Industrial heritage - not just for geeks

Is Industrial Heritage just for geeks? I suppose it might seem that it’s only for those who are keen on technology and transport, but take a few of the most iconic industrial regeneration projects; Tate Modern, the Albert Dock, Dean Clough and you can see that it is inspiring some of the most creative minds in the country. Including Danny Boyle who wowed the world with his epic representation of the Industrial Revolution in the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

The expansion of the railway also fuelled Oxford's industrial revolution

Some cities immediately spring to mind when we think of industry – Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham for instance – and it’s easy to forget the influence that industry has had on the whole country. Industry is probably the reason your recent ancestors lived where they did, and so it has shaped your family. I know that my family lived in East London and were almost all employed on the laying of the Metropolitan line in the latter half of the 19th century, and it was only because of WWII that they ended up moving to the other end of the Met line, which is where they stayed.

Industrial beginnings and ends

Oxford isn’t one of those cities that immediately spring to mind when you think ‘industrial’ but the influence it has had on the shape and feel of the city is woven within its fabric. In 2012, ten years after the last major brewery in Oxford city centre closed, the theme for Oxford Open Doors – Oxford’s Heritage Open Days – is Our Industrial Heritage.

As early as 1635 goods were being brought upstream to Folly Bridge – shop goods, coal from North east England and soft woods. From 1768 to 1796 canals were built to meet the demand of the city’s growing population. Then in 1843 came the Great Western Railway and in 1851 the London Birmingham Railway.

The amount of workers it took to build the railway meant that Oxford’s population shot up and the better transport links made the city a destination. Hotels that are now landmarks were built in the city centre and the suburbs we know today grew up around. Oxford’s main industries in the 19th century were tanneries, maltings, watermills, textile and paper mills (which supplied the Oxford University Press), stone quarries, commercial breweries, blacksmithing, and brick, tile and drainpipe making.

By the mid-1800s Jericho, North Oxford, was already becoming one of Oxford’s industrial suburbs as it was the location for W. Lucy’s Eagle Ironworks, which supplied the city with its once iconic railings. The railings were originally green but Queen Victoria ordered them to be painted black after Albert died. During WWII nearly every railing was taken down in order to be melted down for scrap metal. At Oxford Preservation Trust we have launched our own project to commission and acquire timber railings patterns that can be used in the casting of new railings.

During Heritage Open Days we will also be showcasing Oxford Preservation Trust’s restoration project of a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the Oxford Rewley Road Swing Bridge, the last significant hand-operated main-line rail Swing Bridge in Britain. Designed in 1850 by Robert Stephenson, it is an ingenious and cost effective piece of technology. You can see in the video only four men are moving a bridge weighing over 85 tonnes. Over Heritage Open Days you can visit the site and talk to us about the work going into the project. You can also read more about its history up at the Town Hall and have a go with a model railway!

The Oxford’s Industrial Revolution really got going in 1912 when William Morris bought the old Oxford Military College in Cowley, East Oxford, and turned it into the factory for his world famous Morris motors. Communities grew up all around East Oxford and today it still remains one of the biggest residential areas of the city. By 1970, over 20,000 people were employed by the plant. The site finally closed in 1982 marking an end of an era. You can find out more about the Morris Factory and visit it over Heritage Open Days.

Oxford’s tasty heritage

One of Oxford’s better-known exports is Coopers Marmalade, and it was the railway that allowed it to grow. Originally a small business that operated out of a shop on the high street it became one of the most famous marmalades and inhabited a large factory opposite the original location of the station. The Jam Factory, as it is now known, has now been regenerated into a nightclub, bar, restaurant, arts and office space. Tours will be taking place over Heritage Open Days.

Brewing and malting was also one of the dominant industries and Oxford is still known today as a city that loves its beer. Two of the main factors that led to the start of commercial brewing was the wide use of hops, which created flavour and acted as a preservative, allowing it to travel, and also the introduction of steam engines for pumping. Commercial brewing meant malt was in high demand and Oxford was well placed to meet the national need. The city centre maltings in Oxford have been regenerated and are now occupied by the Oxford University Estates Directorate. Find out more about Oxford’s brewing history at Oxford Castle during Heritage Open Days and come on one of our micro tours.

Le geek, c’est chic

To go back to my original question – so maybe Industrial Heritage is a little bit geeky... but I think everyone can get interested in it because of the links it can have with yourself, your family and the place you live. Industrial heritage also has edge. Its buildings like the Morris Factory, the Ironworks and the Coopers Factory were the centre of communities and put food on the table but they were also noisy, dirty and dangerous. When these buildings get regenerated they keep this personality and make the perfect locations for galleries, clubs and bars. They provide evidence that contemporary culture looks towards heritage for inspiration to create something unique and that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Got the bug and want to find out more?

Have a look at these sources of information for Industrial Heritage in Oxford.

Barrie Trinder, 2010, A Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire – 44. Rivers and Canals, 46. Railways, 50. Industrial Oxfordshire: the mid 19th century
John Rhodes, 2010, A Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire – 52. Brewing and Malting
Liz Woolley, 2010, Oxoniensia, Industrial Architecture in Oxford – 1870-1914
Liz Woolley, 2012, Oxford’s Working Past

And visit Oxford Open Doors to indulge your (new found?) interest in industrial heritage over Heritage Open Days!