PEEK INTO PAST: Burnley’s housing decline of the early 1900s

YOU will have to forgive me if I have used this splendid image of old Burnley before but I do not think I have done so. I have written so many articles in Peek into the Past I am readily confused about what I have produced. What I can promise you is that, if the photo has appeared in the column before, the text will not have done so.

I am often inspired to write about something I have seen in town and, not so long ago, I was in the Piccadilly area and was shocked by the number of boarded-up properties. This was not entirely new to me as I, like other members of the council, have known about the problem for some time. It seemed, however, there were more “voids”, as we call abandoned properties, than I have noticed before. I inquired at the town hall and my suspicions were confirmed.

There is nothing new about the empty or abandoned property problem in Burnley. We have had it for the best part of 100 years and, when the properties in the Piccadilly area were regarded as fine houses in which to bring up families, there were parts of town that were in decay.

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One of the latter was the area Wapping, part of which we show today. The district was one of old houses; early and very dark, mills and warehouses, all crammed together and close to a dirty river, the Brun. This was a combination like the one which existed in the Wapping area of London which famously features in the novels of Charles Dickens, whose 200th anniversary (of his birth) we celebrate next year. It was probably from the London Wapping that Burnley’s equivalent took its name.

Burnley’s Wapping, though it was very close to the town centre, was in terminal decline by late Victorian times and was being abandoned by the early years of the 20th Century. There were other parts of town which had the same problem. Property in, and near, Sandygate, houses in Calder Street and River Street, together with slum houses at Hill Top and Scar Top, and more, all come into this category.

Between the two World Wars it was realised the problem of abandoned property, and its partner, that of inadequate housing, was not going to go away. Many of the houses, shops, mills and workshops which had come to the end of their usefulness were cleared as a result of legislation passed in the 1920s but this, like the recent Pathfinder scheme, proved both to be too little and one could argue that although the projects were welcome they did not really address the core problems.

The picture we publish today reminds me of the housing situation the town faced something like 100 years ago. We are in Cannon Street in the very early years of the 20th Century. There is nothing left of the street today but its site is easy to locate because, though the two cottages (right in the photo) have gone, they stood at the bottom of Hall Street which is accessed from the eastern end of St James’s Street. In the old days, Hall Street was known as Hall Rake and I have often thought that, somehow, that seemed to have fitted the circumstances very well. A “rake” is a steep path, or a narrow cart road, and, in the past, Burnley had a lot of rakes. The most well-known was, perhaps, Rake Foot, off Church Street, which is now under the St Peter’s Centre. At least two “rakes” still survive – Rake Head (the name given to the old St Andrew’s Recreation Ground between Colne and Briercliffe Roads) and Stoneyrakes/Stoneyraikes (an old farm in Robin House Lane, Briercliffe).

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A quick look at the property in the photo tells you all you need to know about Cannon Street. The white building appears, in the photo, to be the first property in the street but that was not the case. Although the few yards to Water Street were once called Cross Street, Cannon Street came to have a junction with Bridge Street and, on the lower side in the 1850s, there was a large cotton mill. The mill had been partly demolished by 1910 and there was a patch of cleared and undeveloped land on the site of what became Webster’s department store.

The white cottage, actually one of three – the other two were in Water Street – was the first of four buildings which look as if they might have been built as slightly better houses, probably for people with commercial interests in this part of town when it was an early industrial area. Surprisingly, three of the buildings became beer houses of considerable disrepute. They were the Black Dog, which in 1883 was kept by John Myers; the Greyhound, kept by a Mr M. Jowett and the Horse and Farrier, the landlord of which was Michael Gaynor.

If you look carefully at the picture you might be able to make out there is a painted sign just below the guttering on the third building. I can’t read what the sign tells us in this picture but I have another photo of the same scene but taken from a different position which confirms this building was a beer house. The sign is very indistinct but, after examining it using a magnifying glass, I think this was the Greyhound, that it was a Massey house and sold ales and invalid stout.

As the years went by these beer houses lost their licences and the Black Dog became a notorious lodging house. I think the other two also operated in a similar capacity and their roles as lodging houses is supportive of my description of the area’s decline. There were other properties on this side of Cannon Street. In 1851 there were a further eight buildings and, though the structures looked superficially the same in 1910, it is clear there had been some internal re-organisation and some of the buildings had been replaced. On the other side of the street there were also a number of buildings and in 1883 there was a clothes dealer and two shops.

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If you look at the photo you will see there is spare land at the junction of Cannon Street and Hall Street. No such spare land is shown on the 1851 map but there is a large area of unused land on the 1910 map. This is indicative of the decline of the area which was not redeveloped until the Palace and Grand Theatres were built which was about this time, though both buildings were really in St James’s Street.

Plots of land remained undeveloped in Burnley often for quite a long time. Many of you will remember the site of the Keirby Brewery. The building was demolished before the Second World War but the site was not redeveloped until the Keirby Hotel was opened 30 years, or so, later. Other sites at Hill Top, Scar Top, in the Irish Park and in Sandygate took similar periods of time to be redeveloped and one of them, the last mentioned, has not been built on for more than 70 years!

The reason why plots of land like these have not been built on for, in some cases many years and, in others, not at all, is because Burnley’s population has been declining since circa 1918. Less desirable areas have suffered and this continues to be the case. On the other hand, there is reason to hope things are changing and we can see this in the building schemes in Burnley Wood, Daneshouse and Gannow. While this is welcome news other areas are suffering and this was confirmed by my visit to Piccadilly.

This picture of Burnley shows us a part of town that the big postcard makers might not normally have shown but it is an interesting one giving us an insight into the decline of an area as opposed to the prosperous districts that are usually shown on postcards.