industrial history

Beamish, County Durham: Beamish Museum

I know I said in my last post that I didn’t really know why we settled on Durham as the destination of our first holiday since 2019, but actually, Jozef Boruwlaski was obviously a factor, as was Beamish Museum. Based on lots of past experience, I know that living history museums are very hit or miss. When they’re good (Blists Hill), they’re so much fun, but when they’re bad (Hale Farm, where I did a short-lived internship many years ago), they’re dismal. Beamish bills itself as “the living museum of the North” and is one of the largest open air museums in England, as well as the first regional open air museum (meaning that it focuses on the history and culture of the North East rather than having buildings from all over the country).

 

At the time we visited, you had to pre-book a timed arrival slot in advance, so I booked a couple of weeks in advance to ensure we didn’t miss out. Tickets are £19.50, and the booking procedure is slightly complicated, as you have to book both a timed slot and a pass as separate entities, but I figured it out in the end. I was a bit annoyed with the weather forecast for this trip, because it was meant to be cold and rainy, and I had packed accordingly, but our first two days up north were actually super warm and sunny, and you know I would have worn a cute 1940s dress to waltz around in the 1940s town if I’d have known. As it was, I had to settle for an overall style jumpsuit and t-shirt ensemble that probably made me look more equipped to work in the pit town, but whatever.

  

We were slightly dismayed when we arrived to find ourselves standing in a massive queue directly under a hot sun broiling down on us in defiance of the weather report, but at least there were amusing signs written in “Northern” (Geordie maybe? I don’t know what a Durham accent is officially called, but it sounds fairly Geordie to me, and Beamish is located about halfway between Newcastle and Durham) to entertain us whilst we waited, to say nothing of the various dogs accompanying our fellow visitors. Fortunately, the line moved fairly quickly, and we soon found ourselves inside the massive expanse of Beamish.

 

There is a Routemaster bus that will take you between the various historical villages, but there was a huge queue at every single bus stop, so we opted to walk (plus a Routemaster isn’t exactly Northern. According to its sign, it stops in Aldwych, so I joked that we should hop in it and go back to London). It’s not all that far from one village to another, but you will end up doing a lot of walking by the end of the day, so make sure to wear comfy shoes (I actually was, for once, since I thought it might be too muddy for sandals with all the rain we were meant to get. Of course everything was bone dry, so I had hot, sweaty feet for no reason). We started with the first village chronologically which was an 1820s one whose main attraction was “Puffing Billy”, a replica of the earliest surviving steam locomotive. Of course, like everything else at Beamish, we were faced with a big ol’ queue to ride it, and since they were only allowing four groups on the train at a time, we really could not be bothered to wait. It only rode a short way down the tracks and back again anyway, so it was probably almost as fun just watching (i.e. not very).

  

This village had a few other buildings, including a church and a manor house that you could enter. Because of Covid, the site still wasn’t fully operational, so there weren’t many interpreters about (not a problem for me, since I find interacting with them super awkward anyway), though there was a man sitting at a table in the manor house whittling a spoon. He didn’t really explain why, but then again, we didn’t ask. All along the path up to the house (which was up a steep hill), we had seen fake historical posters advertising a really big pig, and the only thing that convinced me to climb the hill was the promise of a big pig at the top, so of course I was going to be very annoyed if I didn’t see one. Actually, there were two pigs, though they were more of the ugly hog variety than the cute pink curly tailed kind, and they weren’t unusually large. After those posters, I was expecting more of a Wilbur situation, with a “Some Pig” spiderweb above his head (oh god, now I’m going to end up crying if I think about poor Charlotte).

  

En route to the Victorian town, which is apparently actually a 1900s town, and was clearly meant to be the highlight of the whole affair, we passed a 1950s town that was under construction, which will include some ugly pre-fab houses and a chippy once it is completed. The 1900s town was the most town-like in terms of the experience, as they had a working bakery and sweetshop you could go into. Again, the queues were very long, so we just went into the bakery, because you can get boiled sweets anywhere. The bakery had a surprisingly large variety of old-timey things, and even more surprisingly, only a few of them contained loathsome raisins, so I had a nice raisin-free selection to choose from. I ended up with a jam and coconut sponge (because I felt like it was more old-timey than the lemon drizzle Marcus got) and a Victoria cream biscuit. The sponge tasted nice, but it was very dry (and nowhere near as delicious as the bakery from Blists Hill), and I was absolutely dying for a cup of tea, which, oddly for a British attraction, was absolutely nowhere in sight, so I just had to choke it down. I saved the biscuit for later, and it was also nice, but so greasy it had made the bag it was in completely see-through, which was a bit off-putting (I’m not on Dr. Nick’s weight-gain diet).

