Industrial History Online


Industrial heritage is the history of a cross-section of society.

Industrialists, landowners, pioneers, entrepreneurs, men, women and frequently children who worked in industry were our ancestors and relate to all of us. By modern standards conditions were often dreadful and we should not view this period through rose-tinted glasses. However, the truth is that innovation and technological advancement had not been seen on that scale before.

Putting technological and industrial developments in the 18th and 19th centuries into perspective. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen built the first practical steam engine for pumping water out of mines. From the 1760s James Watt, assisted by Matthew Boulton, significantly developed the steam engine to power mine pumps, factories, speeding up processes and increasing capacity. From c1760 to c1820 canals developed at an increasing rate throughout the country to improve transport, bringing raw materials in and shipping the manufactured goods - pottery, textiles out. At collieries from the early 17th century horse-powered wooden railed “wagon-ways”, then tramways with iron rails developed at an increasing rate. In August 1812, on the Middleton Colliery Railway in Leeds, Matthew Murray’s steam locomotives were successfully used for the first time anywhere in the world. From then on steam railways were adopted, gradually at first, and then at breakneck speed in the 1840s/50s, extending and speeding up transport and facilitating enormous industrial and social change during the 19th and 20th centuries. The internal combustion engine increased the rate of change further.

The application of power – wind and water, then steam, later electricity - to industrial processes, and the development of machines, speeded up processes, increased workforce productivity meaning larger consistent volumes could be manufactured more cheaply. Processes moved from home and small workshops into factories, which became ever larger through the use of iron, and later steel. Here, the workforce and processes could be closely controlled. Yorkshire’s towns and cities expanded rapidly, particularly from the 1850s as employment brought people in.

The extractive industries provided the raw materials for fuel, coal was hugely significant in Yorkshire, and for conversion to other resources - sand for glass, metal ores for iron and steel. Stone quarries fed the demand for building in the UK and abroad, and the production of lime for agriculture.

The textile industries – cotton, linen, wool, worsted – were particularly important in West Yorkshire. Much of Yorkshire’s wealth was generated by textiles, as were many significant buildings – many of which have been demolished or are under threat – but magnificent mills, and factories remain. Engineering flourished, developing and making the machines and railways on which industry and wealth depended.

Industries rose and fell. Firms grew large and then disappeared. Industrial archives are often sparse because of the transient nature of things, and because people did not see their value for the future. Much was destroyed in the 1960s / 70s in a relentless drive to sweep away the old and to modernise - “the white heat of [the technological] revolution”. Many factories, mills and town centres were cleared. Later, coal mines were closed and sites were airbrushed out by landscaping. Many industrial archaeology groups were established. Efforts were made to photograph and record the remains and books were published. But many sites were cleared and only a small proportion of sites remain visible.

The extent and range of industrial and mechanical ingenuity was incredible. Industrialisation was not always pretty, often far from it, but it was remarkable. The scope of innovation and the speed of change was unprecedented. This should be an inspiration to new generations and our industrial heritage is a vital part of our history – as significant as castles, cathedrals or stately homes.

Dealing with what does remain is a significant challenge. Empty mills are inexplicably burned down despite local campaigns to find them new uses. It is not possible to save everything but it important that we understand what is important, and why, and ensure that we protect at least a representative sample of industrial sites for future generations. Industrial heritage has not had the profile it should have. Like all history it does matter because it is part of who we are, and it is perhaps more meaningful to many of us through our families. Factories, mills, mines, quarries are where they worked, earned their living and they were / are part of our built environment.

Excellent museums and sites are available to visit and industrial collections and archives are being made more accessible; there is a growing interest in our heritage. However, we are gradually losing the people who were connected with these industries and processes and it is very important to record their knowledge.

INDUSTRIAL History Online (IHO) is a fully searchable database with two main purposes. It is archival - to provide a county-wide record of industrial sites, pre-Roman to current, both visible and no longer visible, comprising people’s knowledge, documents, photographs and audio and video recordings. It is a source of information for anyone wishing to discover more about the county’s rich industrial heritage and the often surprising range and geographical extent of our industries.