ACCRINGTON: A THUMBNAIL SKETCH
Today my latest Cragg and Fidelis story Rough Music is published in the United States. The fact that it is also April Fool’s Day must be coincidental.
This new novel is narrated, as ever, by Titus Cragg my conscientious coroner of Lancashire, and is the first largely to unfold away from Cragg’s home-town of Preston. Titus and Elizabeth have at last become parents and when, in the summer of 1744, an epidemic of “paralyzing fever” threatens they decide to withdraw to some remote picturesque spot to make sure their baby Hector is safe. The spot chosen is the tiny village of Accrington, seventeen miles away to the east, in which life is primitive, but the air is pure and the surroundings delightfully rural.
Readers who know contemporary Lancashire will appreciate how far this vision of bucolic bliss differs from the modern reality. It is the difference made by the industrial revolution. Within a single lifetime, Accrington began a transformation that turned this obscure village into a famous stone- and brick-built industrial town, its factories, mills and workers’ terraced houses closely packed together along the slopes of the valley of the little river, the Hindburn, around which the original village sprung up. In time the industrial infrastructure of new streets, sewage pipes, coalyards, railways and electricity generation appeared, as well as all the other facilities of Victorian urban life – schools, library, park, cemetery, grand Town Hall, covered market and numerous churches.
The transformation of Accrington began with calico, a cheap cotton cloth that had originated in Calcutta. The availability of water-power and damp climatic conditions of the western Pennines made the Accrington area ideal for the mass production of this cloth. The raw material was initially imported from India and then from America, where the cotton was grown and harvested for many years using slave labour. Working conditions in the 19th century Accrington mills were not slavery, but they were extremely tough with low pay, and long hours. Many children worked in them.
Printing (calico was often printed with colourful designs) and engineering also flourished in industrial Accrington, as later did the brickworks. Accrington brick, also known as “nori” brick, was made from local clay and was prized for its strength and red colour. It was exported world wide, being used for example to build the Empire State Building in New York.
Accrington Stanley FC was a football club founded in 1891 and played for many years in the English League until it went bankrupt in the middle of the 1962 season. A successor club of the same name was founded six years later and this finally returned to the League in 2006 as "the team that wouldn't die".
The “Accrington Pals” was the nickname of a World War One British army battalion recruited entirely from local men. On 1 July 1916 the Pals took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme and, within 30 minutes of going over the top, was virtually wiped out by German machine-guns. The effect on the town of losing a whole generation of young men like this beggars the imagination.
My own connection with Accrington? That comes through my great-grandfather John Blake, the son of illiterate Irish migrants, who started an engineering works there, manufacturing the “Blake Hydram”. This very durable water-powered hydraulic pump achieved much success providing water supplies, especially to great houses and estates, and then to farms and plantations around the British Empire. It was the power of the Blake Ram that provided the Taj Mahal with its celebrated fountains. It was (and still is) a brilliant exploitation of non-carbon energy and has been known to operate for decades without maintenance.