Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

The months drifted by, and to complete my plan to walk the Mersey from source to the sea I still had the section from Warrington down to Widnes to do.  On what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, four of us set out on a walk through 250 years of industrial history.

Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie
Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie

I had conceived the idea of a 12-mile hike, walking the length of Sankey Brook from St Helens, passing to the west of Warrington to reach the Mersey at Fiddler’s Ferry and then along the Mersey to Spike Island at Widnes. The reason? I remembered from O-level History that the Sankey Brook Navigation – also known as the St Helens Canal – was Britain’s first canal when it opened in 1757, the precursor of the ‘canal mania’ of the late 18th century.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 3
Stanley Bank canal wharf on the Blackbrook branch

The actual starting point of the Sankey Canal is in the centre of St Helens, near to the Tesco store (originally, the canal stretched further, past the later Pilkingtons’ glass works, but that section was infilled in 1898, when Pilkingtons extended the glass works). However, in order to have a place to park the car, we began our walk at the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre on the Blackbrook branch, just outside the town centre.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 2
Stanley Bank Wharf: the derrick sculpture

There were four of us – myself, Bernie (with whom I’ve walked the Sandstone Trail, and who is shortly leaving to walk another leg of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim trail through northern Italy), Tommy (who has just completed research for the Reader Organisation into Siegfried Sassoon’s connections with Liverpool) and Tommy’s brother George (like the rest of us an adult educationalist who once taught in Hampshire where he often walked the South Downs Way, something I hope to do myself some day, and who left the comfortable south for St Helens. He was based in an adult education centre that, in a hallucinatory manner, we found ourselves passing repeatedly during the day, the result of errors of navigation on my part).

There were no mistakes in finding the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre, and it seemed we were off to a good start. Near to the Visitor Centre is Stanley Basin, once a loading wharf for coal which arrived from a nearby collieries by means of an inclined plane. Nearby are the remains of Stanley Iron Slitting Mill, built around 1773, which processed iron ingots, forged at Carr Mill and transported here along a branch canal. The ingots were heating and rolled, then slit into sheet metal bars for the local nail-making industry.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 1
Stanley Bank Wharf: Tommy inspects one of the sculptures

And there you have the reason for the construction of the canal: the need to move coal in large quantities to serve the burgeoning industries around Liverpool and in west Lancashire. There are two sculptures at Stanley Bank Wharf, designed to commemorate this industrial history. One is of the kind of coal cart in use around here in the early 18th century, the other is of a wharf derrick.

The creation of the canal brought about the growth of St Helens and the industrial development of the town. Before its construction, the movement of goods between the expanding port of Liverpool and the outlying areas had been extremely difficult. Horse drawn carts were the major form of transport – along roads that were just rough tracks and which were virtually impassable in winter. The biggest problem lay in moving quantities of heavy coal, needed for the growing industries of Liverpool and surrounding areas.

I used to work at the FE college in the Old Swan district of Liverpool. Before the advent of the canals and the railways, Old Swan had grown up around inns that offered refreshment to hauliers and their horses who led packhorse trains into Liverpool down the lane from Prescot through Old Swan, sometimes with as many as fifty horses roped together, panniers loaded with coal from the Lancashire mines for Liverpool. They would make the return trip with American cotton from the docks bound for mills in the Manchester area. That was how it was until the canals and the railway came.

The Sankey canal was built principally to transport coal to Liverpool from mines around St Helens, and was first conceived as a navigation: instead of digging a completely new canal, the idea was to make the Sankey Brook navigable by barges. The plan was supported by Liverpool businessmen who employed Henry Berry to survey the route (Berry had previously worked with Thomas Steers, Liverpool’s first Dock Engineer, on the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, the UK’s first canal). Berry was Second Dock Engineer for Liverpool, but was released for two days a week by the Dock Trustees to work on the canal.

However, a problem emerged: Henry Berry’s survey revealed that the Sankey water course was too small to convert into a navigation. At the time the idea of digging a new canal across someone’s land was as about as popular as a proposal to frack is now.  Indeed, Parliament had just refused permission for a canal in another part of the country. So the promoters resorted to a bit of subterfuge, presenting the scheme to Parliament as the Sankey Navigation, but with clauses embedded in the bill which allowed the engineers ‘to make cuts, canals, trenches or passages for water, in, upon or through lands or grounds adjoining or near to the River’. Parliament approved the scheme and work began in 1755.

Map of Sankey canal
Map of Sankey canal in 1833

The St Helens Canal opened in November 1757, with over 95% of its original ten mile length cut through new ground, making it the first canal to be dug in England (though, because this was proposed as a navigation, some histories give the accolade to the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, opened in 1761, that eventually brought coal from his mines in Worsley, near Manchester to the Mersey at Runcorn.

St Helens 1824 (www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)
A view of St Helens in 1824 (from http://www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)

The St Helens canal was an outstanding success, reducing the cost of transporting coal to Liverpool and leading to cheaper coal. New industries boomed; for example, in 1779 a copper smelting works was opened at Blackbrook. The ore for the works was mined in Anglesey which was one of the largest producers of copper ore in the world at that time. From there it was shipped to the Mersey and up the canal to Blackbrook where the ore was smelted into copper.

The Old Double Lock
The Old Double Lock

Leaving the Stanley Basin things got off to a shambolic start, the result of rubbish map-reading on my part which resulted in us circling St Augustine school playing fields at least twice (that night I dreamed I saw St Augustine) and heading off down the wrong brook (Sutton Brook, not Sankey Brook). By the time we had orientated ourselves successfully the clouds had parted and the day was seriously warming up.

Finally on course, we came to the Old Double Lock, the first staircase lock in England, built in 1757 with two chambers. It is known as the Old Double Lock because a second lock staircase, the New Double Lock was built a mile to the west in 1770.

Sankey Brook 2

Sankey Brook 1
Along Sankey Brook

This was a walk through classic ‘edgelands‘ territory, as defined by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their book, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, so I expected something different to what we found. Robert Macfarlane provided a succinct definition of the terrain in a review he wrote of their book:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

We certainly encountered several of those items.  There were brownfield sites and allotments upon which so many sheds had been erected that it looked like a shanty town, and we skirted the transit hub that has grown up on the site of the old USAF airbase at Burtonwood (Asda, et al) and the Gemini retail park that boasts IKEA as its main attraction. But although we were following the course of an old canal (sluggish in parts, filled in for the most part), this was cleaned-up edgelands.  Land that had once ranked amongst the most polluted on earth has now been transformed by St Helens and Warrington councils into the Sankey Valley Park, a pleasant, almost bucolic corridor hemmed in by industries, housing developments, railway lines, dual carriageways and a motorway.

Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds
Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds

For instance: a short distance beyond the dried-out Broad Oak Basin, where coal from Broad Oak Colliery was brought by tram-road to be loaded into boats, we found several old sections of the canal that remain in water as fishing ponds, wooden platforms for the fisher-folk helpfully provided by the local council.

Havannah Flashes

Havannah Flashes 4

Havannah Flashes 2
Havannah Flashes

At Havannah Flashes there is an attractive stretch with areas of open water edged with tall, golden rushes.  The Flashes are the result of ground subsidence after the nearby Havannah Colliery mined too close to the surface.

Sankey Valley 1
Following the line of the in-filled canal

Along this stretch the canal has been in-filled, but further on the water returns. It was here that we came across a team of council workmen restoring the canal bank where the stonework had been collapsing into the water.  They were also installing sandbag-like rolls of rushes to support the banks and resurfacing the path.  It was good that such work was still proceeding, even in times of austerity (Our Local Voice, the website of an independent group of volunteers from the local area, states that, unlike most of Britain’s other canals which are the responsibility of the Canal And River Trust (formerly British Waterways), the Sankey is the responsibility of the three local authorities through which it passes – St Helens, Warrington and Halton).

Sankey Valley 2

At times we would have water on both sides – canal to our right and brook to our left. Along other stretches the canal had been in-filled, and sometimes the path followed the course of the buried canal.

Sankey Valley 3

The canal disappears in the stretch skirting the edge of Newton Common, but after Penkford Bridge, which carries the main road from St Helens to Newton-le-Willows, the canal is once again in water.

Sankey Valley 4

Penkford Bridge was originally a swing bridge, but now is permanent with very low clearance. We saw a lot of this along the way: in some cases the canal had been in-filled for a road crossing, making it seem extremely unlikely that the canal could ever be reopened in its entirety, even though that remains the long-term aim of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society:

There is only one ‘First Canal of the Industrial Revolution’ – it’s the Sankey, and it should never have been allowed to fall into the neglected state it was in by the 1970’s. We intend to ensure that the canal’s primacy is fully acknowledged, and that funds are found to return it to full navigation.

