Although Spinner’s End is probably not a real place in a real town, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s in an imaginary town in an area where towns of that type are found—just as Little Whinging is an imaginary town, but of a recognizably Surrey type. An argument has been made Spinner’s End is in the Halifax area of Yorkshire. Other distinct possibilities are the Dundee/Fife and Glasgow/Lanark areas of Scotland, and Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. However, analyzing clues J.K. Rowling provided in Chapter Two of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I conclude that Spinner’s End is likely near the Manchester area in the industrial north of England.
Firstly, what does JKR actually tell us about Spinner’s End?
- It is a long way from London.
- It is in an industrial-style mill-town, but we aren’t told what sort of mill. The name Spinner’s End suggests it’s a textile mill but even this is unproven. Consider that there is a real street called Spinner’s End but it is in a steel-mill area, in a place called Cradley Heath in the Black Country northwest of Birmingham.
- The mill is by a river, which means it’s probably water-powered, or more likely, steam-powered. It is obviously disused by 1996, and it has a very tall, thin chimney, tall enough to tower over houses several streets way.
- The river is dirty enough to be smelled several streets away, is winding and has rubbish-strewn, overgrown banks which seem to be fairly high and steep, as Cissy has to “scramble” to get up them. There must be a flat bit — perhaps a tow-path or a cycle-path — between the river and the steep bank on at least one side because Cissy and Bella Apparate to the edge of the river without falling over, or in.
- There is a railing along the top of the bank, then a cobbled street. Brick houses begin on the other side of the street and extend back from it in near-identical straight rows, suggesting a low-grade housing estate probably purpose-built for the workers at the mill.
- Bellatrix thinks they may be the first pureblood-wizards to set foot there. If this is Snape’s childhood home then the implication is that his mother wasn’t a pureblood witch.
- The rows of houses are linked by alleyways, as well as (presumably) by crossing streets.
- Both the houses and the street-lighting are generally in a poor state of repair. Many, probably most of the houses are empty—even in summer 1996, the height of the housing-boom. A lot of windows are boarded up, which means the area is vandal-haunted as well as bleak. Nevertheless, the area is not totally deserted. Somewhere within walking or cycling distance of the point where the sisters appear there is a Fish-and-Chip Shop, and enough customers to keep it going. We know this because by the river there is a fish-and-chip paper fresh enough to attract a fox.
- Spinner’s End itself is several streets away from the river. It is cobbled.
- Snape’s house is at the end of a row. Although the sitting room accommodates an armchair and a sofa it is very small. The sitting room has a door opening directly onto the street, one internal door leading to a kitchen, and another leading to a narrow staircase. Upstairs there are at least two bedrooms. It’s a reasonable surmise, incidentally, that all the rooms are small, not just the sitting room. Snape is so short of space that he has to hang bookcases on the backs of doors (one wonders how they open without “binding”—maybe it’s magic!), so one would assume that if he had, for example, a large kitchen he would swap the rooms around and make the biggest room his sitting room.
- Snape’s house is actually at the end of the whole street—but we’re not told how the street ends. It could be a T-junction, a turning or a cul-de-sac. It could end in a wall, or in the grounds of some factory or municipal building. It could end in a bomb-site, a building-site or allotments (see below). Or it could just peter out into open country.
On to extrapolation, then. The houses are almost certainly terraced—that is, joined to the houses on either side of them. Many, probably most houses in Britain are, especially in poorer areas. Being at the end of a row Snape’s house is semi-detached. The house is probably what’s called a “two-up-and-two-down”—two rooms upstairs and two downstairs. This is a common design for Victorian workers’ housing.
Many of these terraced houses were “back-to-backs”—two rooms wide and one deep, with no space at the back, the houses simply being all of a piece with the ones behind them. However, the fact that the street door opens straight into Snape’s sitting room suggests that in this case they are one room wide and two deep, meaning there will be a small garden or yard at the back to allow light into the rear rooms. There is likely to be a narrow alley between the yards of one row of houses and the yards of the houses behind them, with gates opening from the yards onto the alleyway.
Unless the houses have been modernized, they will have an outdoor lavatory in the yard, and no bathroom. (This probably explains why Snape doesn’t wash his hair every day—he never got into the habit—and if he got ribbed at school for being scruffy it would become a point of pride not to do anything about it, just to be bloody-minded.) The lavatory may even be shared between more than one household. Back-to-backs might have an indoor lavatory or they might share a communal public lavatory block. In some cases there were no kitchen taps and the water supply was a communal pump.
