“A crowd numbering three thousand assembled at Darwen station. But hopes were quickly dashed when the first passenger to see the crowd shouted, ‘You can all go home. He got off at Springvale station’.”
Darwen and Springvale were economically depressed cotton towns in Lancashire. ‘He’ was Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, whose boycott of English cotton goods was at its height.
Gandhi visited Lancashire in 1931 after accepting an invitation from the mill-owning Davies family. They wanted him to see the hardship suffered by the Lancashire textile industry, which had been affected by the Indian independence movement’s boycott of British goods.
The Davies family were prominent Socialists and Quakers, and they firmly believed that Gandhi might understand the suffering throughout mill towns such as Bolton, Oldham, Burnley and Blackburn.
Gandhi was 62, and in London for the Round Table Conference on India’s future.
Gandhi encouraged Indians to boycott British goods and buy Indian goods instead. This helped to revitalise local economies in India and it also hit the British economy.
Gandhi’s sympathies lay with the workers, not the textile manufacturers. He said: “They treated me as one of their own. I shall never forget that.”
Gandhi met mill workers and mill owners and civic dignitaries. He looked round at the smart houses of Garden Village which the Davies family had built for the workers and couldn’t quite square it all with the poverty of his own country.
The boycott would stay unless there was progress towards independence, he told them.
The Lancashire textile industry had been in a depression for ten years. The Indian boycott, though only one factor, and not a very important one, in Lancashire’s decline, was targeted by industrialists and trade unionists as the cause of the trade depression. At the same time, Indian nationalists blamed Lancashire for the suppression of the Indian textile industry. Yet Gandhi and Lancashire mill owners and workers engaged in ‘frank, friendly discussion’.
One day he was able to teach the children in the neighbourhood about ahimsa (non-violence) and common roots between Sanskrit and English words.
Gandhi, while sympathetic to Lancashire’s troubles, saw the visit as an opportunity to educate Lancashire on the nature of Indian nationalism, not to rescue the unemployed textile workers. He told them the boycott was not the main cause of their downturn and that the boycott was a social and spiritual necessity for Indians.
Gandhi’s visit to England had little to do with the Round Table Conference, and rather more to do with exposing the British people to his ideals of Indian nationalism. Gandhi did not trust ‘the unbending Government’ to provide any changes to India’s status.
In an article entitled ‘What I Want’ published in The Evening Standard, Gandhi stated, “I want peace for India. I want the people of Britain to help me.”
Gandhi and the Lancashire mill workers had such different visions of the past and the future that they could not communicate effectively about the causes and solutions to the boycott.
The cotton industry romanticised Lancashire’s economic past, and they interpreted the Indian boycott as a momentary hiccup in normal business.
It took nearly 20 years and another world war before India achieved self-rule. By that time the Lancashire textile industry was in steady decline.
Some of the weavers told him how bad things were on his visit to Darwen. He replied: “My dear, you have no idea what poverty is.”
(Source: Irina Spector-Marks, 2008, ‘Mr. Gandhi Visits Lancashire: A Study in Imperial Miscommunication’, 2008, Macalester College)