Last edited 19 May 2017

Recording old industrial sites

This article originally appeared in Context 20, published by the Association of Conservation Officers (now The Institute of Historic Building Conservation) in Autumn 1988. It was written by Stephen Hughes, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, Secretary, Welsh Industrial Archaeology Panel.



Newton canal basin mid 19th century.jpg

[Netwon Canal Basin, Powys in its mid 19th century heyday]

Old industrial buildings, at least until recently, were often seen as eye-sores or reminders of a grim industrial past that was full of hardship for the great majority of ordinary people. The obvious solution for the obsolesence of redundant buildings and features associated with outdated industrial processes seemed to be wholesale demolition, carried out as quickly as possible, and without any reasonable record being made prior to site clearance.

The initial reaction from conservationists to this large-scale threat was to fight for the retention of the most obvious and prettiest (i.e. aesthetically acceptable) industrial monuments and in the preparation of at least two national series of gazeteers - published by David & Charles and Batsford respectively - itemising the most visible landmarks of the Industrial Revolution.

In the rush to salvage the more important remnants of the industrial past, little was said about what these industrial monuments could themselves tell us of the past or to relate the most obvious and dramatic remains to the greater industrial landscapes and historic economic systems of which these now isolated structures were formerly only single components. This hurried ad hoc early activity has in turn prompted much of the existing archaeological establishment to ask what it is that this newcomer to archaeological studies can possibly contribute to historical knowledge, and has allowed some archaeological and historical practitioners to comment, mindful of scarce resources and manpower, that everything of such recent and widespread activity must have been written down or drawn and thus had made any fresh examination of industrial field remains wasteful of both time and resources.

This in turn has resulted in a paucity of professional resources committed to this area of study of what can be argued is the only part of British archaeology that ranks of world importance - it was after all the world’s first industrial revolution. There is consequently an unfortunate absence of an even and widespread input of industrial archaeological data into site and monuments records and to development control officers.

This short article examines some of these points against the experiences of the author, an investigator of industrial monuments for the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales from 1974 until the present.

Firstly, the contention that drawings exist of all significant industrial remains is clearly nonsense. Building control collections of plans do survive for some urban areas for buildings from the late nineteenth-century onwards. However, others, like those from Swansea were thrown away during local government reorganisation. The collection at Aberystwyth has been examined in detail and fine plans and elevations of some of the several large iron and brass foundries that flourished in this late-nineteenth lead mining and agricultural town have been noted, complete with details of the production plant such as brass and iron cupola furnaces. However, even here, caution must be exercised in accepting such original design drawings as a definitive record of the buildings actually constructed. The surviving buildings of the Park Avenue Foundry in Aberystwyth are now the premises of a local car-dealer and these show that the main foundry building was from the first considerably larger than the beautifully coloured architect’s plans indicated; likewise the lower station of the Victorian Cliff Railway was built as indicated on the original plans with a central engine-house enclosing Worthington compound pumping-engines with flanking pedestrian access passages to the railway. However the castellated silhouette of the building shown on the original plans was changed during construction into the distinctive Jacobean gables visible on the structure today. Even so, the survival of any drawings or plans is an exceptional circumstance and is rare for the important early sites of the industrial revolution and for those built in remote rural locations. If it is accepted that plans need to be compiled, how is this to be carried out? A basic documentation of the site for posterity can be carried out by surveyors - preferably using electronic distance measurement equipment on large industrial sites to ensure speed and accuracy of survey. However, it is absolutely essential that the planning of the recording work be supervised by an experienced Industrial archaeologist. These are now being trained in increasing numbers by the Ironbridge Institute (from which advice is also obtainable as a professional consultancy), the multitude of local societies with recording experience can be contacted via the Association of Industrial Archaeology based at Ironbridge Museum and in Scotland and Wales, work in industrial archaeology is co-ordinated via the Industrial Archaeology Panels based in the respective Royal Commissions on Ancient and Historical Monuments based in Edinburgh and Aberystwyth respectively, from whom advice and help may be obtained.

To understand the meaning of any industrial site and to enable any site work to extract worthwhile information, certain key questions have to be asked from the start of planning in order to extract usable information from the site.

1. Location - Any industrial site was part of the contemporary economic system and why it was located in a particular place at the time of its building and subsequent operation can be answered by the following points.

2. The source of raw materials - From what and from where did the objects processed or produced on the site in question originate? In the basic industries geological maps will help to provide the answer while for textiles, for instance, a study of agricultural history and production will be more appropriate.

3. Transport availability - The site will have been connected to its contemporary industrial landscape by linear transport features such as roads, canals or railways or probably a combination of all three. Adequate means of economically viable heavy transport had to exist both for any installation to obtain its raw materials and for its finished products to be able to reach the market for its goods at a reasonable cost and in large quantities.

4. Motive Power - In the case of waterpower driving machinery the water-supply leats would again form linear features extending beyond the recognised site parameter and tying it in firmly to the developed power and transport water economy of an early industrial area. Alternatively, or additionally, there may have been other power sources such as steam engines or even animals or man-power.

5. Processing Plant - A functional structure housing a process might consist of, or include specialised building types containing a chemical process as found in the multitude of old kilns and furnaces, or housing varieties of machinery such as pumping, or the broader winding, engines. The movable plant would also have included the machinery and fittings particular to a process and if this has disappeared much can be understood from the evidence left in the remaining structures. It is absolutely imperative to examine contemporary technical cyclopaedias on similar but still active processing if the significance of the site is to be understood. However, never assume that a given sequence of historical events in a standard published work is incapable of revision from the field evidence under study. Any conservation scheme should include an informed recording element for the scanty evidence enabling the site to be understood or interpreted for the public which may well be covered up or removed during site consideration.