The likelihood is vanishingly small that the houses have any sort of front garden, as this sort of house is usually built straight onto the pavement. Back gardens, if any, will be measly little scraps of grass. But there are very likely to be “allotments,” or garden-sized strips of a nearby field which residents can rent for a “peppercorn rent” of a few pounds a year. There is often a communal water supply, and allotment-holders build sheds and grow flowers and vegetables on their strip of land, making the field of allotments a major social focus of the local community.
Now to location. Mill chimneys and cobbles mean the setting is probably the industrial north. The real Spinner’s End mentioned above is actually in a steel-mill area, which suggests the Black Country near Birmingham, Tyneside or the Clyde area in Scotland. The mill could even be a paper-mill.
If, however, we take the name to mean that the mill is a textile mill, there are several possibilities. The British textile industry, most of which had died by the 1950s, centred around wool in Yorkshire and Lanarkshire; jute in the Dundee area; silk and linen in Fife; cotton in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Lanarkshire, Nottinghamshire and Fife; silk in Derby; and lace in Nottingham and in some areas of Ireland and Scotland. There was also a mixture of textile factories in Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. Linen-mills operated widely throughout Britain. There is a suitably tatty and polluted area of cobbles and run-down houses and mill-chimneys in Reading, but it is unlikely Spinner’s End is as near London as Reading.
The fact that JKR is based in Scotland raises the likelihood that Spinner’s End is in Lanarkshire or the Dundee area. Most houses in Scotland are built of stone blocks, not bricks, but there are surviving rows of brick-built working men’s housing in these areas.
A lady called June Diamanti on LiveJournal has made a case for Spinner’s End being in Halifax in Yorkshire. Yorkshire would be a nice choice in some ways—culturally interesting, and it is quite romantic to think of Snape as a Dalesman. However, the British tourist industry thinks that Yorkshire is romantic too, and most places in Yorkshire have been cleaned up and renovated. Few if any areas of Yorkshire would have housing standing empty in 1996, as did Spinner’s End at the time—unless, of course, the housing was unsound and due to be pulled down and replaced by a modern estate. Even in that case, it’s still fairly unlikely that a river in most places in Yorkshire would be that dirty as recently as 1996.
Ms. Diamanti has found evidence of a Snape family who used to own a shop in Halifax, and a very striking photograph of a mill chimney towering over a cobbled street in Halifax. Whilst this is suggestive, Snape is not a rare enough name to make it conclusive. JKR has hinted that she got the name from the town called Snape Maltings, which is in Suffolk—and perhaps the most famous living Snape, the artist Sue Macartney-Snape, is from Tanganyika. The street in the photo has no visible houses alongside it, and is clearly very much higher up than the level on which the mill is standing. There’s nothing to suggest Spinner’s End is high up, except that Cissy is said to go “up the street”—but this is usually just a synonym for “along.”
It’s true that the sisters as they stand by the river can see that there are row on row of houses, apparently parallel to the river, and that could mean that the houses are ranged in ranks up a steep hillside—but there’s nothing else to suggest this. If the roads were at a great slope you would expect JKR would say so, and it is likely that the sisters know there are multiple rows of houses because the alley is close enough for them to look down it and see the ends of the rows. It is clear from the description that as they stand at the top of the bank, the alley is more or less directly opposite them.
Halifax is actually a problematic choice, as the river which runs through Halifax is clean and probably has been for a long time: I myself have seen it being exceedingly clean just upriver from Halifax in the mid ’80s, and since the local heavy industry was already dead or dying it’s unlikely it could have been reeking with pollution ten years later and only a few miles further on. In 2002, a factory accident contaminated a stream in or near Halifax and the company concerned undertook to return the water to its former condition—which included restocking it with the 60,000 salmon and 30,000 trout which had been living in it up until July 2002.
Also, if their town website is anything to go by Halifax is very, very modernized and Yuppified indeed. It’s possible you could still have found some really scruffy bits in Halifax ten years ago, but it has a number of things against it. If Spinner’s End is in Yorkshire, Bradford is a much more likely choice—since it has several mills and parts of it are still pretty rough and un-touristy. Huddersfield is also still very industrial and dirty.
