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Celebrating creativity in Bolton

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 June 2016

David Lewis of Northern Mill Engine Society photographed at Bolton Steam Museum

David Lewis of Northern Mill Engine Society photographed at Bolton Steam Museum


Bolton is setting a cracking pace in the drive to rekindle the town’s creative spirit. Martin Pilkington reports. Photography by Kirsty Thompson

Assistant Director of Economic Development and Regeneration, Phil Green with Cllr Cliff Morris (Leader of Bolton Council) Assistant Director of Economic Development and Regeneration, Phil Green with Cllr Cliff Morris (Leader of Bolton Council)

CELEBRATED historian Norman Davies, himself a Boltonian, wrote of his home town that God had blessed it with the purest water for washing cloth and the blackest coal to fire the steam engines.

You could add that it has also benefitted from ingenious creativity as a glance at some of its favourite sons reveals. Bolton’s combined resources have left a rich industrial and cultural legacy that the town is determined to protect and to add to.

At Bolton Steam Museum on Musgrave Road, engines that drove the textile industry are lovingly preserved and operated by the Northern Mill Engine Society. ‘We have about 25 active members and with 30 or so engines that’s more than one each – so more volunteers are always welcome!’ says their publicity officer, David Lewis.

Their home is a former cotton-bale warehouse provided at a peppercorn rent – though soon due for review – by Morrisons supermarket. A heady perfume of engine-oil, polish and paint fills the air. Mr Lewis quickly has several of the gleaming engines whirring away, among them examples made by great Bolton names like John Musgrave, Hick Hargreaves and Thomas Crook. ‘The earliest we have dates from about 1840, the last from 1961. Some were operational in factories until the 1970s and some are the last working examples of their types in the world,’ David says. ‘They’re fascinating things, and great fun – we always say these are big boys’ toys, mega-Meccano.’

Actually made like a Meccano model, at the opposite side of the town, there’s another symbol of the area’s fight to retain its industrial heritage. Spanning a waterless section of canal in Nob End, Little Lever, is what’s now called The Meccano Bridge. ‘Bolton Council commissioned it as an artwork,’ says Paul Hindle, chairman of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal Society. ‘It’s easier to get money for art than for civil engineering projects.’ More than 3,000 hours of volunteer labour built the bridge, designed by artist Liam Curtin. It will take a lot more such effort to restore the three-way canal that has been severed since a breach nearby in 1936.

Paul continues: ‘Getting it all done is largely a matter of money. When we last priced up the full job in the late 90s it was about £70 million. We’re working stage by stage – recently our volunteers shifted 700 tonnes of rubble from this site, and we’ll soon be rebuilding the wall here with bricks and mortar provided by the Canals and Rivers Trust, and with help from trainee brickies at Bolton College.’

The wealth that the textile industry generated, powered by steam machinery and served by the canal system, helped Bolton stand perhaps slightly above its neighbours in terms of civic splendour, nowhere more so than at its museum.

Complete with aquarium, library and art gallery, it is housed in a beautiful crescent constructed in the 1930s, against the tide of the Depression. ‘Even in the 30s when the textile industry in Bolton was declining the wealth of the owners remained,’ says Matthew Watson, curator of Art and Social History.

‘Frank Hindley Smith, for example, influenced by his friend of the art critic Roger Fry, built up a major collection of modern art and gave it to the museum in the 40s. And we have a wonderful Egyptology collection, possibly the finest in the UK outside London, donated by Annie Barlow, daughter of a big mill owner. She financed a lot of archaeological digs around the turn of the century.’

There’s a wealth of material about the town itself too, including research, photography and even artworks from the 1937 mission to the town at the start of the Mass Observation anthropological project, and inevitably there’s a section devoted to Lion of Vienna, Nat Lofthouse, who played his entire career for Bolton Wanderers. How they could do with him today.

But this is Bolton, so the museum has plans for further improvements. ‘We have lots of exciting plans afoot,’ says Matthew. ‘We’re developing a new natural history gallery, refreshing the art gallery and collection, re-interpreting it and explaining the links with Bolton. And we’re building a facsimile of an actual Egyptian tomb, with objects from our collection within it.’

The town has already seen significant investments in its centre over the last few years, with plenty more to come. ‘We’re moving on,’ says council leader Cliff Morris. ‘Like everyone else, we went through a recession and there are still challenges, but it’s pleasing how the university is growing and the other major developments like the integrated bus and train station are coming into place. By this time next year a lot more of these planned developments will be finished and others well underway.’

Perhaps the two most eye-catching initiatives are at the university. A new academic village costing £50 million will bring accommodation for 750 students into the centre and an elegant and futuristic building will house the national motorsports engineering centre.

The amenities those students and the rest of the population – set to increase significantly with 1700 houses planned at Rivington Chase in Horwich – can enjoy are changing too.
 ‘The Vaults at the Market Place Shopping Centre are filling with restaurants already,’ says Phil Green, the council’s assistant director of economic development and regeneration.

‘There’s a real momentum around that now. We’re starting to open units around the outside of the centre too with awnings and outdoor seating, plus the new cinema opens this autumn, and the Octagon Theatre is being revamped. A few years ago we set a target of getting over £500 million of investment, and we’ve managed to achieve over £1 billion.’

Note of caution

One long-established institution here could do with a boost from Boltonians themselves. The Bolton Choral Union began in 1887, won and kept a great reputation, and over the years has filled major concert venues and performed frequently on television.

Michael Greenhalgh, its musical director since 1972, is concerned for the future, however. ‘In the old days we numbered about 120, now we are 65. Twenty years ago we were probably one of two choirs in Bolton, now there are over a dozen community choirs, added to which it is difficult to find people now who can read music.’

The choir has a concert at Bolton Parish Church on June 19th that features works from the choral classics to more modern pieces. ‘It is tremendous fun, very rewarding and sociable, we explore music by lots of different composers,’ says Michael. ‘So let’s hope we attract some new members.’

Industrious Boltonians

Samuel Crompton – his spinning mule was key to the industrial revolution

John Harwood – invented the self-winding wristwatch

Fred Dibnah – changed the way we look at industrial history

Robert Whitehead – developed the self-propelled torpedo

Sir Harry Kroto – Nobel Prize winner in 1996 for his far-reaching work on fullerenes

Lord Leverhulme – founder of Lever Brothers and master marketeer


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