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.

The times they are a-changin’: Bugsworth Canal Basin reborn

One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is that it has encouraged us to spend more time exploring our local area, rather than hot-footing it across the rest of the UK and the wider world. Who knew, for example, that the Bugsworth Basin, in our own home county of Derbyshire, was once was the largest and busiest inland port on Britain’s canal system? Not me, and I’ve lived here over 40 years. Nor Mrs P either, and she’s lived in Derbyshire her entire life.

The Bugsworth Basin was the terminus of the 14 mile long Peak Forest Canal. Built between 1794 and 1804, the canal linked Bugsworth Basin with Manchester and the trans-Pennine canal network.

The basin was also the end-point of the Peak Forest Tramway. Completed in 1795, the tramway was used to move stone from some of Derbyshire’s biggest quarries to the canal basin. Together, the tramway and canal made it possible for stone extracted in Derbyshire to be transported throughout the North-West and the Midlands.

Although some gritstone was moved by canal, most of the freight loaded at Bugsworth Basin was limestone. When converted into calcium oxide (otherwise known as burnt lime or quicklime), limestone plays a pivotal role in the manufacture of steel. Demand for steel grew rapidly after the Industrial Revolution took hold in the late 18th century, driving in turn a huge growth in demand for limestone. As a result, the Peak Forest Canal and Bugsworth Basin flourished.

At its height in the 1880s, around 600 tons (544 tonne) of limestone per day was being shipped from Bugsworth Basin. Some calcium oxide was also prepared on-site at the basin, before being shipped out to customers via the canal network. It must have seemed that the good days would last forever. But they didn’t, of course, courtesy of the changing industrial landscape and competition from railways. All traffic ceased in 1921, and by 1923 the basin had closed and was falling into disrepair.

But, as Bob Dylan was so fond of telling us, the times they are a-changing. The basin and canal may have no role to play in modern freight transport, but there are opportunities aplenty in the recreation and leisure industries. Restoration began in the 1960s and took more than 40 years. Bugsworth Basin and the Peak Forest Canal have been reborn.

Although there are a few structures dating from the heyday of the industrial period, including the remains of a lime kiln where limestone was roasted to make calcium oxide, Bugsworth Basin wears its history lightly. Today, as Mrs P and I witnessed when we visited in August, the basin is thronged with colourful barges piloted by recreational waterways enthusiasts.

Meanwhile the towpath echoes to the footsteps of dog walkers and casual visitors keen to soak up the relaxed atmosphere. Cyclists whizz merrily along, grateful for somewhere flat to pursue their hobby in our notoriously hilly county, while birdwatchers keep an eye open for kingfishers.

Bugsworth Basin is now a scheduled Ancient Monument, and before Covid struck was attracting 50,000 visitors a year. It’s a real asset for Derbyshire’s tourist industry, and for ordinary folk like us who just want to escape into a different world for a few hours. What a pity that it took a global pandemic for Mrs P and I to finally discover this hidden gem on our doorstep.