Doing Up The Mill (part 4) – and the mystery of the Burnley Wood communes

Ad for session at the 2018 Burnley Literature Festival

Sometime in August 2018 I was sent an invite to an intriguing session being put on as part of the 2018 Burnley Literature Festival. The blurb said that “The ‘summer of love’ and radical counter culture didn’t just happen at the Woodstock Festival or on the streets of Paris ‘1968’ and its promise of alternative lifestyles and new progressive values drew in young people in Burnley and Blackburn.” It went on to imply that there might be some sort of link between a Beat poetry scene in Blackburn in the late 60’s and early 70’s and the existence of People in Common – I was definitely intrigued. Mostly by the suggestion that there had been communes, plural, in Burnley Wood. What did they mean – had there really been more than one communal group in our neck of the Burnley woods?

And so we booked tickets and along with Barbara, who still lives in Burnley, we turned up to the talk and occupied the front row – which was probably slightly intimidating to at least one of the speakers to have three live old communards turn up to see what he had to say about them. As it turned out the info about the Blackburn Beat poetry scene, which we knew nothing about, was much more interesting than anything we were going to learn about ourselves. And there was a real live Blackburn Beat poet on the panel in the shape of Tina Morris

Cover of Poetmeat 13 – Spring 1967
Poem by Tina Morris

Tina Morris was great. She read some of her work and told stories of her time back in the 60’s with her former partner Dave Cunliffe. They had self-produced a small poetry magazine called Poetmeat from their little terraced house in Clematis Street. Often being the first to publish works from British and US poets and in effect helping kickstart what would later be called the British Poetry Revival.

There were some fascinating anecdotes about Dave throwing himself in front of Enoch Powell’s car when he visited Blackburn shortly after the ‘rivers of blood’ speech, one about them being prosecuted in a sort of northern Obscene Publications Act show trial in between the more infamous trials of Lady Chatterley Lover and OZ magazine. My favourite story was when it was suggested that there ought to be a blue plaque on the front of their former terraced house in west Blackburn commemorating all the poets who had stayed overnight in their spare bedroom. The other main speaker, Bruce Wilkinson, was the one who had done the job of both documenting the poetry scene and then tracing the connections with the later counterculture in the area.

I wasn’t really convinced by his narrative during his talk. But having since read his Uclan thesis and subsequent book on the subject, Hidden Culture, Forgotten History; A Northern poetic underground and its countercultural impact, It seems much clearer that there was a continuous countercultural lineage that can be traced throughout the period – at least in Blackburn. I have a feeling though that the Communes of Burnley Wood of the title of the talk may well have been shoehorned in to give a Burnley connection for the festival. People in Common only gets a passing mention in Bruce’s book and it did feel like we were a bit of an afterthought at the session. Which may have been due to our presence on the front row. But we did have a good discussion afterwards with one person in the audience even suggesting that the whole countercultural scene in East Lancs deserved a session of its own at a later festival

Bruce Wilkinson talking about the Blackburn Poetry Scene.

But what about the mysterious other commune in Burnley Wood? Was there one, and what has all this got to do with Doing Up The Mill? Well the answer to the first question is sort of No, and Yes, and is intrinsically linked to the answer to the second.

Burnleywood Housing Co-operative came about as a sort of bi-product of People In Common, in the same way that the space programme led to the non-stick frying pan.

Entry in diggers & dreamers 94/95

Following on from being refused grants for renovating The Mill we had come up with a plan that involved us working for half the year doing building work for other people through our building co-op. In order to earn enough money to be able to do ‘voluntary’ work on The Mill for the rest of the year while claiming unemployment benefit. (Which we half jokingly referred to now and then as claiming our home improvement grants in fortnightly installments) We funded the not inconsiderable cost of buying the materials needed for a fairly major building restoration by slowly selling off the housing co-ops houses in Burnley one by one.

This worked OK as a bootstrap-fund-raising strategy for a few years. But meant that year on year we were gradually having to fit ourselves into less and less living space. There was clearly going to come a crunch point before The Mill would be ready to move in to. When we would be faced with selling the roofs over out heads to get the money to finish the work. Leaving us with nowhere to live in the meantime.