In the meantime, the Society’s volunteers continue to protect and restore, where possible, the canal’s remaining infrastructure. We came across several examples of this on our walk: locks which had been buried by infilling, but now partly uncovered by Society volunteers (as at Newton Common Lock, just before Penkford Bridge, and at Winwick Lock, where we stopped for lunch.  The Society is currently concentrating on their ‘Linking the Locks’ project which seeks to open up navigation again to the lower sections of the canal between Fiddler’s Ferry and its river entrance at Spike Island, Widnes.

Sankey Viaduct 1
Approaching Sankey Viaduct

Soon we were approaching the highpoint of the walk – at least in terms of industrial archaeology. The nine arches of the Sankey Viaduct were designed by George Stephenson in 1830 to carry the Manchester to Liverpool railway line, the world’s first passenger railway, across the Sankey Canal and Sankey Brook with enough clearance to allow Mersey flats, the barges for which the canal was constructed, to pass beneath with sails raised (as can be seen in the 1831 print, below).

Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, from Bury's Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1831
Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, print from Bury’s ‘Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, 1831

It must have seemed like a new wonder of the world at the time, but must have sent a chill through those working on, or investing in the canal. In fact, although the advent of the railway saw canal earnings fall, to counter competition from the railway, a further extension of the canal was cut from Fiddler’s Ferry across Widnes salt marshes to the Mersey at Widnes, opening in 1833.

The viaduct is now designated a Grade I listed building, its listing describing it as ‘the earliest major railway viaduct in the world’.  According to the Spartacus Educational website:

The Sankey Brook Navigation Company objected to the building of the railway and made life difficult for George Stephenson and his team of engineers by insisting on a 60 ft clearance over their canal. William Allcard was given the responsibility of designing the Sankey Viaduct and came up with a nine arch structure. Each of the arches is of 50 ft span and rises from massive sandstone slabs quarried locally, including at Olive Mount [in Wavertree, Liverpool]. Thousands of tons of marl and moss, compacted with brushwood, was used to increase the height of the embankment. The Sankey Viaduct was built of brick with stone facings and cost the company over £45,000 to produce.

Sankey Viaduct 2

The sight of the viaduct had us all recalling history lessons at school in which we learnt about the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and how, when it was near to completion, the directors of the railway organised a competition to decide whether stationary steam engines or locomotives would be used to pull the trains. In October 1829, five engines competed, running back and forth along a mile length of level track at Rainhill. Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials, and was declared the winner.

A year later, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway took place on 15 September 1830, with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, riding on one of eight inaugural trains. Huge crowds lined the track at Liverpool to watch the trains depart for Manchester.  But the day was marred by mishaps.

The trains left Liverpool on time, with the Duke of Wellington’s special train on one track, and the other seven trains running on a parallel track. About 13 miles out of Liverpool the first of many problems occurred, when one of the trains derailed and the following train collided with it. However, there were no injuries or damage, and the derailed locomotive was lifted back onto the track and the journey continued.

At Parkside railway station, near the midpoint of the line, the locomotives made a scheduled stop to take on water. Although the railway staff advised passengers to remain on the trains while this took place, around 50 of the dignitaries on board alighted, including William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool. Distracted, he did not notice the Rocket approaching on the adjacent track. Panicking, he fell  in front of the train, suffering serious leg injuries and died that night.  Not surprisingly, this provoked a flurry of concern about the safety of the railway. However, a report in Mechanics Magazine the following month strove to calm fears:

We shall only observe, that no inconvenience whatever was felt by any of the passengers, even when moving at the extraordinary rate of 20 and 25 miles an hour. The motion, on the contrary, was smooth and easy beyond any thing hitherto experienced on the smoothest turnpikes of Mr. McAdam, so much so, that we could read with the greatest ease, and even manage to write a letter. In a very short time we became quite unconscious of the rapid motion, and at the highest speed which we attained, we could observe the passengers, among whom were a good many ladies, talking to gentlemen with the utmost sang-froid. From all that we have observed, we should consider the rate of 25 miles an hour, on a level, or nearly level, road, as perfectly practicable and safe.

Sankey Viaduct Illustration from the “Penny Magazine, 1830
Sankey Viaduct: an illustration from the Penny Magazine, 1830

The viaduct is still in use, but the last sailing barges passed under its arches in 1919. The canal was abandoned north of this point in 1931, and the path now follows the line of the towpath, with the in-filled canal bed to the right.

Sankey Viaduct 3

As we passed underneath the arches, we noted the graffiti painted along the parapet; terrifying to think of youngsters out there on a narrow ledge 70 feet above the ground!

Sankey Viaduct, 1930 (c National Railway Museum)
Sankey Viaduct in 1930 (c National Railway Museum)

Nearby was the site of the Sankey Sugar Works, opened in 1855 and the last industrial user of the canal.  Raw cane sugar imported through the Liverpool docks was converted at the refinery into the finished white product.

Sankey Sugar

The Sankey Sugar Company was eventually taken over by a Dutch firm in 1924. The refinery ceased operation in 1959, leading to the closure of the last navigable section of the canal in 1963. The canal above the sugar works had already been abandoned in 1931.

All four of us walkers were old enough to remember bags of Sankey Sugar from our childhood.

A short way beyond Sankey Viaduct, we found the canal back in water at Bradley Lock, where the upper lock gates are still in place.  On the OS map I noticed that we were passing through Mucky Mountains Nature Reserve, and wondered how it had got its name. It turns out that the ‘mountains’ are mounds of waste from a nearby soda making works. Musprat’s Vitriol Works produced two tons of waste for each ton of soda.

Sankey Valley 5 Sankey Valley 6 Sankey Valley 7

Despite the Mucky Mountains appellation, this is a picturesque stretch of the canal, edged by wooded bluffs splashed with white blackthorn blossom. Swans were nesting on the Brook, and the damp, shady places beneath the trees were carpeted with celandines. Above the canal here is Vulcan Village, once the site of engine works established in the 1830s, where railway locomotives were built and repaired (apparently, the foundry sent a locomotive to India every week for a century until it closed in the 1990s).

Swans nest Celandines and shadows

Beyond Vulcan Village the canal ran close to the West Coast mainline for a while.  Here the route of the canal and towpath has been obliterated by dense tree planting, and we had to follow a detour down a lane before reaching Winwick Lock, where we paused for lunch. Although the lock has been filled in, the stonework is visible and the remains of the gates are still in place.

Winwick Lock
Winwick Lock

After a restorative lunch we set off again in blazing sun, now heading towards the M62 motorway. There is no sign of the canal here: in 1974 British Waterways decided to use the canal bed for tipping rubbish, creating a long in-filled section down as far as Bewsey Hall.

Approaching the M62 Approaching the M62 2

South of the motorway we passed Winwick Quay, where a group of attractive, though dilapidated, buildings once housed the main maintenance depot on the canal. The buildings and former stables, are grouped around a yard, now used by small businesses.  In another setting this would have made attractive holiday homes, but here it’s a real edgelands site, hemmed in by railway and motorway, and buffeted by the constant roar of traffic.

Winwick Quay 1

Winwick Quay 2
Winwick Quay

The main building, built in 1841, was a large wood and metal workshop. Timber bridges, gates, decking and fencing were all made and repaired here. The forge produced countless items of ironwork needed to keep the canal and its vessels functional. The yard was a resting and feeding point
for horses and mules hauling their boats to St Helens so horse fodder was also stored here.

Winwick Quay 3
Winwick Quay: the dry dock

A few yards further on from Winwick Quay is the dry dock, the only remaining dry dock on the Sankey Canal. It was built entirely of sandstone with stepped sides that allowed workers to get down to the floor, where you can still see the sleepers oon which the traditional Mersey Flat boats would have rested while being repaired. Once the boat was inside, the dock gates were closed and the water drained off via a small culvert in the western wall. After the repairs were completed, the dock was filled again and the boat floated out.

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 2 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 1

GCHQ outpost perhaps?

We were now skirting the fringes of Gemini Retail Park, home of Ikea, Toys R Us, M&S, and the rest – a further symbol of the economic changes that have occurred in this area. On the far side of a high security fence we spotted this silent and mysterious-looking building, painted in battleship grey. An outpost of GCHQ perhaps?

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 3 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 4 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 5 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 6 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 7

Now we were following the Brook through Sankey Valley Park on the western edge of Warrington, a very pleasant landscaped linear park, bucolic in the afternoon sunshine. The buried line of the canal has become a broad, grassy meadow.

Gatehouse Bewsey Hall
The gatehouse at Bewsey Hall

It was the school holidays, so the park was thronged with families, especially around the entrance to Bewsey Hall and Gulliver’s World theme park. Part of the estate belonged to the monks of Titley Abbey, Essex. The Hall was originally built on the site of a monastic grange known as ‘Beausee’ or ‘beautiful site’. The present building dates back no earlier than 1597. We didn’t have time to explore the grounds, pausing only to look at the relatively-modern half-timbered gatehouse.

