I had reason to go to Bolton last week. (For those of you who may be geographically challenged in this respect, Bolton is a town about 15 miles northwest of Manchester (the original Manchester, that is, not the one by the sea currently featured in an excellent movie). At the height of the region’s global dominance of cotton production, Bolton would have been described as one of Manchester’s ‘satellite’ manufacturing towns, though I am aware that Boltonians themselves believe – and not without reason – that their municipality could have been top of the premier league of industrialised towns had it not been for the customary appropriation of their wealth by southerners – in this case Mancunians. I suspect that a consequent grudge persists deep in their collective psyche.
Yet I encountered no rancour in my interactions with the good folk of Bolton: quite the opposite, in fact. When I found myself stranded in a desolate car park without the means to pay-and-display (banknotes and credit cards not accepted, phone-pay beyond my comprehension) two people offered to give me the £1.50 I needed. The first offer I declined, embarrassed. But, seeing no other option, I swallowed my pride and accepted the second one gratefully. Cynicism obliges me to assume that things might have gone differently if my accent had been Mancunian, but my way of speaking is regionally non-specific so I will never know whether I experienced the innate and indiscriminate generosity of Boltonians. In any case, I was then free to walk around and admire the splendid architecture at the centre of a town evidently determined, at the end of the 19th century, to express pride in its industrial success by spending lavishly on civic buildings. They may be fraying around the edges but their symbolism remains powerful.
Later I drove to the outskirts to see for myself a much earlier monument to that industrial legacy, a 16th century manor known as The Hall i’ th’ Wood (try listening to your sat-nav speak that if you want a laugh). The Hall is no longer in the Wood – in fact it sits in a sliver of parkland wedged between a housing estate and the A58 – but it is evocatively ancient despite that. Its real significance, however, is that it was here that Samuel Crompton, around 1775, invented, developed and operated his spinning mule, a machine which kick-started the automation of textile production and caused rioting amongst those who foresaw the consequent demise of their livelihoods. The building and its contents would have disappeared a century ago, subsumed into urban expansion, but for the thoughtfulness and generosity of another Bolton man, Lord Leverhulme.
Born William Lever, he made his fortune by pioneering the second stage of industrialisation, i.e. marketing. He took an every-day commodity, soap, which was at that time retailed by chopping pieces off large blocks, pre-packaged and branded it. His technique was wildly successful (his business lives on in the form of Unilever) and it paved the way for the whole industry of advertising and marketing in which, to this day, Britain is a world leader. Lever, it appears, was a fairly modest man who, despite his wealth, lived locally and remained proud of his home town and its history. He bought the Hall in 1900, renovated it, filled it with museum pieces, and donated the whole lot to the municipality, thereby honouring his predecessor.
But municipal Councils, given that they have more pressing, everyday obligations, are not ideal custodians. The Hall is under-funded and, therefore, open to visitors only a few days per week. Yet, during the two hours I was there, no one came. The Council might regard such apparent lack of interest as a reason to close the place altogether but, on the contrary, I think it should be rummaging in its legacy locker for ways to revive the innovation, confidence and marketing nous it was once famous for.
|The Hall i' th' Wood|