Richard Robinson

Life on the wild moors

by Eric Beardsworth

A lonely wind-blown beech tree defying the wild moorland elements marks the sad site of Botany Bay Farm, where Richard Robinson was born in 1883.

Withnell Moors – part of a huge area of Lancashire moorland between Darwen, Chorley and Bolton – are today a northern wilderness enjoyed by walkers and wildlife, where only scattered stones betray the location of long-lost homes.

But when Richard Robinson was born, Withnell Moor was a thriving community with mills, farms, chapels and people working hard for a living.

Richard, who started work in a mill aged 11 and served in the First World War, worked as a stonemason until his seventies and was also an enthusiastic amateur local historian.

Before he died in 1963 aged 79, Richard had written down his fascinating memoirs, but they remained unpublished until his granddaughter Barbara Butler reread them in 2015 and decided they were worth sharing.

Now published as a book Recollections of a Moorland Lad, his writings give an eye-opening insight into a part of the county that has gradually changed forever.

Botany Bay Farm was built around 1805, during a period when British courts were sending offenders to Botany Bay in Australia. The farm was so remote that locals thought anyone living there was as good as transported. Little wonder that its inhabitants preferred to call it Summer House.

Richard spent the first 19 years of his life there, attending St Paul’s Elementary School in Withnell village. Lads there would go to work half-time at mills and factories aged around ten, by which age their peers expected them to smoke tobacco in clay pipes!

Richard recalled: “It became quite common for boys to light up their pipes in school. They paid school money in those days, but much of that money never reached the school as there were too many sweet and tobacco shops on the way.”

A new headmaster put paid to such nonsense, and the smoking boys had to hide their pipes in a stone wall on the way to school, causing some puzzlement when the pipes were discovered many years later, when the wall was pulled down.

The observant village lad, on his first visit to Blackburn for shopping with his grandparents, was amazed at the horse-drawn trams – “Horses running away with houses,” he called them.

Young Richard went to work at Marriage and Pinnock’s cotton mill at Withnell, having to trek a mile over the moors in all weathers to start at 6am. Running two looms, he was often fined for producing poor cloth and eventually got the sack. He then joined his father, a stonemason, and could proudly boast that he helped to build the landmark Darwen Tower and Blackburn Cathedral. It was an unhealthy trade to follow, and Richard’s father died of the stone-dust disease silicosis aged just 46.

Big-town entertainment was to be found in Blackburn, where The Palace played host to the likes of Harry Lauder, Gracie Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Lloyd and George Formby Senior, and The Prince’s Theatre staged drama and melodrama such as The Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd. Locals could also marvel at the exploits of Blackburn’s ‘Jumping Jack’ Higgins, who could jump across the canal or on to a box of eggs without breaking them.

Richard’s memoirs covered the whole gamut of village life; the work, the families, the characters, the churches, the schools, the wars, the local legends and inevitable ghost stories and grim deaths.

Life on the moors changed drastically when Liverpool Corporation, which had built reservoirs there for public water supply, purchased the watershed. The corporation did not want human habitation there, and although no tenants were turned out, none were replaced if they left. One by one, the farms were allowed to become vacant, to be demolished or left to fall down.

Richard Robinson’s own birthplace became a shooting hut, and when he revisited it in the 1950s he found it a sad sight. He looked at the old beech tree and wrote: “How it must have enjoyed our merry games, but the years have sped since then. Most of my playmates have gone to rest, and like myself, this old friend is getting old.”

The author’s granddaughter is making a donation to Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital from the sales of Recollections of a Moorland Lad, by Richard Robinson, £12 hardback, Merlin Unwin Books, BUY NOW