Members of People In Common outside 58 Clarence Street (1983/4)
L-R: At Back: Barbara, Chris, Ray, Tess (Alex in arms)
At front: (Jo Wood Friends daughter in pram) Kate, Finn, Jim & Derek.

I have a vague memory that Gorden Benson from the Lancashire Co-op Development Agency offered us / got us a small amount of grant funding to do some research and we used it to look at the possibility of setting up a business when we eventually moved to The Mill making insulated rollerblinds and to explore the possibility of mortgage funding for small fully mutual housing co-ops. This took us right back to the area of work that Trevor Howell had been involved in and the idea of an Alternative Building Society. We must have contacted the recently set up Ecology Building Society based just over the Pennines at Cross Hills in West Yorkshire.and at the time the newest and smallest building society in the country. But for some reason, that now escapes me, because they were so small they had problems lending to housing co-ops.

However the local Burnley Building Society in town turned out to be very approachable and amenable to the idea of lending to what they probably saw as a self-help group who by then had a ten year track record of buying and improving property to house themselves. I’m not sure at the time we realised that we might look as if we were competent ‘housing developers’ who knew what we were doing. But writing this now I wonder if that is how we might have been perceived. Despite the fact that we were a bit scruffy (Derek did have a nice suit!) and we probably didn’t used the correct housing development jargon they were happy to consider giving the co-op mortgages on our houses.

I guess if someone had done ‘due diligence’ on us (Two words I wouldn’t have known the meaning of back then) Which I assume now someone would have done. What would they have concluded? That here was a group that; – had built up a ‘property portfolio’ from scratch with no initial capital, that now had assets in excess of £30k¹ and were in the middle of a long term project to renovate a historic listed early industrial building – Why wouldn’t you want to lend to such a group.

And so in 1986 we set up a separate housing co-op to own the houses in Burnleywood financed by a combination of mortgages from the Burnley Building Society and a soft loan from People In Common. The idea was that we could use the money raised to finish The Mill enough for us to move in while still living in the houses and when we moved they would then be available for others to live in.

Burnleywood Housing Co-operative…Since it was launched the co-op has developed gradually as an unintentional community, with new people joining over the years some of whom had previously been involved with PIC. We have meetings and socials once a month. We have regular “working days” on the repairs of the houses. The women in the co-op, who have much knowledge and experience of manual skills have taken a leading role on these occasions……People co-operate as and when seems appropriate. Individuals have links with Altham and are also involved with projects in the wider community. Such as the local credit union, the wholefood co-operative, woodcraft folk and Trees for Burnley…

Entry in diggers & dreamers 94/95

We stayed on in the new co-op for two years before moving on to The Mill. Burnleywood Housing Co-op went on to house people in cheap decent quality housing for over a decade eventually coming to an end mixed up with the redevelopment of the whole area. None of the houses that were owned by the co-ops are still standing having been cleared for new development in the early 2000s.

Back in 1986 it was my task once a month to go down to the Co-op Store in the market square and bank all our housing benefit cheques in the little Co-op Bank kiosk upstairs . I can still clearly remember even now the double take on the man behind the counters face when as well as the usual half a dozen cheques for twenty or thirty pounds that he was keying in to his computer he came across the one for twenty five thousand pounds from the Burnley Building Society.

A big shoutout and thanks to those who took up the co-operative housing torch and lived in and ran Burnleywood Housing Co-op after we left : Jackie, Trevor, Bob. Jo, Dave, Liz Moore…. and others whose names I’ve forgotten.

As we had set off for the Burnley festival to find out about the Communes of Burnley Wood, a neighbour after being told where we were going remarked “Oh so you’ve become history then!” to which I replied “No. But it looks like we may have become literature!.”

Notes: 1. £30k may not sound like very much for the value of six houses. But it needs to be born in mind that they were nearly all bought for less than £1k each, some for as little as a few £100.

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