The BBC has a long history of promoting and highlighting archaeology, and industrial archaeology and heritage in particular, on radio and tv, going back to the 1950s. Mentions of industrial archaeology span such tv documentary programmes as ‘Chronicle’, and ‘Horizon’ in the 1960s and 1970s, and ‘Timewatch’ in the 1990s and 2000s, including a famous occasion in 2002 when Timewatch followed the reconstruction of a half-scale model of the Iron Bridge in Shropshire. The range of tv series runs Fed Dinah tours of industrial heritage to ‘Digging for Britain’, whilst on Radio 4’s output mention of industrial archaeology can be found on programmes such as ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ and ‘In Our Time’ series. There are even cultural references in BBC comedy and drama to industrial archaeology – one of my favourite being a reference in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series in 1979 to the ‘sheer industrial archaeology of it all’ of a dead planet and its dead planet-building society.
It seems appropriate, then, that in the 100th year of the founding of the BBC, an opportunity arose this month to talk about the impact of industrial archaeology and heritage on national radio. This opportunity was in Colin Murray’s BBC Radio 5 Live ‘Late Night Conversations’ programme broadcast from 12 midnight to 1am Monday 18th October 2022. The hour-long discussion, inspired by a listener’s suggested topic, brought together enthusiasts and experts to review, briefly, the industrial heritage and archaeology of Britain and Ireland. Colin was accompanied in this discussion and tour of British and Irish industrialisation by me in my role as the Industrial Heritage Support Officer for England, a post funded by Historic England and based at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
Pete Waterman, popular music entrepreneur and steam train enthusiast and owner, began the discussion with the continuing impact of the railways. Zoe Arthur of the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and Vice Chair of the Association for Industrial Archaeology, talked about some of the key industrial sites in Wales from copper making and canals to reservoirs and slate mines and the, sometimes, negative impact of these industries. Colin Rynne, of University College Cork, highlighted the island of Ireland’s important role in industrialisation and some of the key sites to visit including gin distilleries and the linen mills of Belfast. Miles Oglethorpe, of Historic Environment Scotland and Chair of UNESCO’s International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, talked about coal, rail, and textiles in Scotland, and highlighted industrial heritage’s international links in terms of regenerating old buildings and improving local neighbourhoods, as well as helping to combat climate change by recycling old structures. Nigel Linge, professor of telecommunications at Salford University, looked at the importance of the railways in promoting the telegraph system during the mid-19th century, and the rise of the telephone box network during the early 20th century. He also pointed out how rapid technological change makes it very difficult to record some more recent industries such as the infrastructure of the mobile phone network.
I finished with a brief review of why the Ironbridge Gorge, and the museum trust of that name, are internationally important, being one of nine industrial world heritage sites in Britain (along with Blaenavon, Cornish tin mining, Derwent Valley Mills, the Forth Railway Bridge, New Lanark Mills, the Pontcycsillte aqueduct and canal, Saltaire mills, and Welsh Slate). Each site represents an aspect of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries which helped to turn Britain into the world’s first industrial society and set a pattern of industrial change, global trading, and urbanisation that has engulfed the rest of the plant. Throughout the discussions there was an emphasis on the people who worked in these industries, the impact of new technology on people’s domestic lives, and the lasting cultural and landscape legacies of these industries, which includes climate change and slavery.
To hear the full discussion follow this programme link and start 2 hours in: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001d414