Sankey Bridges
Sankey Bridges

The landscaped linear park continues – with the canal once more in water – as far as Sankey Bridges where there is a series of canal crossings. One carries Liverpool Road and was originally a swing bridge, then later a lifting bridge. Beyond the road bridge are two others. The first is a narrow swing bridge for emergency use if the road bridge was out of action. Beyond that is a railway bridge.

Heading for Fiddler's Ferry
Heading for Fiddler’s Ferry

Now the canal bears right, heading directly for Widnes. When the canal first opened in 1757, it went straight ahead here, through Sankey Lock, where boats joined the final part of the Sankey Brook to reach the Mersey. However, there were difficulties and delays due to tides and the winding nature of the Brook. The extension we now followed to the right, leading to Fiddlers Ferry Lock, was opened in 1762, at which point Sankey Lock ceased to be used. Soon the cooling towers of Fiddlers Ferry power station appeared in the distance.

Fiddler's Ferry 1
Fiddler’s Ferry power station

Now we’re on the Trans-Pennine Trail, with the railway that serves the power station running alongside the canal, on the inland side. From here to Spike Island it’s a long, straight hike, hemmed in on one side by the railway and the canal, mostly overgrown with dense rushes, and on the other by high fencing that seals walkers off from the river bank and the lagoons which provide the 195 million litres of water which the power station consumes daily from the Mersey.

That is, except at Fiddler’s Ferry Reach where the Ferry Tavern looks out over one of the most beautiful vistas of the river that I’ve encountered anywhere on the Mersey. Here, the river makes a broad sweep with views across to the flatlands of Moore Nature Reserve and, further south, Wigg Island Nature Reserve at Halton.  Beyond rises Windmill Hill, a bluff of red sandstone surmounted by Norton Priory.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 3

From earliest times, Fiddler’s Ferry was one of the few places where the Mersey could be crossed by ferry on the long stretch between Birkenhead and Warrington. And as at Birkenhead, the ferry crossing was operated by monks – in this case from Norton Priory near Runcorn.  The ferry ran until it was closed when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed. Interestingly, the traditional spelling was Fidlers (one ‘d’), although the power station and maps now spell it ‘Fiddler’s’.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 2

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 4

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey
Fiddler’s Ferry Reach on the Mersey

This is a beautiful spot, making a good deal more understandable the idea of day day-trippers coming here to watch the boats and the river, and visit the Ferry Tavern. Because, between 1856 and 1950, that was a regular thing: trains would bring day-trippers from Liverpool, Warrington and other places to the railway station that once existed on the line behind the inn. The pub was built when the canal extension opened in 1762, though almost certainly it would have replaced an earlier one.

The ferry Tavern
The Ferry Tavern

On the Ferry Tavern website, there’s an article  written in the mid-1990s by local historian Colin Mason which captures the special quality of this place:

The solitude of the place is what is most striking, and entirely in keeping with the shrill cries of the curlew and gentle, monotonous lapping of the mighty river only feet away. Tired of the city, there have been times when I have craved this sort of quiet oneness with nature in the raw, on the marsh, with the salty air rushing eastwards from the Irish Sea.

Step over the level crossing which carries coal to the Fidlers Ferry Power Station some distance away, and cross the bridge over the first navigable canal, the Sankey Brook Navigation, 1757, and you are indeed in a calmer world, isolated almost from the stress and bustle of a modern industrial society.

Famous, in a manner of speaking, in these parts for at least 200 years as an inn of some repute, The Ferry at Penketh could have been the settling for a Dickensian drama in a sepia film where young boy meets chained convict bound for Australia, on the marsh at night.

While a page on the BBC website that records recollections of the area before the power station has this evocative memory:

As children, well before the power station was built, one of the places to visit was Fiddlers Ferry which we travelled to on our home built bikes. We swam in the water there, fished for tiddlers and refeshed ourselves with jam butties and a bottle of Tizer. Fiddlers Ferry was a rural retreat away from the chemical and soap works which polluted the area.

The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler's Ferry by  Frank Ward
The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler’s Ferry by Frank Ward

You can find a selection of wonderful old photos of the Tavern on the history page of the pub’s website. That’s where I found the oil painting of the pub by Frank Ward who was ‘manager of the old sheep dip factory at Fidlers Ferry’ according to the site. The painting is not dated, but must be late 19th or early 20th century, since Ward was born in 1875 and died in 1922.

Fiddler's Ferry Marina
Fiddler’s Ferry Marina

Nearby is Fiddler’s Ferry Lock which provides access from the Mersey for the boats and yachts that are moored up in Fiddler’s Ferry Marina, located on a section of the canal, and accommodating a commercial boatyard and a yacht club.

Fiddler's Ferry lock 2 Fiddler's Ferry lock 3 Fiddler's Ferry lock

Between 1762 and 1833 Fiddlers Ferry Lock was the end of the Sankey Canal, where boats joined or left the tidal River Mersey. A second lock, now filled in, was built a short distance to the west, to enable more boats to lock through with each tide. The locks became disused after the canal was extended to Widnes in 1833. Fiddlers Ferry Lock was restored in the 1980s by Warrington Council and now provides access to the marina.

Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal
Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal overgrown with reeds

By now it was late afternoon, and with the temperature rising, the pub not being open, and the miles covered, it was a matter of thirsty boots, as Eric Andersen put it in his sixties folk song.  Moreover, from here the canal seems to stretch on endlessly, heading straight as a die for Widnes. It’s a dull and uninteresting hike with the canal silted up and overgrown with reeds, and the path hemmed in by the railway on one side and the high fence that cuts off the walker from the river on the other.

Fiddlers Ferry power station
The ever-present Fiddlers Ferry power station

The cooling towers of the power station loom constantly to the right. We mulled over the curious fact of a coal-fired power station once fired by coal from mines literally up the road, but now relying entirely on coal imported from the far side of the world. I wonder how long the plant will continue to operate if the movement to leave fossil fuels in the ground gains momentum?

Mersey view 1
The view from Widnes Warth

There is one breakout point, however.  A couple of miles beyond the pub it is possible to walk out onto the river bank at Widnes Warth Nature Reserve and drink in the panoramic view that takes in a sweep of the river looking across to the Wigg Island Nature Reserve on the opposite bank  and Norton Priory on the bluff beyond. ‘Warth’ is an old dialect word for a river bank or a flat meadow beside a river or estuary; I wonder if it appears in Robert Macfarlane’s latest lexicographic book, Landmarks?

Between the canal and the river, paths and viewing points have been constructed, with information boards to alert visitors to the diversity of wildlife it’s possible to see on the marshes.

Future Flower on Widnes Warth
Future Flower on Widnes Warth

It was there that I found a striking art work called Future Flower. In 2007, Widnes organised an international design competition to create a piece of landmark public art for the Widnes waterfront, as part of a wider programme of environmental improvement.  The winning entry, Future Flower was designed by the architectural practice Tonkin Liu. It’s a 14 metre-high piece that appears to grow out of the land, and move gently in the wind. Mini wind turbines transfer energy into pulsing red lights at night. Future Flower was designed to reflect the transformation of an area of former industrial dereliction, and took inspiration from the collision of industry and nature in this place where light reflects off the water, and the wind shimmers in the reeds.

I paused for a moment beneath the petals of Future Flower and thought of the monks, rowing travellers across a river teeming with life centuries ago.  As late as the 1760s the right to fish the abundant river cost as much as £400 a year when over 40 different species of fish thrived in its waters, including sea trout and Atlantic salmon.

Within two decades, however, the industrial revolution had begun its profound transformation of this part of the Northwest, as Manchester became the world’s first industrial city, and Liverpool the great port of the British empire. From the first cotton mills new industries grew, and the population exploded as workers flooded in to the area.

By 1877, the landscape through which we had walked was a toxic industrial wasteland. Due to the pollutants poured into the Brook by the local Leblanc alkali works, it was reported that:

The mud deposited in the Sankey Brook, near St Helens, has been found to contain no less than 2.26 percent of arsenic. … The water of the Sankey Brook is so acid that iron fittings cannot safely be used in the barges and lock gates.

By 1891, 500 acres of Widnes and Ditton Marshes were buried under an average depth of 12 feet of toxic galligu from soda works along the Sankey Canal. The land surrounding the canal became a polluted wilderness as the industrial waste and domestic refuse of St Helens was dumped wherever possible. Mature woodlands, for many years home to a great variety of wildlife were destroyed to provide even more space for tipping.