6. Finance - The elaboration of structure and the ability to experiment with untried new processes would have depended on the scale of capital resources available to the industrialist. The various works undertaken by the recipients of profits from the huge British Empire often show a massiveness and grandeur of finish rarely found elsewhere.

7. The Market - A large lucrative market had to be reachable at a reasonable cost for any manufactory or works to succeed and remain in production.

8. Housing - The manager, foremen and workers in any process had to be housed within reasonable distance of the works and the location and type of specialised housing types, often in character with the manufacturing works, may be recognisable.

The question must arise of why it is worth going to the trouble of finding all this out. The answer is that an uninformed rapid measurement of industrial remains is often not worth the paper it was compiled on. The historical questions necessary to answer the points above can often only be obtained by a close examination of the primary evidence on site and not from a secondary survey which may well have absorbed a vast amount of money and time on survey but have left all the significant parts of a site un recorded.

What are these significant points that would justify the recording of a site? Many will only be recognised by someone with considerable field experience in the subject and some examples are given below of the sort of results that might be expected.

Generally, of course, a given site may have much to tell us about the chronological development of the surrounding landscape but archaeology, if used properly, can rise above the level of antiquarianism or of unearthing finds solely for the sake of doing so. This particularly applies in historical archaeology where material finds can be combined with related documentary evidence to provide a much fuller and more accurate picture than can be achieved in periods where there is a complete absence of documentation. The related fields of social, economic and technical history are those that particularly benefit from the study of industrial remains.

History from Industrial Remains

It has been possible to recognise, using material remains as a source, the work of a whole class of previously unknown artisan engineers active in intensively developed early industrial areas. These local people gained their primary training as carpenters, masons or smiths but then adapted their basic skills to produce the machinery and structures necessary to the smooth running of the world's first industrial revolution. The discovery of a unique type of early iron railway on reclamation sites in Swansea, for instance, has confirmed previously disbelieved documentary evidence that iron railways were first made in 1779. A letter of 1783 describing the work (1763-83) of the then later Mr. Powell at Morriston who was a wonderful prodigy of nature who had only to perceive to comprehend, and from comprehending to execute was interpreted in the recent work on the Boulton and Watt papers as describing pirated copies of James Watt's rotary engine, it being generally assumed that there were no rotary steam engines capable of driving machinery in the Industrial Revolution before Watt's first coalwinder of 1784. However, a rotary enginehouse built between 1772–82 has been discovered in derelict buildings at Swansea, adjacent to the former scene of Mr. Powell's activities. It has also been commonly reported that the first iron railway bridge was built by George Stephenson in 1825 and the first iron aqueducts by Outram, Reynolds and Telford at Derby and Longdon-upon Tern in 1794. However, on a derelict site at Merthyr Tydfil stands Pontycafnau (the bridge of troughs), a combined railway and aqueduct built of iron in 1793 as part of a higher aqueduct structure. Documentary historians had failed to note the early nineteenth-century description of this structure which stated that water was being conveyed...for a great distance in an iron structure... 80 feet above the bed of the river...and... 606 feet in length. The structure was the responsibility of Watkin George who rose to be a full partner in Crawshay's world-famous Cyfarthfa Ironworks and who became an industrial entrepreneur in his own right. This social phenomena is usually completely ignored in favour of the recognised topics of the evil ironmasters exploiting the working-masses and of the repeated adoration in print of a few selected heroes who are credited with the sole responsibility for the key discoveries in the world's first industrial revolution.

There are of course many other themes where the evidence of bricks and mortar can change our preconceptions of social history. An examination of workers' housing shows that the adequacy of accommodation differed enormously depending on the status of the builder. The large ranges of houses surrounding the canal basin at Newtown were the products of under-capitalised small entrepreneurs trying to accumulate sufficient working capital. The small and specialised building types constructed back-to-backs and stacked housing were common - were on average only two-thirds the size of the housing built for the employees of the Montgomeryshire Canal Company and the even larger housing built for the estate workers of the substantial land-owners associated with the promotion of the canal.

Material evidence can similarly contribute to our knowledge of economic history. For example, documentary historians concentrating on the industrial heartlands of the Midlands have concluded that canals generally were in direct competition for water with the pre-existing water-powered works. Yet on the hey-day of traffic on the canals of Wales, Ireland, France, Northern England and even British India it was commonplace for new canalside factories, in what were after all relatively undeveloped areas, to use the ample waters of the canals alongside as a cheap source of power for setting-up and sustaining new industries. The ironworks at Abercraf was one of no less than fifty works set up alongside the sixteen miles of the Swansea Canal and its feeders in order to use the waterway as a cheap source of both transport and power. It was the first ironworks to be purpose-built to utilise the local anthracite coal for the purposes of iron-smelting and was attracted to this site by an unfinished section of canal carrying the considerable flow of water in the head water-feeder through a drop in level equivalent to the fall of two unbuilt locks. Site survey, clearance and interpretation allowed the accompanying illustration to be made. Scars remaining in the wheel-pit indicated the former size of the thirty-five feet diameter and eight feet wide waterwheel that provided the air-blast for the adjacent iron-furnace.

There are many more examples of how industrial remains can be used as an historical document in themselves and this factor should be borne in mind when dealing with old industrial sites. All sites and monuments records need to include industrial remains just as much as that of the more accepted sites of earlier periods and development control officers need to be aware both of their existence.

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External references

  • The Association for Industrial Archaeology.
  • The Ironbridge Institute.
  • The Scottish Industrial Archaeology Panel, R.C.A.H.M. Scotland.
  • The Welsh Industrial Archaeology Panel, R.C.A.H.M. Wales.
  • The Archaeology of the Mongtonneryshire Canal.
  • A Guide to the Industrial Archaeology Of the Swansea Region.