Sanitising history? Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, which is located close to Sheffield in the northern English county of Yorkshire, is one of the most complete early manufacturing sites in the world. From 1697 to 1933, scythes and other edged tools were made there. In its heyday this was a place of intense activity, where generations of skilled and unskilled people spent their entire working lives. Furnaces belched out heat and smoke, while forges and grindstones powered by four waterwheels – fed by the nearby River Sheaf – were used to pound and sculpt the steel into shape.

Workshops to the left. Beyond them, the Counting House, and beyond it some workers’ cottages

At its peak, in the middle of the 19th century, Abbeydale produced thousands of high-quality edged tools every year. The scythes made by its workforce were an essential tool of farm labourers, used to clear the land and harvest the crops grown on it. Many of the scythes were sold in the UK, while others were exported to the far-flung corners of the British Empire, including Australia, India and Canada.

Early in the 20th century the demand for hand tools began to fall as mechanised alternatives became available. The Abbeydale works finally closed in 1933. Restoration of the site began in 1960, and the Abbeydale Industial Hamlet Museum opened ten years later.

Closer view of the Counting House (left) and workers’ cottages (right), dating from the late 18th century

The Museum comprises a range of preserved buildings arranged around a grassed courtyard. The doors to these buildings are invitingly open, and in some of them the visitor can learn about the process for making a scythe. There were several distinct elements, starting with the making of blister steel. This would then be converted into crucible steel, which was later forged into blades. Finally, the blades would be sharpened on large grindstones, and then chemically treated to prevent rust.

Grinding wheels, once used to sharpen the blades manufactured on site

The workshop buildings boast various tools and pieces of machinery, some modest in size, others large and imposing, all unfamiliar and vaguely threatening to this impractical 21st century Platypus Man. Who knew that making an item apparently so basic as a steel blade could be quite so complicated?

A stack of used clay pots (crucibles), in which crucible steel was made. Crucibles were made on site and had to be discarded after being used twice.

Another door off the courtyard leads us into a worker’s cottage, immaculately dressed to give a glimpse of life in the mid-19th century. Somewhat grander, and set out as it might have been towards the end of the 19th century, is the Master’s House. There is also a Counting House, dressed as it might have been in the 1920s, the office where the works foreman and his clerk carried out administrative tasks essential to the running of the enterprise.

The Tilt Forge, where steel was shaped into the required size and shape of blade

Abbeydale is a fascinating, informative place to visit, offering glimpses of a way of life that feels very alien today. But I can’t help thinking it’s a somewhat sanitised account of how it was “back in the day”. Although on special occasions some of the machinery is still operated by volunteers, during our visit it lay silent. Surely, Abbeydale was never silent? And what about the heat of the furnaces, and the stink and the smoke and the filth, all of which were part and parcel of everyday life when this place was in business? None of this was evident or even hinted at when we were there.

One of four waterwheels on site. These powered various pieces of machinery used in the scythe-making process.

And the neatly grassed courtyard that sits at the heart of Abbeydale looks totally incongruous. Grassy green lawns in the middle of a chaotic industrial 19th century industrial site? I don’t think so! Clearly the courtyard, as well as the tools, bits of machinery and buildings lovingly preserved on site, tell only half the story.

Interior of one of the three workers’ cottages on site. Built in 1793, these housed keyworkers such as the grinder and forge man. Labourers would have lived elsewhere, somewhere less comfortable!

There must be at least a hundred reasons why it would not be possible or desirable, nor even legal, to faithfully recreate the realities of the day-to-day life of Abbeydale in its prime. That’s OK, the Museum still serves an important purpose as a learning aid for young and old alike. But we must never allow excellent museums like this – and for sure, Abbeydale is an excellent museum – to tempt us into becoming nostalgic for the world we have lost.

Interior of the Manager’s House, built 1838-42. Definitely a step up from the workers’ cottages.

Today, Abbeydale looks quaint. It’s well ordered, clean, immaculately presented and eerily attractive. It seems like a rewarding and comfortable place to earn a daily wage, and to live. But have no doubt, life was a living hell for the people who once worked there, engaged in hard and dangerous manual labour every day while earning a pittance. Never forget this, please, if you ever get the chance to visit Abbeydale, or any similar industrial or living history museum. Exhibits like these tell the truth, but never the whole truth.

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25 comments

  1. ThoughtsBecomeWords · November 2

    Wonderful post, you always enlighten me with such historical information. I will concur regarding “engaged in hard and dangerous manual labour” because there was no such thing as personal protection equipment and I shudder to think of the burns, the lung problems, the fingers and eyes lost, not to mention the back-breaking daily grind with perhaps only two small meals a day and no Union fighting for workers rights. We certainly take our easy life for granted!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · November 3

      Thank you, I’m glad this post struck a chord with you. I don’t imagine you have come across a traditional English folksong called the Dalesman’s Litany? It describes the horrors of life in Yorkshire when the Industrial Revolution was at its height (Yorkshire is of course where the Abbeydale Museum is situated). The song is written from the perspective of an agricultural worker who is forced by circumstances to look for work in neighbouring industrial towns, and its graphic imagery (eg “where furnaces thrust out tongues of fire, and roared like the wind on the fell”) paints a grim picture of what life was like for ordinary folk at the time. If you’re interested, this link will take you to a YouTube version that also includes the lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT3A-MazRqY

