When Sir Neil Cossons retired as Chairman of English Heritage in June 2007, his farewell party was held in a building overlooking St Pancras Station. This was a fitting venue given the extent of Neil’s personal involvement in the transformation of William Henry Barlow’s revolutionary train shed — the world’s largest singlespan structure when it opened in 1868 — into the gleaming new UK terminus of the European high-speed train network. The other big mission of his Chairmanship — resolving the ‘national disgrace’ of the Stonehenge landscape — had defeated him just as surely as it had defeated every one of his predecessors, but rescuing St Pancras will go down as one of the great achievements of Neil’s period in office.
In his farewell speech, Simon Thurley, English Heritage Chief Executive, talked fondly of train journeys between Paddington and Swindon enlivened by Neil’s railway monologues. Simply getting on a train was the signal for a lecture on any subject, from the buttons on the seat upholstery (diagnostic of the Metro Cammell Carriage and Wagon works in Birmingham) to the histories of such railway pioneers as Sir (Matthew) Digby Wyatt, assistant to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who perhaps gets too little credit for his work in designing the stations at Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads.
By sheer chance, English Heritage has ended up occupying some of the buildings in Swindon that Brunel himself designed in the 1840s as the engineering hub of the Great Western Railway (GWR). Built of stone excavated from tunnels along the route of the GWR, these solid functional buildings were converted to form offices for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in the early 1990s, along with a new archive store and search room for the National Monuments Record, all of which was absorbed into English Heritage when the two organisations merged on 1 April 1999.
Not by any means an aesthetically beautiful place, Neil nevertheless feels passionately that Swindon — and indeed, the whole of ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’, as the GWR is known to its aficionados — deserves World Heritage Status. Probing into the reasoning behind this belief reveals some deeply held and important thoughts about industrial heritage generally.
In a series of speeches given just before his retirement, Neil explained why he believes the Industrial Revolution has been one of the defining epochs in world history — on a par with revolutions deep in prehistory when the development of tool use, of language, art, agriculture and settled lifestyles are inseparable from changes in the way we think and behave. The legacy of such seismic shifts is not just evident in the transformed landscape — wildwood cut down and fields created, coal and minerals extracted, transformed and transported — but in the complex web of cultural and social attitudes and mores that have shaped the society in which we live. Just as there is such a thing as the ‘pre-industrial mind’, which the established archaeological disciplines set out to understand, so there is a ‘post-industrial mind’, which we have hardly begun to explore.
Neil worries that the legacy of the industrial past, on which such a study should be based, is evaporating rapidly. The great age of industry has come and gone — certainly in Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, where we now live in a post-industrial era with economies that depend on innovation, research and the use of knowledge rather than on the conversion of commodities into consumer goods.
Soon there will be no people alive with firsthand knowledge and direct personal experience of manufacturing industry. The comic subtleties of the 1959 film, ‘I’m All Right Jack’ — based around the conflict between Fred Kite, Peter Sellers’ caricature of trades union sanctimony, and Sidney De Vere Cox, Richard Attenborough’s caddish capitalist — are already lost on a generation for whom the phrase ‘shop floor’ means Oxford Street, not Cowley or Dagenham. Look at any 19th century Ordnance Survey map of Lancashire, and you will see mills in every village: look at the same area now and the mills have disappeared as surely as if they had never existed.
What preoccupies Neil now is how one captures the archaeological and historical legacy of that rapidly disappearing industrial past, so that future generations will have a resource from which to understand it. He believes we should prioritise a representative selection of the physical evidence for conservation, so that future generations can interrogate, analyse and rethink this crucial part of the past.
Without wanting to be nationalistic about it, Neil believes that Britain should set the example: we were the world’s first industrial nation and it is our landscapes that bear witness to the birth and development of what began with mills, canals and railways in the UK but became a global phenomenon. We also invented industrial archaeology, which initially developed outside the established framework of academic history and archaeology. The very name, with its juxtaposition of ‘industrial’ and ‘archaeology’ was a challenge to those who believed that archaeology ended with the arrival of the Romans (do not forget that the Society for Medieval Archaeology was not formed until 1957, and many scoffed at the idea that archaeology could tell us anything about the medieval period that could not be researched more directly in historical records).
The founders of industrial archaeology came, in many cases, from a business or commercial background. The keenest advocates were non-academic industrial workers and managers interested in the history of their own industries. The voluntary groups that were formed from the 1950s onwards to preserve steam engines, railways, canals and looms from redundant textile mills were often made up of people who, before they retired, had been employed to operate and maintain the very same machinery. These people were preserving their own immediate past, and they found a voice in the work of BBC Industrial Correspondent Kenneth Hudson, whose 1963 book Industrial Archaeology: an introduction, set out the parameters of the new discipline, while publishers David & Charles, founded in Devon in 1960 by journalists David St John Thomas and Charles Hadfield, poured out books on the railways and canals of the UK to feed the appetites of a largely self-taught group of industrial heritage enthusiasts. Hudson himself wryly noted in his 1963 book that industrial archaeology had all the vigour of a mongrel dog, ‘the ugly offspring of two parents who should never have been allowed to breed’, but who survives despite (or because of) society’s rejection.
Mainstream recognition of the new discipline came with the formation of the Industrial Archaeology Research Committee in 1958. Set up by the Council for British Archaeology, and chaired by Professor W F Grimes, the committee was tasked with putting some discipline into this amorphous and haphazard movement, defining the scope of industrial archaeology and setting research priorities.
