2.5 The Industrial Revolution (and de-industrialisation)

A black and white aerial photograph showing a substantial industrial site with 3 large cooling towers and gas holders

Aerial photograph of Ravenscraig Steel Works. Built to meet demand for post-war steel, Ravenscraig produced strip steel until its closure in the 1990s, with the cooling towers and gas-holders (pictured) demolished in 1996, © RCAHMS

Industrial manufacture and innovation has been considered so significant a feature of the modern age that the successor to ‘post-medieval archaeology’ (originally covering the period c.1500-c.1750) was called ‘industrial archaeology’ (covering the period from c.1750 onwards).  More recently, research interests have widened so that ‘industrial archaeology’ is no longer suitable as a term designating the study of the post-1750 period – the archaeology of this period now takes in a wider range of topics.  However, the discipline’s strengths in the documentation and analysis of industrial processes and practices remains a considerable asset for research into reformatory change in the period.  The industrial revolution of the eighteenth to nineteenth century was a transformation not only in the technology of manufacture but also in the scale of production and exchange.  It involved the provision, extraction and processing of commodities such as coal, chemicals and metals and the production of finished goods in great quantities.  It also involved their transportation around the world and drove many of the geographical, economic and political relationships of the period.  Attempts at economic, technological and infrastructure re-formation – both the successful and the unsuccessful – are amenable to archaeological study.  Industrialisation was a historical process with human-material relationships at its heart: industry’s purpose was to transform materials through varied technological and scientific processes, to produce and distribute goods; industrialisation entailed significant changes in the many relationships which surround the production and acquisition of things; and industrialisation was founded in new relationships between people, both in the workplace and beyond it.

Material histories of the Industrial Revolution are also well placed to take a long-term perspective, shedding critical light on the supposedly revolutionary character of change.  The ‘Industrial Revolution’ has traditionally been defined as a phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries, but research has shown that less intense industrial development started considerably earlier in some sectors and in some places, and some researchers now prefer to think in terms of a ‘long Industrial Revolution’ extending back through the 17th, 16th and even 15th centuries.  In order to understand the nature of the transformation denoted by the terms ‘Industrial Revolution’ and ‘industrialisation’, then, it is necessary that the material history of the centuries before c.1750 is subject to research.  And it is important that consideration extends forward from the high industrial period of the later 18th and the 19th centuries into the period of de-industrialisation in the 20th century.  The idea of a ‘long industrial revolution’ incorporating not only the height of industrial productivity, but also the preceding and succeeding modes of production and nature of society will allow the history of industrialisation to be better captured as one of dynamic change with wide ranging social and cultural implications.

Recent research on the ‘prehistory’ of the Industrial Revolution has, for example, investigated the coal-fuelled panhouse saltmaking industry which developed around the Firth of Forth perhaps as early as the 15th century and which sparked wider changes in the wider industry, economy and society of this part of Scotland.  Research has also begun to develop our understanding of early developments in the glass-making industry and in charcoal-fuelled iron smelting (Photos-Jones et al. 1998), focussed in this early period not in the Central Belt, but in the Highlands.  Work at LeadhillsWanlockhead has given time-depth to that well-known 18th- and 19th-century industrial landscape, providing evidence for 16th and 17th century gold streaming in the area plus a number of features connected with ‘hushing’ (the hydraulic prospecting for gold) (Pickin  2004).

A black and white photograph showing people excavating the remains of stone built buildings

The image shows the Glasgow University Summer School excavations in the 1970s conducted at Bay Mine, Wanlockhead, site of the first Watt engine built by George Symington. The excavations revealed foundations of engine- and boiler-houses. Reproduced by kind permission of the Wanlockhead Museum Trust: www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk.

Industry has been central to the self-definition and to the internal and external relationships of Scotland’s modern communities.  The decline of manufacturing and extractive industries has been equally profound.  The process of de-industrialisation is an important context for contemporary archaeological research – it has resulted in the abandonment of industrial places and landscapes, providing material for archaeologists to work with and a need to explore this material before it disappears for good.  But beyond that it is also a subject for archaeological research – a focus for new material histories of the modern era.  To take one example, extractive and metalworking industries had a profound effect on Motherwell, with the census of 1881 showing that 67% of the population was of the ‘industrial class’ employed in mines, ironworks and a huge array of facilitating industries.  In the later twentieth century, the successive closure of the mines, the demise of the Ravenscraig Steelworks (once the largest hot strip steel mill in Western Europe) and the transfer of Anderson Boyes and Co. Ltd’s operations to Germany, ushered in mass unemployment and poverty.  The material re-formation of the landscape was central to efforts to re-form the character of the place, its identity and its sense of the past: the ‘scars’ of industry were hastily removed and little remains visible as testament to the industries which were once so significant.  Elsewhere, by contrast, the materiality of de-industrialisation has been cultivated and retained: at Greenhead Moss, in nearby Wishaw, for example, the remains of industry have been refashioned into a community park.  In such instances, and in the most recent past, people have re-worked their relationships with their material surroundings and, in doing so, sought to re-work their sense of the past and diminish or enhance its presence in the landscape of today.

Research into the so-called Industrial Revolution now extends backwards and forwards in time, taking in the period from the late Middle Ages through to the 20th century.  And, increasingly, this research extends beyond matters of technology and process to develop more rounded social, cultural, environmental and economic material histories of industrial lives.  In this, industrialisation should be researched as a transformative process extending throughout modern society.  Research ought, for example, to consider the dialectical relationship of consumption and production, and the role of modern patterns of consumption as a driving force behind industrialisation – the pull of the consumer rather than, or as well as, the push of the manufacturer and the merchant.  Studies of industrial processes and practices should explore the materialities of developing capitalist labour relations and of the creation of the capitalist self (see section 2.6 below and chapter 4).  And connections might be drawn between industrialisation and other key reformations of the modern era, not least the Enlightenment (see section 2.3) and Improvement (see section 2.4).

Archaeological research into industrialisation can explore wider social and other questions by taking a new look at the remains of industry – considering these not just in terms of technologies, technical processes and work flows, but as places which defined people and which were entangled in social relationships and in relationships with the environment.  And archaeological research can extend analysis of these questions by linking the workplace with other aspects of the material environment of the industrial age.  Such research can explore the planned settlements associated with specific industries and urban and rural housing of the workforce more generally.  It can range across the infrastructure, chapels, burial grounds, schools, libraries, curling ponds and bowling greens which were part-and-parcel of industrial life.  Taking these diverse material elements together can lead to powerful holistic analyses of the physical and social environments of industrial communities.  And research can connect the industrial element of the landscape with the non-industrial.  There are, for instance, strong and uniquely Scottish links between industrial development and contemporary agricultural and estate improvement, and environmental research has the potential to provide significant insights into the environmental impacts of industry, both in specific localities and more generally.

See also the ScARF Case Study: Industrial Archaeology



Case Study: Industrial Archaeology

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