ROGER FROST: Burnley’s town centre

A FEW weeks ago I published two early photos of St James’s Street, Burnley. They illustrated a scene, over perhaps 30 years, looking towards Yorkshire Street from near the junction of St James’s Street and Manchester Road.

A number of readers said they found the article of interest and would welcome an article about the view in the opposite direction. Today’s photo shows St James’s Street, about the same time as the later of the two pictures published a few weeks ago, but looking down the street and covering much of the town centre.

Not all of the comments I received about the first article were complimentary. Some complained about the quality of one of the images I used. To them I apologise but when using old images the age of some of the photos has to be taken into account. Though wonderful pictures of the past have survived, many were taken by people who did not have the best of lenses at their disposal and, whether they had or not, photos, like almost all man-made things, deteriorate with age. Images become blurred and the contrast between features on the photo depreciates. Even black and white images are affected.

Often it is just not possible to restore an image to its former glory even though my colleagues at the Express have often worked wonders on the photos which accompany my articles.

Today’s picture, though it was taken many years ago, shows a scene which is still recognisable as St James’s Street. As with the two photos referred to above, many of the buildings have gone but the layout of the street, perhaps the most enduring factor in determining the location of old photographic landscapes, remains essentially the same.

In recent times, developers have tended not to respect earlier street layouts. In Manchester, the bottom end of Market Street was destroyed by the firm which, to my mind, constructed one of the ugliest shopping centres ever built. I refer to the Arndale Centre, a victim some years ago of the IRA, and which inspired one commentator to describe it as looking like the longest toilet block in the country. That said enough remains of the earlier street layout, nearer the cathedral, to be able to reconstruct a section this part of Elizabethan Manchester.

In Burnley, though many of the older town centre streets were consigned to history in the town centre redevelopment of the 1960s, at least we did not make Manchester’s error, that of erecting quite so ugly buildings to replace those lost. The scale of the Burnley’s newer buildings is appropriate for a town of its size, they don’t dominate like Manchester’s Arndale Centre did.

If you look at the photo we publish today the St James’s Street – Manchester Road junction can be seen on the left with, opposite, the junction with Bridge Street. In the middle is the most well-known of Burnley’s “gawmless” lamp posts. It had been erected in 1823 and was Burnley’s first street lamp. It was constructed by the town’s first gas supplier, a private company later purchased by the corporation, and though it was needed to provide light it was actually intended by the company to be an advert for its products. The situation was well chosen and, as I commented in my earlier article, the present council erected a replacement “gawmless” when this part of St James’s Street was pedestrianised.

On the left of the picture is the Bull Hotel, once Burnley’s premier hotel. It was built just after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars by the landowners who gave their name to nearby Hargreaves Street. The Bull was also at the centre of local government and business as it became the meeting place of one of the bodies which preceded the council and many of the town’s leading businessmen met there in the years before the Mechanics Institute was built.

In fact this immediate part of St James’s Street has another claim to political significance because it was from a site adjacent to the Bull that the boundaries determined by the Burnley Police Act of 1819 were set. The Police Act had little to do with our understanding of the word police. Our classically educated ancestors used the word as it had been in Ancient Greece where the “polis” was a city, or the boundary within which a city operated.

The actual point of the centre of the circle was marked by the “meanstone” which can be seen on early maps. Unfortunately, we do not know what the meanstone looked like but the Burnley Civic Trust is hoping to get permission to mark the spot, which is now in the pedestrianised part of St James’s Street, as part of this year’s municipal celebrations. I will keep you informed about this.

Behind the Bull a number of buildings have survived. Most notable of these is St James’s Hall, the building with the small tower on it. The tower has since been removed and the building no longer is used as a billiard hall and political offices, as it was originally. It is now occupied by the Burnley branch of Barclays Bank.

It is on the other side, the right side of St James’s Street, that there has been most change. In fact it has been all change in this part of town and the only things that remain are some of the old street names which were used here. These include Chancery Street and Howe Street, both now Walks. The Market Square still survives as a name but the present square looks nothing like its predecessor. I was always, because of family connections, particularly fond of Bridge Street but very little of that street remains today.

When the buildings on the north of St James’s Street (the ones in the picture) were built they were right in the centre of town. However, it might surprise some of you to know not all of these buildings were designed as shops. Many of them were the private houses of some of Burnley’s leading citizens which were later turned into shops. At some time in the future I intend to tell the interesting story of this transformation which took place in the early years of the 19th Century.

I hope you agree with me that the photo published today is a splendid picture of old Burnley. It is so informative about this part of town and, if you look carefully, you can see how the new 18th Century small town centre merged into the later and larger 19th Century developments. The discontinuity came in the 20th Century when the authorities ripped apart a townscape that had been developing almost naturally over a long period of time.