A look back at the Burnley we loved and lost

Burnley in the 1950s
Burnley in the 1950s

Of all the recent acquisitions into the Briercliffe Society’s Postcard Collection, I am most pleased to have added this one.

It cost £14 (well worth it to us) but, to be honest, it is not actually a postcard though it was intended to be as it was made by the well-known Brighouse postcard makers, Lilywhites Ltd.

The image even has a copyright number, BRY 18, in the bottom left corner, but there is no printing on the reverse of the card and, to all intents and purposes, what appears to be a postcard is merely a photo.

However, what interests me is the image which is why I collect postcards. I am not interested in the value of a card. For me, it is what the card tells us about a moment in the past and this image is of St James’s Street, Burnley, as it was in about 1958.

At this time, the era of post-war austerity was coming to an end. As a boy, I had no inkling of what austerity meant.

I was born in 1947 and the 1950s was the decade in which I did my growing up, not in Burnley but in Harle Syke, at a time when all the mills in the village were weaving cotton. It seemed as if this had always been the case and I grew up being familiar with the sights and sounds of the cotton industry.

I remember the early morning “march of the clogs”, as we used to call it – the passing along Burnley Road of hundreds of clog-shorn weavers as they made their way, all in one direction, to their looms in Harle Syke, Briercliffe and Walshaw Mills.

The weavers, men and women, did not appear to be talking to each other. It was too early in the morning for that, but they seemed to be orchestrated by a power greater than them, a natural occurrence, like the movement of the tide.

Little did I know this world was about to change. I had not recognised (though others had) that King Cotton was about to be dethroned. When I did, my little world, the world with which I felt comfortable, began to change.

It was not that my family had worked in cotton but I understood that the locally owned mills in Harle Syke were the foundations upon which everything else in the community depended. I worried for the weavers, many of whom I knew, and their families but, of course, I was not the only one.

Back in Burnley, the council had the same concerns and the town was doing all it could to replace the jobs that were being lost, the consequence of Government policies, on a weekly basis, in textiles. Most of you will realise this was the time when the likes of Belling’s and Michelin came to Burnley.

But the changes did not stop there. The council became convinced Burnley had to change. It had to lose its “cloth cap” image while, at the same time, it was to remain a working class town.

One of the things, they said, that had to change was the stone-built town centre. Something new and exciting, something of the 20th Century, would replace it. Stone would give way to concrete and brick, big windows in bigger stores. The charming old buildings we all loved would have to go. They, whoever they were, had decided.

Of course, the truth is that they, without consulting us, had decided years before. All they were waiting for was the opportunity and it was about at the time this photo was taken, that the opportunity presented itself. Plans, which had been shelved in the period of the post-war austerity, were dusted down, brought up to date and inflicted on an unsuspecting Burnley public.

I hate to say it but these people, sitting in the Council Chamber, without much knowledge of the world and the way it worked, decided almost everything that had made Burnley, in the decades that preceded them, should be changed or removed. Times were challenging – that cannot be denied – but the rush to modernisation, as they saw it, was misguided.

It was the case that Burnley, with its greater proportion of jobs in the textile sector, was at greater risk than most other towns. Burnley had realised, too late, that it had to do something. Towns like Blackburn and Bolton had realised, years before, that great change was coming. They had started out on the road that would lead to the creation of the towns we now know.

Other towns, like Preston, with its larger proportion of “white collar” jobs, were more insulated from change but Burnley found itself facing the probability of either mass unemployment or the huge desertion of whole families from the town, the loss of its young people to the relatively thriving economies of the South-East.

The policies pursued by Burnley Council in the 1950s and 1960s – the replacement of old manufacturing with new manufacturing (but this time controlled from headquarters elsewhere) – made the town even more vulnerable to change that it had been when local manufacturing had been controlled locally.

Similarly, the policies that were designed to drag Burnley into the 20th Century, one of which involved the re-building of the town’s shopping centre (apparently along the lines of small towns in the American Mid West), did not work either and today’s picture illustrates just that.

What was lost was the Burnley that local firms and people had built in the styles that had appealed to them. What we got was a town centre which benefited not the people it should have served but the egos of members of the council and their officers - and the pockets of the developers and builders who made all this happen!

It is true to say that, despite our recent successes in the realms of regeneration, we, as a town, are still suffering from the mistakes made in the 1950s and 1960s when we seemed to “unlearn” all we had known in the 1930s. And that was that solutions to problems had to take into account the circumstances of the times. That proviso was recognised in the 1930s, when Burnley built the world’s first council-owned factory, but, 20 and 30 years later, the world had moved on. The solutions of the 1930s were not ones for the 1950s and 1960s.

Last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Burnley Civic Trust at an event in our magnificent Parish Church. It was at the time of the great changes of the 1960s that Burnley Civic Trust was founded. In the time since then, the body has done all it can to help make “Burnley a better place in which to live and work”. Burnley Civic Trust is needed now just as much as it has ever been.