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Twentieth Century Industry

Our initiatives to understand the significance of the industrial archaeology of 20th century industry.

How industry changed in the twentieth century

Research into the development and significance of the structures and remains of our 'traditional', historic industries has meant that over time they have become relatively well understood, although more work is left to do. The industrial heritage of the last 100 years, however, is less easy to evaluate.  

Twentieth century incarnations of traditional industries have seen them in decline, while modern industries, such as the generation of electrical power, the large-scale manufacture of foodstuffs and consumer goods, have developed enormously on expansive sites, with varied and innovative structures. 

Small-scale industry accommodation has become increasingly standardised as manufacturing processes have become more condensed and mechanised.  The influence of thinking from the United States and Germany has had deep rooted effects on approaches to the workplace, and more recently, interest by significant architects has led to British industrial designs of international significance.  

How do we begin to understand the significance of these industries and their structures; how should we assess whether we have the means or the need to protect the innovative and outstanding? What is truly exceptional and what is typical and mundane?  What do we already know and what is there left to understand?  

As the century developed, the expansion of road transport and the spread of electricity enabled industry to move away from its traditional centres and led to the development of industrial estates.  Alongside these new enterprises Victorian industries persisted for most of the century.  The production of textiles is a good example of where the old worked alongside the new.

A black and white archive aerial view of Pye Electronics, Cambridge and the surrounding area.
Pye Electronics, Haig Road, Cambridge, located away from a traditional industrial area the interwar electrical factory is typical of many 20th century industries. © English Heritage Britain from Above EPW 037452

large scale industry and petro-chemicals

Large-scale 20th industry, for example petro-chemicals, is an area where a consideration of significance needs to go hand-in-hand with guidance on recording and reuse.

An aerial view of Grain oil terminal and refinery, Medway.
Grain oil terminal and refinery, Medway. © English Heritage 26477/027


Many 20th century industries have left a legacy of contaminated land.  In remediating this land for new uses, archaeological deposits and features, and once state-of-the-art technology may be threatened. We will update guidance about land remediation and safeguarding its archaeological and historic significance.

Aerial view of Kingsnorth power station, Medway, a ship delivers coal via a conveyor belt and onto a large coal stockpile.
Kingsnorth power station, Medway © Damian Grady, English Heritage 26477/006

Power stations

The proposed programme will build on work on C20 industry already begun before 2015. For example, in the coming years changes in the way we generate electricity, will lead to the closure of many of our large coal and oil-fired power stations.  We have undertaken research into post-war coal-fired generating stations.  In response we are also documenting a number of these stations by ground and aerial photography.  We have also produced recording guidelines for power stations and an Introduction to Heritage Assets document on power generation.  

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