Nelson

An intriguing town at the heart of Pendle

John Bromley and Robert Butroyd

Nestled in the shadow of Pendle Hill close to rolling countryside containing heritage villages, lies a small town with fine architecture, an historic park, a world- renowned cricket club and a fascinating social and industrial heritage. The arrival of the Leeds-Liverpool canal and the railway in the mid-nineteenth century sparked the rapid growth of an isolated moor-side village, turning it into a thriving cotton-weaving town. The Lord Nelson pub was the only major public building at that time and the rest as they say is history: Nelson was born.

The new town was named after the pub: within hailing distance of the halt on the passing rail line

The new canal and railway created opportunities for more people to work with the supplies of imported cotton and local coal, producing cotton that was easily exported to the rest of Lancashire, and to the world. Nelson was a town of immigrants with workers drawn from the declining lead mines of the Yorkshire Dales, the tin mines of Cornwall and the coal mines of Scotland. They brought with them the ethos of non-conformism. This spirit found ready outlet in the fight for improved living and working conditions through trade union and socialist movements. Consequently, Nelson vies with Bradford as the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party, forerunner of today’s Labour Party. 

Clarion House: a rural escape within walking distance of Nelson

Traces of this self-help ethos can still be found at Clarion House, Newchurch-in-Pendle, near Nelson. It was part of a national movement promoting improved health amongst workers and their families, walking or cycling through the countryside in limited leisure time visiting a network of Clarion tea rooms. A loyal band of supporters still maintains the unpretentious tea room in its pastoral setting – serving refreshments to today’s ramblers and cyclists – surrounded by socialist and trade union memorabilia. This includes material about Selina Cooper, a national and international campaigner. The ‘Belle of Brierfield’, as she was called, began working in a local mill at the age of 10 and from the early 1900s was active in a range of workers’ and women’s rights campaigns.

In the 1930’s the novelist and historian, C.L.R. James, and his great friend Learie Constantine were drawn to Nelson from Trinidad. Constantine was the professional at Nelson Cricket Club and became Britain’s highest paid sportsman before gaining the peerage as Sir Learie Constantine, the first black person to do so. During his time living in the town C.L.R James became cricket correspondent for The Guardian and, in contrast, wrote ‘The Black Jacobins’, the definitive history of the black slave revolt in what is now Haiti. 

Nicholas Pevenser, the architectural historian, was not complimentary of the town. Much of Nelson’s heritage lies hidden. Close inspection reveals some real gems such as the former Baroque library building in Booth Street. As with many other British towns and cities, there is a distinct contrast between such buildings and the plainer, functional buildings of more recent times. The buildings from its industrial heyday still reflect the dignity of the town.

Nelson’s grand old library

Textile mills are still a dominant feature of the Nelson townscape. Historically, several families dominated the trade. In the 1860’s the Ecroyds at Lomeshaye Mill built a model industrial hamlet including a shop, school and housing. The present-day motorway and a new industrial development almost obscure this gem. The former ‘Jimmy Nelson’ mill is a total surprise, containing the British in India Museum with letters, photographs, uniforms and artefacts manifesting the colonial experience. 

Nelson has excellent transport links. It is difficult to avoid the M65 which almost cuts the town in two and imposes a loud backdrop to daily life. The canal is well used as a route for leisure craft and is a valuable green lung for residents. The rail station is presently the end of the line for services from Burnley and further west. A campaign to re-open the rail link to Skipton has rumbled on for years. A visit to the area in 2018 by the Government’s Transport Secretary raised the possibility of an eventual re-opening. 

At less than 140 years old Nelson has a relatively short history. An early description of the area as a peat-covered and rain-sodden wilderness belies today’s Nelson. For those willing to pause to explore the town will find much intriguing history and heritage below its busy surface.

To explore Nelson and other so called ‘ordinary towns’, and hidden corners of northern places, visit www.goodcompanionsaround.com

John Bromley volunteers with environmental and amenity groups in the Aire Valley. In retirement he has repaired dry stone walls in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, the Lake District and Wales. This is a purposeful hobby but also a way of interpreting local history and heritage.

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