The “Birthplace of Industry”, a pioneering canal and the first factory

This is a transcript of episode 29 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dr Tristram Hunt, Charles Smith, Professor Emma Griffin and Hannah Steggles as we begin our journey through the history of industry, trade & commerce in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we're exploring 100 locations, selected by ten different judges from thousands of nominations sent in by you. Each of these remarkable sites represents a pivotal or pioneering development in the history of England. In this episode we begin the Industry, Trade & Commerce category which has been judged by Dr Tristram Hunt, a historian and the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). To take a journey through these locations I'm joined by Charles Smith from Historic England and Professor Emma Griffin, a social and economic historian from the University of East Anglia. Welcome to you both. Now just to set the scene, can you each tell us why you think this theme, Industry, Trade & Ccommerce is so important. Charles?

Charles Smith:
I think it's absolutely critical because it shaped Britain as we know it today: its landscapes, its culture, its economy. And for me, it's part of everyday life- I live in Huddersfield, which is a town of course that was born out of the Industrial Revolution, and within five minutes' walk from my house, I've got three stonking great big textile mills. And the 18th - 19th century transport network that opened up trade, allows me to travel over to Manchester on my daily commute on the railway line.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
What about you Emma? Why do you think it's so important?

Emma Griffin:
Well I couldn't really agree more. I think industry, trade and commerce, part of the reason it's so significant is because it takes us to the heart of the Industrial Revolution which is this transformative moment in our history. Britain is the first nation to industrialise, and to have an industrial revolution. So it's something that's very unique and takes us to the heart of how people manage to make goods, how they manage to feed themselves, how they manage to sustain life. I mean, it really takes us to the very heart of how human existence was maintained and sustained. So, I endorse it as a hugely important aspect of our history.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well in this episode we're starting our exploration in the Shropshire countryside. In 1709, this place was home to a great discovery which is widely thought to have sparked the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Location number one is The Old Furnace at Coalbrookdale near Ironbridge. It was here that a new way of producing iron was developed which led to major leaps forward in the scale and speed of manufacturing. It revolutionised a huge range of areas from transport and bridge construction to industrial machinery and processes. Here's what our category judge, Dr Tristram Hunt, had to say when we caught up with him at his offices at the V&A in London.

Tristram Hunt:
I chose The Old Furnace in Coalbrookdale because it's a kind of elemental point in the history of Industrial Revolution in Britain. Now what you needed in the Industrial Revolution was new energy sources and the work of Abraham Darby was so revolutionary in providing that power, that energy, that might which would then go on to transform, over time, the steel industry, the cotton industry, all of the wealth which then goes in to create modern Britain. So this is a site of profound importance within the history of modern Britain.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So let's start with this great innovation. We heard there from Tristram that it was all down to a man called Abraham Darby. Could you explain Emma, what he did that was different in the approach to the ironmakers before him?

Emma Griffin:
I think one of the important points to emphasise is of course that we had always been making iron, it's a very old practice- we've been making iron for a long time. And what Abraham Darby did is something that really takes us to the heart of what industrialisation is all about. He found a way of doing it differently, so that you could produce more iron and you could produce it more cheaply. I think what's also very interesting about what he did is that he switched from using an organic fuel, wood or charcoal as they were using at the time, to an inorganic fuel, coal which contains much more energy and is much more abundant. So, much of what we see in the Industrial Revolution is all about switching to coal and that's what he did very early in the iron industry.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So my producer has explained this to me in sort of simple terms you would use for a child- probably everybody knows this apart from me! But she told me that the iron ore is the material you dig out of the ground- it's iron, but combined with oxygen. And so the process involves removing the oxygen so you get at the iron, and you can only do this in a very, very hot furnace. Charcoal of course is heated wood, coke is heated coal and charcoal would collapse when it was in a blast furnace but coke wouldn't, so that meant if you used coke you could make the furnace much hotter and basically therefore, greatly increase the volume of iron that could be produced. Have I got that right?

Emma Griffin:
I think that's right. It's also worth bearing in mind that really it's a technological challenge because charcoal doesn't burn as hot but it's a cleaner fuel. We learnt how to make iron out of charcoal, if you like, and people had always known that coal and coke were around but they weren't able to use it to get the oxygen out of the iron ore because once they heated the coal they ended up getting lots of impurities off it and that went into your iron and that ruined what you were trying to make anyway. So, it was a lot of technological innovation and it was the idea of using coke in particular, which is kind of a cleaner purer form of fuel, that enabled you to do what you had been doing anyway, but to do it more efficiently.

