The area around Darwen has been inhabited since the early Bronze Age, and the remains of a barrow from approximately 2000 BC have been partially restored at the Ashleigh Barrow in Whitehall. Artefacts including a bronze dagger and urns containing human ashes were found, and a small number of these finds are now on display at Darwen Library Theatre. The Romans once had a force in Lancashire, and a Roman road is visible on the Ordnance Survey map of the area.
Mediaeval Darwen was tiny; little or nothing survives. One of the earliest remaining buildings is a farmhouse at Bury Fold, dated 1675. Whitehall Cottage is thought to be the oldest house in the town, and was mostly built in the 17th and 18th centuries but contains a chimney piece dated 1557.
Like many towns in Lancashire, Darwen was a centre for textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution. Samuel Crompton, inventor of the spinning mule, lived there for part of his life.
Rail links and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal arrived in the mid-19th century. The most important textile building in Darwen is India Mill, built by Eccles Shorrock & Company. The company was ruined, however, by the effects of the Lancashire Cotton Famine of the 1860s.
Much of the town was built between about 1850 and 1900; placenames, date stones in terraces, and the vernacular architecture of cellars, local stone, locally-made brick, pipework and tiles and leaded glass, the last now mostly gone, reflect this. It was one of the first places in the world to have steam trams. The arrangement of town hall, market, public transport, eating/hotel facilities and the pre-suburban mixed-size vernacular housing, with local variations according to topography, is very characteristic of Northern England.
The year 1900 perhaps represents the peak of Victorian optimism in the area. The working classes were then much more identifiable as masses than now. George Orwell, for example, described the sound of clogs on cobblestones of the large number of female millworkers.
Andrew Carnegie financed a public library here; the town also had an art and technology college and a grammar school. In common with many northern nonconformist towns, there are many chapels of assorted denominations, which flourished until the psychological blows of the First World War.
One of Darwen's biggest claims to fame is that it hosted a visit from Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1931. He had accepted the invitation from Corder Catchpool, Quaker manager of the Spring Vale Garden Village Ltd, to see the effects of India's boycott of cotton goods. The unemployed mill workers greeted the man with great affection even when they were out of work, as they understood it was not India but greedy and irresponsible mill owners who were responsible for their situation.
Since the 1950s, the textile industry has strongly declined in the region, although many industrial buildings from the period survive, now used for other purposes. India Mill and its famous chimney have been sold in a £12 million deal. Among Darwen's other famous industries are Crown Paints, formerly Walpamur Paints, the earliest British paint manufacturer, which actually named one of its paints 'Darwen Satin Finish'. Crown Wallpaper manufactured wallpaper, Lincrusta and Anaglypta in the town. ICI Acrylics (now called Lucite International) was where acrylic glass (Perspex for windows and signage, and Sani-ware or Lucite used for the manufacture of baths and shower trays) was invented; it is still manufactured in two separate plants within the town. Spitfire canopies and (later) coloured polythene washing-up bowls were first made here.
Recently, a large number of homes in the town have been demolished as part of the government's Pathfinder scheme, and there is an ongoing campaign to prevent the comprehensive redevelopment of large areas of the town.