Bellwether is a social documentary, set within north west England, UK. Investing in participatory relationships within the ‘three towns’ of Great Harwood, Rishton and Clayton-le-Moors, I am attempting to locate a contemporary portrayal of ex-Mill towns in the county of Lancashire. The images below are drawn from a wider selection of photographs made since 2021. The global pandemic, Brexit and, now, a cost of living crisis, provide a thematic subtext for the photographs and writing developed over the last two years.
“From out your hearts – it is no idler’s dream: the little tinkling lowly mountain stream
Is swelling to a river, broad and free – a river rushing out to meet the sea.”
Ethel Carnie Holdsworth
“As a teenager, I spent almost as many nights in Great Harwood as I did my own home. My girlfriend at the time lived here. Once or twice a week, I would board the bus from Blackburn and travel out, often arriving on Thursday and staying with her family until Sunday evening. After nearly thirty years, it’s hard to say what I remember. The bus stop in the town square. The Morrisons where I used to buy cheap whisky. The tropical fish shop that was the nearest thing in walking distance to a tourist attraction. Dog walks by the River Calder. Cobbled roads. Terraced streets. The ghosts and indelible stain of the Industrial Revolution.
Great Harwood lies at the margins of British life as it lies at the margins of my memory. As one resident told us, Great Harwood is not a place people come to unless they mean to be here. I can attest to that. Yet there is history here. History it took an even once frequent visitor three decades to discover. Most Harwood residents know the name of John Mercer, even if only for the Mercer Memorial Clock, built in 1903 and which remains the centre piece of the town square. A chemist and industrialist, John Mercer invented a new way of dying cotton (‘mercerized cotton’ as it came to be known), which increased the fortunes of Lancashire’s Victorian cotton mills. The same knowledge of chemistry also led Mercer to pioneering work in colour photography. Forgotten for more than a century, Mercer’s photographic innovations were only rediscovered in the late 1980s.
If Mercer is of interest to a photographer, what is a writer (and reader) to make of Mortimer Grimshaw? Born in or near Great Harwood, Grimshaw grew up to be a political activist and public speaker agitating for strike action. Most notably, Grimshaw was one of the leaders of the Preston weaver’s strike, 1853-1854. The strike failed in its aims and Grimshaw lived in flux until his death fifteen years later.
Yet Grimshaw’s larger influence is as a character in literature. Charles Dickens used Grimshaw as the basis for Slackbridge, the firebrand orator in his novel, Hard Times. Set during a strike in ‘Coketown’ (a thinly disguised Preston), Hard Times and Slackbridge have inspired many characters embroiled in industrial dispute. Most well known of these is Mac McLeod, the ruthless strike agitator in John Steinbeck’s depression era novel, In Dubious Battle. I have read In Dubious Battle numerous times. It’s strange to find a connection back to Great Harwood in Steinbeck’s fictional valleys of California.
The poet, novelist and social activist, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth lived in Great Harwood from the age of 6 until her marriage at 29. She worked in the town’s cotton mills as a child, later writing about her experiences and the harsh working conditions. Holdsworth was the first working-class woman in Britain to publish a novel (Miss Nobody, 1913). Her books once outsold those of H.G. Wells. Like Mercer’s work in colour photography, Holdsworth’s groundbreaking novels have been rediscovered in recent years. I look forward to reading them.
In 1800, the population of Great Harwood stood at around 1,500. By the time In Dubious Battle was published in 1936, that number had swelled to 13,000, due to the cotton and textile mills. The mills closed long ago, but the population has remained above 10,000. The 2011 census records the population at 10,800 exactly.
The 2011 census records 110 other towns in the United Kingdom with populations between 10,000 and 12,000. Towns similar in size to Great Harwood account for more than 1.2million people, a combined population greater than any single UK city other than London.
These are the Bellwether Towns. The places where the state of the nation can be assessed. Places like Todmorden, Stranraer, Mold, Ilfracombe and Swanage. Places like Wells, Holyhead, Ross-on-Wye, Downpatrick and Epping. Places like Great Harwood. Bellwether Towns are places in which to gauge the soul of the nation. To witness the health of a society, look at how it treats those at its margins. The weakest. The poorest. Or, in case of Great Harwood and its sibling towns, the smallest. Look at the state of the roads and pavements. The level of investment. The standard of public housing. The provisions made for an increasingly aging population. How far has capital spread out from the centres of power, into the outlying towns and regions?
London is too often the national focus. Manchester and Liverpool dominate debate in the North West. Yet places like Great Harwood cannot be ignored. This is where the effects of national and global events like Brexit, Covid 19 and the Cost of Living Crisis are first felt. Like extremities in the body politic, here is where the cold creeps in before it goes to work on the limbs and torso of the UK’s larger towns and cities. When the temperature drops here, beware.
Bellwether it might be, but this town will always hold something of special significance for me. In looking over the images taken by John (who I have known even longer than I have known Great Harwood), there is a feeling of nostalgia for a past both historic and personal. The green spaces. The places where nature has reclaimed the land from the once billowing, polluting mills. The places where the past is breaking through the tarmac to reveal itself.
Also, there are the portraits. Portraits of families. Portraits of rugged, resilient individuals. Portraits of a nation of animal lovers. In short, portraits of Britain in microcosm.
Each piece adds to the collective mass. Like the “lowly mountain stream” that flows into a hundred other rivulets to become the river, or like the Calder itself, which flows into the Ribble and out into the Irish sea, so Great Harwood is a vital part of the whole. It appears, in one sense, on the margins of British life. Yet this makes it a bellwether and a Bellwether Town for the selfsame reasons. The rise and fall of towns like Great Harwood speak to the socio-economic fortunes of the country at large.
Yes. I remember this place warmly and appreciate its quiet value. Every place has an impact, however small. Every place leaves its imprint on the history of the world.”
Writing by Robert J Maher: https://www.instagram.com/eponymist/?hl=en-gb
Interview with John Harrison, Ed Kashi (Abandoned Moments, 2022) and Glenn Ruga (Social Documentary Network) – The Crit House. September 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4veP7UA-NF0&t=1082s
References: Turner A, 2014, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Aurum Press Ltd. Allen-Kinross P, 2021, Is Transport for the North’s budget being reduced by forty percent?, Full Fact. Brook P, 2021, We all need a bit of hope and we all need enough to live on, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Islam S, 2020, Northern England facing economic crisis ‘worse than 1980s’, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).