revolution.

The broad wavy black line represents the Black Brook (the River Blakewater) on the banks of which the town is built.

The silver bugle horn was the crest of the first Mayor of Blackburn, William Henry Hornby. It is also an emblem of strength.

The gold lozenges, or fusils (diamond shaped), are the heraldic emblems of spinning, derived from the Latin “fusus” or “fusilium”, meaning a spindle, and they refer to the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves, a native of the district. They also denote the connection of Joseph Feilden with Blackburn, as Lord of the Manor, as he bore lozenges on his shield.

The background of green is there to remind us of the time when Blackburn was one of the royal forests in the time of Edward the Confessor.

The shuttle is the emblem of weaving, the trade which has contributed more than any other to the prosperity of the town.

The dove taking wing with an olive branch in her beak (the emblem of peace) attached to the thread of the shuttle, represents the beneficial results emanating from the art of weaving.



Blackburn's old clock tower in 1906 with time ball at the top of its mast

The name of the town first appears as Blacheborne, in the Domesday Book compiled from a survey completed in 1086. The origins of the name are uncertain. It has been suggested that it may be a combination of an Old English word for bleach, together with a form of the word "burn", meaning stream, and may be associated with a bleaching process. Alternatively, the name of the town may simply mean "black burn", or "black stream".



There is little evidence of prehistoric settlement in the Blakewater valley, in which Blackburn later developed. It is generally thought that most human activity in East Lancashire during this period occurred on hilltops. Evidence of such activity during the Bronze Age has been discovered in the form of urn burials, two examples of which have been found in the hills around Blackburn. In 1879, a cinerary urn was discovered beneath a tumulus at Revidge, north of the town. Another was excavated at Pleasington Cemetery, west of the present town, by gravedigger Grant Higson in 1996. The presence of a possible sacred spring—perhaps in use during the Iron Age—provides evidence of prehistoric man's activity in the area now occupied by the town centre, at All Hallows Spring on Railway Road.


Roman era

Blackburn stands at the site where a Roman military road crossed the river Blakewater. The road linked Bremetennacum Veteranorum(the modern-day village of Ribchester) and Mamucium (a Roman fort which was located in what is now the Castlefield area of the City of Manchester). The route of the Roman road passed to the east of the site of Blackburn's modern-day cathedral and probably crossed the river at Salford (just east of the modern-day town centre). However, it is not clear whether the Roman road or the settlement came first.


George C. Miller in his Blackburn – the Evolution of a Cotton Town says:

The ancient military way from Mamucium (Manchester) to (Bremetennacum) (Ribchester), passing over Blacksnape, plunges on its unswerving course through Blackamoor, over the scarp at Whinney Heights, to pass across the Blakewater in the vicinity of Salford. This fact alone presents a reasonable argument for the existence of a British oppidum or walled village on the site, it being customary for such primitive communities to cluster in the vicinity of a ford or bridge.


All Hallows Spring was purportedly excavated in 1654 and was found to contain an inscribed stone, allegedly commemorating the dedication of a temple of Serapis by Claudius Hieronymus, legate of Legio VI Victrix.


Middle Ages

Strike of cotton mill workers in 1920 in Cowell Street in the Nab Lane area

Christianity is believed to have come to Blackburn at the end of the 6th century, perhaps in 596 (there is a record of a "church of Blagbourne" in that year) or 598 AD. The town was certainly important during the Anglo-Saxon era. It was during this period thatBlackburnshire Hundred came into existence, probably as a territorial division of the kingdom of Northumbria.


The name of the town first appears in the Domesday Book as Blachebourne, a royal manor during the days of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror. Archaeological evidence gleaned during the demolition of the medieval parish church on the site of the present cathedral in 1820 suggests that a church was built during the late 11th or early 12th century. A market cross was also erected nearby in 1101. The manor came into the possession of Henry de Blackburn, who divided it between his two sons.


Later, one half was granted to the monks of Stanlow Abbey. This moiety was later granted to the monks of Whalley Abbey. However, during the 12th century, the town's conjectured importance declined as Clitheroe became the regional centre. In addition to the settlement in the town centre area, there were several other medieval domiciles nearby.


Industrial Revolution and textiles

Workers producing shuttles for the textile industry, c. 1920. Rowland Baguley and Company, based on Addison Street, produced a wide range of shuttles for the home textile industry and for export before it closed in the early 1930s.

Textile manufacturing in Blackburn dates from the middle of the 13th century, when wool produced by local farmers was woven by local people in their homes. Flemish weavers who settled in the area in the 14th century helped to develop the industry. By 1650 the town was known for the manufacture of "Blackburn checks", blue and white in colour, with "Blackburn greys" becoming famous not long afterwards. By the first half of the 18th century textile manufacture had become Blackburn's main industry. From the mid-18th to the early 20th century Blackburn evolved from a small market town into "the weaving capital of the world", with the population increasing from less than 5,000 to over 130,000.


John Bartholomew's Gazetteer of the British Isles provides a profile of Blackburn in 1887:

Blackburn. parl. and mun. bor., par. and township, NE. Lancashire, 9 miles (14 km) [14 km] E. of Preston and 210 miles (340 km) [340 km] NW. of London by rail – par., 48,281 ac., pop. 161,617; township, 3681 ac., pop. 91,958; bor., 6974 ac., pop. 104,014; 4 Banks, 2 newspapers. Market-days, Wednesday and Saturday. It is one of the chief seats of cotton manufacture, besides producing calico, muslin, &c., there being over 140 mills at work. There are also factories for making cotton machinery and steam-engines. B. has been associated with many improvements in the mfr. of cotton, among which was the invention (1767) of the "spinning jenny" which was invented in nearby Oswaldtwistle by James Hargreaves, who died in 1770. There are several fine churches and public buildings. A Corporation Park (50 ac. in area) is on the outskirts of the town. Several lines of railway converge here, and pass through one principal station belonging to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Ry. Co. B. returns 2 members to Parliament.