The limited sanitation of the time was completely overwhelmed. After the cholera epidemic of 1848 in Liverpool that killing hundreds of people, the city built a new sewage system. It saved lives, but emptied directly into the Mersey. By the 1960s the raw and partially treated sewage of five million people was being disgorged into the Mersey and its tributaries. Meanwhile, all along the Mersey a huge variety of polluting industries – chemicals, abattoirs, tanneries, detergent manufacturing, even food processing – poured toxic effluent into the river.

In recent decades, however, there has been a transformation, largely due to the work of the Mersey Basin Campaign launched in 1985.  Dr Peter Jones of North West Water Authority explained the scale of the problem faced back then in a Campaign publication, Who Saved the Mersey?:

When I joined North west water in 1974 the rivers in the Northwest were gruesome, whether you looked at the chemistry or the biology, by any indicator the Mersey was as bad as you could get. This was the birthplace of the chemical industry worldwide, so we had dangerous chemicals of all kinds – lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, as well as organic chemicals like solvents. Thirty years ago, if it was a man-made chemical you could pretty much find it in the Mersey.

Today many forms of wildlife – otters, salmon, seals and sea birds – have returned to a cleaned-up Mersey.

Mersey Flat
An abandoned and decaying vessel

Approaching Spike Island, we came across a ruined vessel slowly rotting and subsiding into the canal. Was it a Mersey Flat, the type of doubled-ended barge that once worked the canal?

Spike Island was the name given to the area between the canal and the estuary at Widnes. It was once occupied by a chemical works, and numerous railway sidings and waste dumps. The area has now been landscaped, its maze of abandoned chemical factories, rail lines, canals and docks reclaimed as an attractive green space with views down towards the Runcorn Bridge.

Spike Island is also home to the Catalyst Museum, the only science museum in the UK solely devoted to chemistry. The Museum is housed in the former office block of Gossages’ Soap Works, makers of Magical soap bars, and later absorbed into the Unilever conglomerate.

Unfortunately, it is not possible at the moment to complete the walk along the canal to Spike Island: preparatory work for the second Runcorn crossing means that walkers are now re-routed inland around a lengthy and noisy diversion across busy dual carriageways.

Footsore and weary we had finally reached the end of the canal. In serious decline by the 1860s, its condition deteriorated and by 1898 the Ravenhead Branch had been closed. By 1932 the whole canal beyond Newton Common Lock was also abandoned. Sankey Sugar Works continued to use the canal until 1959, but the canal was finally abandoned in 1963, ending 200 years of industrial history.

In the sixties and seventies, much of the canal was destroyed, with long sections filled in with rubble from slum clearances and factory demolitions. The lock chambers, once bustling with activity were destroyed and the old lock gates were damaged beyond repair.

But now new life has been breathed into sections of the canal as we discovered.  A radical environmental clean-up means that wildlife has returned and a pleasant linear park created for leisure activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, and – in part at least – boating.

See also

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

Photographs of anonymous female workers iron works Tredegar 1860s

Photographs of anonymous female workers at Tredegar iron works in the 1860s

From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and
its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.
– Alexis De Tocqueville on Manchester, 1835

The 1851 census revealed the full extent of the social and economic revolution that had swept through Britain in the previous half century.  Now, over half of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, mining and construction, while less than a quarter worked the land. The textile industry alone employed well over a million men and women. The number of factories, mines, metal-working complexes, mills and workshops had all multiplied, while technological innovations had vastly increased the number of machines and their capabilities. The economic and social consequences of industrial development were felt throughout the British Isles; the British had become ‘a manufacturing people’. Though these developments had not happened overnight, the most momentous had taken place within living memory. By the 1850s commentators were already describing this momentous shift as an ‘industrial revolution’.

In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at Manchester Art Gallery, artist Jeremy Deller curates a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.  The exhibition is a sprawling, quirky, surprising and hugely stimulating mix of words and images, songs and video taking in along the way: Adrian Street, a young man expected to follow his Welsh mining forebears down the pit, but who rejected that destiny to become a flamboyant androgynous international wrestler; James Sharples, a 19th century blacksmith and self-taught painter from Blackburn; Tony Iommi, the guitarist with Black Sabbath who lost his fingertips in an industrial accident; Francis Crawshay, the industrialist who commissioned portraits of his employees at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks which are probably the only oil paintings of early 19th century workers – and plenty more besides.

'Factory Children', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell

'The Collier', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘The Collier’, 1814 by Robert Havell

Entering the gallery, I was intrigued about what I would find.  I knew Jeremy Deller as a Turner-prize winning artist with radical left politics who had created (if that’s the word) the disturbing installation Baghdad, 5 March 2007 that now greets visitors to Imperial War Museum North.  Not long before my visit to Manchester my friend Frank had brought back from Venice for me a copy of English Magic, the souvenir booklet that accompanied Deller’s exhibition in the British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. English Magic is haunted by the spirit of William Morris and his critique of industrialism’s impoverishment of the spirit:

We sit starving, amidst our gold
– William Morris, The Socialist Ideal (1891)

At the heart of the exhibition was a huge mural depicting William Morris rising from the Venetian lagoon and hurling aside the megayacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

2013 Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller's “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold

2013 Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’

Now, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Deller investigates what remains of the industrial revolution in the present, touching on aspects such as our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time. Introducing the exhibition he states:

The society we have inherited, our towns and cities, the social formations, cultural traditions, class divisions, inequalities of wealth and opportunity – all derive ultimately from the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibition is, in many ways, complementary to Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, the book compiled first published in 1985 and the inspiration in 2012 behind Danny Boyle’s electrifying Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games.  Jennings’s book shares the same approach to its subject as Deller’s exhibition: gathering material from a vast array of sources to present an enthralling narrative that slowly reveals how industrialisation has shaped Britain’s national consciousness.

‘All that is solid melts into air’ is a phrase lifted from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: it was their way of expressing capitalism’s need to constantly invent and re-invent products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need – so what is made one day may be disposed of in the next. Older, less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had to be displaced so that the forces of capitalism could be unleashed.  Deller sees the phrase, too, as ‘a metaphor for how we have gone from an industrial to a service and entertainment economy’:

Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.

Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far ….

Deller’s words express what lies at the heart of the exhibition: first there is the euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. Then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train:  pollution of the environment, the growth of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into workers shackled to machines.

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom  and Gomorrah, 1852

The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, shows how contemporary artists were drawn to the terrifying beauty of the new industries.  A terrifying beauty:  around the time that John Martin painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the British parliament commissioned reports into living conditions in the new industrial towns.The investigators returned with devastating evidence of degradation and poverty.  Photographers (wielding the latest technology) brought back from the industrial wastelands of Wales photos of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.

John Martin’s painting tells us much about the anxieties of the Victorian age – as the exhibition commentary explains, Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we were doing our environment, our towns and to the labourers condemned to spend their working lives in mines and factories was beginning to sink in. As Deller puts it:

Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.  Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far.

But Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. There’s an 1828 lithograph print here of his Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, yet his plans in 1854 for a London Sewage and Marine company proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous Great Stink of 1858.

A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent 1799 Aquatint and hand

A kiln for burning coke near Maidstone, Kent aquatint print, 1799

The lithograph A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent makes an interesting comparison with the widescreen allegorical terror of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The contrast between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and Martin’s vision of urban cataclysm mirrors the way in which industry moved from experimentation in rural backwaters into the urban hell of the new industrial towns. This mass migration of labour  meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their exponentially-growing populations, coupled with increases in poverty, disease and vice gave pious Victorians good grounds for truly believing in Martin’s vision of an impending biblical apocalypse.

Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805

Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett, Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805

The book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales has been left opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. It’s a large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, a traveller’s guide to Great Britain that includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.

Newman & Co, Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor, Wales, 1842

Penryhn slate quarries, Bangor, Wales, lithograph 1842

Early 19th century artists were often compelled to express their sense of awe at the scale of the new industrial enterprises.  In the image of Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor in 1842, the human figures are dwarfed by the scale of the quarry. ‘To me this is like the Welsh Grand Canyon has been produced by these slate miners,’ says Deller. ‘There was an element to the industrial revolution of great beauty and of change and people being quite impressed by it’.

salt mine, cheshire, coloured aquatint,1814

A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814

Black country

The Black Country, engraving by G Greatbach, 1869

These images are punctuated by several album covers, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by each band leader’s family tree printed directly onto the gallery wall, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution.Deller’s intention is to mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment, by forming bands such as Judas Priest, Slade and Black Sabbath.

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington, 2012, digital C-print by Dean Shaw

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is the subject of Dean Shaw’s photo Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition).  Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident in a Birmingham sheet metal factory in the 1960s before he joined Black Sabbath. This accident is credited with helping to create the distinctive Black Sabbath sound, as Iommi had to learn how to play the guitar differently from everyone else and modify its strings and tuning to suit.

