“Nelson is undoubtedly a modern town. Fifty years ago it was entirely unknown, and no mention of it appears in any books dealing with the ancient history of the County.”
The above quotation appeared in an article in the Preston Guardian on 12 February 1881 and refers to the fact that prior to the Industrial Revolution, Nelson simply did not exist. Nelson is said to be a rare Victorian community which came into existence from virtually nothing. The area was previously described as “a peat covered and rain sodden wilderness”. There were a number of small villages, the largest being Little Marsden and Great Marsden with a total population in 1851 of 6,068. What changed things was the introduction into the area of two great engineering enterprises of the 19th century, the Leeds-Liverpool canal and the East Lancashire Railway, both of which still pass through the town. The canal was completed in 1816 and the railway in 1849 and it was this latter event which effectively gave birth to the town. The railway company built a station for the community and needed a name for it. There was already a Marsden station in Yorkshire so, to avoid confusion, they decided to name it after the Nelson Inn, a coaching stop dating from the early 19th century and commemorating the famous naval hero. The Inn was apparently the only significant landmark in the immediate vicinity. Consequently, Nelson is probably the only town of any size in England named after a public house!
In 1870-72, Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described the Town thus:
“Nelson, a village in Little Marsden township, Whalley parish, Lancashire; adjacent to the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, three and a half miles N N E of Burnley. It has a station, a post office under Burnley, and an independent chapel built in 1865; and is lighted with gas.”
Nelson was still not a publically recognised area but canal and railway, together with the intersection of the Burnley to Skipton road with the road to Halifax to the east, attracted both commerce and population. This was undoubtedly aided by the availability of relatively cheap land and local stone, not to mention cheap labour. The first official recognition of the town came in came in 1864 with the formation of a Local Board for the district of Nelson. By 1890, the town had grown sufficiently to be granted a Charter of Incorporation giving municipal borough status, and Nelson became a Victorian new town. It retained Borough status until the Local Government re-organisation of 1974, when it became part of the Borough of Pendle.
Development was rapid to say the least and Nelson became a town of immigrants, mainly from the surrounding Lancashire and West Yorkshire villages, although the 1891 census reveals that 21.5% of the population were born outside the North West counties including almost 2% from Cornwall. Population figures increased at an amazing rate to 10,274 in 1871, 16,725 in 1881, 22,700 in 1891, 39,479 in 1911 and peaking at 39,841 in 1921.
Walverden Mill was built on Leeds Road in 1850 and was quickly followed by many others. The damp East Lancashire climate was ideal for production of cotton goods but in Nelson, unlike the larger surrounding towns, the emphasis was on weaving rather than spinning. Additionally, whilst nearby towns were producing cotton for cheap goods for the Far East trade, the mills in the town tended to weave specialty cloths such as Venetians, Florentine s and cotton Italians for diverse international and domestic markets and, as a result, the manufacturers avoided the sometimes violent fluctuations in trade which occurred elsewhere. By the time of the 1921 census, 17,299 people, representing 88.9% of the adult population, were working in weaving with the workforce split almost equally among men and women – whereas in other towns, the majority of weavers were female.
This high concentration of the population in one trade lead inevitably to a strong Trade Union tradition in the town and the eventual formation of the Nelson Weavers’ Association which, by 1912, boasted almost 12,000 members. There was soon strong support for the Labour party, which took political control of the Borough as early as 1905 and again in the later 1920s. The militancy of the union members in the lock outs of 1911/12 and 1928, and the volatile protests during the latter, caused the town to become known as “Little Moscow” following a report in the local press. In truth, however, this description was unfair for, whilst socialism was strong, there was little support for communism. The alternative name, “Red Nelson” was probably more accurate.
Both World Wars had a substantial effect on the town. In the First, the town not only suffered its share of death and injury but there was severe split between those who thought the War was just and those who thought otherwise. The Second brought, at its conclusion, a sea change in international trade and economics over which the town had no control. It had suffered greatly during the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s when unemployment wavered between 6 % and 30%, averaging at 25% in the late 1930s. Of those still working, there were large numbers on short time working. The cotton industry declined between the wars, although some diversity did appear. Jelly babies, originally know as victory babies, were invented by Nelson confectioner Thomas Fryer in 1918 to celebrate the end of the War, although this was not his first claim to fame as he had created the Victory V lozenge with local doctor, Edward Smith, in the mid 1880s. The effects of the Second War were to be longer lasting resulting in the almost total decline of the cotton industry, not only in Nelson but within the whole of North-East Lancashire, although Nelson’s position was slightly better that other nearby towns in that a partial switch had been made from cotton to rayon before 1939, indicating a willingness to move to a reconstituted industry, and this gave some brief respite. On the other hand, by 1945, there were 20 engineering businesses in the town and diversity had started in earnest.
The cotton industry, however, continued in its decline. After the war, cotton markets became unstable and, eventually, a Government free trade policy favored Third World countries, especially those within the Commonwealth. Between 1959 and 1964 the number of looms in Nelson reduced from 22,000 to 10,000 and the proportion of cotton workers in the labour force reduced to 46%. In a matter of five years, Nelson effectively ceased to be a cotton town. Ironically, however, it was in the 1960s, as the decline progressed, that Nelson’s second wave of immigrants started to arrive in the town mainly from the Indian subcontinent, and primarily Pakistan. This was caused by two factors – a need for those mills still operating to replace aging cotton operatives with skilled labour and an understandable desire on the part of the newcomers to seek a better life.
As cotton declined, however, other industries started replace it. A local Companies Register completed by Pendle Borough Council in 1994 revealed that whilst 12.9% of the 355 companies in the town were involved in textiles, clothing or footwear, the other 309 were involved in other businesses as diverse as chemicals, construction and furniture manufacture, amongst many others. Nelson also became the birth place of the tour operator Airtours (originally Pendle Travel), at one time the country’s largest travel company and now part of Thomas Cook.
On the 1 May 2008, Nelson’s governance triumvirate was completed when Nelson Town Council came into being.