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{12/03/2012}   The National Trust, the Industrial Revolution and miserable people

As a child I was dragged from stately home to garden to castle. My appreciation, if ever there were any (secretly, I know I enjoyed some places but I tended to play the hard-done-by-forced-to-sightsee child!), diminished enormously and for a period of up to ten years in the post-having-to-go-where-your-parents-go years, I barely visited such sights in the UK (it was different abroad!). In the last few years I have found myself quite enjoying stately homes, gardens and castles.

Over the weekend I went to Styal Quarry Bank Mill, billed to be one of the best preserved textile mills from the Industrial Revolution. I loved it. I even, brace yourself, joined the National Trust while I was there, which to me is a commitment to visit such places to get your membership fee back over the next year!

Going there and being as fascinated and horrified as I was (children from the age of nine working c6am to 7pm six days a week in a dusty, noisy, dangerous environment) got me thinking about why as adults we feel a need (or at least those of us who do feel a need) to visit these places.

This particular mill was a cotton mill. The life expectancy of anyone who worked on one particular machine was c30 years because they would inhale so much cotton fluff that they would essentially slowly drown on in as it filled their lungs over the years. So at nine years old you’d be pretty much a third of the way through your life. Horrific. In the girls’ dorm (bearing in mind this mill was considered quite progressive/ahead of its time in terms of conditions, mainly because there were no beatings and at dinner time they could eat as much as they wanted), 60 girls slept two to a “bed” in one room, kind of the size or two large bedrooms. They were locked in the room at night. There were five chamber pots to be shared between them and only straw to act as loo roll. The room was not heated (ie no fire), their mattresses were made of straw and the blankets were far from adequate. I have no idea understanding from personal experience of how hideous conditions would have been. Also, these children/apprentices didn’t get paid, they worked for their food and lodging.

I guess knowing this is in part interesting because we all have ancestors who lived in these years, perhaps in these conditions. It’s perhaps a way to understand where we came from, how the cities and country as a whole was changed to become the place we now live in. We can appreciate that times have moved on, that things are easier for us. I had an unexpected feeling of being grateful for all that was done to pave the way for my life as it is now; it’s embarrassingly easy compared to the lives of people during, for example, the Industrial Revolution. But I also felt really, really sad that the UK has lost its industrial strength and a lot of these towns and cities, in the North of the UK in particular, are left with mere remains of a greatness that once was.

However, I also visited The Lowry and the miserable people portrayed in LS Lowry’s paintings were another stark reminder that times were incredibly tough then, that the streets of Manchester were once filled with thousands of poorly paid workers trudging through smoke filled streets. I worry that some of the modern technology we have that makes our lives so much easier now is made under conditions in developing countries not unlike those of the Industrial Revolution in the UK I just got a brief insight into at the Quarry Barn Mill and which I expressed relief over not existing 200 years later, my generation. Food for thought, eh?

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