Exploring our Victorian roots

13th September 1996 at 01:00
There is nothing like the blast from a long gone past to make you think of the future, a point that was brought home to me when I looked at the l902 edition of the Accrington Observer and Times Year Book, a compendium of facts and advertisements produced by the local paper.

You could trace the development of the town in the later part of the 19th century. The cemetery was opened, followed by the police station and the town hall. Then, there it was, sandwiched between the inauguration of the abattoir and the opening of the museum: the establishment of the technical school in 1893.

This is the educational equivalent of the discovery of the source of the Amazon. What began as a trickle has changed direction several times, has received influxes from other tributaries, has even had several names, has broadened and deepened, but is still clearly the same institution.

At a time when people were being encouraged to buy Warner's Safe Cure (for kidneys), Mason's Delicious Oysters, and Loyalty Boots, as made for HRH the Princess of Wales, the technical school offered classes in art, science and technology, as well as an evening continuation school.

In the first year they had 1,011 enrolments (unaudited figures of course: who knows how many were double counted, did not complete, or failed to achieve their intended goals).

Some of the great names of Accrington history get a mention. Ewbank, later famous for carpet sweepers, was hoping to clean up with its new patent mangle which converted into a natty table, and there is a portrait of Sir George Bullough boss of what became Howard and Bullough's engineering works, employing 8,000 people in the largest building in the town. All gone now, except for the core of that building, in which the college, 100 years downstream from its origins, has just opened a hotel, a restaurant and a brasserie. As we do so, we move out of the building whose existence is recorded with such pride in the year book.

In some ways Accrington has not developed as much as the last group of centennial planners must have hoped: the population is much the same as it was then. The war memorial in the park, whose unveiling is reported in the 1924 year book, tells its story.

The Accrington pals, many of them inevitably those who had sought to better themselves at the technical school, were butchered in the first afternoon of the battle of the Somme, in such numbers that the town has never really recovered from the loss of blood.

Almost the only constant factor in the past hundred years of Accrington history has been the steady growth in vocational education, not all of it at the college. There was a private business training school in the first few decades, offering what sounds very much like today's vaunted flexibility. Among the claims were: open to both sexes all the year round - day and evening. Inspection invited. Intending students may join for one subject or more as desired.

Among the subjects on offer were some that still bring in the punters here: accountancy; economics; and company law. The principal was a former lecturer at Manchester Grammar School, and his strap-line: "We put a living in your hands!" gives the clue. The bottom line is a job, that's what was expected of them then, that's what is expected of us now. The school has long since dissolved, its vocational streams swelling the quickening flow of students here.

It is perhaps in small blue-collar towns like this that the close relationship between overall and gown, workbench and desk, can best be discerned. It is not simply that old college prospectuses carry information about long-discontinued courses servicing the needs of forgotten firms in abandoned mills, although they do.

Colleges in other parts of the country operate in the midst of highly mobile populations and volatile, slash-and-burn employers, but here, where the community is close-knit, the population stable and the expectations determinedly local, the college has come to resemble the post office or the market: always changing but always there and used when needed. As familiar as Mr Major's warm beer and cycling to church, but more functional.

Incorporation has probably helped that process of bonding because decisions are taken locally rather than in county hall; we are now much more clearly Accrington's own college than one of Preston's many. Partnership with the local borough is more intimate.

We go to bid together regularly, for those funds which the kind government makes available from time to time to the most adept hoop-jumpers, notably the single regeneration budget. For regeneration is our purpose, to get back to the future that the town saw for itself a century ago.

In fact the plan is to skip a generation, to create. in one big bound, the sort of modern energetic and optimistic community which will flourish in the cyber age. That vision depends upon a high level of skills and understanding among those who will be economically active. That is what we can bring to the party.

That creative relationship between what have become in the intervening years an enfeebled council and a greatly strengthened technical school would have been welcome to the founders. They might have had more difficulty with the concept of preparing young people for export.

In l902 less than three miles of road in the borough had been macadamised, not much more than that paved. The mobility of today's and especially tomorrow's population means that many of our students live and work outside the borough, or intend to do so.

They don't produce year books any more, overtaken by other ways of conveying information. We can now be found on the Internet, where listings arranged alphabetically or chronologically, but not, I hope, by function, will continue to place us between the abattoir and the museum.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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