Trade of the North - Spirit of the North Episode 2

This is a transcript of episode 2 of our new podcast series Spirit of the North, exploring the people and places of the North of England through the lens of artist and photographer, John Kippin. 

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Narrator: Welcome to Spirit of the North, a podcast series from Historic England. To celebrate the North of England people and places we sent photographer John Kippin a challenge to explore the spirit of the north.

John Kippin: My name is John Kippin and I live and work in Newcastle upon Tyne, I consider myself to be an artist and a photographer and I’ve been photographing in and around the north of England for many years because that’s where I’m based.

Narrator: On his quest John captured photographs of some of the North’s historically and architecturally significant places which you can see on and on exhibition at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle.  In this podcast series we’re digging a little deeper into the places John photographed and the stories they tell. We’ll explore the North’s history of creativity, innovation and cultural influence and we’ll question what the Spirit of the North really is.
In this episode we’re looking at the connection between manufacturing, trade and the North. John chose to capture images from the steel industry in Sheffield, the Victoria Quarter in Leeds and from the former salts mill in Saltaire. 

John Kippin: Being the cradle of the industrial revolution, this is where these things happened first and it’s not to say they didn’t happen in other parts of the country, such as perhaps Wales or Scotland – they certainly did – but they were very largely driven through the enterprises and many of the people in the North of England. 

Narrator: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as mining, the economy of the North was dominated by heavy industry such as weaving, ship building and steel making. 

John Kippin: Steel is crucial to the building of what we call our culture now, it’s a central infrastructural requirement.  When thinking about steel, rather than say looking at Redcar or somewhere like that, I thought that Sheffield is the place really which was built very much on the manufacture of steel. And very many of the processes that were exported around the world were developed in Sheffield, things like Huntsman Steel, which was a very early process and then later, the Bessemer furnaces which found ways of making better cleaner steel more safely, although they weren’t very safe at all. It was relatively speaking from the earlier processes which were really dangerous.
Narrator: Andy Cole has been forging steel for 42 years and runs one of the last steel forges in Sheffield.

Andy Cole: [Power hammer sounds]. This is the original forge, Portland Works, it dates back to about 1870-ish. Those two machines are the original machines that used to run off a line shaft when we used to have a steam engine. The only difference is they’ve got an electric motor. They forge the steel into shapes. Eric Wigfull, the name was who set it up in 1958, and then about 15, 20 years ago he retired, and I bought the business. 
And it forges that, it comes in a flat bar, so you make that and then you draw that out. [Metallic noise]
[Humming sound]. Unfortunately in 2011 I had to close the doors of the business as Wigfull Tools, now I’m just Andy Cole Tools and I just do out-work for different people. Eric Wigfull, I’ve known him since I was three year old and he said come down do a bit of Saturday work then obviously, I just stayed, he couldn’t get rid of me, I was 14, 42 years ago. Same as every young lad, I was making sandwiches, sweeping up and I just loved it and I’ve been here ever since, I should have been at school, but I preferred to come here.
Building furnaces to forging to repairing the machines to grinding to making me own tools, they’re all what Eric showed me all the years and that was it. Obviously, the first thing I do is I come in and light the furnace, once the furnace is up to temperature, I’m either forging on the hammers or I do press work which is like tanging, that sort of thing, bending. I could be on any of these furnaces, in fact sometimes I’d work three in one day. I’ve done one job and jumped on to another and then another one.

Narrator: So why did John Kippin choose to photograph here?

John Kippin: It’s another one of those industries that is a dangerous industry, many people injured and not fabulously well paid, conditions not terribly pleasant but is also key to our economy and our economy is very much based on transport and infrastructure, the making of cars, making of trains and aeroplanes and all sorts, all relying to a certain extent on steel and of course the construction industry in particular.

Andy Cole: [Power tools sounds]. In Sheffield before that Portland Works were built you’d have a forger up one end of town and then you’d have a heat treater at other end of town and then you’d have a grinder down there, so it were going all round Sheffield, whereas Portland Works brought it all under one shed, so you’d just move around the firm rather than around Sheffield. It was heart-breaking because it was, well still is my life, it was my life, that’s all I’ve ever known. [Metallic noises]
A lot of young people don’t want this sort of work, it’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s noisy, it’s everything that most people, young people don’t want anymore, and they want to earn money but a clean job. The old saying there’s brass where there’s muck, yes, it’s still there but you’ve got to be willing to do it and a lot of the young people nowadays aren’t willing to put the effort in. That’s why I’m helping two young blacksmiths because they’re willing to put the effort in the forge, on the spring hammers, they’ve done a bit of blacksmithing, now I’m showing them proper work. And production work, whereas they’re just doing one thing, this is now like, I said now you need to know this. I’ve got a young lad that he’s enthusiastic and everything and I said look, I might go another ten years, I want to show you things because I’ve got four kids and none of them are interested, they’ve all got their own decent jobs, I said it’s yours if you’re willing to put the effort in and he is, he’s doing alright. I’m showing him how to set the hammers up and work the hammers.

