The area around Helmshore is moorland. Post-Ice Age this would have been forested and bog oak can still be found on the flat peatland tops over 250 metres high. The forest declined in the Neolithic period, and largely disappeared during the Bronze Age, mainly as a result of climatic change although hastened by human activity. There is some evidence of human habitation in the area during the Neolithic period - stone implements found on Bull Hill and at Musbury valley, and the stones at Thirteen Stone Hill near Grane, and there are a relatively complex network of both local and long distance old tracks crossing the area.
The village is dominated by the spectacular flat-topped Musbury Tor, once the centre of the medieval hunting park, or Forest. Either side of the Tor are two valleys: Alden valley in the south-west and Musbury valley to the North-west. The 'whole land of Musbury' was granted to John de Lacy (before 1241) by Lewis de Bernavill. A licence for a 'free warren' was granted to the Earl of Lincoln in 1294. Work on fencing the Park was completed by 1304-5, with palings being erected. The park, with its 'herbage and agistments' was said to be worth 13s. 4d. in 1311. In 1329 and 1330 it is described as 'Queen Isabel's park of Musbury', and fines were being applied for trespass to, among others, the rector of Bury. Stretches of the ditch enclosure are clearly visible at Grane and Alden valleys, and deer are still occasionally seen in the area. There are several current place names identifying the Park.
One of the main early tracks that passed through Helmshore was a route from the south (by the Pilgrim's Cross which was in existence in AD 1176) on Holcombe Moor, and then goes through Haslingden on its way to Whalley. This also connected with Watling Street at Affetside, and a well-established way from Bolton to Rossendale. In Anglo-Saxon times, Whalley church was an important Minster and the mother church of an enormous parish. Later, in the medieval period, several chapels-of-ease were attached to Whalley church for the 'ease' of the scattered population providing access to the Mass and the sacraments. After the move made by the Cistercian monks of Stanlow to Whalley at the end of the thirteenth century, traffic would have increased along this route.
To the south on the old pilgrim road is Robin Hood's Well, and above that is a cairn and memorial stone in memory of Ellen Strange, generally believed to be a young girl murdered by her lover - an event recorded in a Victorian ballad by John Fawcett Skelton but now known to be a murder of a wife by a husband in 1761<Simpson, John, (2nd ed 2015); Ellen Strange: a moorland murder mystery explained, p. 10, Helmshore Local History Society> that has become replaced by a colourful, but fictional, story. The event was commemorated by Bob Frith and the Horse and Bamboo Theatre group in 1978. The memorial stone was carved by Liverpool artist Don McKinlay and depicts the murdered woman. These routes fell into disuse for anything other than foot traffic after the turnpike improvements of the nineteenth century.
Helmshore owes its development to a damp climate that was ideally suited to the development of the wool, cotton and linen industries. During the early part of the Industrial Revolution, from the 1790s on, small mills were built on the river valleys, such as Alden valley where there are still ruins, close to the farming areas - indeed most mill-owners were also farmers. But by the latter half of the nineteenth century these mills became redundant and industry expanded enormously as mill owners such as the Turner family built terraced dwellings to house the workforce necessary to run their cotton mills close to the roads and railways. During this period Helmshore gradually superseded Musbury as the main name for the community.
Helmshore became a mill workers' settlement, comprising an extensive area of woollen and cotton mills and associated workers' housing built along the valley of the River Ogden. The Turner family, whose tan pits and Hollin Bank mills were built as water-powered mills in the early nineteenth century, first established the settlement. The surviving mills later converted to cotton production. The area expanded with the opening of the railway in 1848, and includes the Station Hotel and St Thomas's Church (1851/2). The housing is mixed, with some two-up, two-down terraces, top-and-bottom houses and a few surviving back-to-back cottages.
There was a major railway accident in Helmshore in September 1860. There were eleven lives lost and 77 people were injured. The accident happened on the line between Snig Hole and the Ogden Viaduct, both local beauty spots, 400 yards from Helmshore station. About 3,000 people had gone from East Lancashire on three excursion trains to Salford to visit the attractions at Belle Vue Gardens.
The second train with about 1,000 passengers and 31 carriages got to Helmshore Station where it stopped to let out some passengers. "When the guard released the brakes there was a jerk and 16 carriages broke away from the train and started sliding down the line between Helmshore and Ramsbottom. Mr Shaw, the superintendent, saw what had happened and unhooked the engine from the train in order to go down the other line to warn the third train, but unfortunately he was too late. The carriages had already run 400 yards down the line and collided with the oncoming train."
On 25 September 1916 a 179m-long German military Zeppelin airship flew over Helmshore on a bombing mission. It was probably following the railway, attempting to inflict damage on the transport system. One bomb dropped near Clod Lane, Haslingden, where there was a gun cotton factory. Ewood Bridge station was destroyed by bombs and, after passing over Helmshore, the Zeppelin flew on to Holcombe where it did further damage.
The railway that ran through Helmshore was closed in 1966 as part of the Beeching Axe, but relics of the old railway routes remain in and around the village. The Ravenshore viaduct has been vandalised but remains a considerable monument to the railway heritage. The Helmshore viaduct, close to the textile museum, is now a footpath. The railway preservation society that was founded to fight the Beeching cuts became the East Lancashire Railway, which now operates the Rawtenstall to Bury line.
One of the world's first municipal bus services linked Helmshore to Haslingden in 1907.
Helmshore has had a second major expansion since the 1970s with the building of a large number of new estates, and infill, often for commuters to Manchester. However parts of the village—and the surrounding countryside—remain very attractive.
Helmshore was the site of the notorious 2016 murder of businesswoman Sadie Hartley.
In 2001 the American musical group The Factory Incident released an EP entitled Helmshore. Karl Hill, one of the guitarists named it as a tribute to his late mother, Joyce Bargh Hill who was born in Haslingden and raised in Helmshore.
Originally Higher Mill, Helmshore Mills Textile Museum is a water-powered fulling mill and a 19th-century condenser cotton spinning mill, with working machinery. Built by the Turners in 1789, and rescued from dereliction by Derek Pilkington and Chris Aspin in the 1960s, it is now managed by Lancashire County Council Museums Service and details the changes made in textile technology over the last three hundred years through the use of interactive displays. Mill ponds, weirs, sluice gates and an aqueduct are also part of the museum as well as a 19th-century working waterwheel, fulling stocks and other machinery associated with the finishing of woollen cloth, an original Arkwright water frame, and a Hargreaves Spinning Jenny. It also houses a museum and bookshop selling, among other things, books on local textile history.
In 1856 Joseph Porritt established Sunnybank Mill, an enormous mill which once housed the world's largest spinning mules. The other main Helmshore mill dynasty were the Whittakers, one of whose mills makes up part of the Textile Museum.
Every year, an athletics race takes place in Helmshore - The Musbury Tor Mile. The race is thought to have started in the early years of the last century, and may have an even older ancestry. Originally the runners ran to, and around, Big Nor, a large stone at the tip of Musbury Tor, and back, but it was stopped after the farmer withdrew permission to use his land. The route was altered to make all parties happy, and it now actually measures nearer two miles than one - a mile up and a mile back down. Since 2004 the race has been taking place again and is part of the fell running tradition of the area.