The study of Britain’s industrial past is adding an increasingly important dimension to archaeology, mirroring a growing and widespread interest in industrial heritage. Industrial archaeology is an area in which Oxford Archaeology has developed considerable expertise over the past 25 years or so. And, as perhaps may be anticipated from its geographical location in the historic industrial heartland of north-west England, OA North is widely acknowledged to be at the forefront of this comparatively new discipline.
The archetypal historic building in the North West is almost certainly the textile mill, which dominated swathes of the Lancashire landscape from the late 18th century onwards. Britain’s textile industry largely collapsed by the 1960s, and a significant proportion of the mills have since been altered radically or demolished altogether, frequently without any form of permanent record. Since 2008, in recognition of the rapidly dwindling number of surviving sites, OA North has been leading a strategic county-wide assessment and survey of Lancashire textile mills on behalf of English Heritage. This has enabled a better understanding of the county’s rich and internationally significant textile-manufacturing heritage to be gained, and will ultimately inform a strategy to secure the long-term future of the most important surviving mill complexes. During the course of the project to date, several Lancashire mills have been put forward successfully for statutory designation as listed buildings, including Queen Street Mill in Burnley, and Homes Mill in Clitheroe.
OA North has also provided specialist services to a variety of other clients working on designated textile mills, including Helmshore Mill in Rossendale, Victoria Mill in Burnley’s Weavers’ Triangle, and Kirk Mill in Chipping. A recent addition to our extensive portfolio was Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. This impressive and hugely significant mill complex is owned by the National Trust, which commissioned OA North to carry out detailed historical research and a comprehensive survey of the component buildings.
OA North’s expertise of textile mills is by no means limited to standing buildings, and a specialist team is dedicated to excavating the sites of demolished historic mills. Most recently these have included the site of Richard Arkwright’s Shudehill Mill in Manchester, one of the earliest cotton factories in the town, where ground-breaking experimentation with steam power was pioneered in the early 1780s. Excavation has revealed well-preserved remains of a series of power systems that were installed in the mill between 1782 and 1818, including steam engines and boilers that were supplied by the famous firm of Boulton and Watt.
The industrial townscapes of the 19th century comprised a plethora of new building types in addition to textile mills, providing an important archaeological resource that is beginning to be explored in depth. In Manchester, for instance, OA North has recently excavated the fascinating remains of churches, inns and pubs, public wash-houses, engineering works and foundries, bleach works, dyeing and textile-printing works, glassworks, chemical works and collieries, together with numerous different types of workers’ housing. Excavations carried out since 2009 in the immediate vicinity of Shudehill Mill, for example, have exposed the remains of more than 80 workers’ houses, including back-to-back and cellar dwellings and some of the atrocious enclosed court properties described by Friedrich Engels in the 1840s. OA North’s excavation of other examples of workers’ houses, particularly in the University Quarter of the city, has enabled comparative analysis to be undertaken and has provided a fresh insight into the evolution of houses for the new industrial workers of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Meanwhile, OA South has been investigating key sites in South Wales, another of Britain’s historic industrial regions. Recent excavation at a former industrial works at Rogerstone, near Newport, revealed successive phases of use. Modern concrete that covered the majority of the site belonged to the recently demolished Novelis aluminium works, while rectangular brick structures below the concrete were the bases for boilers associated with the Northern Aluminium Company works active during WWII. Prior to aluminium, the works were involved in the manufacture of iron horseshoe nails, and a row of furnaces was associated with tinplate manufacture. Earlier investigations of the historic industry of Wales include the excavation of the Upper Bank copper and zinc works on the east bank of the river Tawe near Swansea.