Pinning down the precise nature of industrial archaeology was initially a contentious area of debate. Some wanted to extend the scope of the subject to embrace the archaeology of technology all the way back to its prehistoric origins. Today’s industrial archaeologists have reached a compromise in agreeing that their field of study is focused primarily on the archaeology of the Industrial Revolution — with specific emphasis on origins and early remains — but that it can include the study of the way that pre-industrial craft-based society evolved into its urban manufacturing-based successor — for example, how the myriad farm-based edge tool forges and workshops of peaks and valleys surrounding medieval Sheffield turned into the massive global manufacturing enterprises of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Because industrial society is, by definition, all about scale, the setting of research and conservation priorities has to wrestle with the sheer amount of physical evidence and the sheer range of industrial activity, from match and pin manufacturing to massive power stations, coal mines, steel works and gas works. How do you decide what to preserve faced with a heritage that is so extensive? It takes clear thinking to see a way through this path in order to decide what is most important, most worthy of rotection. Neil himself places a very high priority not on individual buildings or machines, but on whole landscapes — as he well might, given that, as the first Director of the Ironbridge Museum (from 1971 to 1983), he forged an innovative and inclusive approach to preserving and illustrating industrial archaeology in which spoil tips, quarries and ruined furnaces, chapels, cemeteries and workers’ houses were all linked to form one large ‘museum without walls’ in the wooded valley that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. There are perhaps some 600 such landscapes in the UK that have been identified as having especial significance for industrial archaeology because of the variety and range of the evidence that they preserve, and Neil has played a key role in raising their profile, not just at local or national level, but at the ultimate court of heritage arbitration, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites committee.
Having himself set the stage for the inscription of the Ironbridge Gorge as a World Heritage Site in 1986, it is no coincidence that Neil’s time at English Heritage (2000 to 2007) has coincided with the inscription of the coal-mining and iron-making landscape of Bleaenafon, in Wales, sites associated with the Cornish tin and copper mining industry, the docks, warehouses, banks, shipping and insurance buildings of Liverpool’s waterfront, the philanthropic mill communities of New Lanark, Scotland, and Saltaire, Yorkshire, and the Derwent Valley mills that witnessed the development of textile innovations following Richard Arkwright’s pioneering factory system developments of the 18th century. Still to come is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop in 1805 to carry the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee near Wrexham, in north-east Wales and likely to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2008 as a spectacular symbol of early waterways engineering. Neil has plenty more suggestions for the future — not least God’s Wonderful Railway, along with the Forth Railway Bridge, the Chatham Royal Naval Dockyard, the steam-powered textile mills of Manchester and Salford, not to mention a coal mine or two, a steel works, or the entirety of the UK’s canal system.
Now we need rapid assessment of what else survives, and recent English Heritage characterisation studies have discovered surprising evidence of industrial continuity in textile production in Lancashire, Nottingham and Leicester, and of metal working in Sheffield. Neil would like to see regional industrial conservation strategies that protect these living industrial traditions — not just the buildings. The restoration of St Pancras Station is a fine example of the perfect solution: the continuing use of a building in its original function, meticulously restored to its original detailing and colour schemes and imaginatively reworked to meet today’s transport needs. Public policy should favour such solutions wherever possible, taking measures to ensure the continuity and integrity of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, the textile mills of the Stroud valleys, the imposing warehouses and offices of Bradford’s Little Germany quarter, the workshops of the Shoreditch furniture trade.
A key part of Neil’s manifesto for the future of industrial archaeology is that we should capture the human skills that characterize industrial processes, not just the silent machinery or the empty husks of buildings whose form and function is lost without the machines that determined their morphology. We have a very limited time in which to take the necessary steps, but there is still time — just — to do this, because there are places in the world, such as India, China and Brazil, where older industrial processes still survive. In fact, Neil firmly believes that the relics of industrial enterprise are as important to some communities and their cultural identity as Greek, Roman or medieval remains are to European identity. He cites as examples the role of British industrial technology in the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a modern state at the end of the Edo era, or the transforming impact of early sugar technology on landscapes and cultures as diverse as those of Cyprus, Madeira, Brazil and the Caribbean. If you like, Neil’s emphasis on landscape means that an Ironbridge ‘museum without walls’ becomes just one component of a global industrial archaeology ‘collection’.
A model of how this might work already exists in the form of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, designed to stimulate interest in Europe’s industrial heritage and to encourage industrial heritage tourism. The ERIH initiative has established a pan-European network of 60 ‘anchor sites’, recognised as places that illustrate some key aspect of industrial archaeology; these are linked to smaller industrial heritage sites, so-called ‘key sites’, to form regional or thematic routes illustrating, for example, the silk industry industry of a region, so that selfguided tourists can decide how far into the detail they wish to go. If the mind boggles at the idea of tourism based on ‘textile manufacturing’ or the ‘service and leisure industry’, or ‘transport and communication’, you might just be underestimating the appeal of relict mines, mills and machines: like family history or battlefield tours, people seem to relate much more closely to the recent past and to that past that touches on the memories of the living.
In a recent BBC poll, listeners to a Radio 4 programme decided that conserving Chatterley Whitfield coal mine was more deserving of taxpayers’ money than buying Poussin’s Seven Sacrament paintings; and Scottish voters put Lady Victoria Colliery in Newtongrange, Midlothian, home to the Scottish Mining Museum, at the top of a Treasured Places poll run by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, beating more famous landmarks, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, Rosslyn Chapel and the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. All this suggests that Sir Neil Cossons, with his passionate advocacy of industrial archaeology and his love of railways, is more in tune with the popular zeitgeist than one might guess.