NOT many people know that independence campaigner Mahatma Gandhi left his homeland on only one occasion after becoming Indian leader, and when he did, it was to visit Lancashire. Bill Allen traces the great man's steps of 75 years ago

FOR a junior reporter learning his trade, it promised to be the scoop of a lifetime.

India's leader Mahatma Gandhi was on a secret visit to the North-west and the nervous young journalist was dispatched to Bolton's Trinity Street railway station with orders from his editor to interview The Great Man.

It was September 25, 1931, and years later, Frank Singleton recalled his late-night rendezvous with The Father of India on the deserted, rain-soaked platform.

Earlier, he "bribed" the station porter with the currency of the day - a cigarette - to determine the timetable for a visit surrounded by the utmost security, given Gandhi's continuing conflict with the British Government over independence for his homeland.

The train arrived at a desolate, windswept station right on time and Singleton, writing in the Bolton Evening News in 1961, described how, as he stood alone in anticipation, he "beheld history in the making".

"Gandhi, from his corner window seat, blinked at me through his iron-rimmed spectacles and smiled. My excitement mounted when he turned down the window. This, of course, was the moment that was to be vital in my career - whatever it was in his.

"'Sir', I said resolutely, notebook at the ready, pencil poised, heart beating . . . 'have you any message for the people of Bolton?"'

As the train slowly chugged away, with Singleton in pursuit, Gandhi leaned out of the window, smiled, blinked again and, through a cloud of choking black smoke, replied: "No."

"If it has no other claim to fame it must be the shortest interview in the history of journalism," wrote Singleton, who went on to become editor of the Bolton Evening News.

Had he tried to conduct the interview on Monday rather than Friday it would have been even shorter - Monday was Gandhi's day of absolute silence.

Gandhi was on a visit to Blackburn and Darwen, a brief distraction to the weightier business of discussing India's constitution and independence at the Round Table Conference in London.

While here, his mission was to placate local cotton mill workers over accusations that a boycott of British cloth in India - led by Gandhi - was closing mills here and putting thousands of operatives on the dole.

Singleton's "brief encounter" at Trinity Street station nearly 75 years ago was the prelude to Gandhi's very secretive arrival in the nearby village of Edgworth, where he met northern mill owners at the Victorian mansion Greenthorne, off Broadhead Road, the home of Miss Annie Barlow.

Miss Barlow was a member of the philanthropic Barlow family whose head, her older brother, Sir Thomas Barlow, was physician to Queen Victoria, and was one of the siblings responsible for establishing the present Barlow Memorial Institute in the village.

Gandhi, born in 1869 and married at 13, trained as a lawyer in England then worked in South Africa where he witnessed first-hand the racial abuse meted out to Indians, or "Coolies" as they were dismissively called.

It was there that he first practised his belief (Satyagraha) in non-violent civil disobedience in order to further the political and social aspirations of oppressed minorities, and he took this theory back with him to his homeland where, in 1930, he became leader of the Indian nationalist movement.

That year, the ruling British jailed him for the second time - he was put in prison four times altogether - but his advocacy of passive resistance, manifested in repeated hunger strikes, won him much support for the freedom campaign.

His modest village lifestyle, his piety and his espousal of Hindu-Muslim unity appealed to a huge cross-section of the Indian community.

Pressure was growing on the British Government to seriously discuss independence and, in 1931, Gandhi left India for talks in London.

It was at this time that he accepted an invitation from the Society of Friends (Quakers) to travel north and discuss the Indian boycott of British cotton goods.

Given the possibility of violent demonstrations, the Bolton Evening News reported on the "extraordinary precautions" which accompanied Gandhi's "secret" visit, including his leaving the train at Springvale, before the appointed destination of Darwen.

"Extra police had been drafted into the district, and were posted at intervals along Chapeltown Road and Wellington Brow.

"To many, their presence was the only indication that something unusual was afoot."

Consequently, just a few villagers congregated at the White Horse crossroads.

At nearby Greenthorne, he was "cordially welcomed" by Miss Barlow and posed on the garden terrace for press photographers among the 50 or so journalists following the Mahatma ("The Great Soul").

Dressed in his trademark dhoti and wooden sandals, the crouched, bespectacled leader of India's fight for independence was an incongruous visitor to this Lancashire mill village of cloth caps.

Earlier, he visited Greenfield Mills at Darwen, a town where 10,000 were said to be out of work. And he was unable to offer much encouragement to those in Edgworth, telling them that while he sympathised with the hardships imposed on families here their suffering did not compare with that of India, and that the growth of the home spinning movement was an economical way for "the betterment of peasant life" there.

It was reported that the meeting with Gandhi was "unproductive but pleasant".

Gandhi, for his part, commented on "the warmth and affection" of Lancashire folk which, in the circumstances, took him by surprise. "I shall treasure the memory of those days to the end of my earthly existence," he wrote in a letter.

He was assassinated in 1948, aged 78, by a Hindu fanatic.