Why here, then? An alternative look at the growth of industry

Gibson Mill at Hardcastle Crags
Gibson Mill at Hardcastle Crags

Dr Stephen Caunce’s talk to Todmorden Antiquarian Society on ‘The Industrial Pennines 1700-1850’ gave some alternative views from the usual perceived wisdom on the subject.

Stephen quoted from a board at the Science Museum that stated “No-one knows why the Industrial Revolution took off when it did, with Britain in the lead”.

He had given the matter much thought and done considerable research, and this had led him to question whether the terms ‘Industrial’ and ‘Revolution’ were actually correct. He had also pondered on why the Central Pennine areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire were so dominant as the birthplace of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Firstly, he compared other countries at the same time in history, where the norm had been to reach efficient hand based systems with little progression into mass production.

He concluded that what had fundamentally changed productivity output in this country was the introduction and development of the factory system and machinery. He therefore argued that the crucial term would be more appropriately a ‘Factory’ revolution, with the ‘Revolution’ itself not being a sudden event but rather taking some considerable time to fully develop from the investment phase in the 1600s through to the 1780s, when the benefits developed, and on to a fully mature system in the 1820s.

Next, he looked at why this had happened in this region whilst other parts of the country on the same timeline remained focused on mainly hand production.

Here his talk featured the more traditionally sited reasons, such as the geology of the landscape, the benefits of water power for mills like Gibson Mill in Hardcastle Crags, and the later expansion of transport links. Coal had been key to moving into steam powered machinery and many small scale collieries and drift mines were dotted around the area, including Todmorden’s own ‘Mountain Seam’.

Stephen argued it was not enough to concentrate on the usually given attributes such as soft water and swiftly running streams, without discussing the local population, with their independent natures. He gave as examples the Fielden family of Todmorden and the Taylor family of the Red House, Gomersal, depicted in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.

Stephen’s thought-provoking lecture also argued that, despite the popular image of the plight of the factory workers, it was true to say that they also benefited by the independence and increased incomes the new work created.

The last meeting of the current season will be held at 7.30pm on April 19, at Todmorden Town Hall when Nick Wilding will give his presentation on Stoodley Pike and its 200th anniversary celebration. All are welcome.