It felt that spring had sprung as sunlight pierced the curtains when I awoke, an ideal day to re-commence my outdoor follies I thought. With an upcoming gig with the band at Number 39 and a pair of famous structures in the town, Darwen seemed like the logical candidate for a day out.
The ride over was pleasant enough, with the Jubilee Tower ever-present whilst trundling along the M65. Once off the motorway and onto the A666 that slices through the town the India Mill chimney became ever-present in our view. This would be our first port of call after checking the bar out, (this was purely for informational and directional purposes you understand, nothing worse than turning up in a town for a gig and not knowing where to go). We found the bar (closed, well it was 11am) so I made a mental note of its whereabouts.
Back to the car and off to the chimney. We didn’t need directions, it looms over the skyline of the town much like St Mark’s Campanile in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and with good reason.
Back in the mid 19th Century when the mill and the chimney were built there was a flamboyant confidence about the Lancashire cotton industry.The story goes that the land where the mill was to be built later was in dispute between the Shorrock and the HIlton families. It was agreed that whosoever came up with the most impressive design for the chimney to the mill would inherit the land. The cotton magnate Eccles Shorrock (the Second) won the wager hands down and the paper making Hiltons bowed out. There are similarities here to the Wainhouse Tower in Halifax, again an elaborate chimney and also said to be the result of a dispute.
Built between 1859-71, the architect was E. Bates of Manchester. The stone was quarried at Darwen Mill and Cadshaw. Much of the building was completed in mid-1860s, including the chimney, but machinery was not installed in the mill until 1870-71. It was opened in May 1868 by the Marquis of Hartington and was a spectacular affair with a vast exhibition of fine paintings and sculptures adorning three floors, many of which by the likes of Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Durer. The chimney itself is made from red brick and built in the style of an Italian campanile, decorated with bands of yellow and blue along with local sandstone. The first two-thirds of the chimney is panelled, the neck has a bracketed ledge on each side and round-headed blind arcading on 2 levels. Sat atop this are moulded consoles to a prominent cornice which carries a stone balustrade with urn finials finished in red. The top of the chimney was originally adorned with 20 tons of iron cresting taking the total height to 300ft (91.44m), this was removed in 1943 to aid the war effort leaving the chimney 11ft (3.35m) shorter. The foundation that the 24ft (7.31m) square chimney is sat on is said to be the largest single block quarried since Cleopatra’s Needle.
Stories abound about the ‘derring-do’ of the men who built this chimney, none more so than Briggs Knowles, who, as was accounted in the “Blackburn Times” on October 1, 1864, volunteered to climb the in progress chimney to untangle and free a hoist that was used to carry materials (in a box) to the top. The stack now stood at 240ft (73.15m), Knowles climbed the rope without any safety measures other than his own sure-handedness and strength. Once Knowles reached the top, he had to let go the rope and grab hold of the beam to haul himself up onto the platform. He was successful in his attempt and Shorrock awarded him 20 shillings. There are other stories of the workers having a celebratory dinner at the top of the chimney and that a band played whilst they ate. Below is a picture of the inside of the top, would you fancy playing in that band?!
For a long time there was a story that the chimney housed a secret internal staircase. I can see how this could be imagined. The panelled areas on the chimney give the impression of bricked up windows, which, could suggest a staircase. This is purely the architectural design and as recent renovations verified, there is no evidence of a staircase in the chimney…..or is there!! These stories always add greatly to the subjects standing and this chimney is none the worse for them, in fact, standing under it now and letting it tower over me, it deserves them. It is a testament to King Cotton and the skills of the artisans of the day.
The chimney is now a Grade 2 listed building and extensive remedial work was carried out in 2007 after Fred Dibnah propped his ladder up and declared it in poor order. The video from the link is well worth a watch. Peregrine falcons, were by that time nesting on the chimney and proving difficult to dislodge. Their nesting area was eventually covered in netting to keep them away for the months it would take to finish the work of replacing and repointing the top part of the structure. The bricks used had not only to be the right colour but had to be imperial in size and not metric. A company in Barrow-In-Furness was found that could supply the bricks and work got underway. Several of the balusters had to be replaced whilst others had to be treated and coated; metal ties were replaced and the octagonal liner that runs up the first half of the inside of the chimney was renovated. Finally, nesting boxes filled with gravel were placed near the top of the chimney to encourage the Peregrine to return. Frustratingly, I can’t verify if they ever did.
Turning away and heading back to the car I stop and turn at the top of the road, only to be faced with the next point of interest. Standing high on the brooding moors to the west, looking like a rocket from the pages of Dan Dare is Darwen Tower.
Description: India Mills Chimney
Date Listed: 27 September 1984
English Heritage Building ID: 184680
OS Grid Reference: SD6937921710
OS Grid Coordinates: 369379, 421710
Latitude/Longitude: 53.6909, -2.4652