Once Upon a Time in the North West….

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The World’s First Western’ event will take place this Saturday to close the British Textile Biennial and to celebrate Northgate’s link to the famous film pioneers, Mitchell and Kenyon and explore the unexpected impact the town’s cotton industry had on the world of film.


British Textile Biennial artist in residence Jamie Holman weaves together a story where the young James Mitchell meets cowboys in Blackburn during the cotton famine, Abraham Lincoln sends gifts of food to Blackburn, and a small group of weavers change the world, accidentally inventing Hollywood in the process.

Commissioned by the Townscape Heritage Project, a banner parade and special film screening will take place in the historic heart of Blackburn from ‘High Noon’ on Saturday 2 November 2019.


Led by Jamie Holman’s ‘Gather and Become Powerful’ banner and a gang of Cowboys from Lonestar Old West Re-enactment Group, the parade will march from Mitchell and Kenyon’s original shop at 40 Northgate, to the Cotton Exchange on King William Street.

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After the parade, visitors will be able to enjoys some Western style hot bean stew and flatbred before a special film screening.  The free food is offered in reference to the three ships of aid that Abraham Lincoln sent to the Lancashire weavers after their support for the North and rejection of the Confederacy.

In 1899 Mitchell and Kenyon produced “Kidnapping by Indians”, a film that is now recognised as the first Western ever made. This rarely seen film, with four others will be shown in Blackburn’s historic Cotton Exchange where the cotton weavers gathered in 1865 and which became a cinema in 1919.

Held in a private collection, the rarely seen films Kidnap by Indians, The Tramps and the Artist, Diving Lucy, A Tragic Elopement, and The Poacher’s Revenge – will be screened at the Cotton Exchange after the parade.

As part of his ongoing research as British Textile Biennial artist in residence, Holman viewed outtakes from the first Western at the BFI. It led him to explore whether this was the first Western to be made. During the US Civil War, the Confederacy toured the north of England, petitioning weavers to support the blockade and the Southern states. Had they been successful, the war may have been lost by President Lincoln. The first meeting was in Blackburn, with the momentum from the Blackburn meeting travelling to Stalybridge then on to Manchester where several thousands of workers gathered at the Free Trade Hall to declare their support for the Union’s emancipation of the slaves. Holman’s proposition is that this encounter with the ‘Wild West’ would manifest in the first Western being made in Blackburn a short time later.

British Textile Biennial artist-in-residence, Jamie Holman’s new work gives us a far-reaching insight into the cultural products of Blackburn’s working classes starting with workers’ banners and the 19th century Blackburn artists, James Sharples and William Billington through to the creative outpouring in the warehouse raves of the 1980s when the grandchildren of cotton mill workers transformed former workplaces into spaces of joy and liberation. Through his investigations into acid house fashion, football fandom and folklore, Holman traces art’s power to transform in the hands of the historically disempowered in a specially created space in Church Street, Blackburn.

The firm of Mitchell and Kenyon, founded in Blackburn in 1897 by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, released films under the trade name of Norden and were one of the largest British film companies in the 1900s, producing a mixture of topicals, fiction and ‘fake’ war films. The company had premises at 21 King Street and 40 Northgate until 1913 when their business went bust after the rise of fictional films. Until recently the company were more famous for their dramatised war films. However, the discovery of 800 negatives containing 28 hours of footage in the premises of their original Northgate shop in 1994 has led to a major revaluation of their contribution to film making in the United Kingdom.

Pennine Lancashire is shaped by textiles; they are woven through its social and urban fabric. By the end of the 19th century the area was producing 85% of the world’s cotton goods and it was this global trade that brought thousands of workers to drive its mills over the ensuing centuries, building a creative, industrious and diverse population that shapes the area today. British Textile Biennial will be sited in some of the magnificent and often hidden gems in the area including Blackburn Cotton Exchange, Brierfield Mill in Pendle, Mr. Gatty’s Experiment Shed in Accrington and the outstanding textile collection at Gawthorpe Hall in Burnley, all following the great waterway that originally supported it, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. https://britishtextilebiennial.co.uk/




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