The Famine Tower – Episode One

Aetiological monuments of hope for a future/past unknown… more from our artist in residence David Chatton Barker…

As I continue to peel back the layers of Brown Wardle Hill and its surrounding moor-lore, it’s time to turn to a period not too far from living memory when industry was the main momentum of a valley rich in its cotton, coal and stone.

The geology of the South-Pennine moors and Rossendale is dominated by the sandstone and mudstones of millstone grit and coal measures, hence its numerous quarries and adopted name ‘The Valley of Stone’. Its stone has long been exploited for local use, especially ‘Haslingden flagstone’  a type of hard sandstone used for houses, weaving shed floors, pavements, gravestones and kerbs. One especially distinctive feature across the landscape of the valley is the ‘vaccary walls’, huge slabs inserted into the ground, almost resembling gravestones from a distance (especially now as many lay fallen), used as an alternative enclosure to the common place drystone walls (perhaps they were quicker to build/erect?). The quarried stone has travelled far and wide, Trafalgar Square reputedly being one location fitted out in its slabs.  Many of the quarries have since closed and become sites of recreation and adrenaline sports, but some still remain including Cown Quarry in Whitworth. Lancashire was, of course, the birthplace of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and Rossendale valley was one the many areas at the helm of the thriving wool and cotton industry, it was then known as the ‘Golden Valley’. Chosen as a prime location for the mills due to the moist atmosphere (ideal for stretching cotton) and the Spodden river. The Vale of Whitworth developed as a town mainly due to its local industry, and there were as many as a fifteen mills operating at one time in the area, each with associated housing. The skies would have been darker with chimney smoke, the water murkier, and the streets echoed with the sounds of mill workers’ clogs on cobbles and the clatter and roar of weaving and spinning sheds.

whitworth mills


“As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could truthfully be asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic.” 

(Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, October 14, 1861)

The industry and its workers suffered greatly due to the Cotton Famine (known as the Distress). This started in the early 1860s, with the Civil War in the USA, when President Lincoln ordered a blockadcotton famine roade of the Confederate southern ports. These prevented access to the raw cotton. There were also failed attempts to locate other sources. Many mills had to close in Lancashire leading to unemployment of mill workers for many months. Relief committees were set up to find work and to set about some more unusual endeavours for out of workers…

Running 1500ft above sea level above Rochdale (known locally as the ‘Cotton Famine Road’), there is a section of Rooley Moor Road that was constructed by cotton workers during the cotton famine. This is a unique ‘road’ linking the American Civil War to social changes in our own country, at a time when the Rochdale Pioneer Movement (the beginnings of co-operative movement) influenced social thinking throughout the UK.

There is another much lesser-known endeavour carried out by 30 to 40 out-of-work mill operatives who carted stone to the top of Brown Wardle Hill (SD899187), which stands 1,312 ft above sea level on the South Pennine moors in Whitworth (on the other side of the valley from Rooley Moor). This massive quantity of stone was used to construct a monumental tower over several months, eventually reaching the grand height of 28ft and known by seemingly very few people as The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11:1-9 is an origin myth meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages. According to the story, a united humanity in the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God, observing their city and tower, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world. The myth is an ‘Aetiology’ or explanation of a phenomenon. Aetiologies are narratives that explain the origin of a custom, ritual, geographical feature, name, or other phenomenon.

tower o babel


The only known evidence I have discovered depicting the events of the building of the tower is from a booklet of newspaper cuttings collected and stuck down by a Rochdale amateur antiquarian named J.L Maxim (Maxim was known as an amateur but was highly qualified and a frequent lecturer at Rochdale Art Gallery on local history). Within the Touchstones Local Research archive there is an extensive collection of Maxim’s research notes and books, he, like many from late 19C/early 20C was interested in multifarious aspects of the landscape along with the industry entwined within it. He produced a field guide for Whitworth, which charted his exploration on foot through the valley; its hills, cloughs, mines, date-stones, woods and quarries are all fastidiously documented in a beautiful but difficult to read scripture along with intricate drawings and notes. The notebook remains unpublished largely due to the effort required to decipher and transcribe the handwriting (never say never). I found the Famine Tower account in his notebook titled ‘Pits on Brown Wardle Hill’ and is full of correspondence between local antiquarians and geologists in the form of columns printed in the Rochdale Observer (it’s worth mentioning that at this point Whitworth was still part of Rochdale). The nature of the correspondence is discussing whether the pits on Brown Wardle Hill were only a result of mining or due to earlier settlements, perhaps pre-historic or Pictish?

The story doesn’t finish here.  Look out for Episode Two next week when David continues the tale of the Tower.  If you press the Follow button for this blog you will receive an email letting you know when there is a new post.

In Edition Two you will be able to see the only known evidence of the building of the Tower of Babel and enjoy a fascinating video bringing the story to life…

4 thoughts on “The Famine Tower – Episode One

Add yours

  1. I first got to ride my horse on Brown Wardle in the 70s, and detected a Trig Point, which ended up as stone rubble many years later….the summit of the hill has a scattering of general rubble some of which is reputed to have been Saxon burial related, the west side has side has several former Bell Pits, plus the line of early Boundary Stones marked H & S (Hundersfield – Spotland) and the mineral Tramway of Cartridge Nook Colliery,……. been a busy area over the eons


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