The Road to Nab End

William Woodruff


The Road to Nab End

William Woodruff


From his birth in the carding room of a cotton mill in 1916 until he ran away to London, Woodruff lived in the heart of Blackburn’s weaving community.

When he was four-years-old, the demise of Lancashire’s supremacy in the cotton textiles industry due to the crash of 1920 meant his father was thrown out of work. From then on, including the period of the great depression, Woodruff and his family faced a life blighted by extreme poverty.

Reading this book today, it is hard to comprehend that within living memory – and in what was then the richest country in the world – so many couldn’t even afford to buy enough food. For the ordinary Lancashire families, unemployment was an ever-present threat, ‘If you worked you ate. If there was no work you went hungry’.

‘Once started it is impossible to put this book down.’ - Times Literary Supplement
‘The book is a masterpiece.’ - Independent
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The Road to Nab End: A Lancashire Childhood
ISBN: 978-190611-26-0
Format: 400pp demi pb
Price: £12.99
Place: Lancashire

Author Biography

William Woodruff was born in 1916 into a family of Blackburn, Lancashire cotton workers. At 13 he left school and became a delivery boy in a grocer’s shop. In 1933, with bleak prospects in the north of England, he decided to try his luck in London and migrated to the filth and squalor of the East End. Then in 1936 with the encouragement of a Jesuit priest and the aid of a London County Council Scholarship he went to Balliol College, Oxford. There he became an idealistic undergraduate who mingled with George Woodcock and Harold Wilson. During the Second World War he fought in North Africa and the Mediterranean region as a major and then a colonel. All these experiences formed the basis of a series of memoirs, including The Road to Nab End, originally published as Billy Boy, and Beyond Nab End, which emerged only years later.

After the war, he turned down the chance of a political career in favour of academia. He was lured to Harvard on a scholarship and remained in America teaching economic history in Illinois, Princeton and Florida, until he was 80. 61 published titles - hardbacks, softbacks and translations - bear his name. He has seven children and six grandchildren, and lives in Florida.


Extract from Chapter One

They said I should not go. They said it was madness for an old man to cross the Atlantic to seek out his birthplace.

"You'll find nothing but ghosts there. Why don't you go and see the Grand Canyon?" Others thought that anybody over seventy had every right to do as he pleased.

"Time's a-wasting," they said, noting my faulty gait1.

So I went.

And when I reached the north of England and came to Blackburn, the town of my birth, and asked the taxi driver to take me to Griffin Street, he eyed me cautiously.

"Are you sure you want to go there?"

"Oh yes, I was born there. I've come a long way to see it."

"You're the boss," he said, taking my bags and holding the door so that I could climb in. A cold north wind – the wind I'd long since forgotten – tugged at my coat. I began to regret having arrived in thin Florida clothing.

As we moved off, I caught sight of several high-rise apartment buildings; they were harsh to the eye.

"Council flats," the driver said.

But then came landmarks I'd known as a child. The reddish-brown cathedral dominated the centre of town. When my great-grandfather Arne Woodruff fled from Westmorland to Blackburn more than a hundred years ago, there were cows grazing around the church. I wondered if the image of Christ crucified was still inside; the Christ with the big hands: worker's hands.

We passed Queen Victoria's statue on the Parade – it was as ugly as ever, grey with age and covered with bird dirt. The statue of Robert Peel, the famous nineteenth-century statesman and cotton manufacturer, stood, equally dirty, at the other side of the cathedral.

 As we crossed King William Street, I looked for the clock tower above the Market Hall; it had been a touch of Italy in the north of England. My father, recently arrived from America in 1914, had paraded under that clock before going to war.

The King's Arms pub appeared on our left. Its marble pillars looked like potted meat. As a small child, I'd pressed my back against that 'potted meat' waiting to see the first automobile in my life. Mother had warned me that a motorcar was in town, and that I should watch out for it carefully. 'It's coming!' the crowd had shouted. As I turned, I saw a large black beetle with a shiny nose crawling across the cobblestones toward me. Its deep cough and trail of smoke added to my fears. I couldn't have been more amazed had an extinct reptile walked by.

But what was this nagging feeling? The more I stared through the taxi window, the more convinced I became that this was not the town of my birth. Had I come to the wrong place?

Of course not. The grey-roofed factories with their fortress-like walls were still there. So was Hornby's Mill – the mill of my childhood. It seemed so small; its windows were dirty and broken. As we turned a corner, I could see endless rows of weavers' cottages running across the town into the hills. The wet roofs glistened in the evening light; they seemed to be sagging. Using the local supplies of stone, slate, and clay, the cottages had been thrown together in the second half of the nineteenth century when the Lancashire cotton textile industry was booming. Whoever had built them had insisted on uniformity, if not downright ugliness. People lived and died in identical cottages that were little more than barracks.

Except that they looked older, most of the public buildings – the gas works, the chapels and the churches – were unchanged.

I asked the driver to go past the two schools where seventy years ago I had been a pupil. All that was left of St Philip's was a gaunt, lonely church tower. It stood there forlorn, an island of stone.

"School fell down, church wasn't needed."[...]

We crossed the Blakewater river still running black.

In the far distance, from a high point, I caught a glimpse of the slag heaps on which I had fought with gangs of other children; they stood pyramid-like against the sky.

Yet, the nagging feeling remained. The Blackburn of my childhood had had a forest of red brick chimneys belching great twisting coils of smoke. Where were they? The few chimneys I could see were cold and smokeless. I looked at my watch. It was 5:30. The light was fading. Seventy years ago, at this hour, Blackburn's streets would have been filled with the clip-clap sound of clogs as thousands of factory workers, the women in grey shawls, the men wearing dark caps, hastened home from work. Now there were few people about; they were better dressed – no shawls, few caps, no clogs – but there was no haste in their step. At this hour, the Blackburn into which I was born had been noisy, urgent, crowded, vibrant, alive.

The Blackburn I saw was becalmed – like a demasted ship after a storm.

We stood in what had been Griffin Street and surveyed a windswept, rubble-strewn wasteland covering many acres.

"Slum clearance," the driver mused, picking his teeth. "Had to do it, Pakis 2 were moving in."

I stared at a pile of broken glass and rusty wire where my cottage had been.

"It's a pity you came all the way from America to find everything gone."

"Oh, no," I answered. "On the contrary, ... everything is here.