DARWEN Market Hall was almost overwhelmed by would-be customers who forced their way past local police and were only halted by ranks of soldiers with drawn bayonets.

The array of steel from the 2nd Lancashire Rifle Volunteers “produced a quieting effect on those at the forefront of the rush,” said an onlooker.

No, it wasn’t a recent rush to grab toilet rolls and hand sanitisers but – as you may have guessed – the auspicious opening of the market hall.

These days the authorities would be more likely to throw passers by into the rather sparse market to spend a few quid to keep it ticking along.

Which brings me to Steve Fay who has run the Biscuit Barrel Cafe in a corner of the annexe for over ten years. Not that anyone calls it that. To everyone it’s “Steve’s Place.”

Customers do their bit to brighten up the cafe and he has over 70 framed photos of old Darwen which he has been given for a rotating display on the back wall.

Now, as the borough council has announced a £250,000 spend on sorting out the market roof, he has bought from a collector an unusual 5ft x 4ft framed photo of the laying of the foundation stone in October, 1880, exactly 140 years ago.

Local historians have never seen the photograph, but they know it was taken by one of the Timperley family who lived in the red brick and stone Hawthorne House at the top of Church Bank Street. And, with Darrell Smith who runs a framing shop in the market, they have added an information board.

Says Steve: “It wasn’t cheap, but I’ve already been offered £250 more than I paid for it. I wouldn’t sell it – it’s not going anywhere.”

The foundation stone was laid by the town’s first mayor, Ald. William Snape and in the evening, a contemporary report told of a banquet for 100 guests in the Co-op Hall. Ladies, apparently, “were permitted to watch from the gallery.”

A few eyebrows have been raised that none of the present work on the roof has gone to local companies. Back in the 1880s most of the work was done by local firms.

The site chosen was described as “an area of mouldering buildings and malodorous lodges, unpleasant and swamp-like.”

First job was to build a brick culvert over the slimy River Darwen which snaked through.

The impressive new building which included municipal offices was officially opened by Accrington industrialist Frederick Grafton, standing in for fellow Liberal MP the Marquis of Hartington, on June 21, 1882.

Again, ladies were permitted to observe from the balcony, but this time “a toast was proposed to their health.”

The building was opened for business on Tuesday, July 11. It was a busy day, but better organised and the Rifle Volunteers and their bayonets weren’t needed …