ROGER FROST: History of calico printing in Burnley

In the remaining part of the year occasional articles in this series will be based on exhibits from the collections at Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum. I am grateful for their co-operation.

Tuesday, 5th October 2010, 11:45 am

Those of you who listen to Radio 4 in the morning will know about the BBC series which attempts to explain the history of the world through 100 exhibits from the British Museum. At the Express, we thought that, on a smaller scale, we could do the same for Burnley.

The place to start is Towneley Hall because Burnley Council, for more than a century, has been building up a marvellous resource for us to enjoy in what arguably amounts to four distinct collections – Towneley Museum itself, the art galleries, the local history museum and Towneley’s impressive natural history collections. We will be featuring all of these in the coming weeks and, what’s more, you are encouraged to visit Towneley. Remarkably, especially in this day and age, entrance to the galleries and the museums, remains free to all residents of the borough.

Each morning on Radio 4, the presenter, at the outset, describes to listeners what the object under discussion might be. I suppose this is essential when the radio is used to convey an idea and, even though you have an image in front of you, I see no reason for a change.

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What you are looking at is a reproduction of a shipper’s ticket made for the firm of Alexander Drew & Sons of Lowerhouse, Burnley. They were calico printers, an industry which, in Burnley, has had relatively little attention but the Drews exported worldwide and their finished cloth found its way to numerous distant markets together with specially designed shipper’s tickets.

The tickets were often made with a particular market in mind. Michael Townend, keeper of local history at Towneley, describes one in his book, “Images of England: Burnley”. The ticket is for the Chinese market and, intricately designed, it shows two Chinese characters, one male the other female, in national dress and considering a treasure in the shape of a horseshoe.

The image refers to a traditional Chinese story, one which would be recognised by lots of people in that country. However, the image you have before you is not so easy to describe. It is understood the ticket was used for exports of finished cloth intended for South America but we are not sure what the rather dramatic image might mean. It could be that, dramatic as it is, the image has no real meaning but one would hope it has.

The main reason for producing the ticket was to publicise the name of the firm which had finished the cloth and that name you can see at the top of the ticket. At the bottom are the places where the business was based, Manchester and Burnley. The former was where the trading or “Manchester office” of Drew’s was located. I was at Manchester University with Nicholas Drew and, he, knowing I was interested in the history of Burnley (even then!), and when we were in the centre of the city, he took me to the building which had once housed his family firm’s premises. The building, still standing, is not far from Manchester Town Hall.

Burnley was where the calico printing works was established. The building has an interesting history which has been told, very ably, by Brian Hall in his “Lowerhouse & the Dugdales”. Briefly, the business was established by the Peel family (the same family which produced Sir Robert Peel the early Victorian Prime Minister and remembered today for founding the police force).

The Peels came to Burnley in 1790 when they erected a cotton factory at the bottom of Sandygate. This building lasted for eight years as it was destroyed in a fire in 1798. An amusing story, at least to us given the time which has lapsed since the incident, can be told about the fire as a number of the workpeople at the factory, a large and distinct brick building, refused to help to save the property from the flames. They argued it was not their job to put out the flames! It could only happen in Burnley.

Not surprisingly, the first Peel factory was not replaced by the family but, three years before, they had acquired the Lowerhouse site which became the second investment by the family. Here they constructed a vast cotton spinning mill and what later became the calico printing works which commissioned the shipping tickets I have described.

The Peel family also established another calico printing works which eventually became Burnley Paper Works, now the new site of Burnley College and UCLan’s small, but important, university presence. However, the Peels did not remain at Lowerhouse that long. Cutting a long story short, the buildings were bought, in 1813, by Nathaniel Dugdale and his family remained there until 1929 when, to the consternation of all who lived in Lowerhouse, the family decided to retire from cotton textiles.

However, the story does not end there as the calico printing works, in 1872, fell into the hands of Alexander Drew. The building was leased by the Dugdales to the Drews who had been in business in Scotland as calico printers. A dispute with a partner in the Scottish business had encouraged Mr Drew, and his three sons, to seek premises in Lancashire and they found the old building at Lowerhouse met their requirements. They spent almost a century there becoming Burnley’s best known firm of calico printers.

That industry has not been properly studied in the immediate Burnley area but Drew’s was a firm worthy enough to represent all the calico printing that took place in town. In fact they were, in many respects, a very forward-thinking concern and, getting back to the shipper’s ticket before you, this is one of the ways in which the point can be made.

In Burnley’s textile industry I know of only a handful of companies who went to the trouble to distinguish themselves from the run of the mill (pardon the pun) of their contemporaries – Drew’s at Lowerhouse; Haythornthwaite’s (who produced Grenfell cloth in Barden Lane and Rylands Street) and Lee’s of Victoria Street. This shipper’s ticket connects us with the time when cotton truly was king and Burnley was an important member of his great court.