Charles Smith:
And there's also the point that of course wood was becoming scarcer at that point in time as well. So perhaps necessity is the mother of invention. Of course, coal hadn't actually been extracted from the ground very much at that point and it was in plenty of supply. So, the timing was actually quite critical.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But as you say, this is all running in advance of the other developments of the Industrial Revolution. This is in 1709 that Abraham Darby introduced this new process, but of course his family's pioneering spirit doesn't stop there. He's the first in this line of Darbys that ran the Coalbrookdale company. In 1779 we have Abraham Darby III who built the world famous Iron Bridge, which of course crosses the River Severn and it's such an impressive achievement that it was a tourist attraction even then. What else do we know Charles?

Charles Smith:
It was an absolutely staggering achievement. Take this statistic: 384 tonnes of iron would have been needed to actually build that bridge. Now we don't know if all that iron was actually produced on site but if it was it would have taken three months of continuous production to do that. And of course, the great iron bridge that we see today was the forerunner of many of the great buildings we have today- iron framed buildings that revolutionised the building process.

Emma Griffin:
I would really echo that! So, the Industrial Revolution is really messy and it doesn't follow a really neat linear story. So what's happening at Coalbrookdale in many ways is much earlier than other things that are happening in the Industrial Revolution, but it's impossible to imagine an Industrial Revolution without the cheap available iron that we could now make. I mean, you can just make bigger bridges, you can build railways, you can put up huge buildings- you can do things that you need to be able to do which you just couldn't before we were producing on this scale and that bridge, created in 1779, is really emblematic of what iron allows us to do.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We've come across in this series already a fine example of a cast iron building- Crystal Palace, designed to house the Great Exhibition. It was built much, much later but really important. Is Ironbridge the only major innovation in Coalbrookdale though? Are there others that we should know about?

Charles Smith:
Well, one of the really important buildings which was, we think, probably the first iron framed building as such, was Ditherington Flaxmill just outside Shrewsbury, so not so far away at all. And that actually paved the way for the modern skyscrapers that we see today. The Chicago skyscrapers of the 1920s wouldn't have been possible without this innovation, so it really actually has changed the way that our towns and cities look, both in the 20th and the 21st centuries.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely. Transport and buildings are just revolutionised by the coming of iron!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well that was definitely a good place to start then. So if you look, you can see this online, paintings of Coalbrookdale in its heyday and you can see depicted the flaming foundry which we think of as the place where the modern world was born. But let us move from the element of fire to the element of water and to our second location on this theme of Industry, Trade & Commerce: Castlefield Canal Basin in Manchester. This was the first industrial arterial canal in the world. Now, an arterial canal uses cuttings and tunnels to cross land without having to follow the course of a river. Castlefield was the Manchester Basin, or endpoint, of the Bridgewater Canal. This section was completed in 1764 and was cut into the soft red Collyhurst sandstone that you can still see glowing in the sunshine there today. The rise of the industrial canal in England made it much easier to move goods across distances and it transformed the economy, building new opportunities for trade. Castlefield's position near several rivers was the perfect point to create a basin where goods could be loaded and unloaded to come in and out of Manchester, an incredibly important hub in the Industrial Revolution. Here's what our judge, Tristram Hunt had to say.

Tristram Hunt:
Castlefield Canal Basin, which is the Manchester terminus of the first stretch of the Bridgewater Canal, is included in my list because the transport revolution of the 18th century is part of the story of industrialisation. On the one hand you had turnpikes which are the roads and on the other hand you had the canal system. So these were the motorways, these were the great trunk roads of the 18th century and for some of the earliest manufacturers like Josiah Wedgwood, for example in Stoke on Trent, the opening of the canals was essential in the quickening, the development, the pace of industrialisation.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I really like Tristram's description there of the arterial canal system being like the great trunk roads of the time. Now we know from archaeological digs that the waterways in this area had long been an important connection for trade and travel- there'd even perhaps, it seems, been a Roman temple there at one point, but what led to the construction of the Bridgewater Canal?