Deller tracks Brian Ferry, Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder through their family’s working history. All three hail from industrial working class backgrounds, and have become famous rock stars in a way that transcends their family lineage.

Noddy Holder was born in 1946 in Walsall and went on to be lead singer in Slade.  His family tree reveals ancestors who were variously:

millwright, shoemaker, boiler cleaner, agricultural labourer, spin filer, washerwoman, curb and chain maker, buckle filer, key stamper, buckle stamper, chainmaker, coalminer, railway carriage cleaner, ironworker, puddler, forgeman, blacksmith

His father was a window cleaner.

The family trees of Bryan Ferry reveals 19th century ancestors that included agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, a cartman, colliery labourers, farm servants and coal miners.  His father was a pit pony handler.

James Sharples, The Forge 1848

James Sharples, The Forge 1848

James Sharples (1825-92) was a self-taught English artist born at Wakefield in Yorkshire. He started work when he was ten years old as a blacksmith’s boy on the foundry floor. During his spare time he learned to read and write. His talent for drawing was discovered when chalking out designs on the foundry floor. He subsequently began to make figure and landscape drawings, and copy lithographs.

Sharples took up painting when he was eighteen. From 1848 Sharples devoted his artistic energies to designing and engraving. He ordered an engraver’s steel plate and made a press and engraving tools for himself. He started the engraving of The Forge in his spare time. It took him ten years.

Sharples was regarded as a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, and features in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published in 1859.


Rules to be Observed – Church Street cotton mill, Preston, c 1830

The regime of the new factories is represented in Rules to be Observed – a notice that informed workers in a cotton mill in Preston that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. In  contrast, the ‘Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever’. The same notice states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner.  The ninth rule notes that ‘Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence’ (the ‘Necessaries’ being the toilets, I guess).

Church Street Cotton Mill was the centre of the Preston Lock-Out and Strike of 1853-4, the longest and most expensive industrial conflict in the history of Preston.  In 1853 cotton workers in Lancashire began to demand that a 10-20% cut in their wages made during the 1840s should be restored. The majority of manufacturers agreed to restore half of the cuts, but some refused and 25,000 workers went on strike. The bitter struggle lasted for eight months. Engels thought the revolution would begin in Preston.

The protest was peaceful and the town supported the workers, with a weekly collection made from working people, shopkeepers and the general public. The end came when another depression in trade forced the strikers to give in and go back to work.

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman 2

One of Francis Crawshay’s Workers Portraits, 1835 by WJ Chapman

If I was forced to choose one exhibit from this mighty exhibition, I think it would be the selection that Deller has made from a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Francis Crawshay of the workers at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks.  Crawshay was a progressive industrialist who, when he was managing the Hirwaun Ironworks commissioned sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. It’s a unique group of images of industrial workers, probably painted by W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist who worked as a sporting and animal painter.

Carpenter David Williams

WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams

mine agent at Hirwaun, John Bryant

WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant

Quarryman Thomas Francis

WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis

tinplate works at Treforest near Pontypridd. This portrait depicts its foreman, John Llewellyn

WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman David Davies

 WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman William James

WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James

W J Chapman (c.1835-40), Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

W J Chapman, portrait of Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

The images are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded.

Just to make sure that we don’t get too sentimental or nostalgic about these lost times there’s a section that Deller has artfully labelled ‘The Shit Old Days’.  It includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class while in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers.

Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 4

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 1

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 2

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 3

Photographs of anonymous female workers at an iron works in Tredegar, Wales

Deller says of the images: ‘These are very early photographs of workers. I’d never seen anything like these before. I think we are lucky. By our standards they had appalling lives and those photographs are very powerful.’

Jeremy Deller with Jukebox

Jeremy Deller with Jukebox

Next I encounter a jukebox. It contains a selection of archive recordings, including the working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Music provided relief from the rigours of working class life, and the second section of the exhibition, ‘Broadside Blues’, explores the broadsides, printed copies of popular songs sold in streets and pubs of the new industrial towns which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ ranged from romance to tales of loss, home-sickness and the strange new life among the machines.  Often they were tales of hardship, an example of the latter being being Salford Bastille: ‘God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…’.

Stockport Viaduct, England, 1986 John Davies

Stockport Viaduct, 1986 by John Davies

The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are still visible in the industrial towns of the north. The striking photograph by John Davies of Stockport Viaduct shows a formidable Victorian structure that is still in use, carrying the main railway line from Manchester to London.

Mondays Salford Quays Ian Tilton

Deller has selected images that reflect a changing landscape, too.  Ian Tilton’s photographs of the Happy Mondays in 1987 picture the band on a photoshoot to promote a new album.  They have been shot alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, and one image shows them outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, reflecting the very first signs of the area’s transition to a leisure economy in which old industrial buildings and spaces have been transformed to serve new functions in a post-industrial age.

Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805

Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805

‘Unlike nowadays, people used to get drunk and then fight in the street’, the caption for this exhibit reads.  It’s a drawing entitled Effects of Alston Brewery and was made in the early 1800s, presumably to promote a temperance drive. ‘I just think it’s funny that someone saw fit to draw this, and I’m glad they did,’ Deller says. ‘It shows that the world hasn’t changed that much, has it? That’s a Friday night anywhere in Britain.’

JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson's power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850

JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850

JW Lowry’s elegant drawing of Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory in Stockport in 1849-1850 is an idealised image of a cotton mill. ‘It’s a beautiful engraving’, says Deller, ‘but the women all look like Greek goddesses. They’re dressed with their hair up and with these dresses… Of course we know the reality would have been somewhat different.’ Deller has deliberately placed this image near to compares it to a 2011 photo by Ben Roberts of an Amazon warehouse (or ‘fulfilment centre’) the size of nine football pitches, with shelves stretching into the distance.

Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.

Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.

This section of the exhibition is titled ‘How’s the Enemy?’ and is concerned with the way that the industrial revolution altered conceptions of time and impacted on working class life. Time became an oppressive force in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours.  Meanwhile, leisure time shrank, disappointing in its scarcity.

Macclesfield clock

Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810)

Two exhibits separated by 200 years make the point about the management of our time very powerfully.  Sometime around 1810, the managers of Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield installed what looks like a grandfather clock but is actually a means to measure their workers’ productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious managers to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.

Motorola WT4000

Near to the clock, Deller has installed a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin arm.  His purpose is to demonstrate that the target-driven culture of 1810 is still with us, and has even more terrifying power to control. Unlike the clock, this device is used to calculate the productivity and speed of work of an individual worker – and  warns the employee if they are not up to speed. This is the sort of device is worn that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres are required to wear.  In the same room Deller has displayed Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which powerfully conveys the soulless nature of the Amazon warehouse, its vastness dwarfing the workers.

Here, too, is an exhibit commissioned as an original work by Deller: a banner bearing the text, ‘Hello, Today you have day off’, the words of a text message sent to a worker on a zero-hours contract. Deller says that in retrospect he would have liked to use this message as the overall title for the whole exhibition.

Wrestler Adrian Street and his miner father (1973)

Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery in Wales, 1973

Adrian Street’s life reads like a Dickens novel. Born into a South Wales mining family, he briefly endured the  hardship of the pit before, at the age of 15, he escaped to find fame and fortune in London where he hung around Soho, starting out as a body-builder, before gaining fame and fortune as a wrestler.  He left the mine in 1956 to the jeers of his co-workers.  Then, in 1973, he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit. They included his own father, with whom he did not get on. In Deller’s words:

Seventeen years later he returned, prophet-like, to show the coal serfs what the future would look like in a post-industrial entertainment economy.  Whilst William Blake did not have Adrian Street in mind when he wrote Jerusalem, he might have had visions of him.

Street had become famous for his glam-rock style and for teasing his audiences’ perceptions of his sexuality. For Deller, Adrian is a character who transcended his environment through sheer will power and self-belief.  Now 73, he still wrestles.  ‘He is a phenomenon, a one off,’ says Deller, and yet he is also a symbol of people’s own ability to challenge the status quo on a very personal level:

He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. [It shows] what Britain was [and] what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. We were the first country to industrialise and also the first country to de-industrialise. Adrian is like a one-man band, just doing it on his own. He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners, and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man.

Like rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade, Adrian Street was the product of  the industrialisation and migration from rural to urban living of the early 19th century, of family trees that feature generations of miners, metal-bashers, millwrights, weavers and servants.

We may have changed in myriad ways, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was a traumatic event that formed and shaped our lives. We live in its shadow still.

