Park Bridge Ironworks: Engaging with Industrial Heritage on the rural fringes of Manchester – a Twitter Paper

The Park Bridge Ironworks in the early 20th century.

At the beginning of July the I was lucky enough to be involved with ‘Shaped by Steel’ twitter conference run by the ‘Social Worlds of Steel‘ project at Swansea University. Nine sessions and 27 papers spread over two days (1st to 2nd July 2020) covered topics ranging from landscapes, place, and worker identities to climate change, post-industrial transitions, preservation, and heritage. This was an opportunity for me to review the fieldwork I led at the Park Bridge Ironworks from 1999 to 2007 as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey.

That fieldwork involved looking at the whole industrial landscape, from the late-18th century colliery pumping engine at Fairbottom Bobs, through the rise and fall of the Park Bridge ironworks and its transport networks, to de-industrialisation and the re-imagining of this part of the Medlock valley as a country park. It involved adult volunteers, sixth form and undergraduate students, residents of the former ironworks’ village, archaeology societies from across Greater Manchester, and a series of public open days. Much of this research was published as volume 3 in the Archaeology of Tameside series in 2003 (The Park Bridge Ironworks and the archaeology of the Wrought Iron Industry in North West England, 1600 to 1900), and as an article in the international journal Industrial Archaeology Review focussed on the excavations at Fairbottoms Bobs. The initial phase of survey work was completed in 2007 but I have periodically revisited the landscape to undertake additional research, not least on the horse- and later steam-hauled tramway (see elsewhere in these blogs). My twitter paper, reproduced below, gives an overview of more than two decades’ worth of research on this important iron and steel making landscape.

Twitter Paper online text (@Archaeology_tea):

1/18 Delighted to present ‘Re-imagining the Park Bridge Iron Works: Engaging with industrial heritage on the rural fringes of Manchester’ as part of @Steelworlds conference. Park Bridge lies in the Medlock valley 9km east of Manchester, NW England, between Ashton & Oldham #SWOS20

2/18 Site has water- & steam-powered iron & steel process buildings, a village, tramway & canal access to coal mines. From 1786 to 1963 owned by the Lees family, exporting to Europe & beyond. Founded by Samuel Lees it was run by his widow Hannah (d. 1831) from 1804 #SWOS20

3/18 Hannah expanded the site building the Bottom Forge in 1810. The firm was named after her: Hannah Lees & Sons. M19 expansion included housing at Mill Terrace (1840), Dean Terrace (1860) & Dingle Terrace (1865), school & church (1865) & institute (1905) #SWOS20

4/18 350 people worked at PB in 1881; 52 of these lived in the village. Housing 337 people, most houses had 4 rooms; the managers’ houses had 6 & section managers lived in 4 semi-detached villas. The works’ manager lived in detached Mill Brow House & the Lees in a mansion #SWOS20

5/18 The Lees family lived in Dean House, a M19 Gothic mansion overlooking the works. Peak activity at PB were the years 1861-1907, when the site recycled scrap steel & iron, exporting its productions to France & Australia #SWOS20

6/18 Rail link added 1861, a 12-arch viaduct spanning R Medlock. Tramway was extended to an enlarged Bottom Forge in the early 1870s & stables for 18 horses (1870). Upper Roller Mill added in 1889. Top Forge processed scrap metal from 1880s. Bright Shop last addition 1907 #SWOS20

7/18 Sketches in 1924 by Noel Spencer captured the traditional processes on site just before PB started its decline in the 1930s. He sketched ball furnaces, a tilt hammer, a steam hammer, rollers & the men using them. The only safety gear was wooden clogs & gloves. #SWOS20

8/18 Industrial archaeologist Owen Ashmore described the silent site in 1969 as ‘an outstanding example of an industrial community associated with wrought iron manufacture’. Yet 1970s industrial reversion saw the demolition of buildings & railway as 1000s of trees planted #SWOS20

9/18 In 1975 the Medlock & Tame Valley Conservation Association opened the Park Bridge Museum in the old stables. Roller Mill was converted into a car park, the old forge was turned into a romantic ruin. In 1995 stables became a heritage centre & a base for park rangers #SWOS20

10/18 Excavations at Park Bridge ran from 1999 to 2007 as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey & were funded by the local council. Focus on community archaeology training & landscape archaeology of the iron works. Results improved interpretation of the site & park #SWOS20

11/18 Project involved the Manchester Region Industrial Archaeology Society, South Trafford Archaeological Group, Tameside Archaeological Society, Ashton & Oldham 6th Form college students, university students & members of the ironworks village #SWOS20

12/18 30 adults & 20 students took part each season. The annual Heritage Open Days & CBA Archaeology Festival were targeted as a way of raising wider awareness about the site, with family-friendly activities based at the Stables, open days regularly attracting 50 plus #SWOS20

13/18 The project aimed to explore the development of the iron works landscape & village, the C18 & E19 tramway that serviced the Top & Bottom forges, & the neighbouring collieries at Fairbottom & Rocher Vale which supplied the works with coal #SWOS20

14/18 Fairbottom Bobs colliery pumping engine (1770s to 1830) excavated in 1999; Top Forge dug from 2001 to 2006; tramway & Rocher Vale colliery dug in 2001; Bottom Forge & workers’ housing recorded 01-05; Bright Shop recorded in 05; & Old Forge investigated in 2007 #SWOS20

Excavations at the Top Forge, Park Bridge, in 2006

15/18 This work fed into the management of the Park, the refurbishment of the Heritage Centre, new publications & interpretation. A new heritage trial & information boards were created, & remains of Fairbottom pumping engine & tramway consolidated #SWOS20

16/18 A 5-year management plan was developed in 2007 emphasising nature conservation in a rural valley location with archaeology as a backdrop. The Bright Shop became another car park; the Top Forge became an area to exercise horses; the tramway was a foot & cycle path #SWOS20

17/18 Austerity cuts post-2010 reduced the Heritage Centre staffing drastically & access to appointment only. The management plan awaits updating. Yet this landscape retains great potential for connecting industrial heritage to wider public concerns beyond its park life #SWOS20

18/18 Role of women & working class life could be explored further, as could the global connections of PB’s products & the use of recycling at the works. As an industrial reversion area links between climate change & the carbon economy are stories still waiting to be told. #SWOS20

18a/18 Primary sources for the history of Park Bridge can be found at the Tameside Local Studies Library, Ashton-under-Lyne. Much of the archaeology project archive is at the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-u-L with report copies held by GMAAS at Salford University #SWOS20 Diolch!

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