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Robson Green has moved back home to the north and immerses himself in telling the incredible story of how industry has shaped both a place and its people. This brand new, two-part series celebrates the rugged northern landscape and how the sheer hard work of the people in the north contributed to the industrial revolution, which changed the face of the world.
In episode two, Robson finds out how iron, steel and shipbuilding shaped the north, in the second wave of the industrial revolution. The growth of the railways created an insatiable demand for metals and the iron and steel produced in Sheffield, changed the face of the North beyond recognition. Smelting still takes place in Sheffield today and Robson visits a local factory.
Robson says: “Every instinct in my body is telling me to stay away from this environment. You really don’t appreciate the noise, but most of all the temperature. I think I’ve given myself a suntan these last ten minutes.”
During the industrial revolution cities like Newcastle and Sheffield grew at lightning speed and basic services such as housing and sanitation, struggled to keep up with the population boom. However, one institution kept up with these incredible changes, and that was the pub. The Beer Act of 1830 allowed people to sell beer from their own homes. Within eight years of the act being passed 46,000 beer houses had opened and the pub had become an indispensable part of Northern working life.
Robson meets historian Bill Lancaster who explains how the pub was a community for men: “My grandmother used to talk of Sundays when all the men would flock down to the pub Sunday lunchtime and the women stayed home and cooked the dinner. Women would sit in the back lanes peeling potatoes and one of the women had gone down to the pub and come back with a bucket with beer. So they had these buckets of potato peelings going in and they’d also have cups on the floor. They could pick their cup up and dip it in the bucket and drink beer.”
Pubs were the heart of the new industrial communities and sponsored many activities including the one sport which would come to dominate the north, football. Many famous teams began life as a pub team, after Victorian publicans realised that football was good for business. Links between the coal mines and the football field have always been strong and Robson meets Jack Charlton to discuss his cousin, all time great, Jackie Milburn.
Jack says: “Jack used to take us. He’d take us in and sit us at the front, me and our Bob. There was no cricket. There was no rugby. There was but nobody ever went to see them. Football was the game in Northumberland.”
Sheffield United was known as ‘The Blades’ after the knives produced in the area and Robson visits Peter Gribbon who has been grinding blades locally all his life. He tries his hand at grinding a blade, a hugely dangerous job. Losing fingers and legs, when grindstones burst, was a common occurrence in the 19th century.
Peter explains the other health risks: “The dust off the grindstone used to get on the chest. In the old days they were dead at 30 and if they were on a dry stone even younger than that. But the wet grinders, 30, 35 they were old men and dead.”
Also exposed to many dangers were the workers in the steel mills. Working hours were irregular and inside the mills was a combination of searing temperatures and toxic gases. Much of the steel produced was destined for the ship building industry and by 1900 Britain was building more ships then any other country in the world.
The Royal family regularly visited the region to launch the metal giants. Ship launches had a sense of occasion with a brass band and families coming out to watch.
Robson remembers his own experiences: “When they launched the ships and even when I was at the shipyard it really gave the area a sense of pride and belonging and identity. It was a very emotive time watching the launch of a ship, especially if you were part of the building process.”
Robson’s first job was as an apprentice draughtsman at the Swan Hunter Yard and he takes a trip back with former colleague Bill Campbell.
Robson says: “There was a lot of people working here in the early ‘80s when I arrived. And that’s where Will Crackett stayed. He was the office manager. He was the one who hauled us in when I announced that I wanted to be an actor when I was leaving in ’86. I did enjoy working here and there was a great sense of pride and worth when you see the ships go down.”
Robson meets former shipbuilder Bob Growcutt who expresses his regrets about the industry.
Bob says: “The working man, in my opinion, has never gotten the slightest little bit of recognition for his contribution to what he’s give this country. My biggest regret in my life really has to be somebody robbed me of passing my skills, knowledge and experience and my art back to the next generations that have been passed from my father to me, his father to him.”
Robson also explores how the industrial revolution shaped the lives of the workers in the north and helped them to forge an identity.
Jonathan Kinleysides, curator at the Beamish museam, explains to him: “It created very close-knit communities because underground you never knew when you needed the man next to you to save your life, so they depended on each other and the same on the surface. If one family fell on hard times everybody rallied ‘round and helped.”
The only way workers had of protecting themselves and their families, was to band together in trade unions. Once unions began to gain strength around 1900, they became a force to be reckoned with. Strikes became more common and the first and only general strike in British history took place in 1926. Robson’s family have a connection with the most dramatic event of the strike, the derailment of the flying Scotsman.
Robson explains: “My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, William Golightly, was President of the Northumberland Miners’ Association, and in a speech to striking miners he urged them to do everything they could to stop the transport of coal on the railways. So, fired up by these words, a group of striking miners sabotaged a railway line near Cramlington in the North East.”
The miners mistakenly stopped a passenger train, rather then a freight train and despite not causing any fatalities or serious injuries, harsh sentences were handed down to them.
Robson remembers: “One of those miners is called Arthur Wilson. And he used to cut my hair in a little shed behind our house. And when I used to get my haircut he never used to speak to me! I was going, ‘What’s wrong with him, he doesn’t like me?’ And one fella nudged me and he went, ‘He doesn’t like your middle name.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He went, ‘Golightly.’ He didn’t like William Golightly because they felt William could have supported them more in a campaign to get them released.”
Ten years after the strike, Britain was in the grip of the great depression and unemployment sharply rose. In October 1936, 207 men set out on a march to the Houses of Parliament to draw attention to the extreme poverty being suffered by the people of the North East. The march sadly didn’t achieve what it set out to do but the Jarrow Crusade shows us that the people of Jarrow and the North East didn’t just lie down accept their fate; they fought for what they thought was right.
Robson concludes: “If our story of how the North was built has an endpoint, then it must surely be the miners’ strike of 1984/1985. It was a watershed event and one that marked the end of the power of the miners’ union and also signalled a shift of an economy based on making things to one based on services. I saw first hand how the strike drove deep divisions into mining and villages but I also saw how people came together to help each other over the course of the year long strike.”