      Liked by 2 people

      • ThoughtsBecomeWords · November 5

        No, I had not heard of the Dalesman’s Litany. It seems that the Industrial Revolution was a “necessary evil”. Thank you for the link, I will click on it now. Knowing me, I will need tissues and a cup of tea afterwards.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · November 5

        Yes, a necessary evil indeed. Hopefully the song “worked” for you. Although it tells a grim story, the fact that in the last verse the Dalesman is saved “from Hull and Halifax and hell” offers me some reassurance that – even when things seem hopelessly bleak – life can get better.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ThoughtsBecomeWords · November 8

        A beautiful and stirring rendition by Tim Hart & Maddy Prior – yes, change is inevitable and it works both ways.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Paddy Tobin · November 2

    A case of a museum viewing the past through rose tinted glasses, perhaps. Interesting nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 3

      Yes, running a facility that attracts lots of visitors while at the same time being honest about what life was really like back then is a balance that’s difficult to achieve.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glossing over past imperfections is more palatable it seems. Still, a fascinating look back at history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 3

      Yes, we fool ourselves when we refer to “the good old days”: mostly they weren’t very good at all!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Laurie Graves · November 2

    Well put! A longing for the good old days, which often weren’t that good, is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Nostalgia runs like a fever through the U.S., and has led to some pretty terrible things. That’s not to say we can’t learn from the past and admire folks for their grit and ingenuity. But lets not sanitize it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 3

      Similar problems here! Nostalgia for the “good old days” invariably ignores the economic, social and medical hardships that earlier generations encountered. It also takes no account of the collateral damage our nation caused beyond its borders while accumulating its wealth: the British Empire, when “Britania ruled the waves” is not something to be proud, but there are still many who look back on it wistfully.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. June’s Travels · November 3

    We live in the Midwest of USA, where has strong agriculture. These tools must have played an essential role in the agricultural history. I am impressed how large they are. Great post👍

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 3

      Thank you for your kind words, June. You’re right, the tools made at places like Abbeydale were essential to enable enough land to be cleared and crops to be grown to feed the growing population.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Carol Ann Siciliano · November 4

    Of all the historical places I enjoy visiting, I like the industrial museums (and ruins) best of all. Your history, photos and insights do justice to Abbeydale and to those who worked there. I had the good fortune to tour U.S. Steel’s massive steel works in Gary, Indiana, twenty-five years ago: almost all of it was supersized and automated. Safer, cleaner, awe-inspiring — and outside human comprehension (for me).

    Abbeydale fills that human-sized hole. Thank you. And I appreciate you reminding us that pretty bricks and tidy piles of crucibles hide the terrible reality of working there. I admit I want to hold both pictures: I want to remember the suffering and also savor the ingenuity and importance of early industrial production.

    Thank you also for the Dalesman’s Lament.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 5

      I wonder what the early pioneers of the iron and steel industry would have made of the US Steel works you visited? The distance travelled by that industry – and so many others too – is extraordinary, testimony to human ingenuity and endeavour. The sacrifices and suffering endured by so many along the way were inevitable, I guess, and remembering these helps put our relatively comfortable 21st century existence into perspective. Industrial museums can play a vital role here in keeping the story alive and complete – Mrs P and I share your enthusiasm for them!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Ann Siciliano · 29 Days Ago

        One more thought on our fascinating exchange: I just read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North & South, which, in addition to its Pride & Prejudice romance, provides commentary on manager-worker relations during the Industrial Revolution. I thought of your post!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · 28 Days Ago

        I confess that I’ve never read North and South, though I’ve seen a television adaptation. The tensions between the north and south of England continue to this day, the north perceived by many southerners as backward, industrial, dirty and poor, the south regarded by many northerners as privileged, wealthy, arrogant, selfish and uncaring. All crass stereotypes, obviously, but they are to a degree still alive and kicking within our culture, perpetuated by differing regional accents and idioms. But there can be a meeting of the ways…I’m a southerner by birth, and Mrs P’s a northerner (well, from the north Midlands to be precise) and we’ve found common ground! I moved “north” at the age of 22 and have never regretted it…this place now feels like home, and I feel welcome here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Ann Siciliano · 28 Days Ago

        Your comment below on North & South is so interesting. I hadn’t realized that those tensions were more general (and persistent) than a local woman’s prejudices (in the book). I now also better understand the term Midlands. As always, Mr. P., I learn fun things from you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · 27 Days Ago

        “The Midlands” is an ill-defined concept. It is to be found north of the South and south of the North, but since nobody can agree what constitutes North or South this doesn’t really help much! Regional loyalties and prejudices abound…

        Like

  7. jmankowsky · November 7

    A wonderful post. I LOVED your last paragraph–The good ol’ days were so NOT that for most everyday people. Thanks for posting this!
    -Julie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 7

      Thank you Julie, I’m glad this post struck a chord with you. Many decades ago, when I was a teenager surrounded by adults looking back wistfully to the “good ol’ days” (WW2, the Great Depression, the lack of decent, affordable health-care and so on!!) I promised myself I’d never fall into the same delusional trap. I’m still keeping that promise!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. tanjabrittonwriter · 8 Days Ago

    In this day and age, one would expect at least a plaque with a summary of the living conditions of most of the workers at such a site.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 7 Days Ago

      Yes, if I were to write Abbeydale’s “end of term report” (do you say “end of semester”?) I’d have to say “could do better” in terms of its portrayal of historical living conditions at the site.

      Liked by 1 person

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