 

Because some of the shops were still closed, they had set up a series of tents outside where you could buy Edwardian merchandise, and having finally spied a suffragette sash for a reasonable price (£13.50. They used to have some at the Museum of London, but they were almost £100!) you better believe I bought one, and put it on and marched around singing “Votes for Women, step in time” as soon as I got back home. There was also a drugstore and photography shop, but unlike Blists Hill, you couldn’t dress up in Victorian clothes and have your photo taken, so we skipped those too due to the wait. We did go in a couple of the terraced houses at the end of the village, but they were underwhelming, and I was put off by the maskless, shirtless, beet-fleshed teenagers who were in there with us. We did finally discover a tearoom down this end, but having long since swallowed all my cake by this point, I wasn’t inclined to queue for hours for a tea. There was also a pub, but guess what? Yep, massive queue.

  

Just outside 1900s town was a funfair, but it seemed to be aimed pretty squarely at children, so we didn’t even bother walking in, other than to get a picture of the creepy clowns on the helter skelter (I always forget what British people call them and end up calling them “Curly Wurlys” or “Topsy Turvys” before I think of the right term, though the former is of course a chocolate bar, and not even one I particularly like). I really needed a wee by this point (despite not drinking any tea), but having passed the “Ladies Waiting Room” in the train station because I didn’t think you could actually go inside, I was forced to use a busy one near some heavy machinery up a hill, and it was dis-gus-ting. I still shudder thinking about it, especially the cherry pit someone had thoughtfully spit out in the sink that was just bobbing around in there.

 

Having survived the horrors of the modern but gross toilet, we walked up the hill to the 1940s wartime farm. The most entertaining thing about the farm was the chickens, one of whom had escaped her pen and was just wandering around pecking at stuff. Otherwise, it was just a collection of smelly barns with not much in them, and a grim stone-floored cottage whose toilet still looked more pleasant than the one I had just used.

  

Finally, we headed to the 1900s pit village and colliery. Like much of the North, this region was once home to many coal mines and the small museum of coal mining in one of the buildings here was one of the more interesting parts of Beamish, as there wasn’t a whole lot of signage elsewhere. There were also a few more houses, a church, and a school where loads of noisy children were playing the stick and hoop game out back. I was initially excited by the coal-fired chippy, but again, the apparently hour-long queue (according to the sign outside) was enough to stop me from even considering being a bad vegetarian and eating dripping-cooked chips. I was pleasantly surprised that we could actually go into what I think were the winding engine house and heapstead, which had excellent views of the pit village, though disappointed to learn that they normally have a mine that wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited. I’m always up for putting on a hard hat and crawling into a dark pit.

  

By this point we were fairly tired from all the walking and we’d seen everything that didn’t involve a massive queue, so we decided to head up to Hartlepool (home of the “Monkey Hangers” because they literally hanged a poor monkey during the Napoleonic wars, which is not something I’d be bragging about. They have a monkey trail dotted around the coastal path with little monkey statues on the markers) so we could have an ice cream and chips that weren’t cooked in dripping. As you can probably tell, I was definitely disappointed by Beamish, both because it wasn’t fully reopened yet, and because of the giant queues at anything of interest. They were allegedly limiting numbers at the time of our visit, so I hate to think what it’s like normally (though in fairness, we were there during the first week of summer holidays, which I’m sure is busier than most other times). It wasn’t quite as bad as our Black Country Living Museum experience, but it was certainly no Blists Hill. 3/5, mainly because I like my sash and I’m a sucker for a ye olde bakery, even though the cake was (probably authentically) dry.

Amberley, West Sussex: Amberley Museum

My visit to Amberley came about when a friend suggested a cultural outing, which we hadn’t had together (for obvious reasons) since the Postal Museum at the end of February. Though I know he’s been taking public transport, I’m still not comfortable with it (though I have a dentist appointment on the day this post is being published that I’m going to have to take a train to, so I’m going to have to get comfortable right quick), so I suggested an open air museum that Marcus and I could drive to that would have the added benefit over traditional museums of being mostly outdoors once we arrived. There are three open air museums within an hour and a half drive of us: Chiltern Open Air Museum, the Weald and Downland Museum, and Amberley Museum. I was leaning strongly towards the Chiltern Museum and its Edwardian toilet block with carbolic soap, since I was thinking that’s exactly what I would need to scrub up mid-visit, until Marcus discovered that part of A View to a Kill was filmed at Amberley, and that decided it, since I am far fonder of the Moore and Connery Bond films than I should be (given how sexist and racist most of them are).

