(offered to but not accepted for a conference at Ironbridge in 2009)
This is an auspicious occasion when the luminati of a rather small and specialist profession have assembled. Three anniversaries lie at the heart of this gathering. The 300th anniversary of coke smelted iron, the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Iron and the 30th anniversary of what would coelsce into the Ironbridge Institute are all being celebrated. I was a member of one of the earliest Diploma in Industrial Archaeology cohorts in1983/84 and brought to the subject the background of two degrees in Theology.
Many of us here today will, through the age range suggested by a 50th and a 30th anniversary, have fond memories of the cultural milestones of the 1970s. One such made a great impact then and now upon your speaker. This was David Nobb's series of books and TV programmes called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin starring Leonard Rossiter.
Reggie was a moderately successful participant in the world of dessert manufacture and sales located with many of the trappings of middle class life in south west London. However he found no satisfaction in this lifestyle and supported by an adoring wife abandoned convention and "disappeared".
After numerous adventures Reggie and his wife create a business called Grot selling Rubbish imagining it doomed to failure. The reverse happens and Reggie finds himself a success who is able to employ various tormentors from his previous existence.
Now, no analogy should ever be taken too far and made too exact. But there are parallels both at the macro (the profession) and micro (my own experience) between Reginald Perrin and Industrial Archaeology. Classical archaeology may be dealing with decay, ruins and rubbish but very often they have been romanticised. They involve heroic empires and tales of daring do like Harrison Ford and Raiders of the Lost Arc. Marine archaeology with its rubber wet suited glamour pusses takes the whole tale of archaeology and fashion to new levels.
Industrial Archaeology evolved as a supremely unfashionable activity promoted at times by individuals characterised by their fraught relationship to society. Contemplate L T C Rolt or Robert Aickman. They were "alternatives" before that word had been coined. How and whether industrial archaeology has become fashionable is another debate. Suffice it to say that the preservation of industrial structures or machines beyond their sell by date tends to be a grotty activity. Investigating an abandoned coal mine complex like Wet Earth Colliery (one of the classic sites) is emphatically about dirt and mud.
The politics of industrial archaeology have triumphed by demonstrating to budget holders that these antics can actually bring value back into the economy. Graham Palmer and the Waterways Recovery Group are an iconic instance active in the 1970s. Operation Ashton and ASHTAC were seminal occasions when rebellious youth willing to be very dirty indulged in what appeared to be utter acts of folly but became pivotal moments in what nowadays is the posh act of canal or waterside regeneration. Canals were an instance of rubbish (literally full of rubbish) having their potential unravelled to sceptical authority.
I grew up in a relatively respectable version of this. My childhood home was not Greater Manchester but the Norfolk Broads. My father was aretired army officer and solicitor. He loved the Broads and they were not "typical" industrial archaeology. But he knew that the trades of Broadland, the Millers, Smithies, the Reedmen, the Boatbuilders (in the 1930s he had worked at Hickling Broad and in Hunter's yard at Ludham) were facing inthe 1960s an era of total change. In fact he had already acted. Even before the Talyllyn Railway was preserved; way back in 1949 my father was one of the founding trustees of the Norfolk Wherry Trust. He was associated with this heritage body until he died in 2004 and Albion is a living testimony today to the vision that individuals had some 60 years ago.
It took for me the move to Durham University and the encounter with a totally different "northern" world, for industrial archaeology to really enter my mind. I think we bought Neil Cosson's classic The BP Book of Industrial Archaeology in 1978. I spent easily as much time at Durham University involved in industrial archaeology as I did studying theology. I think this caused some of my theology tutors considerable consternation. In retrospect this fed a healthy disregard for the norms of academia which I maintain to this day.
There came a certain point when I was undertaking a Theology MA and it was suggested that I study W. H. Auden. I duly did so but at no point in 1982/83 was any link made between Auden, Industrial Archaeology, Theology and the Durham hinterland. I was actually in my IA life exploring the very environment which underpinned Auden's theology and no links were made. Nor was there any interpretation on the ground. It was Grasmere without Wordsworth.
It would be many years before those links were made but one of the wider points of my testimony (which industrial archaeology should appreciate) is THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. This is not a lecture about Auden and Industrial Archaeology (much as I should like to give it). It was about a decade ago that those links were made leading to a book, an exhibition, TV and radio programmes and there remains a long way to go in the full understanding of this major aspect of one of the 20th century's greatest poets. As he said in 1972 in Lullaby "in boyhood you were permitted to meet beautiful old contraptions, soon to be banished from the earth, saddle tank loks, beam-engines and overshot waterwheels. Yes, love, you havebeen lucky" . Auden was not ashamed to admit the romantic attachmentan engine of the Weardale Iron Company could excite.
