Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is a visiting professor in WorkTown Studies at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history. Here he remembers Thomas Mawson who sought to transform Bolton

Bolton was once at the centre of radical ideas for what would make a town ‘beautiful’. At the height of the First World War, Lancashire-born landscape architect Thomas Mawson gave a series of lectures to Bolton Housing and Town Planning Society on ‘Bolton As It Is and As It Might Be’.

The illustrated lectures were published by Tillotsons in 1916, with a dedication to the Mayor of Bolton, Alderman J. Seddon. William H Lever – later Lord Leverhulme gave substantial encouragement to Mawson, who had designed Lever’s Rivington gardens a few years earlier.

The lectures, and accompanying book, set out a vision of a ‘new Bolton’ that was startling and imaginative but was based on making the very best of what was already there instead of tearing it down.

Mawson was building on plans that he had developed in an earlier publication called Bolton – Studies in Town Planning and Civic Art. He launched his ideas at a meeting chaired by the Mayor of Bolton on March 7, 1911.

Mawson was strongly influenced by new thinking in town planning spurred on by Government legislation; he was part of an international network of visionaries.

The essence of Mawson’s ideas was that ‘town planning’, then in its infancy, was as much an art as a science and should be used as a tool for ‘beautifying’ towns and cities in a way that was ‘useful’ rather than just ornamental.

The Bolton News:

Whilst little of Mawson’s plans for Bolton came to fruition, his work was internationally recognised and he has had a continuing influence on landscape design.

Mawson had a strong kinship with Bolton, in part through his friendship with WH Lever but also through links to the Bolton Housing and Town Planning Society, a ‘civic’ organisation which included Dr John Johnston, a local GP and member of the Walt Whitman fellowship which had a subtle but important influence on early English socialism, which was far removed from the later focus on state ownership and centralisation.

Edward Carpenter, a major figure in pre-war socialism, lectured to Bolton’s Housing and Town Planning Society in 1912 on ‘Beauty in Civic Life’. Dr Johnston chaired the meeting.

The Bolton News:

Carpenter and Johnston would have been very aware and supportive of Mawson’s plans.

So was local dialect writer and early ‘green’ thinker Allen Clarke, who said “if only the marvellous Mr Mawson can manage to get Bolton shaped according to his great town-planning dream I for one will join in due song of thanksgiving.”

So what was Mawson’s dream? His starting point was Bolton ‘as it was’ in the early 1900s. It had some magnificent buildings, not least the town hall, completed in 1873, as well as the parish church and market hall.

At the same time, the town centre had some appalling slums, particularly in the Howell Croft area.

Not only did the slums blight the appearance of the town centre, they were hell for people to live in. Interestingly, Mawson admired the simple but often elegant lines of many of Bolton’s mills.

As well as transforming the town centre he wanted to extend Bolton’s parks.

He focussed on Deane Clough and developed ideas for a new ‘Deane Park’ that would act as a pleasing corridor of open space from Deane Church down to the railway and up to Chorley New Road.

He also wanted to see Deansgate improved with a town centre park he called ‘Deansgate Gardens’ built on some spare land.

The Bolton News:

Mawson was not of that school of planning, so dominant in the post-war years, that wanted to destroy any vestige of tradition and continuity.

He wanted to make the best of a town’s heritage but get rid of the worst.

He said in his lectures that a town’s individuality should be preserved and developed, helping it “realise its own soul” instead of trying to make it look like somewhere else “or like some ideal creation” of a planner’s fancy. Wise words indeed.

It’s ironic that one of Mawson’s ideas was for a boulevard linking the town hall with the parish church, which – at least in part – has resurfaced over a century later.

At the same time, he railed against the scruffy appearance of Churchgate, disfigured by unsightly advertising which he described as “from the practical and every other standpoint, unmitigatedly bad.”

His other grand plans were for a magnificent causeway linking the town hall with Queen’s Park and a new museum and art gallery that would be constructed within the park.

This would have swept away the slum housing and factories on the north side of the town hall.

What became of the plans? Sadly, very little though we do have Rivington.

The Bolton News:

The impact of the First World War didn’t help. Whilst reconstruction was a post-war priority, Bolton Corporation’s main concern was developing housing on the outskirts of the town.

But we did get the fine Civic Centre, housing the library and art gallery, public health offices and courts which every Boltonian is rightly proud of today. It was completed in 1939.

As new plans take shape to transform the town centre, revisiting Mawson’s ideas seem appropriate, embracing his insistence on the need for ‘beauty in civic life’ and making the most of our town’s individuality.