From around 1750, cotton textile manufacturing expanded rapidly in Blackburn. Supplied with cotton by the town's cotton merchants, and paid by the piece, cottagers had spun the cotton into thread and woven it into cloth. The merchants had then arranged for the cloth to be bleached and dyed. After 1775 however, spinning mills began to appear in the town. Though early examples were warehouse conversions, the first purpose-built spinning mill was constructed in 1797, and By 1824 there were 24 . The number of spindles in Blackburn reached 2.5 million  by 1870, with spinning mills still being constructed up to that time  – 24  since 1850. Spinning declined in the town between 1870 and 1900 as the sector transferred to South Lancashire.


In 18th century Blackburn, weaving was primarily undertaken by handloom weavers working from their own cottages. However, as powerlooms began to be introduced into local mills from 1825, the percentage of the workforce employed as handloom weavers began to decline. This occurred more rapidly in areas closer to the centre of Blackburn, with handloom weavers continuing to make up a sizeable portion of the workforce in outlying rural areas. Nevertheless, the last handloom shop in Blackburn closed in 1894. Improvements to the powerloom in the early 1840s, together with the construction of the first railway line into Blackburn in 1846, led to much greater investment in powerlooms in the town in the second half of that decade. The railway brought opportunities for expansion of the cotton trade, with subsequent decades seeing many new mills constructed: 68 weaving-only and 4 combined weaving and spinning mills were built between 1850 and 1870, and 9 weaving mills were built per decade between 1870 and 1890.


Duke Street Mill being destroyed

Improvements in powerloom efficiency meant that weaving, which had been the primary source of wealth and income for handloom weavers, began to transfer from the cottage to the factory.This led to high rates of unemployment: according to figures published in March 1826, some 60% of all handloom weavers in Blackburn and nearby Rishton, Lower Darwen and Oswaldtwistle were unemployed. High unemployment in turn led to the Lancashire weavers' riots. At 3:00 pm on 24 April 1826 a mob arrived in Blackburn after attacking powerlooms in nearby Accrington. Proceeding to Bannister Eccles' Jubilee Factory on Jubilee St in the town centre, the mob destroyed 212 powerlooms in the space of 35 minutes. They then turned their attention to John Houghton and Sons' Park Place factory, located nearby, and destroyed another 25 looms, before continuing on in search of more machinery to attack. The crowd began to disperse at around 6:00 pm, troops having arrived as early as 3:30 pm to try to quell the rioting.


Decline of the cotton industry

In 1890, Blackburn's Chamber of Commerce recognised that the town was over-dependent on the cotton industry, warning of the dangers of "only having one string to their bow in Blackburn". The warning proved to be prophetic when, in 1904, a serious slump hit the cotton industry, and other industries dependent on it such as engineering, brewing and building. A few years later, in 1908, another slump saw 43 mills stop production and a quarter of the town's looms idle.


Albion Mill photographed in 2008. The mill ceased production in 1975.

Suspension of trade with India during the First World War resulted in the expansion of India's cotton industry at the expense of Britain's, and the imposition of an 11% import tariff by the Indian Government led to a dramatic slump in 1921; a situation which worsened in 1922 after the Indian Government raised the tariff to 14%, which led the number of stopped mills to increase to 47, with 43,000 looms idle. Two years into the slump, the Foundry and Limbrick mills became the first in the town to close permanently. Not long afterwards, in 1926, the General Strike saw production suspended at half of the town's mills and 12,000 unemployed. There was another slump in 1928, and then another strike in 1929 after employers requested a 12% wage cut; 40,000 cotton workers went on strike for a week and eight more mills closed, making it 28 closures in six years. By the start of 1930, 50 mills had shut down and 21,000 people were unemployed. A sharp financial crisis late in 1931 led to 24,000 unemployed, with 1,000 houses and 166 shops lying empty in the town. A total of 26 mills closed down between 1930 and 1934.


The industry experienced a short post-war boom between 1948 and 50, during which sales increased, industry training methods improved, and new automatic looms were introduced; allowing a single weaver to control 20 to 25 looms. Loom sheds were often rebuilt using new building techniques to make them more open-plan so that they could house the new, larger looms. Despite the post-war boom, the cotton industry continued to decline, and only 25% of the town's population were employed in textiles by 1951: it had been 60% up to the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1929. Furthermore, in 1952 the number of weavers in the town fell from 10,890 to 9,020.  By 1955 more cloth was being imported from India than was being exported there, and between 1955 and 1958 another 16 mills closed. In 1959, due partly to the re-organisation of the textile industry resulting from that year's Textiles Act, another 17 mills closed. By 1960 there were 30 mills left operating in Blackburn.


Closures continued in the 1960s with, for example, the Parkside, Fountains, Malvern and Pioneer Mills shutting in 1964. In 1967 the Eclipse Mill at Feniscowles closed, unable to compete with imported cloth sold at nine pence cheaper per yard than the mill could produce it. By the end of that year there were 26 mills left operating in Blackburn. The 1970s saw further closures, and the number of textile workers in Blackburn reduced to 6,000 by January 1975, the year in which the Albion and Alston mills also stopped production with the loss of a further 400 jobs. The following statistic gives some idea of the rate of decline of Blackburn's cotton industry: in 1976 there were 2,100 looms still operating, from a peak of 79,405 in 1907.