'Who in their right mind would want to come here?'

Oldham Town Centre in 2023
Oldham Town Centre in 2023 -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Armies of tourists on holiday, taking pictures of the old factories, high-rise tower blocks and stacked terraces. This was the ambitious plan for Oldham nearly 50 years ago.

Now there's no doubt Oldham has many attractive qualities. Surrounded by the beautiful Pennine countryside, it boasts a rich industrial heritage exemplified by many fine examples of Victorian architecture.

Nonetheless, the idea of Oldham becoming a holiday destination might be surprising to some - but this is exactly what Oldham Council dreamed up back in 1976. A real-life campaign called "Come To Oldham" was launched in hopes of turning the one-time industrial heartland in Greater Manchester into a tourist town.

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A report on the campaign was featured on the BBC news programme, Nationwide. Broadcast on March 24, 1976, it featured reporter and native Oldham lad, John Stapleton, investigating the campaign.

Video footage of the report released from the BBC archives starts with the grey industrial skyline of factories, high rise flats and terraced rooftops as John's narration starts with: "They're not kidding, they really do want you to spend a few days getting away from it all, here in Oldham. They call it 'a town in the country' and they've spent £14,000 promoting the place both at home and abroad."

The report cuts to John holding up the campaign's promotional materials. They included Oldham keyrings, car stickers, beer mats and a glossy brochure which had been printed in three different languages.

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The veteran reporter then quips: "So, before the place gets completely overrun by people in 'Kiss Me Quick' hats eating candyfloss, we thought we'd give you a little sneak preview at some of the sites that, who knows, might one day be filling your family album."

BBC Nationwide report featuring John Stapleton, broadcast on March 24 1976, on the campaign to turn Oldham into a holiday destination
BBC Nationwide report featuring John Stapleton, broadcast on March 24 1976, on the campaign to turn Oldham into a holiday destination -Credit:BBC Archive

Cutting to scenes of a bustling Tommyfield Market, more old mills with sky scraping chimneys and stacked terraced rooftops, John tells us the plan was dreamt up by Andrew Harris, the town's estates officer. The reporter said Mr Harris was anxious that Oldham 'should rid itself of its cloth cap, coal, and frankly rather miserable image,' and instead wanted to push Oldham as a 'tourist town' to attract jobs to the area.

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John tells viewers that, at one time, his hometown had character but it was currently in a 'planning limbo with a closer proximity to hell than heaven.' He states in the report that high on the list of attractions the estates officer wanted to push was 'Oldham's industrial archaeology', a reference to the town's 150 mills.

A campaign was started to turn Oldham into a town bustling with holidaymakers
Oldham was part of the north's industrial heartland -Credit:Mirrorpix

Keen to get his fellow Oldhamers' views, John adds: "Let's face it, any town that has districts with names like Daisy Nook, Mumps, and Higginshaw must have something going for it. So could Oldham become the Acapulco of the North West?"

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The report cuts to John asking people in Oldham town centre about the campaign. "Who in their right mind would want to come here - just have a good look 'round," said one woman.

Click below to watch the 1976 BBC report on the campaign to turn Oldham into a holiday destination

Two women shop workers were then asked if they thought people would come and spend a holiday in Oldham. Their blunt responses were: "You must be joking," and "You want to see the dash for that bus going out of the town at half-past-five."

Cut back at Tommyfield Market and the veteran broadcaster ends his report saying, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, that he hoped any tourists would sample the local delicacies as the video cut to sign outside a butchers selling tripe, or enjoy 'snapping the sunset over Higginshaw gas works'.

So while the campaign to turn 1970s Oldham into a must-visit tourist hotspot didn't quite materialise, there's no doubt the town has much to offer to both residents and visitors today.

Oldham is a unique part of Greater Manchester rich in cultural diversity, industrial history, culture, and community spirit - with a town centre regeneration project, the building of new event spaces, the creation of 2,000 new homes, new ‘one-stop-shop’ family hubs and works to upgrade facilities in its much-loved parks underway.

In the years since the 1976 campaign, parts of the borough of Oldham - like Dove Stones and the villages of Saddleworth - have emerged as tourists destinations. And the borough's population is growing.

Between the 2011 and 2021 census, Oldham's population size increased by 7.6%, from around 224,900 in 2011 to 242,100 - higher than the overall increase for England (6.6%). So while it was once asked 'who in their right mind would want to come here?', many today clearly disagree.

Does this story awaken any memories for you? Let us know in the comments section below.