The Famine Tower – Episode Two

If you enjoyed reading The Famine Tower – Episode One, the story doesn’t finish there… Our artist in residence, David Chatton Barker, delves deeper in Episode Two, sharing with you the only known evidence of the building of the ‘Tower of Babel’. You’ll also find a poem and fascinating film by David that celebrates the story.

A reminder… at the end of Episode One, David told us that the only known evidence he had discovered about the building of the tower was from a booklet of newspaper cuttings collected by a Rochdale amateur antiquarian named J. L. Maxim…

The three relevant paragraph clippings can be seen published here as a photocopy within my notebook, but as the text is quite small, here are the transcriptions. The first one gives the most detailed and revealing account.

paper clippings

(There is mention also of the lesser documented Colliery on the Wardle side of the hill.)

‘The surface stone was cleared out so late as 1863 by 30 or 40 men, chiefly mill operatives, who went up every day for many months together, if not by order, certainly with the consent of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee. Whether some of the stone so got was used for repairing the roads over the common I cannot now say, but I know that many tons were used for what should have been another Tower of Babel. It was built on the Lobden end of the summit the height of 28 feet, and allowing for the quality of the architects, was a seemingly substantial structure. I have visited its site to-day. “Alas! How art thou fallen” I exclaimed, as I gazed with disappointed eyes at the crumbled ruins. The ambitious project for scaling the clouds that way was soon defeated, not by confusion of the builders tongues, but by their withdrawal from the mills and the immediate action of the weather upon the pile.  I had seen graceless boys roll some of the larger blocks of stone down the hill side on Sunday evenings, and the remaining portion of the “monumental column” is now a heap of shale, there or four feet high, and “frail as dust”’.

‘I did not visit the place again for some thirteen years, when the ‘Tower of Babel’ was being built, but in the interval I saw both carts and sledges bringing stone down and tipping it on the Wardle side of the hill, and out of this stone the colliery house at Cartridge Nook, as well as the railway thence to Lobden, was built. There must be numbers of people alive who can corroborate this.’

‘Again, he says, that so late as 1863 the surface stone was cleared out, and many tons used to build a cairn, 28ft high on the summit.’

There are elements in the notebook covering earth works, flint finds and old track ways on and around the hill that I will pick up and expand upon at a later date, when this project becomes focused primarily on the prehistory of the hill and surrounding moors of the Vale of Whitworth.

The construction is described as a ‘tower’, ‘column’ and as a ‘cairn’. Perhaps it could also have been known as a folly, had it stood the test of time, though a monument seems to give it more justice, considering its context (clearly? being built without function but as an act of solidarity for the suffering workers over UK and USA). A cairn at this period in time (and still to this day) was a common occurrence in the landscape for the moorland walkers over paths and hilltops; these piles of stones that act as markers, beacons, memorials are generally of unknown provenance which over time becomes a collective collaboration marking passers by and often traded as a symbol of luck… who doesn’t like to add a stone to these anonymously created and endless pieces of land art? As ever shifting and changing forms of lichen and moss emerge and their random arrangement altered by the elements and by hand, foot or hoof. A cairn can be seen as a human unification and appreciation of open spaces lesser touched and ravaged by the perpetual greed and dominance of industry and endless housing development. During the cotton famine and the industrial revolution in general, a trip out to the greener side of the smog and noise would have been a breath of (slightly) fresher air! There is today a large Cairn on the opposite side of the summit to where the Famine Tower was noted to have been built. Whether this was the true site of the original tower we may never know but its an impressive site nevertheless.

double cairn


I find a fascinating convergence between our prehistoric ancestors living, (let’s say 10,000 years ago) who constructed their ‘megalithic (lithic meaning stone) monuments’ and this story of idle out-of-work hands constructing a monument also out of stone for a time when solidarity was connecting people over the Atlantic during the Cotton Famine. Many megaliths and menhirs (single standing stones) still remain, now revered and often marked out by brown heritage signs, but then how many ancient constructions have fallen to ruin by human hand of naivety or stupidity? Standing in the way of agricultural progress and the movement of the plough? Or simply seen as building materials for newly administered land enclosure acts and finding new homes within dry stone walls, animal enclosures, churches, roads and dwellings. Perhaps now we look back more than forward at what we may have lost as a bridge to out ancestral past? And, of course, ultimately in time mother earth gradually reclaims these ruins as her prodigal children return back into her embryonic mineral belly.