Jeremy Deller’s video: So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)

Jeremy Deller’s video: A Prophecy For 1973

Oh dear, Oh Dear, what things you will see
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…

No government laws we shall have, it is true
There will be no Magistrates, no Bobbys in blue
To charge ‘Ten bob and costs’ when a man’s been on the spree
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…

Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg
Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg
If your limbs are blown off with a bullet or breeze
The doctors will replace you new ones with ease
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Young lovers you’ll see them in dozens and crowds
Courting by moonlight on the top of the clouds…

This video, produced in collaboration with BBC Newsnight, is featured in the exhibition.  Members of the public, including those on zero hours contracts, read accounts of life and work during the industrial revolution, and a pop video is made for a Victorian futuristic broadside, A Prophecy For 1973, illustrated with home movie footage shot in a Butlins holiday camp in 1973, illustrating that the reality of 1973 was somewhat more mundane than the author of the broadside had imagined.

Watch the video (16 minutes) here.


Deller has produced an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition which, after Manchester, travels to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle.  At the end of the exhibition there was a display of books drawn upon by Deller when gathering material for the show.  They included Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings and All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman, first published around 1980, and now regarded as a classic text on the subject of modernity. Berman charts the development of the modern industrial process and explores how development is portrayed in literature and other art forms.

See also

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

This leg of the walk along the Mersey from its source to the sea was a pleasant surprise.  For here the river winds its way through one of the densest stretches of conurbation in Britain – a tangle of suburban housing, power lines, industrial estates, pullulating arterial roads and motorways, and railway lines. Walking here, where it was possible, any time from the 19th century to the 1970s, would have been to follow a polluted river past the smoking chimneys of grimy cotton mills and the clamour of railway marshalling yards.  Until only recently, the vista that greeted the walker would have been the depressing one of a river brutalised by flood barrier works of naked concrete and edged by a wasteland of industrial dereliction and waste tips.

Instead, what greeted me minutes from the centre of Stockport was the bucolic scene above, the river flowing between thickly-wooded banks.  Today, from Stockport to Sale, for a distance of about 12 miles, the Mersey and its environs has become a great green belt of Manchester, a pleasure ground where nature is restored.

I set out from the town centre on one of the rare days this summer when the sun was shining and the mercury rising.  After emerging from its culvert beneath the Merseyway shopping precinct, the Mersey passes beneath the railway viaduct before heading west out of town on a course parallel to Chestergate and Brinksway.  From King Street I turned onto the surfaced path that forms a signposted stretch of the Trans Pennine Trail, following the north bank of the river past low rise offices where workers hunched over computer terminals looked out impassively at the passing walkers and cyclists.

A bit further on stands one of the distinctive Trans Pennine Trail mileposts that I’ve seen in Liverpool where the trail comes through Sefton Park.  There are 1000 of these, funded by the Royal Bank of Scotland that are actually markers on the National Cycle Network.  For walkers this stretch of path can have its perils – bikes, fast approaching from the rear.

The riverside path emerges briefly into the hurly-burly of the M60 junction at the start of Brinksway.  An old pub, the Woolpack, stands here by the bridge over the river, suggesting that this was a trade route out of town long before the arrival of motorways.  But the most dramatic sight here is the Stockport Pyramid, a six storey structure clad in blue glass, completed in 1992.

Extraordinarily, the pyramid is the only fragment that remains of a 1987 plan which failed – to erect five pyramids along the banks of the Mersey on a site to be given the grandiloquent name of King’s Valley. But only one was ever built after something like the Curse of the Pharaohs struck and several developers and builders went bust.  In the early 1990s the developers went bust while this first pyramid was being built.  The developer’s bank, the Co-op, took control in the hope of finding tenants when it was completed in 1992.  But the eye-catching building stood empty until 1995, when the bank cut its losses and occupied the property itself, from where it operates its telephone banking centre.

A few yards further on I pass the first of several weirs found along this stretch of the river – usually built by late 18th century mill owners who needed power for their spinning machines. Interestingly, these Industrial Revolution weirs, coupled to 21st century technology, could revolutionise the way the former mill towns along the Mersey and other rivers in the North West get their power: not from some distant fossil fuel or nuclear plant, but from the rivers at their heart.

I saw this on the last stretch of the walk at Otterspool bridge where two massive Archimedean screw turbines have recently been installed.  Before that, an Archimedean screw eight metres long and two and a half metres wide had been  installed alongside the weir at Torr Mill in New Mills to channel some of the Goyt’s flow across the drop in water level, turning the screw as it would a turbine and generating 70kw of power in the process.

There are steps down to the river, here almost in its original state, apart from the inevitable dumped shopping trolley and, visible just beneath the water, dozens of abandoned tyres.  I have to say, though, that such sights were extremely rare along this stretch.  Along the bank wildflowers provided splashes of vivid colour – clumps of blue tufted vetch, bird’s foot trefoil, yellow ragwort, purple knapweed, willow herb, buddleia, and gorse were all encountered along a short stretch of the path, along with blackberries ripening nicely in the in the warm sunshine that has been so rare this summer.

Here, on the far bank, rise sandstone cliffs for, like Liverpool, Stockport stands on outcrops of this red rock.  Beneath the summer’s tree growth it wasn’t possible to see any signs of the Brinksway caves, set high above the river.  They are man-made and thought to date back to 1670, though their purpose is unknown.

Brinksway caves: photo by Stopford lad (http://bit.ly/P9fBd6)

During the Second World War, tunnels were dug here as air raid shelters for civilian use.  Work started on the tunnels in 1938 and the first set of shelters was opened on 28 October 1939. Stockport was first bombed on the 11th October 1940.  The tunnels were 7 feet wide and 7 feet high and had electric lighting and wooden bench seating.  There were toilets, a warden’s post, a first aid store and a tool store.  As the threat of bombing receded in 1943, it was decided that the tunnels no longer needed to be open every night.  After the War, the tunnels were sealed up and left virtually as they had been.  There are atmospheric photos of the tunnels as they appear today here, and a fuller account of Stockport’s tunnel shelters can be read here.

When I passed through Stockport on the last leg of this walk, I mentioned Helen Clapcott, a local artist who, in recent years, has recorded Stockport’s urban landscape in distinctive paintings.  In ‘Brinksway’ (above) she visualises the sandstone cliff at Brinksway in almost epic terms, with mills and people illuminated by the glare of a coruscating sun.

And so, onward through arcadian scenes, dodging frequent cyclists and joggers and past horses in a paddock, before arriving at Mersey Vale Nature Park, created from land previously contaminated by industrial use.

Now turned by Stockport Council into a riverside park, this area in Heaton Mersey was once the site of a derelict bleach
works, refuse tip and railway sidings.  It was a place where people felt unsafe and anyway had no inclination to linger because of the dereliction. Then, in 2000, a joint project between Stockport Council, Mersey Basin Campaign and the local community reulted in thousands of tonnes of soil being used to create new open spaces, with access to the coast-to-coast Trans-Pennine trail, two canoe access points to the Mersey, a wildlife pond and children’s play areas.

Aerial photo of Heaton Mersey bleach works in the early 1950s

Before the industrial revolution this was farming country: the name Heaton Mersey means ‘the high farmstead beside the Mersey’. Then, in the late 18th and early 19th century the Mersey attracted industrialists who built cotton mills along the banks to harness the power of its water.

But it was Samuel Oldknow (whose works I encountered earlier in the Goyt valley) who, in 1785, with his brother Thomas, transformed this place by establishing a bleachworks on the north bank of the Mersey. Here, bleaching, dyeing and printing of cloth were carried out. Although best known for his industrial and canalbuilding activities around Marple and Mellor, Samuel Oldknow was involved in pioneering industrial  development in both Stockport and in what was to become Heaton Mersey. The ready supply of water from the Mersey provided both power via a waterwheel and water for the washing and bleaching of cotton cloth that took place here. By 1790 Oldknow had begun to  experiment with chemical bleaching.  The Tithe Map of 1848 (below) shows the development of the industrial village around Vale Road and the string of fashionable villas along the spur of the ridge above the Mersey valley.

A map of Heaton Mersey in 1848

The bleach works is just one reminder of the Mersey’s industrial heritage, one of over 100 textile production and finishing units that sprang up along the river between the late 18th and early 20th century in Stockport alone.  The result was that fifty years ago the Mersey was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe.  Michael Heseltine made this astringent observation in 1983:

The river is an affront to the standards a civilised society should demand of its environment. Untreated sewage, pollutants, noxious discharges all contribute to water conditions and environmental standards that are perhaps the single most deplorable feature of this critical part of England.

Today, following an intensive clean-up operation by the Mersey Basin Campaign, water quality has improved so much that fish, including salmon, are thriving.  Salmon are fussy about water – they prefer it clean, so their return reveals something important.  This is symbolised in a salmon sculpture sited just by the weir at Heaton Mersey where there are also canoe and fishing platforms.  Atlantic salmon are returning to the Mersey catchment and, although in low numbers, successfully moving upstream to potential spawning areas (their progress somewhat impeded by those weirs, unfortunately).  Recent survey data confirms that salmon are successfully spawning in both the Bollin and Goyt.

