Creativity, community and heritage in Blackburn

Blackburn Cathedral viewed from Cathedral Square and Gardens

Blackburn Cathedral viewed from Cathedral Square and Gardens - Credit: Archant

Steps are being taken to bridge the divides that have grown between communities and made Blackburn one of the most segregated towns in the country.

Members of One Voice Blackburn in the Bangor Street Community Centre; (left to right) Irtazah Rashid

Members of One Voice Blackburn in the Bangor Street Community Centre; (left to right) Irtazah Rashid, Ruksar Hussain, Ayah Abdulsalan, Maya Khalid, Kiran Sadiq, Zaffer Khan, Nazie Khan and Nisbah Hussain - Credit: Archant

When Nisbah Hussain was growing up in Blackburn in the 1980s, most of her friends were white British children. Now a mother herself, she can see that things are not the same for her children.

Blackburn has been identified as one of the most segregated places in Britain and was named earlier this year as one of five towns and cities chosen to pilot a scheme aimed at bridging that divide. A government green paper has pledged £50m to boost integration by increasing the teaching of English, but even before that money filters through, things are already happening to encourage greater cohesion and to bring communities together.

Nisbah is now leader of one of the biggest scout groups in Blackburn and she said: ‘In many ways we do have a segregated society – children go to school and the mosque and live in streets with other children like them – and we need to move away from those divisions. We need to break down the barriers.’

The scout troop was born out of One Voice Blackburn, a community group launched in 2011 with the aim of helping create a more cohesive society. And Nisbah, whose brother Abrar is the group’s chairman, added: ‘We’d see children going home from traditional scout groups when we were finishing at the mosque.

King William Street

King William Street - Credit: Archant

‘Muslim children couldn’t join those groups, so we set up our group. We started with 16 Beavers in 2014 and we now have about 85 children in different groups, and 120 on a waiting list. Being a Scout gives children a great chance to try new things and to build their confidence.’

One Voice Blackburn is based in the Bangor Street Community Centre in Whalley Range, a part of town that’s 95 per cent Asian. The group, which was this year awarded a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, organises events and sporting activities in an effort to create a more inclusive society.

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Chief executive Zaffer Khan said: ‘Blackburn is very diverse and communities tend to stick where they are but I am trying, and we are trying as an organisation, to challenge that and I think we all need to work on that. ‘We want to bridge those communities. It’s not a big town and it’s very easy to knock it but there are a lot of good things going on. I don’t see deprivation and segregation, I see thriving communities, strong communities where a lot of positive things are happening.

‘We want boys and girls to have the same opportunities and to mix, but we want other communities to mix as well. There is a lot of work to do. We have been going for seven years but there is a long way to go. It’s like painting a wall; when you finish, you realise the whole room needs painting, and when that’s done you see the whole house needs painting, and then the whole street.

Katie Timson in her studio

Katie Timson in her studio - Credit: Archant

‘All our work comes from volunteers – people who want to make a difference to the community. Volunteering is tough and it’s not always appreciated but the joy I get – especially from working with young people – is far greater than any money you can earn or accolades.’

One Voice works with people of all ages on health issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, dementia and the importance of cancer screening, and addresses the topics of cohesion, leadership and empowerment. Zaffer added: ‘There is a traditional patriarchal system in a lot of Asian culture where boys can do what they want but girls have fewer opportunities. We are deliberately female heavy and a lot of our work is aimed at female empowerment.’

Among the girls grateful for that focus is Ruksar Hussain who is now studying optometry at Bradford University.

She said: ‘I wasn’t very confident when I joined but because of One Voice I am a completely different person. It helped me develop skills and without One Voice I probably wouldn’t be going to university.’

Darwen Heritage Centre; (back row) Brian Hilton, John Morrison, Mayor of Darwen Cllr Roy Davies, San

Darwen Heritage Centre; (back row) Brian Hilton, John Morrison, Mayor of Darwen Cllr Roy Davies, Sandra Law, Albert Gavagan (front row) Tony Foster (chairman), Sue Gavagan, Joyce Hudson and Anne Hull - Credit: Archant

And 15-year-old Iraqi refugee Ayah Abdulsalan is also having experiences she otherwise wouldn’t. She joined One Voice last year after her family fled Baghdad and arrived in Blackburn via a spell in the UAE and she has been selected to host next year’s One Voice annual dinner which will be attended by more than 250 influential and high profile guests including MPs, community leaders and businesspeople.

A teenager from One Voice’s West End Girls group hosts the event each year and Ayah said: ‘I am getting a little nervous about the dinner. I will have to make a speech and I’ve never spoken in front of so many people before and it is a big responsibility but it will be a good thing for me to do.’