 

I had only seen said friend once since the pandemic started (when he came and sat in my back garden and I talked to him from inside the back door), but Marcus had been spending time with him, so I had to accept that like it or not, we were probably already in a “bubble” with him (though can anyone explain how the bubble system actually works, because I sure can’t), and if Marcus was exposed to him, I essentially was anyway, so I might as well hang out with him too and just try to keep my distance (this was back in August, before things started to tighten up again). I had booked our tickets in advance as instructed by the website; you have to book for one of three time slots: 10-11:30, 11:30-1, or 1-2:30. All this means is that you have to arrive at some point within your time slot, but once inside, you can stay until the museum closes at 4:30 if you wish. Tickets cost £13.60 per adult. I booked a few days beforehand and all the time slots except the earliest one were still available, so we ended up with the 1-2:30pm one since it was an hour and a half drive away and I’m not a particularly early riser on a Saturday (or any other day for that matter, unless I don’t have a choice).

 

Amberley Museum is built on the site of a former chalk quarry, so it is a lot more industrial in nature than some of the other living history museums I’ve visited. I was honestly pretty underwhelmed for the first section, since it just felt like we were passing through room after room full of machinery and tools that I couldn’t care less about. Though it is an open air museum, it of course has a lot of buildings you can go inside, and more mini-museums than I was anticipating, so we ended up spending more time indoors that I had envisioned when I suggested it. Amberley does require masks inside the buildings, and everyone was complying as far as I could see – they also only allow one group at a time in the smaller buildings, and most of the living history demonstrators are not currently there, I guess to ensure that we were the only people inside the buildings at one time, though they are still running the narrow gauge railway. The cars have open sides, and they only seat one family group per set of seats, but I suppose you ride at your own risk.

 

The site is bigger than it looks at first appearance, so I would recommend arriving no later than 1pm to have time to see everything before they shut, since we were a bit rushed towards the end of our visit. The quarries were initially owned by a father and son team whose surname was Pepper, and for some reason, the museum just kept referring to them as Pepper and Son without telling us what their first names were, which led to a lot of amusing speculation on our part as to how stupid their names must be for Amberley not to tell us. Finally, at the end of our visit, I discovered they were called John and Thomas. How disappointingly boring (though admittedly funny when put together)! Although the museum started strictly as an industrial museum in the 1970s (the pits closed in the 1960s), it acquired a lot of crap from other sites over the years, and today houses a number of small museums, such as a TV and radio museum. I would pooh-pooh the slight sexism of the intent behind the adorable parrot, above right, which was meant to sit on top a record player to make it more palatable to the “lady of the house”, but I do love it and would totally have it in my house, so I guess it’s accurate despite its sexism, at least where this lady is concerned. As we would see throughout Amberley, this museum had way, way too much text to read everything, especially as a lot of it was boring and technical, so we skimmed at best.

  

My favourite part was probably the Electricity Hall. There were so many fun retro things in here, from neon anthropomorphic lightbulb signage, to a bizarre “portable bath” (as you can see below left, it was neither small nor light, and was invented in the 1950s, when indoor plumbing would have been reasonably common, so I don’t understand the point), and allegedly the world’s first vacuum cleaner, invented in the early 20th century (I definitely remember seeing older vacuums at the Hoover Historical Center, but maybe they weren’t technically vacuum cleaners if they weren’t self-powered?).

 

I learned a number of fascinating things here, not least the existence of a thing called the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, and the fact that my friend is apparently grossed out by “museum cheese.” To start with the former, the Seashore Electric Railway was a viewing platform built on top of skinny legs that ran along a railway track that actually went into the sea. It was built in the 1890s, and rather creepily nicknamed “Daddy Longlegs” on account of its appearance. It initially only ran a few hundred metres, but they eventually extended it to a couple of miles. It sounds like a wonderfully weird bit of Victoriana, and though I’m slightly freaked out by it, I’m also sad that it doesn’t still exist! The museum cheese thing (as in the fake cheese they put inside old timey food displays in museums) was less of a surprise, since I knew my friend hates actual cheese, but I didn’t think anyone could actually be freaked out by fake cheese (I’ve already asked my learning officer friend if she has any museum cheese in her handling collection that I can borrow to gross out my other friend the next time I see him). This museum also had a tonne of interactive stuff, which I wasn’t keen on touching in the current situation, but other people were. I guess at least they had hand sanitizer dispensers situated at strategic points throughout the building.

 

There was also a railway exhibition that my friend was very excited to see, but I was much less enthused, so I basically just left him to it and wandered through the museum until I came across a display on the filming of A View to a Kill, accompanied by a clip from a 1985 BBC film programme that showed some of the filming and interviewed Roger Moore whilst he was sitting in Amberley Museum. I happily stood there and watched the entire thing whilst waiting for my friend to catch up.

