Landscape and people were a powerhouse

The Calder Valley pack horse trails played a major role
The Calder Valley pack horse trails played a major role

The story of the Industrial Revolution might be a forgotten part of the history we learn at school, but Dr Stephen Caunce of the University of Central Lancashire reminded the Hebden Bridge Local History Society that we should not take for granted the extraordinary way in which previously obscure communities of this part of the Pennines actually changed the world as the birthplace of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He argued that the special landscape of the Pennines also contributed to the special nature of the communities here. In contrast to the typical villages found in other parts of England. In medieval times our landscape was sparsely populated, and people, not overseen by either a lord of the manor or a parish priest, developed ways of farming and producing textiles which contributed to an independent self-sufficiency and a mind-set open to innovation and invention.

The hills of the Pennines were a helpful factor in many ways when the textile industry began to develop. The ridges provided suitable tracks for packhorse trails; the shelves of land above the steep valleys were fertile enough to grow some crops.

The plentiful streams, with the natural control of the blanket peat acting like a natural reservoir, descended in an orderly way which gave the early mills the water power they needed.

There was stone for building and coal available locally in many areas. And when the process of industrialisation became unstoppable, land was easy to acquire, and both landowners and manufacturers could profit.

What made these industrial communities special was a unique culture of what Stephen called network capitalism: small family businesses which grew organically and could work co-operatively with other businesses in the town.

It was also the case, Stephen argued, that the workers in the factories also benefited, despite our popular images of a life of industrial misery and the horror of child labour. Industrialisation did not turn these new towns into places of real struggle.

Women made a huge contribution too. Working in the mill gave them a wage of their own, but also an independent outlook.

It is the renaissance in local history, Stephen believes, that is uncovering more and more stories about the real lives in places like this, answering some of the questions which our landscape inspires.

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