The C18th and C19th were a time of great change in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was to change the landscape for ever from a small scale agrarian economy to a largely industrial one.
Shropshire had good deposits of coal, iron ore, limestone and clay as well as timber and water. The River Severn also provided transport for raw materials and finished goods.
Abraham Darby developed a method of producing iron using coal rather than charcoal and revolutionised iron making. Iron could be provided cheaply and in quantities needed for domestic products as well as for large scale industrial purposes. The Ironbridge was the first bridge in the world to be built from iron. Later on, large quantities of iron would be essential for the building of railways and steam locomotives.
Small scale mining for coal, ironstone, and clay led to rapid development of supporting industry and the need for housing for their workers. Canals and later railways were built to transport raw materials and goods.
The area around Blists Hill in Shropshire was at the heart of this change and is the site of many museums recording this change. It was the first World Heritage Site in Britain.
Blists Hill Victorian Town has been built on the site of a small industrial site and still has the remains of the mine, brick and tile works and blast furnaces, along with a stretch of the Shropshire Canal. There has been a mine here since 1770 and coal, iron ore, and clay have all been mined in the area. A brick works produced domestic bricks as well as firebricks for the blast furnaces which needed replacing every two years. The Shropshire canal carried raw materials and the Hay Inclined Plane transported them to the River Severn 200’ below.
The Hay Incline Plane closed in 1907, once the railways had arrived. The canal stopped being used in 1912 after the blast furnaces closed following a miner’s strike. The mine closed in 1941. The brick and tile works were the last to close in the 1950s and the tall chimneys demolished. The row of houses built for the those who worked in the local industries was demolished in the late 1960s when the remaining inhabitants moved to Telford New Town.
Blists Hill Victorian Town has been developed to show what a small industrial town might have looked like at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Additional buildings have either been brought from the surrounding area or else reconstructed here using recycled materials. By then the railway had arrived, replacing canal and river traffic. A siding and goods shed have been built to represent the importance of the railway.
There are examples of small industries found at that time, along with the shops and services needed by the population.
Ironworks and foundries would be needed to process iron from the blast furnaces.
Horses were still important for moving goods and raw materials so blacksmiths and harness makers were needed. Candles were still used underground although increasingly being replaced by safety lamps.
Although there is a public house, there were few problems with drunkenness as employers wanted their employees to be sober!
Shops and services were needed to support families employed in the local industry.
As the population got more disposable income, a photographers and cycle shop would be added to the list of essentials. The 1870 Education Act made schooling compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, leading to the building of a school.
The settlement could not have supported a full time doctor, so a local doctor renting rooms for a surgery.
Civic pride lead to the development of small parks, often with a bandstand.
There is no church on the site, although there is a ‘tin tabernacle’. Methodism was strong among industrial workers and these small buildings could be erected quickly to give the population somewhere to worship , especially in more remote areas.
The site is divided into different sections. There is a town area with Victorian shops such as a bank, bakery, grocers, drapers and post office. There is a traditional sweet shop, pub and fish and chip shop which uses beef dripping for frying.
The industrial area contains the ironworks, foundry, and other industries supporting them. Stationary steam engines provided the power.
The Transport section includes the canal, Hay Inclined Plane as well as examples of boats that were used on the canal or river. The highlight must be the working reconstruction of a Colebrookdale steam locomotive built by Trevithick in 1802 and the world’s first steam railway locomotive.
At the far end of the site is what is described as the countryside district with a squatters cottage, toll cottage and the ‘tin tabernacle’. The funfair would have been a seasonal traction visiting many different settlements during the year.
Many of the buildings have costumed interpreters demonstrating working skills as well as answering visitors questions. Allow plenty of time for a visit and time to talk . Don’t forget to visit the bank and exchange modern money into predecimal currency to use in the shops.
It is a small and fairly compact site, making it much more accessible in a day than say places like the Black Country Living Museum or Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.
The guide book has a lot of pictures, some information about what it might have been like to live in Blists Hill, but little information about the different buildings, apart from where they came from. There is virtually nothing about the different industries. It is probably not worth buying unless you want a pictorial reminder of the visit.
Frustratingly there is little information on the web and a lack of historical information. Perhaps the record have been lost and it just doesn’t exist? There are a few information boards around the site, but not many. If you want information, you need to spend time talking to the costumed interpreters in the different buildings or around the site.
You can either buy a single attraction ticket, but if planning on visiting more than one site, the annual pass is much better value.
It was the Victorian Christmas Weekend when I visited. Everywhere was decortated for Christmas but several of the buildings were not open.