Holker House was built in 1871 for Dr. George Hindle who named it after his family home in nearby Hoddlesden. It is a grand structure, built of finely cut stone in the ‘Italianate’ style. However, the site of the house was initially less appealing. Today it overlooks Darwen Marketplace (soon to be part of a big redevelopment for outdoor events). Back then though this space was dominated by bleaching factories and a contemporary account describes the area as “full of mouldering buildings and malodorous lodges”. George had begun his working life as an apprentice pharmacist and went on to study to be a medical doctor, practising in Darwen. The fact that five of his seven children died in infancy is a mark of how tenuous life was then, even for middle class families.
In 1873 he was appointed as Darwen’s first Medical Officer of Health and conducted a survey of the town, warning that the poor sanitary conditions left it vulnerable to the outbreak of diseases. Unfortunately the next year his warnings proved true and the town faced a devastating typhoid epidemic. The severity of the outbreak was so great it was even reported in America in the New York Times. In 1887 while preparing one of his annual reports for the town he became ill and left to recuperate in Morecambe. Although he managed to finish the report it was to prove to be his final one, as he died the following year. His wife Alice sold Holker House and moved away to Ilkley to work as a housekeeper for her uncle, and later remarried.
Dr. James Todd Ballantyne bought Holker House from Alice and was to remain there for almost 30 years. He had begun his working life as an apprentice carpenter, then studied art at Glasgow University before switching to medicine. A successful doctor, he had three medical surgeries in Darwen and also became the mayor in 1898. During his time as mayor he was instrumental in the electrification of Darwen’s tram network. (For more on Darwen’s tram system see our page here).
James died in 1917 and his wife stayed on in Holker House for a couple more years, before selling it to Darwen Council. For over six decades it was used as the council’s education offices, right up until 1974. For the next ten years it was the Education Architect’s Office and was then taken over by Blackburn College for twenty years. This continuous use had kept the building well maintained, but once the college left in 2005 it became in rapid need of maintenance and repair. Fortunately this was done in 2007 and the house was converted into office space. Most recently, in 2016 The Livesey Foundation Charity purchased the building so that the people of Darwen can use it as a community hub to promote history and the arts.
Holker House is now the home of Darwen Heritage Centre. The aims of the organization are to educate and engage the public on the history of Darwen, and support local community groups. It has exhibitions on the local history of the area, as well as space for artists to display their work. The building can also host space for meetings and conferences, and is the regular venue for Darwen Local History Society every third Monday of the month at 7.30pm. The centre is still in its relatively early days as an organisation, but is already achieving much. The volunteers at the centre had a very successful time during the annual Heritage Open Days (each September) and are actively looking for more people to become involved in their important work to preserve and promote Darwen’s legacy. When we visited on a recent open day on Easter Saturday the members were very friendly and welcoming, and had organized a self guided quiz to really get you to look carefully at the exhibits and photographs they had on display. There is also a small shop that sells booklets about the local area, as well as free leaflets on things of historical interest nearby.
Their current booklet Holker House: Darwen Heritage Centre (2016) by Tony Foster and Anne Hull was used to supply much of the information for this blog post.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
Current opening times are Wednesday 10.00 -12.30 pm and Friday 10.00 – 4.00 pm
Also open on some Saturdays- check their Facebook site for details here
Their website is still under construction (at the time of writing April 2018) : http://darwenheritagecentre.org.uk/ or click here
Their Twitter account is here
Holker House: Darwen Heritage Centre (2016), Tony Foster and Anne Hull, available from Darwen Heritage Centre
Darwen Town Centre Local History Walk (undated), available from Darwen Heritage Centre
Darwen Heritage Centre: Community, Arts, Heritage (undated) leaflet available from Darwen Heritage Centre
Lancashire Not Forgotten: Darwen town centre heritage trail (undated) leaflet available from Darwen Heritage Centre
Darwen Days website http://www.darwendays.co.uk http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/112576/Darwen-Days/#vars!date=2045 BC-05-04_19:37:08!