Narrator: In Leeds, the Victoria Quarter is a striking example of the city’s industrial heritage being re-purposed for the 21st century; John Kippin again.

John Kippin: I didn’t want this terrible stereotype of the North to be, you know I’m very happy to say that the North, yes it was built on coal, it was built on steel, it was built on innovation but not to say, okay, well it may have done all of those things and it was the power house for many, many years, driving certainly the UK economy but it also had a tremendous amount of other things. It had a tremendous amount of arts and culture, poetry, music, beauty and so I didn’t want those rather dour stereotypes to predominate which is why I wanted to look at a place like Leeds which people think of as an industrial town, but it has some of the most beautiful shopping that I’ve seen anywhere for example. Okay it’s shopping, and we can say well shopping’s not very important, but it is very important. People like to shop, it’s an essential part of their leisure activities these days, this was happening in Victorian times in Leeds, so you saw it there first.

Narrator: Alex Mearns grew up in the nearby Yorkshire town of Harrogate

Alex Mearns: [Voices and footsteps sounds]. Leeds is a fantastic example of one side of the street steeped in history and Victoria quarter is this beautiful old shopping centre, fantastic upper middle class shops and places like Vivienne Westwood and Dior and stuff like that, then behind Victoria quarter you have Leeds market which has been there for hundreds of years and the traders have traded there their whole lives and previous generations have traded there their whole lives, so a city like Leeds identifies or highlights that progression of remembering your history but refurbishing it.

Narrator: Marina Nenadic grew up in Leeds.

Marina Nenadic: [Sounds of market trade]. I think the Victoria Quarter is a really interesting place and it’s quite a precious place for a lot people who grew up in Leeds. Victoria quarter is right next to Kirkgate market and that’s where my grandma used to take me to do the shopping.  It used to be the busiest place or maybe I was just very small and I remember being dragged around Kirkgate market to haggle for veg and fruit and meat and then afterwards we’d go sit outside and have fish and chips sat on a bench right outside the market in what was, I think it was a car park and it’s that car park and that street which is now been built into the new shopping centre, which is very beautiful and obviously has been built in a way that is sympathetic to the historical surroundings. A sight of wonder, it’s so colourful, everything’s gold and rainbow-coloured and it all looks very luxurious and that’s what that area is reminiscent to me in that way.

Narrator: Bradford born poet, Rachel Bower grew up among the old textile mills of West Yorkshire like Salts Mill, a former mill turned arts centre.

Rachel Bower: I guess the traces of industry are everywhere, industry is still big but it’s not there in the same way that it was. I actually recently went back to Bradford; my family are there. I went to Salts Mill with my grandma who’s 91 and she used to be a piece worker, not at the mill, she used to be a piece worker who was picking the cloth. We took her around it and for her it was just really present, whereas I guess for us, looking around now it was a bit like a museum almost. So I worked at Salts Mill in the diner when I was young, I was a kind of a diner girl. That’s where I saw Tony Harrison read for the first time and that was really influential because I just heard poetry in this broad Bradford accent that my family had, and I was like, ‘wow, this is amazing’, and I saw Northern Broadsides do a play on the top floor and they had to clear out the dead pigeons, and it is a massive expanse, it’s an amazing, amazing space. It hasn’t been changed very much from when the machines were up there. It was really influential I guess what’s been done in that mill since it changed from being a textile mill to an arts space, it was really amazing. 
I always think of arriving on a Saturday morning for work in my little mini, I just think of sun on windows after windows after windows, you just see that big expanse that’s next to railway and the car park and it’s really beautiful I think.  And then the other side, I think it’s quite different, it’s less busy and I feel like it’s quite a quiet, almost isolating but inside it’s bustling and quite different. I always think of lilies because there’s always big white lilies everywhere and you can smell the lilies and I was always covered in lily pollen. It’s just noisy I guess, even now, even after the mill’s not doing what it was doing, the diner’s busy and it’s kind of clanky and the book shop is less so but it’s still kind of chat and I think it really informs who I am and how I write, and I guess just being surrounded by those old buildings and it being just part of school life maybe has informed how I write, I don’t know.

Narrator: Why did John Kippin take photographs of Salts Mill?

John Kippin: Salts Mill is one of those interesting places that was built around an industry, it’s a mill town effectively and it’s the most perfectly preserved example of such a place.  It’s rather a beautiful mill as well and it’s been very nicely kept going. It does have a function now, it has a real function. I think that’s part of its story. I think often the problem is that we don’t expect change to happen without, we kind of tend to insist that it happens but we don’t really cushion the effects of that change and we’ve seen that throughout the North I think.

Narrator: Thanks for listening to Spirit of North, a podcast series from Historic England.  In the next episode: the rich history of arts and culture in the North.  If you would like to get involved in the conversation use the hashtag #SpiritofTheNorth and if you enjoyed this episode, please do give us a nice rating and review. Once again you can see John Kippin’s photographs this summer at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle or on the Historic England website.

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