PEEK INTO PAST: Clock Tower Mill in 1959

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THERE are no prizes for working out where we are this week. The names above the shops might have changed, and a few prominent buildings may no longer be there but there is no doubting we are on what we now call (Lower) St James’s Street, Burnley.

This photo was taken in the mid summer of 1959. Someone has indicated, on the back of the image, that July was the month and, considering the strength of the shadow, I have no reason to doubt that. Unfortunately the maker’s name is absent but the photo was taken by J.E. Lawrence and was the second in a series of images made into postcards. It could be that the photographer worked for the firm of Lilywhite Ltd, as the picture shares many characteristics with the image of St James’s Street published a few weeks ago made by the Brighouse firm.

I am going to examine the picture by looking at the background. The skyline, rarely for a postcard image of Burnley, shows six mill chimneys. As I have pointed out before, larger postcard makers did almost all they could to exclude what were considered to be the more ugly aspects of industry from their products. Mill chimneys fall into this category and I feel producers of cards felt photos of shoppers about their business in a town’s main shopping streets were preferable to references which reminded potential purchasers of work.

The dominant building is Clock Tower Mill, to the left, in the picture. The mill dated from about 1840 with the clock tower added in 1862/3. Stories associated with the building of the tower are well known. The man responsible was George Slater, a cotton spinner and one of Burnley’s leading Victorian industrialists. He was criticised for vanity for adorning his multi-storey mill with a clock but I have to admit I am with Mr Slater. He argued that, in providing a clock, he was undertaking a service to the public. There were too many wealthy people in Burnley’s history who failed to use their wealth for the betterment of their fellow citizens. A clock might not have been much. Indeed it could be interpreted as a reminder, to the operatives in the mill, that they should be on time for work. However, the tower became the great distinguishing feature of the building and was used on the letterhead of later firms based in the building.

So many of Burnley’s industrial buildings were very plain – single-storey cotton weaving sheds, dark foundries and narrow, black stone-built spinning mills – but this structure stood out and, had it survived, would have become an even more considerable landmark than it was in 1959. Close to it were a number of other industrial buildings, like Clock Tower on the canal bank. Many of them have gone and, with them, has disappeared something about what Burnley is really about.

Some of you may be pleased to see buildings like these go, once and for all. I can understand that, especially if you, or your parents or grandparents, spent many hours at the loom or spinning mule. We all know that mill work was long and arduous and wages were not good. We also know that, if any money was made, it stuck to the families which owned the machinery, but I am pleased to have been associated with the attempts made to preserve something of the Weavers’ Triangle, of which Clock Tower Mill was a part. I never dreamed I would be, as I am at present, the Executive Member of Burnley Council with responsibility, among others, for the regeneration of the Triangle.

Though the story of our industrial development is important, I suspect more of you will be interested in the shops and theatres we see in today’s picture. There are far too many of the former to list them all, but let us start on the right.

Empire Buildings is a fine row of properties. It was built as shops by Burnley Borough Corporation in 1928 and was designed by Leeds architects John Curtis & Son. The buildings are very much of their period, their most distinguishing feature being the red, black and gold curtain windows which can be seen on the upper floors of the front elevation and, similarly, above the large ground floor windows to the side elevations in Brown Street and Bethesda Street. The windows are only hinted at in this picture but, when you are next in this part of town, notice, also, the decorative work at the top of the building and the central pediment on the St James’s Street elevation.

Apart from the firm I have asked you to name, quite a number of well-known businesses had premises here. You can see the sign for the Empire Studios. They were photographers and the proprietor, in the 1950s, was Stanley Wright. I have often wondered where his pictures went when Empire Studios closed and if he took commercial and industrial photos for local firms. Another business in this row can be identified from the photo and that is the firm of Garrard’s the furnishers at 123 St James’s Street.

The 1953 Directory lists Freeman, Hardy & Willis, the famous shoe shop at 117 (on the Bethesda Street corner) and the Co-operative Dispensing Chemists at 119. This latter I cannot recall but I can remember the Brighter Homes shop and North’s, the glass and china shop.

If we turn to the left, on the picture, you can see the building which is here indicated as “The New Empire”. It was, of course, to give it its original name, the Empire Music Hall and was opened in 1894 on the site of Tunstill’s Cotton Mill. In 1911 it was complexly reconstructed but the building remained the local home of variety for many years and the place gloried in the name of the Empire Theatre of Varieties. A 1930s description of the building reads: “It is one of the prettiest theatres in the provinces, and replete with every modern appliance for the comfort and accommodation of the 2,500 persons it can seat”.

As many of you will know, next door almost, with only Freeman Lee (the optologists) between them, was the Victoria Theatre which, at one stage, was known as the Victoria Opera House. It was famous, locally, for its plays, light opera and classical concerts and became very well known, in the years of the Second World War, as it became the home of the Old Vic Company and Sadlers Wells Ballet. Never has Burnley been so well served in the Arts but, perhaps at too high a price, it took a war to achieve it. The condition of what is left of these two great buildings is a sad reflection on our times.

Let’s get back to the shops. If I am not mistaken, the first shop after the Empire was Dalton’s, the outfitters. Schofield’s, the wallpaper merchants, was followed by Stanley’s, the tailors and Harris’s the drapers. Across Cow Lane there was a shop I recall, not for this building, but for another higher up St James’s Street. The one at Cow Lane was Cope’s Dairies and, here at number 134-6, they were confectioners. At 96 St James’s Street, and on the row below Coal Street, Cope’s had a snack bar and they had other premises in Colne Road.

Many of you will know the former Cope’s building as Howarth Galleries but I wonder if you remember it when Shepherd & Catton were there? My father went to school with one of the partners in this business, Mr Catton, I think, and my first watch was bought there. The watch did not last long as it became the victim of an argument which I had with one of my brothers! I have never forgiven him for that!

We could proceed down St James’s Street to Westgate but if I did, I would not have space to correct a mistake I made in last week’s article (675). I wrote that Scott Park was the oldest of Burnley’s Public Parks but, as a number of you have pointed out, Queen’s Park, opened in 1893, is two years older. Apologies, but when I wrote the article my computer had crashed and my friends at East Lancashire into Employment made one of theirs available to me at Queen Street Mill. The article was written without notes but that is not really an excuse.