Understanding a Revolution: the Archaeology of Industrialsiation

The launch on the 19th April of Industrial Archaeology: A Handbook by the Council for British Archaeology at the Ironbridge Gorge & Museum Trust was one of the milestones in English Heritage’s ‘Industrial Heritage at Risk Year’.1 This 12 month project, launched in October 2011, aims to undertake research to reveal how much of our industrial heritage, those monuments and sites of the period of Industrialisation from the 18th century to the First World War, is at risk from decay, neglect or demolition.

Industrial Heritage has always been at risk from the constant re-working of rural and urban landscapes, and the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle that is the natural consequence of how societies develop and evolve. In the late 1950s the CBA was at the forefront of a campaign to recognise the importance and preserve key monuments from the Industrial Revolution. This was in response to the decline of a number of the central industries of the period; canals, railways, steel and textiles. The long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, coupled with the new planning guidance that recognised the importance of recording archaeology before development, led to a huge rise in all forms of archaeological work, including industrial archaeology; the irony being that this reflected the increased rate of loss of important sites from the era of industrialisation. The present economic recession provides the opportunity to pause and begin the process of synthesising the thousands of individual pieces of archaeological work undertaken on Industrial Period sites. The new Handbook is one attempt to do that.

Although a handbook had been suggested by the CBA as early as 19593, its immediate origins lie in a training initiative begun in late 2008 by the Council for British Archaeology and the Association for Industrial Archaeology. This was funded by English Heritage and was intended to provide training in recognising and understanding historic Industrial Buildings threatened with redevelopment or neglect. Finishing in February 2011 this programme saw two pilots and nine regional training seminars delivered across England. From September 2009 the seminars were run by staff from the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford on behalf of the CBA and AIA. These seminars reached 224 participants (excluding speakers) from a variety of backgrounds; volunteers and professionals; heritage specialists and construction industry practitioners; academic and commercial archaeologists.4 A key part of the training were a series of fact sheets detailing over 30 industries and buildings dealt with during the training seminars, written by leading researchers in their field. These formed the database from which the Handbook sprang, although it took another eight months, three authors, the co-operation of many archaeological units, and the good will of many of these specialists to produce the final 130,000 words.

The importance of industrial heritage to the lives of the vast majority of people who are not professional archaeologists or conservationists was captured by a survey commissioned by English Heritage in the autumn of 2011. The aim of this was to research public attitudes to industrial heritage and the current level of risk. The headline results are striking; almost half the 2000 people questioned (43%) did not know when the Industrial Revolution took place, although 80% agreed that remains from this era were just as important as sites such as castles and country houses. It also demonstrated that listed industrial buildings are more at risk than almost any other kind of heritage, and that those in northern England are at greater risk than anywhere else. Nearly 11% of Grade I and II* industrial buildings are at risk, far higher than the 3% of all Grade I and II* buildings which are at risk in England.More detailed results on the attitudes of the wider public can be found by exploring the new Heritage at Risk website launched this month by English Heritage. The new Handbook, meanwhile, should provide a means for those in the voluntary and professional sectors already interested in the period to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to understand, record, and conserve what is arguably Britain’s overriding cultural legacy: the archaeology of industrialisation.

1) Industrial Archaeology: A Handbook by Marilyn Palmer, Michael Nevell & Mark Sissons. Council for British Archaeology, York, 2012.

2) www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/heritage-at-risk/industrial-heritage-at-risk/. The chronological boundaries of the project were taken as 1750 to the present day with the focus on industries before 1914.

3) Palmer M, 2010, ‘Industrial Archaeology and the Archaeological Community: Fifty Years On: the Beatrice de Cardi Lecture’, Industrial Archaeology Review XXXII.1, pp. 5-20.

4) Nevell M & Grimnsditch B, 2011, AIA/CBA Industrial Buildings Training Seminars, 2008-11. Feedback Analysis. Unpublished technical report, Centre for Applied Archaeology, SOBE, University of Salford.

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