Robson Green: How The North Was Built
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“Recently I moved back to the north, after spending many years down south and other places. There is something very special about this location, I love the landscape, the cities and of course, the people. I want to see how people in this rugged land dug the coal, laid the railways, built the ships that powered an empire, and made this the greatest industrial nation on earth. The industries might have gone but the people, their values and sense of belonging, they’re still here, as strong as ever.”
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.
The north is where Robson’s family has its roots and is steeped in industrial heritage. Robson’s father was a fourth generation miner in the pits of Dudley, which towered over the houses where he was brought up. The story of how the north was built is intimately connected with Robson’s own family history.
The mining of coal propelled Britain onto the world stage as an industrial giant and Robson begins by exploring the history of mining in the north whilst looking back over his own family history.
Visiting his home town Robson says: “This is where I grew up. It’s a small mining village a few miles north of Newcastle called Dudley. My father was a miner. As was his father. As was his father before him. I remember waking up every morning in my bedroom and seeing the pit heads that surrounded the village.”
Robson gathers together members of his own family to talk about their memories of the mining community and life back then.
His Uncle Gordon remembers: “I left school on the Thursday and started at the pit on the Tuesday. That’s where the money was then. You could make some decent money at the pit.”
In the early Victorian era, whole families could be found working down the pit. This was outlawed by the Mines Act in 1842 but women and children continued to play a key role in the economy of mining villages. Women ran the home, keeping a fire going and running hot baths for their husbands and sons who could all be working different shifts and spending eight hours a day underground and filthy.
Robson investigates the rumour that mine owners sought to control the lives of their workers. Curator Jonathon Kinleysides says: “The mine owners would often pay the miners in tokens rather than cash. And those tokens could only be redeemed at the mine owner’s shop.”
He also joins former miner Andy Smith underground in a pit face to experience the conditions faced by his own father and generations before. Once they have reached the bottom of the pit, Andy explains the dangers the miners faced on a daily basis: “Roof fall, gases, in rush of water, flooding. They were main ones and they're still prevalent today but they're just more under control now.”
Robson also explores what life was like away from work and how a new culture evolved around industrial life, from working men's clubs, pubs, and holidays to music to sport, education and politics.
Robson says: “I remember my dad coming home from a shift. He would tend his allotment. Growing his prize winning flowers. Or he would be practising one of the great loves of his life: ballroom dancing. My granddad loved racing pigeons. There was a life away from work. A life of aspiration, education, and being creative.”
He meets former miner and pigeon racer Dave Turnton to find out more about the connection between mining and pigeon racing.
Dave says: “When I first started at Hamsworth pit in ‘62 there were loads of miners got pigeons then and I think it’s the great outdoors. It sounds silly that somebody who works down (the) pit likes (the) outdoors. And hobbies like fishing, pigeon flying, whippet racing, gardening and having allotments. All outdoors because when you spent seven and half hours underground (you) didn’t see sunlight. You didn’t want to go and get cooped up in (the) house.”
Robson moves on to Lancashire where the famously damp climate was perfect for the production of cotton. Cotton was to put Britain at the centre of world trade. What happened in the mills of Burnley, Blackburn, Bury and Oldham shaped the economy of the West Indies, the United States, India, Africa and the Far East.
Manchester historian Anne Beswick explains to Robson the importance of the industrial revolution: “For the first time in history, an ordinary working man could make money without having inherited land. Before that you were aristocracy or you were, ‘the rest’.”
The cotton mills were a punishing place to work, with 13 hour shifts, six days a week in dusty conditions and soaring temperatures.
Robson says: “Well, my mum and dad never wanted me to go down the mine but I can't imagine parents at that time wanting their children to come into a place like this.”
Robson then explores how a revolution in transport would change the face of the landscape, with the introduction of the railways. In 1830 there were only a few dozen railways in the country. By 1851, 6800 miles of railway track had been laid.
Robson enjoys the experience of driving a steam train himself and says: “No innovation during the industrial revolution captured the public’s imagination as much as the railway. We’re still fascinated with steam trains today but back then in the early 19th century, these machines changed the face of the North, in ways we just can't comprehend today.”
The railways didn’t just move goods, they also moved people. Robson meets historian Russell Hollowood to discover the impact of the trains on people’s lives.
Russell says: “Before the railways, everything moves at the speed of a horse or a narrow boat on a canal. The railways break all those barriers. Suddenly someone can go from Liverpool to Manchester and back inside a day and have a meeting. Before the world of the railways people didn’t think so much of time in terms of seconds, minutes or even hours. It was morning, or afternoon, or the day. Now you're in a world where people can check a timetable and say, ‘I can be with you in 20 minutes.’”
The introduction of the railways changed the lives of workers. Every year they would get a week’s unpaid leave while the machinery was maintained and would all head to one place, Blackpool. The modern day holiday was born.
Historian Robert Poole explains to Robson what Blackpool meant to the workers: “It’s hard for us to imagine what a liberation it was to go to the seaside for a week. They'd be working 12 hours a day. Working six days a week. But for one week in the year they don’t have to do that. They feel physically different.”
Concluding the episode, Robson reflects on what he has learnt about the great industries of coal, cotton, steam-power and the railways, the incredible impact they had worldwide and what this meant for the infamous northern character.