A History of Bolton

By Tim Lambert

Bolton in the Middle Ages

Bolton began as a small village. However, Bolton grew larger and more important in the early Middle Ages. In 1251 Bolton was made into a town. It was given a charter, a document giving the inhabitants certain rights. They were allowed to hold a market. In the Middle Ages, there were very few shops and if you wanted to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market. Craftsmen and merchants would go to live in Bolton and sell their goods in the market.

Medieval Bolton was also allowed to have a fair. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a few days. People would come from all over Lancashire to buy and sell at a Bolton fair.

Nevertheless, Bolton remained a small settlement, even by the standards of the time, when towns were tiny. Bolton probably only had a population of several hundred. Apart from being a small market town, there was a wool manufacturing industry in Bolton in the Middle Ages.

Bolton 1500-1800

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Bolton continued to thrive. Bolton Grammar School was founded in 1516 and by the 17th century, there was a cotton-weaving industry in Bolton. In those days Bolton was still a fairly small town but it was growing rapidly. In the mid-17th century, Bolton probably had a population of about 2,000 and it was becoming more important.

Like all towns in those days, Bolton suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1623. There were also outbreaks of smallpox in 1642 and 1647. However, each time, Bolton soon recovered. There were always people from the countryside looking for jobs in towns.

In the mid-17th century, a writer described Bolton as ‘a fair, well-built town with broad streets. It has a market on Mondays which is very good for clothing and provisions and is a place of great trade for fustians’.

In 1642 civil war began between the king and parliament. The people of Bolton solidly supported parliament but most of the people in the rest of Lancashire supported the king. The people of Bolton built earthwork defenses around the town and waited for the royalists to attack. The royalists came in February 1643 but they were beaten off. Then in January 1644 parliament sent 3,000 men to garrison Bolton. The royalists attacked Bolton again in March 1644 but once again they were beaten off.

Finally, in May 1644 the royalists made a determined attempt to capture Bolton. This time they succeeded. After a brief siege, they broke through the defences. Once inside the town, the royalists massacred many of the parliamentary soldiers. Perhaps as many as 1,000 died and another 700 were taken captive.

Charles I was executed in 1649. In 1651 his son led an uprising to try and regain his throne. The uprising failed and a man named the Earl of Derby was captured. He had taken part in the Bolton Massacre in 1644. So he was beheaded in Bolton.

Bolton in the 19th Century

From the late 18th century Bolton was transformed by the industrial revolution. It grew very rapidly. Samuel Crompton, a native of Bolton invented the spinning mule in 1779 and opened his first cotton mill in 1780. The cotton industry then grew at a tremendous rate and came to dominate Bolton.

In 1773 a survey showed the population of Bolton was 5,339. It then began to grow rapidly. It reached 17,416 in 1801 and rose to 168,000 in 1851.

In 1792 an act of parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners. They had power to pave, clean, and light the streets. After 1819 the streets of Bolton were lit by gas. In 1824 a water company was formed.

In 1814 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. The Royal Infirmary opened in 1883. Furthermore, Bolton was made a borough in 1838.

Life in 19th century Bolton gradually improved. The first public library in Bolton opened in 1853. The Market Hall was built in 1855. The Town Hall in Bolton followed in 1873. Queens Park opened in 1866 and Chadwick Museum opened in 1884.

The first railway from Bolton to Leigh opened in 1828. A railway to Preston followed in 1843. A railway to Blackburn opened in 1848. From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Bolton and the first electricity was generated in Bolton in 1894.

Cotton continued to flourish in 19th century Bolton. Other important industries in Bolton were paper making and bleaching. Coal mining started in the Bolton area in the Middle Ages but it boomed in the 19th century and many new pits opened. There were also iron foundries in Bolton.

Bolton in the 20th Century

In 1901 the population of Bolton was 168,000. It had grown enormously since the beginning of the century and it continued to grow rapidly.

From 1900 electric trams ran in the streets of Bolton. However, buses gradually replaced them. The last tram ran in 1947.

Halli’th’wood, a 15th-century house opened as a museum in 1902. The first cinema in Bolton was built in 1910.

In 1916 a Zeppelin bombing raid killed 13 people in Bolton. Then in 1932, a War Memorial was built. n In the 1920s and 1930s the council began building houses in Bolton and in the 1930s it began the work of slum clearance. Many more council houses were built after 1945.

Meanwhile, In 1941 a bombing raid killed 11 people in Bolton. n In the 1920s the cotton industry in Bolton declined. Many cotton workers lost their jobs in the 1930s. The cotton industry revived a little in the late 1940s and early 1950s but it then began a relentless decline. Coal mining also began to decline in the 1930s. It ended 30 years later.

Today there is still a textile industry in Bolton along with some bleaching and paper making. There is also a considerable engineering industry. However, manufacturing industry has been partly replaced by service industries such as retail and leisure.

The Octagon Theatre was built in 1967. In 1974 Bolton was made a Metropolitan Borough. Meanwhile Crompton Place Shopping Centre opened in 1971 and Market Place Shopping Centre opened in 1988.

Reebok Stadium opened in 1997.

In 2022 the population of Bolton was 288,000.