PEEK INTO PAST: Exploring Altham’s history

Altham Parish Church and churchyard. (s)
Altham Parish Church and churchyard. (s)

SPRING is in the air – or it was when I planned this article.

At the time I thought I should encourage you to take advantage of the good weather and go for a walk but the glorious few days of a fortnight or so ago are something of a memory and I have been told the weather we are “enjoying” now is not going to improve over the next few days.

The interior of Altham Church as it was some 80 years ago. (s)

The interior of Altham Church as it was some 80 years ago. (s)

This week I am taking you to Altham which, despite the modern industrial estate, adjacent to the village, remains one of my favourite places in the locality. As the illustrations indicate, the Parish Church of St James is the main attraction and this is particularly apposite because, this year, its parishioners are celebrating the 500th anniversary, not of its foundation, but of its rebuilding in 1512.

In fact there are a number of notable anniversaries this year. You will have heard of the Titanic anniversary. The famous ship went down, on its maiden voyage, just 100 years ago. Then, in 1612, there was the Lancashire Witch Trial. Ten poor ignorant people, mainly women, paid the ultimate penalty after being accused of witchcraft. One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1862, just about the most important of the retail organisations associated with Burnley, its Co-operative Society, was founded.

It is my intention to write about all three of these anniversaries in the course of this year but, first, it is the turn of the church of St James at nearby Altham. I enjoyed arranging, and leading, a visit to the church for the Towneley Hall Society last autumn. This was particularly pleasing as an old friend has been appointed assistant curate of Altham and this was a chance to meet and speak to him again.

When we were younger, we did quite a lot together and I remember inviting David to be a guest in a series I wrote, with Brian Hall, for Radio Blackburn. You can tell how long ago it was as that station was renamed Radio Lancashire what seems to be ages ago!

David is a biologist by training and, when at college, he worked on the Poulton (or High Furlong) Elk project. This was the amazing discovery of the complete skeleton of an elk which had roamed the Poulton area 12,000 years ago. What was more was that the elk was still able to tell the story, through marks on its bones, of it being hunted, not once but at least twice – and escaping to die, if not a natural death, without being caught by its adversaries.

However, David was not invited to address that subject, as interesting as it was, he agreed to visit Burnley and discuss the flora and fauna of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. He turned out to be a natural, comparable with his namesake David Bellamy who was then at the height of his fame as a television expert on the natural world.

The Parish Church at Altham is not the village’s only attraction. The huge churchyard is worth a visit itself and, almost opposite the lych-gate is Altham Mill, one of the best-preserved corn mills in the district. The mill, originally water powered, but with a later chimney, dates from 1816. An interesting date stone tells you this but there have been other mills on the same site, perhaps as early as 1088. In addition, a number of the original houses and cottages associated with the mill have survived making this the best preserved community of its kind in the district. Truly, a little gem which you should take the trouble to look up when you find yourself in Altham.

The village of Altham consists of a number of stone built houses, many with long colourful gardens; a mid 19th Century “Tudor Gothic” primary school and, apart from the industrial estate, little else, save Altham Hall and the Walton Arms. The Hall is not the original building and hardly anything remains of the moated structure which survived until the 16th Century, but the Walton Arms, a good restaurant, has local connections. It takes its name from the Waltons of Marsden Hall who succeeded as lords of the Manor of Altham. There are numerous memorials to the family and its successors in both the church and churchyard.

Another of the residents of the graveyard requires special comment. This is John Hacking who came from Huncoat and who was the inventor of the carding engine used in the early days of the cotton industry. It is reputed that Sir Richard Arkwright, the great founder of the factory system of cotton production, “lifted” a few of John’s ideas for his own successful carding engine but, be that as it may, John Hacking is remembered here in Altham.

There is a stained glass window dedicated to him and his family in the church which is particularly appropriate because another Hacking, this time a Thomas of that name and a descendant, was responsible, in 1859, for extending the chancel and building the tower.

The writer of the history of the parish church makes the point that the building is one of the “musts of East Lancashire”. He is right. The church is not as well known as Whalley Church, only a few miles away, but there is plenty to detain the visitor to St James at Altham.

The name of the village refers to “the water meadows where swans are found”. The Calder has become quite a wide river by the time it arrives in Altham and, in the past, before the land in these parts was drained, the water meadows were very extensive – ideal habitat for swans which love water.

It is understood that the original church was built in c1140 but that it might have replaced a small hermitage on the site. It was common for hermits to guide travellers across rivers and it is likely that there was such a facility in 11th and 12th Century Altham.

There is a Norman tympanum in the church and some of the windows, or parts of them, and the piscina predate 1512. The font, one of those given to local churches by John Paslew, the last Abbot of Whalley, is from the 16th Century. A century later the local parson was none other than Thomas Jollie who had to surrender his incumbency in 1662 because he would not conform to the Church of England when Charles II was restored to the throne.

Mr Jollie, despite his name, was an extreme Puritan but eviction from his living, and imprisonment for his beliefs, did not deter him from his calling.

He is remembered not only at Altham but also at Barrow, near Whalley where there is a chapel dedicated to him, and at Wymondhouses, near Pendle Hill.

It might have surprised you to learn that there is so much to little Altham.

In fact, I have not got the room to tell you about the Machine Riots that took place there in 1779 about an early, but now forgotten, cotton spinning mill.

Nor have I the space to tell you about the other examples of industrial unrest in the area, the great pit disaster at Moorfields or Altham as a place that travellers between Burnley and Blackburn wanted to avoid because of the footpads who roamed its dark lanes at night.

ROGER FROST