The successful river clean up required the engagement and participation of many different organisations, authorities and communities. The Mersey Basin Campaign broke new ground in British administrative practice with its uniquely collaborative programme. In 1999 it became the inaugural winner of the International Thiess River prize for best river system clean up. The citation read:

A combination of massive investment in the water infrastructure by a privatized water company, tough environmental legislation, and major sewage upgrades made the difference.  The remarkable transformation  was made possible by the work of many organisations and individuals  working together. The Mersey Basin Campaign  was a pioneer in partnership. Today the Mersey and its tributaries are cleaner than at any time since the end of the industrial revolution. Water quality has improved and fish have returned to formerly polluted stretches of the river. For the first time in living memory, juvenile salmon have been found in the upper reaches of the river near Stockport.

Strangely, this was a consequence of the Toxteth riots of 1981, because the Mersey Basin Campaign was one of the projects instigated by Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the aftermath of the riots. Heseltine recognised the relationship between environmental improvement and economic regeneration. By improving water quality in the Mersey Basin, he saw that derelict land beside the river could stimulate regeneration.

After Heaton Mersey the riverside path is wooded for a while before emerging into open landscape south of East Didsbury traversed by power lines.  Cheadle bridge (below) marks the point where the river enters a succession of serpentine meanders around three suburban golf clubs, with West Didsbury to the north and Northenden to the south (work that one out!).

Somewhere along here I stepped down to a stony beach where the dull roar of traffic from the M60 – not visible but audible from where it hugs the south bank – was displaced by the sound of rushing water from the fast-flowing river.

The smooth, rounded pebbles of red ochre that peppered the beach were, I realised, chunks from the broken bricks that lay on the river bed.  An urban river, for sure.

The reaches from south of Stockport to Carrington, notorious flood fields, mark one of the . The flood danger protects it from planners for only the foohardy would attempt a planning raid here

I paused here awhile in this bucolic setting, in this great green belt for Manchester – open to all to walk, cycle or canoe – and thought about George Monbiot’s astonishing news in yesterday’s Guardian that

The UK now has a natural capital committee, an Ecosystem Markets Task Force and an inspiring new lexicon. We don’t call it nature any more: now the proper term is “natural capital”. Natural processes have become “ecosystem services”, as they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests and river catchments are now “green infrastructure”, while biodiversity and habitats are “asset classes” within an “ecosystem market”. All of them will be assigned a price, all of them will become exchangeable. […]

Land ownership since the time of the first impostor has involved the gradual accumulation of exclusive rights, which were seized from commoners. Payments for ecosystem services extend this encroachment by appointing the landlord as the owner and instigator of the wildlife, the water flow, the carbon cycle, the natural processes that were previously deemed to belong to everyone and no one.

But it doesn’t end there. Once a resource has been commodified, speculators and traders step in. The Ecosystem Markets Task Force now talks of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the ROI [return on investment] of an environmental bond”. This gives you an idea of how far this process has gone – and of the gobbledegook it has begun to generate. […]

Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments. If we allow the discussion to shift from values to value – from love to greed – we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it.

We’ve been here before: with the Norman Conquest there was a profound change in the concept of land ownership.  Where once before folk could pretty much wander around the countryside as they pleased, now William made all land the property of the Crown, and then parcelled it out to his barons.  Just as profound was the impact of the parliamentary enclosures of the  late 18th and 19th centuries, viewed as a tragedy by John Clare:

The freshen’d landscapes round his routs unfurl’d,
The fine-ting’d clouds above, the woods below,
Each met his eye a new-revealing world,
Delighting more as more he learn’d to know;
Each journey sweeter, musing to and fro. […]

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound, – 
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fix’d his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
– Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.
–  from ‘The Village Minstrel’

Clare’s thoughts recalls those of Jean Jacques Rousseau:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.

There’s not much chance of any of this land being enclosed for profit (unless, god forbid, rare earth metals, the lifeblood of smartphones, iPads and the rest, were discovered here).  There’s a simple factor that prevents it. Look at this stretch on the Ordnance Survey map and you notice that the river carves a clear mile-wide belt through Manchester’s urban and industrial sprawl.  Even the M60, Manchester’s outer ring motorway, though it follows the Mersey valley from Stockport to Stretford, mostly stays about half a mile clear of the river – for a very good reason.

For centuries the Mersey flooded areas of Sale, Northenden and Didsbury after high rainfall. As development and increased population led to land being built on closer to the river’s edges, the old flood banks and measures such as widening the river channel were less and less successful.  The last major flooding here was in 1965 because since then flood defences have mitigated the effects of rising water on the river.

These photos shows how the riverside landscape was transformed by the flood defences put in place in the 1970s.  Levees were constructed to raise the banks on either side.  From now on the river would be ‘cribbed, confined, bound in’ between concrete embankments. Thankfully, these barriers, although they don’t look natural, are now thickly covered in grass and flowering plants (I noticed great swathes of comfrey along one stretch).

Simon’s Bridge (below), where the river winds close to the southern fringe of Didsbury, is an old iron bridge constructed in 1901 with money provided by Henry Simon. It was built to improve access to Poor’s Field, from which the church collected rent to pay for blankets and clothes for the poor of the area. Before the bridge there was a ford here, the site of a skirmish between locals and Charles Stuart’s army who were ambushed as they were retreating north to Scotland in 1745.  A line of trees and mounds visible on the golf course marks the graves of the unfortunate Scots.

The ford at this point would once have been one of the main crossing points of the Mersey, as there was no bridge over the Mersey between Sale and Stockport. Packhorses carrying loads of salt would have been a common sight in mediaeval times, since the route was probably one of the ancient salt ways from the Cheshire salt fields into Lancashire.  Northenden, on the southern bank, prospered in medieval times from the packhorse trains that crosssed at the ford.

The river loops twice beneath the M60 at Northenden, the motorway pillars heavily graffiteed.  But there has been some sympathetic  riverside landscaping with a sculpture of a heron by Philip Bew installed in 2010.  Northenden has the distinction of hosting the largest Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in the area in a former 1930s cinema. I passed it on the bus returning to Stockport, my attention drawn by a spectacular display of red begonias outside the church.

Towards West Didsbury there is a pretty stretch, with weeping willow, rows of tall poplars, and flocks of Canada geese dozing along the riverbank.

Where the main road to Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Moss Side crosses the river there were signs of how high and powerful the recent flood waters had been.

Beyond this bridge, the river enters a highly-engineered reach, hemmed in by the levees (seen above at Barlow Moor), and with several sluice gates (below) that can be opened to release water when the river is rising to threatening levels.

Where does the water so released go?  For the answer I had to climb up over the levee to explore Chorlton Water Park which lies adjacent to the river on the north bank.

It’s an idyllic spot today, but has very mundane origins.  In the 1970s, when the first section of what is now the M60 motorway was being constructed, gravel was excavated from the site and used to construct a raised embankment to ensure that the motorway was clear of potential floodwater from the Mersey.   The gravel pit was later flooded, creating the lake that is the centrepiece of  the Water Park today.

As the trees have grown and the grasslands developed, the Park has become increasingly valuable for wildlife.  The lake is stocked with fish and has developed into a popular fishery, and in the winter months is a nationally important refuge for wildfowl.

Leaving the lake, I returned to the riverbank where, in the warm sunshine, large brown dragonflies – Brown Hawkers, I think – were active.  The scene ahead was dominated, though, by the sight of the bridge being constructed to carry the new Manchester Metro tramline out to the airport.

It was time to stop for lunch as I had reached my objective, the only pub actually on the riverbank between Stockport and Sale – Jackson’s Boat.  There has been a pub here for many centuries, the original name being ‘Jackson’s Ferry Boat’, signifying that for centuries this was where a ferry took people across the river.  The present brick building was constructed at the end of the 18th century, replacing an old wood house that stood on the site.  It was then that a local farmer named Jackson regularly ferried people across the river by boat, charging them a small fee. In 1814 the land came up for sale as ‘Jackson’s of the Boat’.

The ferry was made redundant in 1816 when a wooden footbridge was built over the river and a halfpenny toll charged to cross it on foot or one penny with a bicycle, and for many years the pub was known as the Bridge Inn. This bridge was washed away in a storm and was rebuilt in 1881 as an iron girder bridge which still stands today. It wasn’t until the 1940s when Manchester Corporation bought the bridge that the toll was finally abolished.

I joined the families, walkers and cyclists thronging the beer garden behind the pub to rest my feet and consume a cheese sandwich and a pint.  In the distance there was the constant thump of pile driving for the new Metro line.

