In this feature, we take a look at Oldham's history, and some of the community champions shaping the borough today.

As Britain began to industrialise, Oldham was not left behind.

According to the Revealing Histories project, the town’s population soared as the number of mills grew, from 10,000 people and 12 mills in 1794 to 42,595 people and 94 mills in 1841.

Much of the raw cotton was imported from America, meaning much of it was produced by enslaved African Americans – and leading to a ‘cotton famine’ in the town when the American Civil War broke out, with a blockade enforced by naval ships.

By 1913, the peak year for the cotton industry, Oldham had more spindles than any town in the world.

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The Oldham Times: Earl Mill, Hathershaw. Built 1860, rebuilt 1891Earl Mill, Hathershaw. Built 1860, rebuilt 1891 (Image: Alan Murray-Rust, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Migrants recruited to work

After World War Two, migrants from South Asian Commonwealth countries were recruited to work in the cotton industry, which had begun to decline. 

The seeds of this migration have helped contribute to the borough’s ethnic diversity today, with around a quarter of the borough identifying as of Asian ethnicity as of the 2021 census, rising to 70 to 80 per cent in the town centre.

Race riots

As the cotton industry began to decline in the 1980s, job losses began to mount, and rising community tensions led to race riots.

By 2001, census data shows that just 15.5 per cent of Asian or Asian British Oldhamers were in full-time employment, compared to 43.6 per cent of white Oldhamers. Communities in the town were highly segregated.

In May of that year, a pub in Glodwick, a predominantly Asian area of the borough, came under attack as a firebomb was hurled through a window.

Clashes between rioters and police followed with community leaders expressing shock towards the violence.

The Oldham Times:  A screenshot from a video showing a vehicle on fire in Oldham during the riots. Picture: BBC A screenshot from a video showing a vehicle on fire in Oldham during the riots. Picture: BBC

A government report into the riots, commissioned by the then-Home Secretary and authored by Ted Cantle, attributed the cause to groups living ‘parallel’ lives, and recommended integrating communities in the borough.

Efforts to do so included the merging of Counthill School, which served a predominantly white area, and Breeze Hill School, which served a predominantly Asian area, into Waterhead Academy – aiming to bridge the divide between communities.

In 2017, Cantle told The Observer newspaper that Oldham remained one of Britain’s most segregated towns, and called attempts to foster integration "lukewarm at best and probably non-existent at worst".

Reports since have suggested the legacy of the race riots lives on, with a 2022 report by thinktank Onward suggesting that there is still evidence of tensions along racial and ethnic lines in the town.

While a quarter of the borough is Asian, many Asian people live in the town centre, with outer portions of the borough remaining predominantly white, according to census data.

Additionally, the government’s English indices of deprivation show that the town centre areas are more deprived than the whiter outer borough areas.

Tensions from social media

Community tensions can also stem from social media.

The borough, as well as its media and political framework, has, in recent years, been subject to conspiracy theories relating to alleged cover-ups of child sexual exploitation, stemming from real failings of the handling of cases in previous years.

Some commentators have used this real horror to target media, including The Oldham Times, to grow their own following. However, while their following remains stagnant in the triple digits, The Oldham Times continues to grow.

A report commissioned by Mayor Andy Burnham, published in 2022, found that there were ‘structural flaws’ in the system set up to tackle child sexual exploitation, but found no evidence of a cover-up by authorities.

Tubular bandage and first test tube baby

There is a lot for Oldhamers to be proud of. Oldham has also been home to health breakthroughs.

In the mid-20th century, Oldham became the home of health breakthroughs. In 1961, the tubular bandage was invented by Ivor Stoller, who founded Oldham’s Seton Healthcare.

For years following, the now-demolished northern bridge carrying the former railway line over Oldham Mumps used to proudly proclaim: ‘Seton welcome you to Oldham, home of the tubular bandage’, a legacy of the town’s cotton manufacturing prowess, which was used in the manufacturing process.

The town continued to make waves in healthcare years later, when Oldham General Hospital, now known as the Royal Oldham Hospital, helped birth the world’s first test tube baby.

Louise Brown, now aged 45, was born on July 25, 1978 – 30 years after the creation of the NHS on July 5, 1948 – through the process now known as in-vitro fertilisation or IVF. It has since helped millions across the world to give birth.

The Oldham Times: Louise BrownLouise Brown

Sir Robert Edwards, from Yorkshire, and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, from Oxfordshire worked in a team to carry out the procedure. Their work was commemorated with a plaque inside the hospital.

It wasn’t until years later that the work of women on the team was also recognised as prominently – with their names left out of many contemporary media reports as well as missed from the commemorative plaque.

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Jean Purdy, a nurse embryologist, and Sister Muriel Harris, an operating theatre superintendent, both played significant parts in the procedure.

In fact, Purdy was the first person to witness the successful cell division of the embryo that would later become Louise.

In 2022, a plaque finally commemorating the two women was unveiled in the Royal Oldham Hospital.

Champions feeding kids

Moving to modern times, Oldham is home to a number of inspiring community activists and leaders – stepping up to fill in the gaps where government has failed to provide support.

Oldham has the second-highest child poverty rate in the North West, with some areas seeing more than two-thirds of children in poverty. With the cost-of-living crisis, rising costs have meant many parents have had to choose whether to ‘heat or eat’. One headteacher has called the crisis ‘Dickensian’.

