Britain was home to the Industrial Revolution, driven by advancements in textiles, coal mining, and iron. Tour the country to see some of the monuments to industry, including Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, and the Big Pit in the South Wales village of Blaenafon. Visit and travel on the nation’s canals and railways from the same era.
Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.
The Early Mills of Industrial Britain
The fast-flowing River Derwent was adapted to turn water wheels that powered early spinning machines. Many of the most effective machines were designed and built by Richard Arkwright, originally a wig maker from Preston in Lancashire. In the 1760s and 1770s, he built a factory in the village of Cromford, which still stands, now serving as a museum of early industry.
A few miles down the scenic Derwent Valley, in the small town of Belper, more of this heritage is preserved at the old North Mill. It is the oldest part of a textile-making complex that kept growing under the supervision of the Strutt family. Guides will show you examples of the old machines, such as Arkwright’s “water frame” and its predecessor, the Hargreaves “spinning, jenny” now hand-cranked to demonstrate how they converted raw wool or cotton into thread, ready for weaving.
The Strutts became philanthropists and tried to avoid the reputation of being hard-driving bosses. The pleasure gardens they built behind the North Mill are still delightful; you can row a boat on an artificially widened part of the Derwent River and listen to brass bands play in the bandstand on summer days.
A third, fine old textile mill stands in the much bigger town of Derby, a little bit further south. This is the old Silk Mill, which is widely regarded as the first factory in Britain. It was built in 1721 by two brothers, John and Thomas Lombe, and extended later, but still looks more or less as it has for three centuries.
At Quarry Bank Mill, every generation of textile machinery is represented, including wonderful working examples of the Crompton mule, a sophisticated third-generation spinning machine. Other textile machinery includes superb high-speed looms, or weaving machines, that are harnessed to a massive, still-revolving water wheel. The water wheel’s power is transmitted through an intricate series of shafts, gears, pulleys, and belts.
The Iron Industry Booms
If textiles were the first boom commodity in the industrial revolution, iron was the next. The place to see vestiges of England’s early iron industry is in the Coalbrookdale Valley in Shropshire, near the Welsh border.
The most distinguished object in the valley was built in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, grandson of the earlier ironmaster. It is the world’s first bridge made of iron. The local people were so proud of it that they changed the name of their town from Madeley to “Ironbridge.”
Coalbrookdale, the section of the River Severn that flows through the Ironbridge Gorge, was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1986. There are dozens of interesting places to visit, including the fine home of the Darby family itself. Best of all is the Blists Hill Victorian Town, which features dozens of historical re-enactors running steam engines, making iron castings, shoeing horses, making paper by hand, and running shops and businesses as they were run in the mid-1800s.
Altogether, there are 10 museum areas up and down the valley, immensely interesting, well-curated, and informative. I cannot recommend it too strongly.
Effects of Coal Mining in Britain
As coal-powered steam engines displaced water wheels, British coal mining grew by leaps and bounds. To learn what life was like, go to the “Big Pit” in the South Wales village of Blaenafon, from which coal was dug between the 1880s and the 1980s. It stands on a bleak hillside that looks utterly miserable in the frequent rainstorms that sweep across it, but has a kind of gaunt beauty when the sun shines.
The buildings are mainly of rusting corrugated iron and the whole thing is grimly utilitarian. But the underground tour of the mine workings is a revelation. Wearing overalls, helmets, and headlamps you plunge down the shaft that carried working men to their daily tasks for a century, and tramp through corridors that have been twisted and distorted by geological forces, as streams of subterranean water run past in drainage channels.
Canals Revolutionize Transportation
Transportation in Britain during the 1700s was slow and costly, mostly by wagon or packhorse overland, or by sailing freighters along the coast. That situation began to change with the creation of canals.
What followed, between the 1770s and the 1820s, was a spate of canal building that linked up all the major towns of England, including many of the new ones that were springing up as industrial centers.
Much of the canal system fell into disuse in the early 20th century, but starting in the 1960s, a popular movement to restore them drew in thousands of enthusiastic citizens. By now, virtually the whole system is once more up and running, supervised by a government agency. On more than 2,000 miles of canals, it is possible to sail in lovingly built and beautifully decorated longboats.
The general air of peacefulness that pervades the canals makes it difficult to recall that these were integral parts of an industrial system. To remind yourself that these were commercial waterways, visit the Gas Basin in Birmingham where several canals came together around a series of wharves and warehouses. This, too, is an area now given over to restaurants and bars rather than bulk commodity shipping, but enough of the old buildings remain to create the mood of bustling trade.
A few spectacular canal-related sites are particularly deserving of a visit. The first is the Boat Lift in the village of Anderton. Designed and built in the 1870s, it carries boats from the high level of the canal down to the low level of the River Weaver.
Another great sight is long flights of locks, where the lower gate of one lock doubles as the upper gate of the next. The best example in the north of England is the Bingley Five Rise, near Bradford in Yorkshire.
The best example in the south of England is the Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal, in Wiltshire. Here there are 29 locks in three groups. The whole series rises nearly 240 feet and makes an astonishingly elegant display.
A third great sight is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, in North-East Wales. Built by the master bridge builder Thomas Telford, it took 10 years before its grand opening in 1805. It is the highest aqueduct in the world, standing 126 feet above the valley.
Britain in the Grip of Railway Mania
No sooner had a comprehensive canal system been finished than it was upstaged by railways. Rapid improvements in locomotive technology were made by George Stephenson, with the help of his equally talented son Robert. Their engine the Rocket traveled at 30 miles per hour and caused a sensation on opening day. The original Rocket still exists, by now a rather grim black object in the Kensington Science Museum. To get a sense of how it looked in its glory days, you should visit the bright-yellow working replica at the National Railway Museum in York.
Britain was seized by “railway mania” in the 1830s and 1840s, building hundreds then thousands of miles of lines, eclipsing the canals, and further linking together every part of the kingdom.
In 1968, British Railways, the government-run organization that had controlled the whole system since nationalization in 1948, withdrew its last steam locomotives from service. Train lovers throughout the nation began buying up locomotives to prevent them from being scrapped. They have become a major tourist attraction in their own right, with tens of thousands of annual visitors.
Twenty or thirty of the greatest British locomotives now make frequent mainline tours, pulling trains packed with enthusiasts, watched, filmed and cheered by thousands along the route. The most famous of all is the “Flying Scotsman.” Today the Flying Scotsman is still going strong and is almost certainly the most famous steam train in the world.