The town is surrounded by countryside and villages such as Worsthorne, Cliviger, Hurstwood, Fence and Higham, and has a reputation as a regional centre of excellence for the manufacturing and aerospace industries.
The town began to develop in the early medieval period as a number of farming hamlets surrounded by manor houses and royal forests, and has held a market for more than 700 years. During the Industrial Revolution it became one of Lancashire's most prominent mill towns; at its peak it was one of the world's largest producers of cotton cloth, and a major centre of engineering.
Burnley has retained a strong manufacturing sector and has strong economic links with the cities of Manchester and Leeds as well as neighbouring towns along the M65 corridor. In 2013, in recognition of its success, Burnley received an Enterprising Britain award from the UK Government for being the 'Most Enterprising Area in the UK'. For the first time in over fifty years a direct train service will operate between the town's Manchester Road railway station and Manchester's Victoria station via the newly restored Todmorden Curve which is scheduled to open in December 2014.
The name Burnley is believed to have been derived from Brun Lea meaning "meadow by the River Brun". Various other spellings have been used: Bronley (1241), Brunley (1251) and commonly Brumleye (1294)
Stone Age flint tools and weapons have been found on the moors around the town, as have numerous tumuli, stone circles, and some hill forts (see: Castercliff, which dates from around 600 BC). Modern-day Back Lane, Sump Hall Lane and Noggarth Road broadly follow the route of a classic ridgeway running east-west to the north of the town, suggesting that the area was populated during pre-history and probably controlled by the Brigantes.
Limited coin finds indicate a Roman presence, but no evidence of a settlement has been found in the town. Gorple Road (running east from Worsthorne) appears to follow the route of a Roman road that may have crossed the present-day centre of town on the way to the fort at Ribchester. It has been claimed that the nearby earthworks of Ring Stones Camp, Twist Castle and Beadle Hill are of Roman origin, but little supporting archaeological information has been published.
Following the Roman period the area became part of the kingdom of Rheged, and then the kingdom of Northumbria. Local place names Padiham and Habergham show the influence of the Angles, suggesting that some had settled in the area by the early 7th century; some time later the land became part of the hundred of Blackburnshire.
There is no definitive record of a settlement until after the Norman conquest of England. In 1122 a charter granted the church of Burnley to the monks of Pontefract Abbey. In its early days, Burnley was a small farming community, gaining a corn mill in 1290, a market in 1294, and a fulling mill in 1296. At this point, it was within the manor of Ightenhill, one of five that made up the Honor of Clitheroe, then a far more significant settlement, and consisted of no more than 50 families. Little survives of early Burnley apart from the Market Cross, erected in 1295, which now stands in the grounds of the old grammar school, which is now an annexe of Burnley College.
Over the next three centuries, Burnley grew in size to about 1200 inhabitants by 1550, still centred around the church, St Peter's, in what is now known as "Top o' th' Town". Prosperous residents built larger houses, including Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham and Towneley Hall, and in 1532 St Peter's Church was largely rebuilt. Burnley's grammar school was founded in 1559, and moved into its own schoolhouse next to the church in 1602. Burnley began to develop in this period into a small market town. It is known that weaving was established in the town by the middle of the 17th century and in 1617 a new Market House was built. The town continued to be centred on St Peter's Church until the market was moved to the bottom of what is today Manchester Road at the end of the 18th century.
In the second half of the 18th century, the manufacture of cotton began to replace that of wool. Burnley's earliest known factories – dating from the mid-century – stood on the banks of the River Calder close to where it is joined by the River Brun, and relied on water power to drive the spinning machines. The first turnpike road through Burnley was begun in 1754, linking the town to Blackburn and Colne, and by the early 19th century there were daily stagecoach journeys to Blackburn, Skipton and Manchester, the last taking just over two hours.
The 18th century also saw the rapid development of coal mining: the drift mines and shallow bell-pits of earlier centuries were replaced by deeper shafts meeting industrial as well as domestic demand locally, and by 1800 there were over a dozen pits in the modern-day centre of the town alone.
The arrival of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1796 made possible transportation of goods in bulk, bringing a huge boost to the town's economy. Dozens of new mills were constructed, along with many foundries and ironworks that supplied the cotton mills and coal mines with machinery and cast and wrought iron for construction. The town became renowned for its mill-engines and the Burnley Loom was recognised as one of the best in the world.
Disaster struck the town in 1824, when first its only local bank (known as Holgate's) collapsed, forcing the closure of some of the largest mills. This was followed by a summer drought, which caused serious problems for many of the others, leading to high levels of unemployment and possibly contributing to the national financial crisis of 1825.
The Irish Potato Famine led to an influx of Irish families during the 1840s, who formed a community in one of the poorest districts. At one time the Park district (modern-day town centre, around Parker St.) was known as Irish Park.
In 1848 the East Lancashire Railway Company's extension from Accrington linked the town to the nation's nascent railway network for the first time. This was another significant boost to the local economy and, by 1851, the town's population had reached almost 21,000.
