How Burnley centre looked before photographic era

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This week’s Peek into the Past is something of a “one off” in that it does not fit into anything I have written before.

The merest glance will indicate I have eschewed photographic postcards, the usual fare in Peek articles. All of the images today are old postcards but none of the three are photographic. Of course that does not mean to say that, in all instances, the artists who produced these images did not have photos before them when they did their work. In fact we know that, in one instance, the artist did have access to a photographic image.

This is the colour card, published by Raphael Tuck and Sons in their “Oilette” series, and in circulation in 1905 when this one was posted from Manchester to Ealing in London in 1905. This card is of Finsley Alley, a tiny residential street off Finsley Gate, Burnley. It has long since been demolished and, these days, there is no trace of it, on the ground, but enough is known of the street for us to be clear about its status. A clue to this can be found in the use of the word “alley” rather than “street”. In Burnley, “alleys” can only be found in the poorest districts where badly built back-to–back houses predominated.

Finsley Alley was no exception. There were a number of small houses, some of which, because of their surroundings, would have had no natural light at any time. As you can see, there were larger buildings – mills and warehouses – in the same area. In fact, it is a mystery to me as to why Tuck’s chose this image of Burnley for one of their “Oilette’s”. It was usually the case that the firm chose one of the more prestigious parts of a town for the “Oilette” treatment in which an artist added colour and light to what otherwise would have been a black and white photographic postcard.

However, in one of the examples before you, the artist could not have used a photo in the making of the image as the building depicted was demolished before the invention of photography. It also should be added the image used predated the invention of the postcard itself by many years.

This is the card entitled the “Bull Inn Burnley” though you may not be able to see the full title because it is very faded. The Bull was demolished in c1818, some years before the invention of photography, so the image must have survived in some other form when the card was made some 90, or so years later.

In another example a similar situation applies. This refers to the card entitled “Old Burnley”, a view of Burnley Centre, at the junction of St James’s Street and Manchester Road, first published as a drawing in the 1850s. All the publisher had done, here, is reduce the size of the very accurate drawing so it fits the space available on the card. This image also records the Bull, the building to the left, but here it is shown in its rebuilt, or 1819, incarnation, a form which survived until 1932/3 when it was demolished to be replaced by the Burton’s store which occupies the site today.

Often the publishers of postcards are pleased to put their names to their work but, with reference to the cards we publish today, only two of them did so. I have already mentioned Rachael Tuck and Sons made the one of Finsley Alley. The other is the image of the Bull Inn (as it was pre 1819) and it was published by the Skipton Stationery Co., a firm which, to judge by the number of cards they produced, was very active in the postcard world.

The thing that interests me about postcards of old topographical scenes is the potential they might have to add to our knowledge of the particular locations involved. The three I have published today are all of some use but only the one of the Bull Inn tells us anything not available elsewhere. The other two are useful for different reasons.

The image of the Bull Inn shows the building as it was, at the latest, in 1818, a number of years before the invention of photography. It is a simple, if not crude, drawing but its importance lies in the fact the building was at the very centre of Burnley when the image was made.

Note that the inn had been built for purposes not connected to the licensed trade. The barn door, on the left, tells us that. The Bull had been built as a farm house with attached barn. Although we can’t see it in the picture, its land stretched to the site of the present Town Hall, a number of hundred yards away, up Manchester Road, which, incidentally, did not become a highway until the turnpike era.

The image is useful as it gives us a glimpse of Burnley Centre in its very early days. Remember, for centuries, the centre of Burnley had been in Church Street at its junction with the old Godley Lane (later Ormerod Road). At some point in the later 18th Century the centre of a growing Burnley moved to the point where St James’s Street meets the present Manchester Road. The image gives us a clear idea of what the former farm building looked like at this time.

You can see the barn on the left and former farm house, converted into an inn, on the right. If you look carefully you will see something that must have been very common in Burnley before the introduction of piped water. That came in 1819 but, before it did so, a main source of water was that collected in water butts from the roofs in town. Here you can see two water butts, one on the extreme left of the barn and the other at the point at which the barn joins the former farm house.

Water collection arrangements of this type are mentioned in a few early records of the town. These refer to the 18th Century and it was often farm buildings mentioned. Of course, pastoral farmers needed water for their animals, mainly cattle and sheep, but water was also needed for chickens and pigs and horses.

Drinking water was also required for human consumption and, in front of the barn, you can see a water pump. This, I suspect, was not only for the use of the residents of the inn. It would have been for public use and, in those days, there were large numbers of people living in the centre of town. What I can’t say is when this pump was installed. It could be that there had been a pump at this location for some time before the inn was demolished c1819 but, on the other hand, it might have been one of the pumps installed by the Burnley Water Company which started to supply piped water to Burnley at this time.

Notice, also, there are a number of trees in the picture. These were a reminder of St James’s Street before it became the town’s main shopping street, a development which took over a quarter of a century to complete in the latter part of the 18th Century. In that time what we now know as St James’s Street linked “Th’ Top o’ th’ Town”, the old town centre near St Peter’s Church, to “Th’ Bottom o’ th’ Town”, the rising industrial and residential area, on the Calder, at the bottom of Sandygate.

Between the two there were a number of properties, mostly small farm houses, one of which survives in the Swan Hotel. This building dates to 1795 and is only a few yards from the Bull. In addition, there were a number of houses and small cottages, and, interspersed between them, a number of gardens and orchards. The trees on the card remind us of a more rural Burnley which has now slipped from the memory.

A final look at the image of the “Bull Inn” will reveal something else of interest. Look at the extreme right of the building and you will see a finger post, what we might call a “sign post”. Unfortunately, we can’t read what it says and one of the signs seems to be pointing, not up Manchester Road, but along the side of the inn, in the direction of Bull Croft where there was a small coal mine and a number, not many, of other buildings, a few of which were residential.

The Express now occupies part of this land.

The card of “Old Burnley” gives us a vivid picture of what Burnley was like in the mid 19th Century. It was now an industrial town as is evidenced by the mill chimney in the centre of the card. St James’s Street has now become the shopping centre and right of the card is dominated by shops and commercial premises. The shop of Cowgill and Smith, the hardware retailers, can be seen on the extreme right and the local “Savings Bank” is a couple of doors away.

It is clear, though, that these premises had been built, in the main, as houses, something confirmed by the facade of Savings Bank, the third property in from the right. Notice, here the original doorway and ground floor window has survived whereas, in the other properties, they have been replaced by doors and windows more appropriate to shops and business premises.

I could say quite a lot more about this picture but my last comment refers to St James’s Street itself. This image shows the point at which St James’s Street is at its widest. It was here the open market took place when it had transferred from Church Street. When the market was not operating it was here the taxi drivers waited for custom and, in this image, you can see that activity. I have another image, an early photo, which shows a line of vehicles, similar to the one in the picture, at this point.

In conclusion, the images I have considered are of use to us to understand what Burnley was like in the days before the introduction of the photographic postcard. Ironically, the image which relied on the latter is the one that muddies the water. The artist who produced the image of Finsley Alley made it look much more attractive than this part of Burnley really was.

Could I wish my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.