But Oldhamers have stepped up to feed children.

Abid Hussain

Abid Hussain is one such champion. A youth coach for the Oldham Athletic academy, he also directs the Oldham Greenhill Community Sports and Recreation club, which helps keep hungry kids off the streets.

An active campaigner, Abid has flown to Turkey and Morocco following devastating earthquakes in the country, in order to deliver aid to those in need.

After setting up the community centre in 2004, Abid says he is driven by ‘passion’ to run sessions for kids in the school holidays. He even finds time to play cricket on Saturdays.

Speaking about the half-term events, he said: “It gets the children away from the computers, away from home. They’re coming here, they’re learning, they’re making new friends.

“We normally get a lot of kids who don’t have a mainstream income, this is free of charge.

“Making sure that children where even parents can’t afford it, they can still access it.”

The Oldham Times: Abid Hussain in Turkey Abid Hussain in Turkey (Image: Abid Hussain)

Susan Milligan

Having worked in Manchester, Cheshire, and Salford, Susan has been at St Herbert’s primary school for nearly 10 years.

During the pandemic, she noticed families starting to struggle more than usual. Susan and staff at the school stepped up, with the school now providing families with food and essentials, even prams or cots.

She said: “A lot has changed over the 10 years I’ve worked here, and a lot of that isn’t just our area, that is nationally, as well. It’s not just an area thing.

“We are just responding to that need as it arises, and we will continue to do that, as there will be other things in the future that we can’t foresee.”

The Oldham Times: Headteacher Susan Milligan has worked at St Herbert's for nearly 10 yearsHeadteacher Susan Milligan has worked at St Herbert's for nearly 10 years (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Hamid Ali

Having grown up in Chadderton near to Berries Field Park, Hamid Ali is a passionate community champion who works with the SK Foundation.

Having seen other areas host ‘Eid in the Park’ events, Hamid decided to help organise one on his local park, with the noble aim of bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together.  Prior to the first Eid in the Park event, he said: “We want to bring the whole community together and celebrate it together, irrelevant of your faith or your background, as one community.

“Come celebrate as one community, have a fun day with your family and friends. If someone has any questions, of a different faith, wanting to understand a bit more, they can also do that.

“It’s more about just bringing family together, the community together, and acting as one community irrelevant of race and religion, just enjoying each other’s company.”

While rain cancelled the event on Eid Al-Fitr in April, Hamid was not put off – bringing the event back for Eid Al-Adha in June, with local attendees enjoying a religious service followed by stalls and rides.

The Oldham Times: Hamid Ali (right) with local celebrity Salt Bhai (centre) and attendee Matin Abdul (left)Hamid Ali (right) with local celebrity Salt Bhai (centre) and attendee Matin Abdul (left) (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Afruz Miah BEM

A former maths teacher, Afruz Miah decided to get into shape after he was told he was developing hypertension in November 2019.

Now, the Oldhamer, in his 40s, has become a serial campaigner, raising thousands of pounds for a several causes, including running the Halloween Half Marathon to raise money for victims in Gaza, climbing mountains for Moroccan earthquake victims, and setting up a fundraiser for the family of Sadia Shafiq, who died in a house fire earlier this year.

The campaigner, who has run from Oldham to London and climbed mountains including Ben Nevis, has been recognised for his charity work at Buckingham Palace, receiving the British Empire Medal in 2022.

This year, he credited the community after being one of 2,000 to be invited to the coronation of King Charles III, where he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as former PMs Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron – which he called ‘overwhelming’.

The Oldham Times: Afruz attended a special tea party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate his services to the community in 2022Afruz attended a special tea party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate his services to the community in 2022

Pride champions

Oldham’s LGBT+ community is also flourishing, with the borough’s first openly gay council leader, Amanda Chadderton, appointed last year.

Since Covid, Oldham Pride has seen a return to the borough’s streets, despite a setback in 2022 with organisers at one point saying the event had ‘zero funding whatsoever’. However, organisers including The George pub’s Terri Fox and Oldham Pride’s Reverend David Austin helped turn the event in to a success.

Now, Oldham’s first trans councillor has said they are proud to represent Delph.

Labour’s Meg Birchall, aged 21, represents their area on Saddleworth Parish Council. The child of an engineer and a drug and alcohol support worker, Meg joined the Labour Party when they were aged just 16.

Upon being elected, Meg said they hope to bring a ‘fresh perspective’ to the parish council and felt it was important to be there as a trans person, to increase visibility in the public eye.

The Oldham Times: Meg BirchallMeg Birchall (Image: Meg Birchall)

They said: “I think it’s quite important for me as a trans person to just be there and be visible.

“I’m not going to be in every meeting stood there talking about being trans and how much that means to me, but just by being there and being trans, that does a lot.”

Meg was first made homeless when they were aged just eight years old. Then, they spent their seventeenth birthday bouncing around between different accommodation.

Now, Meg hopes to continue their campaign work for accessibility in Saddleworth and hopes to bring step-free access to Greenfield Station, as well as create local jobs and increase the housing supply with affordable housing.

The future

Oldham continues to grow, with thousands of new houses planned for the town centre, and the borough is set to get an extra Metrolink line connecting the town to Heywood in coming years.

While plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail to cut through the east of the borough now look uncertain, it looks like the future for Oldhamers is one of growth and integration.