Hatching a career

There can be few artists with a smaller studio than Katie Timson. She produces her range of ceramics from a tiny shed bedside her family home near Blackburn.

‘Working in such a small space has taken some getting used to,’ she said. ‘It’s just a couple of steps from the door to the wheel and it’s never very tidy, but it seems to be working for me at the moment.’

Katie studied contemporary crafts and ceramics at university in Preston, finishing her MA just a year ago, and she will be among the craftspeople and makers exhibiting their wares at the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester this month. And although she has completed her formal education, she is keen to continue learning and hopes to complete an apprenticeship with a more experienced potter to develop her skills. Her range so far includes vases, bowls and beautifully delicate looking eggshell jewellery which came from a love of nature developed on childhood coastal walks near her grandparents’ home at Lytham.

She said: ‘I would like expand my range and eventually make some more domestic ware but it’s all going really quickly at the moment. I’ve had a lot of interest and I’ve not had much time to experiment.’

The 25-year-old hasn’t had much time at all – despite a lifetime’s love of making and drawing, she only discovered ceramics during her degree course. ‘I didn’t really enjoy it at first but over time I fell in love with it and now I really like all the possibilities,’ she said. ‘It’s always exciting when you’re taking a piece out of the kiln but it can be quite tense, especially when you’ve got a deadline coming up.’

She uses two kilns – one gas, one electric – for the different results they give and enjoys experimenting with glazes but added: ‘It makes me wish I’d paid more attention in chemistry at school. It wasn’t fun then though, it is now.’ The GNCCF should be fun too. She added: ‘I love doing fairs, it gives you a chance to meet people and to get inspiration and I don’t get any of that when I’m in my shed.’

The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair at Upper Campfield Market, Manchester from October 11-14 will feature over 150 of the UK’s most talented designer-makers – eight of them from Lancashire – who have been selected by a panel of craft experts. Tickets: In advance £6.50 (£5.50 concessions) / On the door £7.50 (£6.50 concessions).


Preserving Darwen’s heritage

Among the names on Darwen’s war memorial in Bold Venture Park are three Chadwicks, brothers who died within a year of each other in the mud and horror of the First World War. Their mother unveiled the memorial in 1921 and one of the bronze plaques presented to her in memory of her sons is now on display in the town as well.

The memorial plaque – they came to be known as Death Pennies – is part of an exhibition at Darwen Heritage Centre marking the centenary of the armistice. It was among the items donated to the centre after a public appeal in the town a couple of years ago.

‘We started from scratch, we needed everything; display cases and things to display in them and we were amazed by the response,’ said Anne Hull, one of the volunteer team behind the centre. ‘It’s incredible what people have got tucked away in their garages and attics.’

The heritage centre is based in the Victorian Holker House in the town centre which was bought for the town by businessman benefactor David Livesey through his Livesey Foundation.

And Anne, 79, who has written two books about Darwen’s history added: ‘We have been setting the heritage centre up for a couple of years and we’re still keen to receive more donations. That will never change, the collection is developing and evolving all the time.

‘We’re here to save Darwen’s heritage and we want to be a part of the community. There are so many interesting things about Darwen and so many people here are interested in the history of the town.’


Book your place

The first Blackburn Children’s Reading Festival was such a success that it is set to become an annual event. More than 4000 young people got involved with the first festival, which was held at venues around the town this summer, and organisers are hoping even more will take part next year.

The festival was the brainchild of Blackburn-born Christina Gabbitas, the award winning author of the Felicity Fly series. ‘I was quite appalled when I started to research the amount of literature festivals,’ said Christina, pictured above. ‘England ranked bottom of the literacy table in the developed world for 2016/17. We should be embarrassed by this, and we should be doing more to help children at grass roots.’

The festival – and its sister events around the country – aim to encourage more children and families to experience the joy of books and reading, and help to bring communities together.

As a child, Christina struggled with self-esteem and a lack of confidence and was not particularly switched on to reading. She said: ‘I was never a prolific reader but what engaged me was read-along tapes. I loved to listen to different sounds, voices and accents of the characters; this engaged me to read more. ‘I visited Blackburn Library as a child and could never have dreamt of taking to the stage with my own books in the Hornby Theatre.’ And she added: ‘Through the festival we brought Bollywood to Blackburn Cathedral, as I was quite appalled with the BBC’s Panorama programme on white and Asian segregation in Blackburn. I grew up in Blackburn and don’t ever recall experiencing any of this. In 2019, we are hoping to stage some of the festival in a mosque too.’

The 2019 event – which Lancashire Life is supporting as media partner – will be held from June 18-22. To sponsor the event, or for more information, contact Christina on, or go online to




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