Charles Smith:
You're right, it goes back a long way- as far back as the Romans, we believe, where they set up camp there, so really important strategic location. But what was critical here was in the mid-18th century there was a man called Francis Egerton. Now he was the third Duke of Bridgewater, hence the famous Bridgewater Canal, and he owned some coal mines in a place called Worsely which is to the north west of Manchester. And he just had a simple business need: he needed to transport goods from his coal mine into Manchester. So, he sought the advice of an established and experienced engineer called James Brindley who had a lot of experience in building mill machinery, doing a lot of work in Lancashire, and what he did was designed a winding canal that worked its way through into central Manchester. It minimised cutting or embankments and used tunnels to work its way through the landscape- of course it was a soft sandstone geology so he was able to do that. The Worsley to Castlefield section that he built was the oldest section there of what actually became a hub of a much greater network of canal that transformed Manchester and made it the great "Cottonopolis", if you like, that we call it today.

Emma Griffin:
What I would like to add to that, of course, is that coal is really the heart of the Industrial Revolution and coal is really heavy and really bulky and it needs moving around. It creates and poses lots of problems because if you put it on a horse and cart, well it's very heavy for a wooden cart to hold anyway and the roads were just going to sink, you know, you'd do a lot of damage to a very primitive road if you put a cart along in that way. So, this really takes us to the heart of some of the synergies that are going on with the Industrial Revolution where you've got one job that needs doing -the moving around of coal- and that leads to the creation of the canals. But of course, so much is learnt about large engineering projects and that paves the way later for the building of the railways. These push and pull factors are all kind of working in tandem to really give such a boost to technology in Britain and every small part is a step towards the whole.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And into the 19th century, as we're going past the peak I suppose of the Industrial Revolution, did the area remain an important focal point for industry?

Charles Smith:
Absolutely and indeed it still is an important focal point for Manchester today. There are huge, large brick warehouses that were built around the wharfs operating as storage facilities, operating as industrial production areas in some places and they have some really interesting features. So they had shipping holes so that barges could actually float into these building and the goods could be transported where they needed to be. If you go to that part of Manchester today it's actually a really fun place to be. I work just a stone's throw away- it's a quite tranquil place in the heart of a really busy, bustling urban environment.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And it's seen some important regeneration in recent years, hasn't it?

Charles Smith:
Huge amount of regeneration- really integral to the regeneration of Manchester as a city, as a whole. So you have lots of creative businesses that are opening up along the canal. That tradition of innovation is very much alive over at the Castlefield Basin.

Emma Griffin:
I think that's right and once these canals had been built, the population and the industry moves in and actually that provides a real spur to, kind of, a long afterlife for these areas and we see this with many of the canal places. The same has happened in Birmingham where the canals were really seedy in the 1980s and 1990s- it was an area you wouldn't want to go to. And now it's all been redeveloped with shops and cafes and bars and creative industries. The BBC have also placed themselves there. Very much the same picture, they are now a really new lease of very different life that they're getting in the 21st century.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And of course Manchester today is as you say Charles, this vibrant, buzzing place and the history of it as being this hub of industry is vitally important to that and it's great to see these old building being put to such good use today. That pioneering industrial spirit is just as prevalent in our third location which is not too far away from Manchester. We move now to Derbyshire and to Cromford Mills in Matlock. Today this is a Unesco World Heritage Site and it's credited as the birth place of the modern factory system. This is why Tristram Hunt picked it out for our top ten.

Tristram Hunt:
Cromford Mills, which was the seat of Richard Arkwright's revolutionary factory for the production of cotton, sits in the heart of the Derwent Valley and it shows for those who didn't have the new energy the power that water and running water and rivers could produce in terms of the new industry. But what it really represents is the beginning of factory production and the beginning of mechanisation, manufactories as they were known, the division of labour- all of those, raw economic and sociological underpinnings of industrialisation.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So Tristram has highlighted there that this is another location where water plays a vital role. The Cromford Mills was the home of the first water powered cotton spinning mill in 1771 where the inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright, borrowed and improved upon existing machines to revolutionise our textile industry. Now Arkwright started out as a barber- after the death of his first wife he moved into a sort of more entrepreneurial type of hairdressing, he collected human hair and he dyed it to make wigs! But then that went out of fashion and he decided to move into textiles and then became interested in making machinery that could make the production faster and easier for fewer operators. So to set the scene in a little more detail, we visited Cromford Mills to find out more from the Head of Heritage for the Arkwright Society, Hannah Steggles.