Derby (the county town of Derbyshire) would also be possible in theory, since at one point it was full of mills and estates of working men’s cottages. However, most of those cottages were pulled down by 1977, which reduces Derby’s chances of being the right place, and most of Derby is in any case too clean and too pretty.
If Spinner’s End is in or very near to a city in England then Manchester is the most likely location, as it is actually known as “the town of tall chimneys.” Also, it is quite likely that JKR’s image of Spinner’s End was inspired by the paintings of L.S. Lowry, which are mainly of the Salford/Manchester area. I am told that JK actually said on an arts programme that she is a big fan of Lowry’s. See for example the painting “Canal Bridge” at The Fine Art Company website, or the drawing called “Lancashire Scene 1925,” at Anthony Seaton’s Lowry educational site. Indeed, were it not for the misty presence of what seems to be a very large church in the background, “Lancashire Scene 1925” this picture could be Snape’s house in Spinner’s End—so much so that I wonder if JK was inspired by this particular drawing.
However, I’m inclined to think that Spinner’s End is not closely attached to any big city—because if it was part of a thousand-year-old city (and most of them are that old, or older) it’s unlikely Bella and Cissy could be the first purebloods to set foot there. Of course, Bella could just be being her usual bigoted self—but if she really means it she’s more likely to be talking about some purpose-built little late Georgian or Victorian mill-town.
It’s certainly not true, as has been suggested elsewhere, that Lancashire didn’t have many cotton mills because of a shortage of rivers. The BBC’s website on King Cotton has this to say about it:
Lancashire’s damp climate (some may call rainy!) was perfect for maintaining the moisture in fine cotton yarns, whilst the abundant supply of water via rivers in Pennine towns and cities drove water-powered mills.
Twenty-nine of the 35 steam driven engines later acquired by cotton businesses were installed in Lancashire.
However, Pennine towns go down in likelihood because the river near Spinner’s End is described as winding and it has a path alongside it—suggesting the town is on fairly level ground, not right up in the hills. And the further up, the more likely the river is to be clean. This likewise reduces the chances for many of the Yorkshire wool towns, quite apart from the tourism issue.
The Derwent Valley in Derbyshire is famously lined with water-powered cotton-mills, often with appropriately towering chimneys, but like much of Yorkshire it’s a bit too picturesque and touristy, and the water is way too clean.
If Spinner’s End is in England then that leaves Nottinghamshire, the area of Lancashire around Manchester (but probably not Manchester itself), the area of Yorkshire around Bradford (but probably not Bradford itself) or Huddersfield, and a series of scruffy little mill-towns in and around Hope Valley in Derbyshire, strung out on a line between Derby and Manchester. All of the other locations are of course possible—but only these ones have nothing against them. That is, they have brick houses, they have mill-chimneys and cobbles, they are low-lying enough for the river to wind and to have a track alongside it, they hadn’t been seriously Yuppified or cleaned up by summer 1996 and it is at least possible to speculate that no pureblood might have set foot in them before that date.
Of these locations, the Manchester/Salford area is probably the most likely, especially if it’s true that JKR is a Lowry fan: but in my own stories I have gone for Derbyshire because my assistant, Dee Suil-Levanne, is from Derby and this enables me to use authentic local dialect. Dee specifically suggests either a tatty suburb at the edge of Derby called Ormskirk Rise, or Stockport, or New Mills in the Hope Valley. New Mills has a river and several finger-like mill chimneys and lots of old factory-workers’ houses and is decidedly scruffy and rough and un-Yuppified, with a harsh whiney accent which would have been a particular social cross for young Severus to bear. (Apologies to anyone reading this who comes from New Mills!)
Snape’s words and actions are those of one from the industrial north of England. Snape uses the expression “dunderhead,” which is quite often heard in the north of England but rare elsewhere, and he describes Mundungus Fletcher as “smelly”—a word common among children all over Britain, but rarely used by adults—unless they are from the Manchester/Derby area. Finally, the fact that Snape probably comes from the industrial north of England defuses a lot of his apparent harshness and nastiness, because it means much of it is just cultural. In that area “surly and antisocial” is rather admired, and rudeness (known as “being blunt”) is regarded as a sign of honesty and is cultivated as a virtue. Indeed, one can say that Snape’s probably from a northern English industrial area, rather than Lanarkshire or Derry, precisely because he is so brusque and sarcastic.