Written By Rob Maher
The Lancashire town of Great Harwood is, in a certain sense, a town at the margins of British life. Located in the North West of England, halfway between the Ribble Valley and the larger town of Blackburn, Great Harwood is not a place many people stumble upon by accident.
The fortunes of Great Harwood rose and fell on the crest of the wave of the Industrial Revolution. From a population of around 1,500 in 1800, the cotton and textile mills helped swell this number to nearly 13,000 by 1931. Though the mills are long since closed, the population has remained above 10,000.
Great Harwood’s most famous son was John Mercer, the 19th century industrialist, who invented a new process for dying the cotton on which Lancashire’s mills dominated and defined the county for a century. The Mercer Memorial Clock, built in 1903, remains the centre piece of the town square as a testament to his legacy.
On the other side of the industrial divide, the political activist, Mortimer Grimshaw, was also born in Great Harwood. One of the leaders of the Preston strike, 1853-1854, Grimshaw inspired the character Slackbridge, the union orator in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Grimshaw in his guise as Slackbridge has a literary pedigree that can be traced as far as Mac McLeod, the labour firebrand in John Steinbeck’s Depression Era novel, In Dubious Battle.
Unlike the smaller neighbouring town of Rishton, Great Harwood has no railway station. The branch line closed in 1957. It is now a footpath and cycle way.
Rishton also retains a football team, whereas Great Harwood Town ceased to exist in 2006. However, the latter can at least claim the former Blackburn Rovers player, David Dunn, as being born and bred in the town.
Yet while Great Harwood might seem out-of-the-way and unremarkable, its representative importance as a marker of British life has broader appeal.
The 2011 census of Great Britain records the population of Great Harwood at 10,800. The same census shows 110 other British towns with populations of between 10,000 and 12,000 inhabitants. Towns of similar 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 places where the state of the national can be gauged. Like extremities of the body politic, these are the places where the change in temperature is first felt. Whatever the benefits or repercussions of Brexit turn out to be, these are the places that will either flush with blood or turn bitter blue before the effects work their way into the limbs and torso of the UK’s larger towns and cities.
Towns like Great Harwood; towns like Todmorden, Stranraer, Mold, Ilfracombe and Swanage are as important as Knightsbridge, Camden and Hackney. There is only one London, but there are many places similar to Great Harwood. What they might lack in historical incident is at least partially mitigated by their national commonplace.
Great Harwood appears in one sense on the margins of British life. Yet this makes it a bellwether for the selfsame reasons. As with the Industrial Revolution, the rise or fall of such towns speaks to the socio-economic fortunes of the country at large. Every place has an impact, however small. Every place leaves its imprint upon the history of the world.
All images © John Harrison
Text © Rob Maher
By John Harrison
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