I had quite some experiences to get through before I met that side of Auden and I truly think that had I encountered it whilst studying theology at Durham (as I should have done), my life might have been quite different. Instead I left Durham and theology and realised I needed to try to make some money, although like Perrin the prospect of doing it in any conformist manner was unappealing.
Instead in 1983 I turned up at Ironbridge. Paul Belford's own words resonate "Many people have passed through the Ironbridge Archaeology unit during this time, some have turned into alcoholic wrecks and others have become glittering stars in the firmament of historical archaeology. Some of course are both". We were a motley crew whose general attitude was that life in a suit did not appeal.
The course passed relatively uneventfully and then there came the matter of finding work. This was 1984 and Thatcher's clash with Scargill. I found my first salaried job with West Yorkshire Metropolitan County and the West Yorkshire Transport Museum in Bradford. What a mistaka to maka. For the first few months it seemed as if long held dreams were fulfilled. I even had access to a County Hall canteen, bliss. Then we were abolished in 1986. I had a job at the Greater Manchester Museum of Science and Industry for two days before my old job was offered back again.
Frankly, between 1986 and 1991 employment, although it had its highs, was pretty turgid. I met my wife on the Firth of Clyde which was to prove very handy. But my working life was spent just jumping through hoops to stay afloat. I had read Rolt's account of being on the streets of Stoke on Trent after Kerr Stuart failed about 1930. This happened to me on the streets of Troon and Irvine (already in a fairly desperate state with the collapse of local shipbuilding) when schemes like Community Programmewere collapsed. I found myself in a job needing to use highly skilled classic tradesmen and unable to secure them. Job no. 2 in Scotland therefore failed and I moved to Job no. 3 in a quiet English market town to discover on my first day that my new boss sat me down and advised me he had paid off one of the two members of staff I had met at interview "in order to pay my wages". This unhappy gentleman was now leading a one man sit in in one of the facilities and it would be my first task to deal with this.
I endured this regime for a year before in a heart to heart with my wife we decided that self employment beckoned for me. Before leaving this brief career account, why does my story hold any interest to this conference? Because in the spirit of the confessional we should all accept that the heritage and museum professions are more often than I rate as acceptable not model employers. There are many tales that I have heard from others to place beside my own. Museums are certainly not and are unlikely to be institutions of perpetuity. Names like Exeter Maritime Museum, Lound Hall(now a care home), Chatterley Whitfield or the Bolton Mining Museum may send some shudders around this room. There are many others.
Can I offer three thoughts for why I think industrial archaeology and the heritage world in general can tend to be abusive employers? There is the perception that museums are about enjoyment and pleasure. Ergo, those who work in them enjoy it. That is the first step to employment abuse. The second step is the utter mismatch that can so easily arise between the wish list and what can actually be done. Politicians often carrying trustee
responsibility can be the worst offenders. The result is that the paid officer finds himself heaped upon with good ideas and has to fend off well intentioned suggestions to try and achieve anything.
In the world of industrial heritage the sheer nature of the objects re-inforces this dangerous cycle. Certainly 20 years ago and perhaps in places today,there were industrial museums operating in a very parlous relationship to Health and Safety. Ships, trains, buses, all moving objects, large lumps of metal or wood subject to decay. One of my seminal experiences, probably in 1987, took place on the hatch covers of the Clyde Puffer Spartan. I was holding forth to some movers and shakers including the Director of Planning from Central Region (imagine calling a local authority that) when my life collapsed or so it felt as a hatch cover broke in half and I started to plummet 15 feet into a ships hold. This quick thinking Director managed to grab me and save my life but not my dignity.
From that moment on and allied to the uncertain nature of employment that I had already experienced, a considerable degree of scepticism about industrial archaeology as a profession accompanied my enthusiasm for it. Those of you actually employed in the sector today can tell us whether itis still like this with short term contracts, poor conditions of service and raving ambitions not allied to rigorous funded business planning. By
contrast another seminal experience - positive this time - was playing a key role in the relocation of the Linthouse Engine Shop to the ScottishMaritime Museum. This is a contender in the title for the largest building saved in Britain by relocation.
I moved on in 1991 and elected for self employment in which I would identify subjects that I felt had mileage in them and which I couldcontribute too. My own agenda for life and not others. For a process like that to work some self-examination came up. Initially two subjects came forward. A third which is the Auden and Industrial Archaeology theme introduced itself later. The first two subjects were model railway history and transport publicity ephemera. I shall not say too much about the first although it remains a major research area for me. Enough to mention that Irealised that a quintessentially history based hobby like model railways actually knew, then, very little about its own history. Since then, and I can claim some role in this, a lot more has been recorded. Even so, for a hobby that was established in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign vast swathes of activity have gone into history unrecorded. A basic question might be posed like: narrate the models that have been made on a commercial basis of Stephenson's Rocket. At present the best answer lies
on my computer.
