In January 1897, with the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria approaching, the Darwen News featured a letter from a correspondent named only as ‘Landmark’, proposing that a tower be built on Darwen Moor to mark the occasion. There was a favourable response and the great and good of the town began to make plans.
A competition to design a tower 50 feet high was announced, with entry only open to residents of the borough. Such was the interest that the budget was increased and the proposed height changed to a maximum of 100 feet. It was stipulated that only students of engineering and design could submit ideas, and professional architects were not permitted to take part. The drawings were displayed in the council chamber under a title only, with the designer’s name concealed in an envelope. The Blackburn architect J.H. Herbert Stones FRIBA, awarded first place to the design called simply ‘Darwen’, which was the work of David Ellison who worked in the borough surveyor’s office, although his design was later tweaked by his boss: the tower’s Honorary Architect was Borough Surveyor Robert William Smith-Saville.
Although ostensibly celebrating the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, the tower had, from the start, a secondary political motive. In the later 19th century the moorland, owned by the absentee Lord of the Manor, Reverend William Arthur Duckworth, was out of bounds to locals, with gamekeepers on patrol to deter trespassers. Many locals ignored this rule, believing that there were ancient rights of way over the land, and eventually a court case decided that this was the case. In 1896 the local authority acquired a vast tract of the moor, thus enabling ‘thousands of toiling operatives who spent the best part of their lives in the smoky valley below, to mount the hill and breathe the more exhilarating air’.
Duckworth later claimed that he had known little of the fight for access to the moors: he lived in Somerset and employed local agents. He was certainly a friend to the town once the court case was settled, and donated the stone for the construction of the tower, which was constructed under the supervision of local man Richard James Whalley. The first sod was cut on the hilltop on 22 June 1897, the day on which Queen Victoria’s jubilee was celebrated.
The Darwen Tower, 86 feet high, was officially opened on Saturday 24 September when 3000 people are reported to have climbed up onto the moor. The tower was an instant success, attracting large numbers of visitors and soon entrepreneurs were pushing for the rights to be the sole purveyors of refreshments on site. Although a few saw the tower as an ‘excresence’, a ‘pimple’, and a ‘blot on God’s fair earth’, their thoughts were summarily dismissed in the local paper as those of the sort of ‘average man’ who is ‘dull of comprehension or lacks refinement’.
A dramatic view of the lofty tower is known to drivers on the M65 and local routes, with its buttresses giving it the air of a space rocket (although it has been missed of late when the white-clad scaffolding temporarily replaced the familiar silhouette). But this exposed position leaves it vulnerable to weather damage, and the top section has been blown off on three occasions – the current replica in stainless steel was donated by local firm WEC Ltd in 2010 and was flown in by helicopter.
In recent years a local campaign has secured around £300,000 in funding to restore and weatherproof the tower for future generations. Sterling work by the town’s Rotary Club included building a Lego model of the tower in the Market Hall to encourage donations and raise awareness. Renovation began in June 2021 and was completed in the first days of June 2022.
At the opening ceremony in 1898 Reverend Duckworth gave a speech in which he said that the tower ‘would for many generations commemorate the most important, longest, and happiest reign in English history’. 124 years later the tower has been restored as Victoria’s great-great-grandaughter celebrates an even longer reign, and the tower continues to delight later generations.
The restored tower was officially unveiled on Thursday 2 June 2022 when a beacon was lit to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the tower was illuminated in red, white and blue.
It’s a steady and well-signposted climb up to the tower from the car park at the top of Earnsdale Road in Darwen.
You can follow the construction of the Lego tower here https://www.rotary-ribi.org/clubs/page.php?PgID=542732&ClubID=1154
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