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Proto Industry: Traditional Small Scale Industry

Research into "proto industry": small-scale traditional industries from before the industrial revolution.

Industry before the Industrial revolution

Proto industry refers to the great variety of historic buildings and landscapes that were associated with industry before the Industrial Revolution.

The emergence of the factory system at the end of the 18th century was one of the most important events in English and international history. It effectively laid the foundations of much of the modern world, but was preceded by earlier forms of industry which developed over a much longer period.

Stone built traditional silk mill workshops.
Silk Mill workshops in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. © Historic England DP025458

Surviving evidence of proto industry includes functional features in traditional cottages, such as distinctive windows, loading doors and plan forms, together with a wide variety of workshop buildings and landscape evidence of early metal-working, extractive industry and water-power systems.

Well-known examples have been researched in some regions, but in many others proto industry has not been recorded, often because craft industry was completely integrated with daily life and did not leave clear evidence of industrial use.

Early industries were widespread but were often located in quite different areas to the industrialised regions of today. In historic market towns, for example, proto industry typically took the form of utilitarian structures that were often attached to the backs of houses and not visible from the street.

They were built in many phases of piecemeal development, sometimes over centuries, creating highly distinctive townscapes. They were associated with the smaller family businesses that were responsible for most industrial output before the introduction of factories.

A row of stone built traditional artisans houses.
17th century artisan’s houses in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. © Historic England, DP137129

Proto-industrial buildings

Proto-industrial buildings have been particularly widely threatened in urban areas which expanded during the Industrial Revolution. In many cities they have largely disappeared, and few survive in anything like their original form. They were either replaced by factories, abandoned or converted to new uses, effectively concealing their industrial origins. Many of the surviving examples were actually built after the first factories, when some industrial processes continued to be hand-powered in workshops.

Survival rates are higher in rural areas, where good examples of proto industry can be an intrinsic part of the traditional vernacular architecture. Even in the countryside, however, early conversion to domestic uses has often led to the loss of functional features and smaller structures, disguising their industrial origins.

Our plans for further research

The importance of proto-industrial sites and buildings was recognised in the English Heritage Thematic Research Strategy (July 2010), which identified evidence of proto-industrialisation as a Priority Research Programme, under the theme “Origins of Industrialisation”.

Historic England is undertaking an extensive review of previous work to identify areas where further recording is needed to better inform protection and conservation. We will then carry out targeted fieldwork with our external partners to demonstrate the widespread significance of proto-industry, leading to the publication of a full interpretation of this important class of buildings and landscapes.

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