Rested and refreshed,I set off on the short stretch to Sale. The afternoon was hot and muggy, and there were many people out on the river banks (there are paths on both sides of the river here).  Some were walking their dogs: I watched enviously as two black labradors leapt repeatedly into the river to cool off.

To the south of the river is Sale Water Park, another lake formed by flooding a gravel pit excavated to provide material for the motorway embankment in the 1970s.  The lake is 90 feet deep in places. If the water level of the river rises dangerously high, then a weir can be opened to allow water to flow from the river into the water park, where it can be stored until the floodwaters have passed. This is just one of a number of similar flood basins in the area: Chorlton Water Park on the north side about a mile upstream is another, along with areas within Didsbury and elsewhere. Monitoring the water level of the river and deciding when to open the sluice gates into the park is the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

It was here that, on the opposite bank, that some flood damage revealed how the flood embankments had been constructed from great sheets of concrete, reinforced by rough concrete boulders.  When new it would not have been a pretty sight!

Chorlton Brook, heavily culverted, enters the river here.  The brook flows through Chorlton Ees, an area of floodplain on the north bank of the Mersey once used as water meadow and pasture.  Gradually flood control measures were developed to reduce the disruption caused by periodic floods.

In the 19th century Chorlton Ees became a landfill site and a Sewage Farm was established on part of the site.  More recently the land has been cleaned up to create Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Nature Reserve.

I puzzled over this unusual word: Ees.  On the OS map it crops up all along this stretch of river: Chorlton Ees, Sale Ees and Stretford Ees. It turns out that this is an archaic English term that harks back to the past use of these flood meadow as pasture. The names ‘Moss’ ‘Ees’ and ‘Carrs’, which are all associated with the river reflect its wetlands and periodic flooding.  Ees (plural of ee) means a piece of land liable to flood, or water meadow, and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon eg meaning ‘island’.

So, at least, I reached the point where I left the Mersey.  A mile from Sale, the Bridgewater canal and the Metrolink line to Altricham cross the river, the canal carried over the Mersey by an aqueduct.  This is like my O-level history coming to life: studying the Industrial Revolution, we learned how the Bridgewater Canal, built by Duke of Bridgewater to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester, ushered in the golden age of canals which lasted from 1760 to 1830.

Officially opened on 17th July 1761, the Bridgewater Canal was the first canal in Britain to be built without following an existing watercourse and it revolutionised the nation’s transport.  By the end of 1761 the Canal had reached Stretford, and by 1765 was through to Castlefield Wharf in the centre of Manchester. One of the panels of Ford Madox Brown’s Manchester Murals in Manchester Town Hall depicts ‘The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal A.D. 1761’.

I walked down the canal into Sale, where I caught the X5 bus back into Stockport; there I alighted at the bus station, beneath the arches of that magnificent viaduct.

Local artist EE Smith placed the viaduct centre-stage in his 1906 painting ‘Stockport from Brinksway’.

See also

Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: Paradise Lost?

I enjoyed Danny Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ Olympic opening ceremony, pleasantly surprised to see a vision of Britain as a social democratic, caring, inclusive and tolerant place, the result of struggles by trade unions, suffragettes, CND protestors and those who campaigned for a welfare state smuggled in under the noses of corporate sponsors and a right-wing government bent on destroying much of what was being celebrated in the extravaganza.

And there lies the rub: as Polly Toynbee writes in today’s Guardian, this presentation of Britain’s social history obscures the truth of what has happened in the last 30 years from the vision portrayed by Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce:

Boyle gave us a tear-jerkingly optimistic sense of the inevitability of progress. Here was social history as taught to my generation and Danny Boyle’s, where we learned how – from Factory Act to Tolpuddle martyrs, from Chartists and Reform Act to the Butler Education Act – power was gradually wrenched from a small elite. See how the Voldemort tendency is still trounced by the people’s enduring affection for the collective good of the NHS and the BBC.

That’s the romantic history, the struggle retold in most of literature and art, where ragged-trousered heroes are pitted against villainous landed aristos and satanic mill owners. (Blake’s song is so strangely purloined by Tories who plainly never listen to the words or understand the spirit behind them.)

However deep the Tory blue in his blood, David Cameron knew our modern island story has become social democratic, more Windrush than empire, not hideously monocultural or culturally prim. That’s why before the election he pretended to support the Danny Boyle Britain with those beguiling but bogus cameos staged on Arctic snow sledge or in grim estates, promising to abolish poverty and embrace equality. Even so, despite all that cleansing, the smell of his Conservatism was still too pungent to give him victory against a Labour party on its knees. And by now voters are thoroughly undeceived.

Here’s the catch to the Boyle vision. Since the days of those confident history textbooks charting milestones of social advance, so much has gone into reverse. Imagining ourselves social democratic doesn’t easily make us so, when economic forces are stronger than the power of mere votes. Our postwar founding myth as social democrats is in danger of becoming as unreal as the prewar empire-building story. We can no longer count on the march of progress.

The welfare state, painstakingly built over many decades, is shrivelling. The civil service, with its long memory and high-calibre intake, is being dismantled, its functions contracted out to the KPMGs and PwCs who drive the marketising of everything. Locally and nationally those who know how to manage public services are branded useless bureaucrats and parasitic pen-pushers.

Michael Gove is turning back the clock to O-levels and grammar schools. His back-to-the future is sheep-and-goats elitism: fewer into university, a diminishing proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education, free Bibles yet fewer eligible for free school meals, no education maintenance allowance and no need for teachers to be trained. Adults have lost their second chance at education, unable to afford high charges for courses; for first chances, nearly 300 Sure Starts are closed, many of the rest drained of professional staff. Libraries and swimming pools close, the post office is to be sold off shortly, canals and waterways have been already.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder’, wrote a piece for The Observer on Sunday in which he explained that a major inspiration for the event was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  He wrote:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children’s literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings’s astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show’s opening section ended up named ‘Pandemonium’.

That first section, ‘Pandaemonium’, showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, and the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. In the second section, villains of children’s literature, pitted against the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and hosts of Mary Poppinses, defeated the forces of Mammon.

This is straight out of Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium, a book I once possessed, but when I went to the bookshelf to look it up for this post, couldn’t find.  Why does this always happen?  I bought it for less than a fiver when it was finally published posthumously in the 1980s as a Picador paperback.  Now copies are selling on Amazon and Abebooks for upwards of 60 quid. Damn! Maybe, with all the attention it’s getting now, someone will re-publish this tremendous book in which Jennings collected extracts (that, as a film maker, he called ‘images’) from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators which documented the enormous changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution.  Jennings explained the vision behind the book in his introduction (there is no commentary linking the extracts in the main body of the book) as follows:

Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Jennings began with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, an image that no doubt inspired Boyle’s Glastonbury Tor, which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold …

John Martin, Pandemonium 1825

For Jennings, Pandaemonium was a prophetic symbol of industrialisation, and so he chose it as the title and the starting point of his project to chronicle ‘the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution’.  He did this by compiling some 370 texts dating from the 1660’s to the 1880’s – the testimony of a host of witnesses, including scientists, artists, industrialists, and workers. Collectively, these snapshots provide a composite picture of how contemporaries experienced the triumph of the machine, and how industrialisation transformed the circumstances and inner lives of British people across two centuries.

Philip de Loutherbourg: Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801

No commentary: Jennings idea was to allow readers to perceive the patterns of history themselves by cross-referencing ‘images’. So, for example, we could follow Milton’s image of Satanic power by tracing other instances, such as John Evelyn in the 17th century complaining that the smoke overhanging London made it look like ‘the Suburbs of Hell’ or an 18th-century Cornish parson chancing on an experiment with a primitive locomotive one night and deciding that the beast was nothing less than ‘the Evil One’.  A romantic craving for a lost pre-industrial innocence pervades Jenning’s selection, and though he does convey the heroic promise of industrialism, through his choice of images he emphasises the devastation and dehumanisation wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

Jennings book is comparable to another superb work that adopts the same approach: Eduardo Galeano’s brilliant trilogy, Memory of Fire.  Like Jennings, Galeano wove together vignettes from history, journalism, myth and poetry to tell the story of the conquest of the Americas, and specifically of Latin America, though unlike Jennings, Galeano tells the story in his own words:

I’m trying to create a synthesis of all different ways of expressing life and reality…I tried to find a way of recounting history so that the reader would feel that it was happening right now, just around the corner—this immediacy, this intensity, which is the beauty and the reality of history.

Humphrey Jennings is best known as a documentary film maker, recognised perhaps as Britain’s best – a poet among filmmakers – with films such as Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and Diary for Timothy (1945) regarded as taking social realism to new artistic heights. In these films, Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture.