Do we need an Industrial Archaeology?

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Cromford Canal

Cromford Canal. Click for lar­ger image.

It’s easy to take a World Heritage Site for gran­ted when it’s on your door­step. I had thought of shoot­ing a short port­fo­lio of Cromford for a com­pet­i­tion. They required ten pho­tos. After look­ing into the pro­ject I’ve decided that the com­pet­i­tion isn’t going to hap­pen for me, but a short photo essay on Cromford, or pos­sibly the Derwent Valley Mills, remains an inter­est­ing idea.

Industrial Archaeology can get short shrift from other archae­olo­gists. Often there’s writ­ten records, plans and for some places oral accounts of work at a site. Is Archaeology neces­sary? Mark Henshaw, the Archaeology Dude, makes a good argu­ment that Archaeology can draw mul­tiple lines of evid­ence to inform his­tor­ies of the past. I wouldn’t dis­count that, and I think his point, Archaeology isn’t just about dig­ging, is very import­ant from an American per­spect­ive because there Archaeology is seen as a branch of Anthropology. In the UK you’re more likely to see Archaeology paired with History or Classics. So do we really need Industrial Archaeologists when there so many Early Modern Historians.

I think another factor Archaeology brings is spa­tial think­ing. Looking at the early days of the pro­fes­sion­al­isa­tion of Archaeology in Britain, one of the fea­tures is an attempt to dis­tin­guish Archaeology from History by tak­ing on ideas of Geography. People like OGS Crawford were keen to emphas­ise that Archaeology stud­ied human activ­it­ies in space as well as time. Again, in the UK, when Processualism was tak­ing off in the USA, the British aca­dem­ics took inspir­a­tion from it, but also from the ‘New’ Geography.

The Manager's House, Cromford.

The Manager’s House, Cromford.

Applying this prac­tic­ally, it’s easy to say what the pos­i­tion­ing of the Factory Manager’s house, oppos­ite the main gate of Arkwright’s Mill at Cromford, means by its loc­a­tion. There are other more subtle ques­tions though. What did draw­ing a second water chan­nel through the Derwent Valley mean for land use and access­ib­il­ity? Why was Willersley Castle, a grand house that Arkwright built for him­self, placed where it was? How did it relate to the church he built? If you want to know why a mill owner would want to build a church for his work­ers then, as Mark Henshaw says, you have to look at his­tor­ical records too.

You can write a his­tory purely from his­tor­ical records and archives, but if you want to exam­ine the human exper­i­ence, espe­cially of humans that weren’t writ­ing much, then an Industrial Archaeology can yield a richer, more four-dimensional exper­i­ence, than Anthropology or History alone.

Derby Silk Mill

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silkmill
Derby Silk Mill, now Derby Industrial Museum.

This is my entry for the Your Nearest Site car­ni­val. Derby Silk Mill is argu­ably the world’s old­est fact­ory. The Derwent Valley Mills con­sor­tium cer­tainly argued that it was and as a res­ult the site, along with 867 build­ings along the Derwent Valley, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The reason for adding these build­ings to the lists is that they are part of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

In the sev­en­teenth cen­tury the eco­nomy of Derbyshire was agri­cul­tural. In the eight­eenth cen­tury this began to change. The Silk Mill was built on the banks of the Derwent in Derby. A giant water wheel drove a shaft which in turn drove the looms. Wikipedia has a col­our­ful story which I missed at the museum. One of the design­ers of the mill, John Lombe, is said to have copied the design for the spin­ning wheels from Italian silk weavers. Lombe died in 1722 in mys­ter­i­ous cir­cum­stances. The design was copied for use else­where in the North, other factor­ies in the Derwent Valley Mills site were build for man­u­fac­tur­ing cot­ton. Along the banks of the Derwent the pat­tern of set­tle­ment changed. Now people were needed to man the factor­ies as well as to tend the land. The increased pop­u­la­tion drew in fur­ther people to provide for the grow­ing mar­ket. This pat­tern would be copied around the world.

silkmill
A silk loom in the museum.

The cur­rent state of the mill is a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. The interior was gut­ted by a fire in 1910 and the build­ing was then bought by a chem­ist. Remodelling of the inside means little sur­vives today. In the grounds around the mill there are found­a­tions which reveal more about the lay­out of the fact­ory. In the absence of any­thing from the ori­ginal build­ing there are gen­eral exhib­its on the theme of industry. The upper floor has a room with small exhibit on the ori­ginal fact­ory, with a loom like one that could have been used in the fact­ory. The remainder of the upper floor is divided between exhib­its on industry in Derbyshire in gen­eral, like lead min­ing, and the rail­way engin­eer­ing which is still part of Derby’s cur­rent indus­trial base.

The lower floor was part his­toric photo exhib­i­tion and part dis­play of vari­ous Rolls-Royce aero-engines. The com­pany is another major employer in the city. None of this is bad, but they’re exhib­its which could be placed with equal rel­ev­ance in any other build­ing in the city. It seems a shame given the import­ance of the site that so little of the place has any of the machinery which trans­formed the economy.