Heavy industries were in terminal decline until they started to reinvent themselves as heritage centres. Gerald Haigh reports.
For a couple of years in the Fifties I worked at Steel, Peech and Tozer - an enormous steelworks by the River Don, on the Rotherham-Sheffield boundary. We sold railway wheels and axles to locomotive and carriage builders all over the world. Peruvian trains ran on our wheels because we made steel that would survive repeated long descents from the Andes with the brakes glowing hot all the way.
At one end of the mile-long site stood the Templeborough melting shop, the biggest of its kind in Europe, with 21 open-hearth furnaces. It was a breathtaking place.
The steelworks has gone now, together with so much of British heavy industry. The huge shell of the melting shop, though, is the focus of the Magna Millennium Project, which will make it a centre celebrating steel and regional history, opening next year.
Some people may despair at the country becoming a post-industrial theme park, but it is foolish to blame the heritage centres for changes in the economy. What they actually represent is a growing interest and pride in the past.
The best heritage centres can be regenerative in their own right. The 26-acre open-air Black Country Living Museum, relating to local social and industrial history, has certainly brought attention and pride to Dudley, for example.
But it does seem reasonable to plead for caution in the way we interpret some industrial heritage centres. The English National Coal Mining Museum in West Yorkshire, for example, is one of a few mining museums where you can go underground. Another is Big Pit at Blaenavon, soon to be the National Mining Museum of Wales. At the Scottish National Mining Museum, however, there's lots to do and experience, but the underground environment is simulated (see page 29).
Even if you do go underground, it is a sanitised experience. A real coalface was more cramped, more claustrophobic, dusty and dangerous and fearsome machines shared your crouching space. No reconstruction can give you this.
The same applies at other sites - to the fascinating small workshops at the Black Country Living Museum, for example, the processes on display in the Ironbridge Gorge complex and the restored tail sailing ship a Glasgow Harbour that celebrates Clyde shipbuilding (see page 28). All are as realistic as dedicated researchers can make them, but the essence of actually working there can never be distilled.
Teachers should see these sites as starting points for further research. Many hold archives. Teachers and pupils should be asking, "Was it really just like this? What did it feel like to get out of bed and come here every day? How did people learn this job?" Not all heritage centres are historical. Increasingly, you find them alongside thriving businesses, partly because safety laws and changes in processes have cut off the public from many works. Cadbury's at Bournville, Birmingham, for example, is now off limits, so the firm built Cadbury World, effectively a theme park.
What such investment shows is that industry is aware of the commercial benefits of public interest.
When it comes to selling expensive cars, evidence of a distinguished history goes a long way. Prestige manufacturers, such as Mercedes, are building up collections of historic models. The JaguarDaimler heritage centre collection at the Brown's Lane factory in Coventry includes the first car supplied to the Royal Family in 1900, as well as the Le Mans winners of the Fifties.
The implications of all this heritage for work in school, in history, geography, literacy, art, citizenship and business studies, are vast. Most important of all, perhaps, is that by introducing children to our industrial past and present, teachers can help them look beyond the lack of interest in industry in our education system.
* National Coal Mining Museum for England, Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, Wakefield, WF4 4RH. Tel: 01924 848806.
Big Pit Mining Museum, Blaenavon, Torfaen, Wales NP4 9XP. Tel: 01495 790311. www.citypages.co.ukwalesnpbigpit Open daily March-November. School groups pound;3.25, teachers free 1:10 pupils. Teachers' pack.
JaguarDaimler Heritage Trust, Coventry, tel: 02476 202870.
Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley DY1 4SQ. Tel: 0121 557 9643. www.bcml.co.uk Schoolchildren pound;4.50, teachers free 1:10 pupils, adults pound;6.50. Open March-October daily, November-February Wednesdays-Sundays.
Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Telford, Shropshire TF8 7AW. Tel: 01952 433970. www.ironbridge.org.uk.