Fast forward 120 years to the same moors and another group construct, this time, a wooden horse, (of Troy?), a mere distance of 200 meters away from the Famine Tower’s initial emerging. This radical, traveling theatre group known as The Horse and Bamboo had been regular collaborators with the Whitworth Fair, which had been set up 10 years prior by Walter Lloyd (more on him to come) and for some twenty years was merged with the annual Rush-bearing Festival. (The famous Rushcart still happens every September in Whitworth.) The Wooden horse was built to a height of almost 28 feet, and ceremoniously burnt at the end of the festival.

It seems strange that so far no more mention of the Famine/Babel Tower can be found, other than these scant reports within a notebook from over 100 years ago. Surely more people saw this tower being built? When it was completed,  surely it was written in a diary or sketched in a notebook, painted by a local artist? Perhaps a record does exist in a dusty attic or back of a crowded drawer? From such little evidence you could almost say it never happened but as the story came from three different perspectives/accounts and published in a newspaper, surely it must be true!? (Of course newspapers never print fiction!) Either way this wonderful creative act has been buried under the annals of time, unearthed by my own restless interest for more happenings, as a fascinating piece of moor-lore, here to inspire and remind us of harder times and powerful acts of collaboration, devotion and togetherness. For now it seemed fitting to me to remember this event through a poem or memorial written in true Lancashire dialect (something else disappearing), as a lasting monument in rhyme.


The Famine Tower 

Here is an owd buzz, a seemin for now…

Twas the year of 1863 in Lancashire

When the distress came frabbin o’er th’Adlantic sea

Call’t “cotton famine” id war, ‘tween thee and me

Under ratey blackened welkins of flying shuttles in’t gowden valley

Not by order but by will, thirty playin’ workers gather from yon Whit’uth Mill

Threopin for a time when solidarity stud stronger still

Them fowk ascended peat and moss to th’ fur summit of Breawn Wardle Hill

Verra many tons of stone war browt up bi hoof and fut

Upon the bosom of theer land,

There stud up in’t cleawds, a tower known as Babel

Fur a hope as we’d all be as wun

Not takken long by th’ elements t’faw

Twenty eight feet high, a bit more than just tall

Defeated not by t’confusion o’tungs

But by withdrawal from the hills back to t’mills

Reclaimed in a short while, by t’earth,

Th’ body from which wus took

Our wood, stone, cob and luck!

Our gumption elders built a message for us t’read through time

Perhaps best remembered throo verse

As a monument in rhyme

By David Chatton Barker


This short film is an ‘anniversary of the monument’ charting 156 years since 1863 when the original tower was built. 156 stones found on the summit of Brown Wardle Hill were each photographed and animated. Ageless stones that may or may not have been part of the original tower. The poem is read aloud by Broadside ballad singer Jennifer Reid during a snowy day on the south Pennine moors.


Toward the end of 2016, after finding out about both the Famine Tower and the conception of my son Rowan, I began the timeless act of building a Cairn on the summit of Brown Wardle Hill. Each time I ascended I would have a stone in hand and over time I noticed stones added by others. Over a year later it had lain fallen and strewn about the grass, whether by human, animal or motocross bike I know not, but I began to reconstruct the cairn (with a wider foundation) during late summer and it remains standing happily. I intend to develop another lasting sculptural gesture for the Famine Tower in spring/summer 2019.

Interested by this? Read more about the project here!

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ikage dcb

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