Hannah Steggles:
Arkwright did a combination of things which earned himself the title of the father of the factory system. He invented and had the patent for the water frame which was the cotton spinning machine. He also managed to organise his workforce successfully and he instigated mass production under one roof for the very first time. Obviously there is no electricity back then, so it was water power that he used and that was partly what made him so successful. It was the ingenuity of those giant waterwheels and the aqueduct and the use of the local sources of water, like the Cromford Sough, that managed to provide him with enough power to power a huge number of machines on such a scale that hadn't been seen before. It was Arkwright's invention of the water frame that meant that you could produce the amount of cotton and the strength of cotton and the cotton quality that was needed to make such garments that were then 100% cotton, which was revolutionary in this country- it hadn't been done before. So it had a huge impact on the British cotton industry which grew exponentially after Cromford was built. This then had a knock on effect of things all over the world in terms of the impact it had on the Indian cotton industry, the impact on the transatlantic slave trade as you needed to grow more cotton and more plantations, so it had a worldwide impact all starting here at Cromford. Outside the textile industry it also had an important impact in terms of Arkwright's way he organised his factory and the whole mass production under one roof, which again, was a new idea. Today every single factory really works in that sort of way- that you have your raw material coming in at one end and your finished product coming out at the other end. Arkwright managed to do that in the first mill that he built here with all the spinning processes under one roof for the first time, so that could then be transcribed to other industries as well.

The bell tolls, work beckons. Start the machines.

When you go into the first mill, you get a real sense of place that this is where it all began, where all his dreams were recognised for the first time. You can still see all the archaeological features where the water wheel would have come in through the wall, where all the power transmission would have gone, all of that is still there. Cromford Mills actually stopped cotton spinning in about the 1840s and it was then used by many, many other businesses after that point on. I think Arkwright would be quite pleased with how we're using the site today. We like to say that it's been home to start-ups since 1771: Building 17 is our latest restoration project and this building is now full of new businesses, new innovators, new entrepreneurs who are beginning either their business dreams or they're part way through, and we're very much supporting them by providing everything they need in terms of the modern day.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That was Hannah Steggles, the Head of Heritage at Cromford Mills. Now, we know that Arkwright borrowed, a bit like Shakespeare, from other inventors to improve his own factory processes. I remember the spinning jenny from school, that wasn't his, was it?

Emma Griffin:
No, I think we usually start with the kind of revolutionisation of the cotton industry with the spinning jenny. This basically just took the work of spinning, which women had been doing at home by hand on a spinning wheel that was operated usually by a treadle by their foot, and just scales it up. So the spinning jenny does really very much the same thing but you have 8, 12, latterly 16 spindles all working at the same time. That was invented by James Hargreaves and it's really just the first in a series of developments where what had once been done at home, by a woman, powered by hand, is increasingly scaled up. Soon they want to make bigger and bigger jennys but they're still being powered by a woman and there's only so much power you can get out of a woman! And therefore you ultimately move towards the rivers because the rivers contain a lot more energy- they're the next step and that's really where Arkwright comes in. He's harnessing the energy and the power that's contained in the rivers to run a great big waterwheel instead of that little wheel that people had been operating at home and to really start to scale up the business. Then when the water isn't enough, of course, we end up with the steam engine and then we've really got cotton spinning on a very large scale.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So why is Cromford Mills itself so important? Why is this area important to the story?

Charles Smith:
It was the forerunner of the thousands of mills that they then built over the next 150 years across places like West Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire and of course, Derbyshire amongst others. Places that employed a phenomenal number of people meant that there was a huge shift from the countryside to the towns. Urban places exploded out of the landscape and this was really the starting point of that factory based system which allowed all of that to happen.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely. Once you have these economies of scale and you're working on a…no longer do we work in our homes providing all the power ourselves by our own bodies or by some animals or by a bit of wood. Everything in life starts to change and Arkwright is really pivotal in taking work out of homes and putting it into the factory and that's what the modern world is about for most of us today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So there we have it. Early technology and how it changed our country. Amazingly that's all we've got time for in this episode but thank you to my guests, Charles Smith and Emma Griffin and to our judge, Tristram Hunt. Next time we'll reveal another three locations in England's story of Industry, Trade & Commerce. If you want to tell us about an important place on your doorstep you can always get in touch using the hash tag #100places, that's the number 100. Don't forget to hit subscribe so that you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. Thanks for listening and I hope you'll join me next time.

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