The Cotton Famine of 1861–1865, caused by the American Civil War, was again disastrous for the town. However, the resumption of trade led to a quick recovery and, by 1866, the town was the largest producer of cotton cloth in the world. By the 1880s the town was manufacturing more looms than anywhere in the country.
The Burnley Electric Lighting Order was granted in 1890, giving Burnley Corporation (which already controlled the supply of water and the making and sale of gas) a monopoly in the generation and sale of electricity in the town. The building of the coal-powered Electricity Works, in Grimshaw Street, began in 1891, close to the canal (the site of the modern-day Tesco supermarket) and the first supply was achieved on 22 August 1893, initially genering electricity for street lighting.
The start of the 20th century saw Burnley's textile industry at the height of its prosperity. By 1910, there were approximately 99,000 power looms in the town, and it reached its peak population of over 100,000 in 1911. However, the First World War heralded the beginning of the collapse of the English textiles industry and the start of a steady decline in the town's population.
The town has a total of 191 listed buildings – one Grade I (Towneley Hall), two Grade II* (St Peter's Church and Burnley Mechanics) and 188 Grade II.
Over 4000 men from Burnley were killed in the First World War, about 15 per cent of the male working-age population. 250 volunteers, known as the Burnley Pals, made up Z Company of 11th Battalion, the East Lancashire Regiment, a battalion that as a whole became known by the far more famous name of the Accrington Pals. Victoria Crosses were awarded to two soldiers from the town, Hugh Colvin and Thomas Whitham, along with a third to resident (and only son of the chief constable) Alfred Victor Smith. In 1926 a memorial to the fallen was erected in Towneley Park, funded by Caleb Thornber, former mayor and alderman of the borough to ensure the sacrifice of the men lost was commemorated. The local school of art created pages of vellum with the names of the fallen inscribed. These were framed in a rotating carousel in Towneley Hall for visitors to see. There were 2000 names inscribed – less than half the number of real casualties.
In the Second World War, two Distinguished Service Orders and eight Distinguished Conduct Medals, along with a large number of lesser awards, were awarded to servicemen from the town. At Heights Farm was a bombing decoy nicknamed "Manchester on the moors". Burnley escaped the bombing, largely because it was near the limit of German bomber range and close to higher value targets in Manchester. Although the blackout was enforced, most of the aircraft in the sky above the town would have been friendly and on training missions, or returning to the factories for maintenance. Aircraft crashes did occur, however: In September 1942 a P-38 Lightning from the 14th Fighter Group USAAF crashed near Cliviger, and Black Hameldon Hill claimed a Halifax from No. 51 Squadron RAF in January 1943 and also a B-24 Liberator from the 491st Bombardment Group USAAF in February 1945. Lucas Industries set up shadow factories, producing a wide range of electrical parts for the war effort. Notably they were involved with the Rover Company's failed attempts (and Rolls-Royce's later successful ones) to produce Frank Whittle's pioneering jet engine design, the W.2 (Rolls-Royce Welland) in Barnoldswick. Magnesium Elektron's factory in Lowerhouse became the largest magnesium production facility in Britain. An unexpected benefit of the conflict for the residents of Burnley occurred in 1940. The Old Vic Theatre Company and the Sadler's Wells Opera and Ballet Companies moved from London to the town's Victoria Theatre. Burnley's main war memorial stands in Place de Vitry sur Seine next to the central library.
Post-Second World War
The Queen paid a second official visit to the town in summer 1961, marking the 100th anniversary of Burnley's borough status. The rest of the decade saw large-scale redevelopment in the town. Many buildings were demolished including the market hall, the cattle market, the Odeon cinema and hundreds of houses. New construction projects included the Charter Walk shopping centre, Centenary way and its flyover, the Keirby Hotel, a new central bus station, Trafalgar flats, and a number of office blocks. The town's largest coal mine, Bank Hall colliery, closed in April 1971 resulting in the loss of 571 jobs. The area of the mine has been restored as a park.
In 1980 Burnley was connected to the motorway network, through the construction of the first and second sections of the M65. Although the route, next to the railway and over the former Clifton colliery site, was chosen to minimise the clearance of occupied land, Yatefield, Olive Mount and Whittlefield Mills, the Barracks, and several hundred more terrace houses had to be demolished. Unusually this route passed close to the town centre and had a partitioning effect on the districts of Gannow, Ightenhill, Whittlefield, Rose Grove and Lowerhouse to the north. The 1980s and '90s saw massive expansion of Ightenhill and Whittlefield. Developers such as Bovis, Barratt and Wainhomes built large housing estates, predominantly on greenfield land.
In summer 1992, the town came to national attention following rioting on the Stoops and Hargher Clough council estates in the south west of the town.
The millennium brought some improvement projects, notably the "Forest of Burnley" scheme, which planted approximately a million trees throughout the town and its outskirts, and the creation of the Lowerhouse Lodges local nature reserve.
In June 2001, during the 2001 England riots, the town again received national attention following a series of violent disturbances arising from racial tensions between some of its White and Asian residents.