ROGER FROST: The rise, decline and rise again of Burnley Wood

A FEW months ago “Peek into the Past” visited St Stephen’s, not the church but the early school, when we published a rare postcard view of the then Bishop of Burnley laying the foundation stones for an extension.

I was conscious, at the time, that, though I would have to say something about the history of the church, there would be no space to mention an interesting memorial which can be found in the building.

Our pictures today show the front page of a small leaflet published for the dedication service, on Sunday, November 26th, 1922, of the Kneeshaw Memorial Window, which is in the church, and a postcard view of the interior of St Stephen’s which I believe was taken about the same time.

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I will come to John William Kneeshaw in a moment but first a few words about Burnley Wood and St Stephen’s. When I wrote about the school, in December, I mentioned how struck I was by how impressive is St Stephen’s Church now the old boarded up property of the Oxford Road area has been consigned to history.

I know the run down condition of this part of town had not always been the case and I am aware those who have connections with this part of Burnley Wood lament what they see as the destruction of their community. In fact some time ago, when undertaking historical fieldwork in Oxford Road, I was stopped by a man who, knowing my connections with Burnley Council, was more than willing to place responsibility on the council for what had happened.

In the past I have given my views about the reasons for the decline which has taken place in some of our communities, so I will not be troubling you again in that direction, but I am sure that, given the daunting problems which had surrounded them, those who have been responsible for looking after the fabric of St Stephen’s can congratulate themselves. The Victorian church building, already serving its existing community, seems to be ready to serve a new community once it arrives in the soon to be built houses on the sites opposite.

St Stephen’s was consecrated in February, 1879 as a response to the early development of Burnley Wood. This part of town had resisted such overtures for years. Perhaps the most important reason was that the area had poor communications with the rest of Burnley. Road transport was not good from the town centre because of the narrow bridge which carries the canal at the Culvert and the equally inconvenient Turn Bridge at Finsley Gate.

Everyone in Burnley is familiar with the Culvert – it is, if I may put it this way, one of the great icons of the town – but people forget that for the first 100 years of its existence the Culvert was a very narrow passage way hardly large enough for a laden cart to pass through. In the 1890s two additional “gimlet holes”, as they were called, were constructed but it was not until 1926 the present Culvert, able to take double-decker buses, was completed.

The same was true at Finsley Gate, the other way to get to Burnley Wood from the town centre on the other side of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. I did not realise there had been a “turn bridge” in this part of town. By the time I had become familiar with the area the original bridge had long since gone and people no longer used the term “Turn Bridge”, which they had in the past, for this part of town.

In fact, I did not even know what a turn bridge was but, once I found out, I realised just how significant an impediment it was to the development of Burnley Wood. A turn bridge revolves on an axis so it can be moved to allow competing traffic to pass. The traffic, in this case, involved both the road and the canal – the bridge had to be moved to allow the alternate passage of road vehicles and canal barges, and in an age when the canal was heavily used.

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It was not until the 1880s that the present bridge that connects Finsley Gate to Parliament Street was built. Not long before that Burnley Wood was largely undeveloped, the vast majority of the terrace houses had not yet been built though there were industrial buildings on the Plumbe Street/Branch Road side of the canal and some workers cottages, like those in Craven Street and Craven Place, had been crammed in between them.

It is now I can introduce John William Kneeshaw into our story. He was a Yorkshireman who, in 1877, at the age of 20 was appointed head teacher of St Stephen’s School. In 1883 we find him, described as “master of St Stephen’s School” and living at 31 Todmorden Road. Mr Kneeshaw held this position, save for a three-year break when he worked for the Burnley Express, for the rest of his working life.

These, however, were not his only achievements as J.W. Kneeshaw was also a prolific writer, the author of many novels some of which he set in the Burnley area. I have re-read one of them, “The Calder’s Secret” in recent months.

The novel is set in the 1860s and is subtitled “A Story of the Cotton Famine”. I had hoped the novel might throw light on the effects of that great event on the town and, though there are references to the Famine, they are peripheral to the central story about the murder of a cotton master.

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I will not spoil the novel but will point out that “The Calder’s Secret” is largely set in 1860s Burnley Wood, a very different place to the Burnley Wood with which many of us were familiar before what we came to call the Elevate project was commenced.

According to Mr Kneeshaw Burnley Wood, an area he knew well and saw develop rapidly in the last quarter of the 19th Century, was dominated by its river which, as the title of the book suggests, plays an important part in the story. I found the book helpful in guiding me through Burnley Wood in the 1860s and it was interesting to see how the author intermingled the characters he created with the real ones he introduced and who had actually lived in the town at the time the story was set. References to buildings, some of which survive, are also of interest.