The other subject I turned to was transport publicity ephemera. I shall quote from a paper delivered to the Institute of Railway Studies at York in 2000. The paper was called "Is collecting railway ephemera an archaeological task?" and I stick by that analogy. I quote "Back in 1970 a Cheltenham bookseller Roger Burdett Wilson was the author of Go GreatWestern, a truly pioneering volume in studying one railway's publicity, A book that has not been surpassed in its field. He wrote however something of a cop out when it came to possibly looking at GWR timetables "The history of railway timetables, an intricate and fascinating subject, has yet to be written, and like the evolution of maps, is outside the scope of the present survey". That history of railway timetables as a whole genre has still not been published although I have now written "Are we on time? British Railways Timetables 1948-1997" and have a publisher.
Why the neglect? Another paper "Time and the Timetable" is on the Railway Print Society's website. There I say " My personal response has also been driven by notions of rubbish and (un-) fashionableness. The timetable was an ephemeral item in concept; it was intended for use anddisposal. It has been the butt of humour and is not something that OK or Hello make space for. Yet I have always felt driven to be interested in what is neglected especially if the potential is immense. So it is with timetables. A vast publishing operation has accompanied their production yet in the past all of the breeds of librarian, museum curator and archivist have made their excuses and left. "It does not have an ISBN or ISSN (often)", "It's not a unique manuscript" or "I'm a museum curator and only interested in three dimensions" are all tempting excuses to do nothing.
Never being one to accept these sorts of explanation and always being one who thinks that Catholic and Protestant should be put in the same room and told to sort their differences out, I started collecting timetables. 25 years later, one librarian married and one daughter created, we have a collection of about 250,000 printed pieces of travel and transport ephemera. I use the fuller description there as against the shorthand timetable. Ephemera stands for a whole genre which is now receiving wider recognition in heritage circles. So this helpful definition from Studying Camden a student's guide to Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre, March 2005 page 25:
Ephemera is any kind of apparently trivial item, often produced for a particular event or activity (such as cards, tickets, handbills, even beer mats), that actually reflects very clearly and individually the time, place or event it represents. These bits and pieces add another element to our understanding of the past."
We sign up to that whole heartedly and that is why we have done what we have done”. Of course the result is much more than timetables, important though I think they are. A major base source for history, period. Rather as the ephemera definition suggests I have become interested in a wide printed field which is not being properly archived. This will mean that understanding even recent history like that of the de-regulation of buses will become challenging. Digital resources as opposed to print just adds to the challenge.
Perhaps you think that Industrial Archaeology is immune to this? Well, you must not. A recent Time Team shown in late January 2009 investigated the Rise Hill navvy camp on the Settle Carlisle Railway. It spoke of navvying as if no material remains were left. Yet a restored navvy's hut in its original location remains at Catcleugh Reservoir in Northumberland in the care of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company. And one of the reasons I know about this is because we have assiduously collected the ephemeral rubbish of industrial heritage interpretation.
Fortunately one of these items refers to the restoration as does Harold Bowtell's magnum opus Reservoir Railways from Durham Dales to the Border. Our own collection grew greatly through the 1990s as we gave it time that working for oneself could afford. The genesis of it all had been schoolboy activity back in 1972 in Norfolk. As a museum curator it was not the forefront of my work agenda but I became well aware that a stream of resources whether in the narrow field of timetables or in a broader sense of interpretational literature was appearing all around me and which was often never given value in its own right. A consequence of this is interesting examples of the re-invention of the wheel. Short dated projects can demonstrably be shown to have undertaken work already done by a different agency only years before because no-one recorded the publicity.
By 2008, our own collection was long overdue a proper institutional home. Up to 250,000 pieces occupying 275' of shelving in a semi is not a comfortable lifestyle. It is therefore with great pleasure that I can conclude this rather personal account of a life on the margins of industrial archaeology over the last 30 years by revealing that early in 2009 the National Railway Museum at York bought the Forsythe Collection of Transport and Travel Ephemera and it has now relocated to the Search Engine archive facility there. Surely Reginald Perrin would be thrilled to know the happy outcome that has befallen this vast pile of waste paper? In all this, although not here today, I must thank my wife Fiona who as a professional librarian (one who undertook the Aberystwyth distance learning Masters whilst working in Newcastle and living with a new baby) has been totally supportive of what we have sought to do and I can absolutely say without her the Forsythe Collection would never have been saved for the nation.