  

Of course we had to then go over and see the actual filming sites. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the film, but the scenes showing the outside of Zorin’s (the baddie, played by Christopher Walken) mine were filmed here, as you can see above right, and they also still have the mine carts painted with Zorin’s logo, and the pit that the annoying “geologist” Bond girl that does nothing but helplessly scream “James, James” the entire film climbs out of to escape from the mine, and I was obviously pretty excited about all of this.

 

I also adored the mannequins in the oddly named “Connected Earth” display (which frankly sounds like a health food shop or something), which were some of the creepiest ones I’ve ever seen. The one with the braids honestly looks like she could be some kind of East German Bond villain herself! This exhibition also had interactives, including a particularly annoying one where you could set off various alarms. I was convinced there was a fire alarm going off somewhere until I saw the display – they might want to rethink that one!

 

By the time we’d seen all these exhibitions, it was getting close to closing time, so we kind of rushed through the craftspeople’s village and a couple buildings with information about the quarries, which was fairly easy to do since there weren’t actually craftspeople on site, so not a whole lot to see (it does look as though you can normally buy some of their wares though, should you be so inclined). There is also a sculpture trail, and you will probably pass some of the sculptures as you make your way through, but they’re really not a selling point, as they were some of the ugliest sculptures I’ve ever seen, except for a few bird ones (they were so ugly I didn’t even take any photos to show you).

 

Although I was initially disappointed at the largely industrial nature of the site and the very text-heavy technical displays (the real old-fashioned small print text at that), the exhibition halls largely won me over, even though I ended up spending more time inside than I was planning on as a result. I think they had some sort of a sweet shop that we didn’t go in, but I was also kind of disappointed they didn’t have a ye olde bakery or chippy like Blists Hill (still my favourite living history museum), even though I don’t really think this is the same sort of place. If it wasn’t for the exhibition halls, I would have rated it much lower, but as it is, I’m going to give them 3/5 (though I think there’s probably some work to be done on their Covid procedures with all the interactives). We spent more time here than I anticipated, and I honestly kind of liked that there weren’t living history interpreters on site because I always find it kind of awkward to interact with them (especially the amateur actor kind that insist on staying in character), but I do think some of their text panels need an update, and I probably would have had a bit more fun if I had visited in the before times when I would have felt comfortable touching stuff.

 

Lowell, Massachusetts: Lowell National Historical Park

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Lowell National Historical Park was another National Parks site that reopened just in time for our visit.  It was admittedly a last minute addition to the itinerary, when I realised how near it was to Boston, and thought, “The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Sure, why the hell not?!”  I definitely remember learning quite a bit about Lowell at some point, probably at the university level, though I can’t really remember anymore (maybe AP US History?  Seems like the sort of thing that would have been in there.).  Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that I was aware of the history of the mills, and was eager to see where it all went down.

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Lowell is kind of cool because the historic buildings are spread throughout the modern town, so you get to explore a bit whilst finding them, and follow the canal paths (any time I’m near a canal, I get that “15 Miles on the Erie Canal Song” stuck in my head, and entertainingly for passersby, usually burst into song).  It appeared to be the day Lowell was having trick-or-treating (bizarrely, in the middle of the day, which is no fun at all.  Health and safety can bite me if it means lame daytime Halloweens.), so the streets were heaving with costumed children and their parents, which made it slightly tricky to get around (pun?).  The main sites are the Visitor’s Center, the Mills Girls Exhibit, and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum (which is $6, and the only site you have to pay for), although there is an historic trolley route running through town that does tours, and occasional canal tours that do cost extra.

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We began our visit in the Boott Mills Museum, which, like all the National Parks we visited, had remarkably friendly staff.  The ground floor of the museum holds the old mill machinery, which still works!  Unfortunately, we arrived during lunchtime, so the machines were silent when we walked through the factory room, after punching in on the old fashioned time clock.  We headed straight upstairs, which holds most of the exhibits, and watched the introductory video, which featured the voice of an amusingly southern Thomas Jefferson.  I mean, I know he was from Virginia and all, and the history of accents can be difficult to trace, but I don’t think the Southern accent was that well-defined at that point in time, especially for someone from the upper classes – I certainly never pictured Jefferson as being full on, Doc Holliday style “well, I declare!” Southern, so it cracked me right up.  Video aside, the rest of the exhibits were much more sombre in tone.

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They detailed the history of the Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain, and only really taking hold in America when British entrepreneurs came over with their mechanical expertise (I was just forced to memorise facts about Richard Arkwright for the dreary “Life in the UK” exam.  Not something I want to ever have to take again).  The experience of working in the mills was illustrated by more videos, featuring elderly people who had actually worked in the mills (the videos were recent-ish, as in, made at some point in the last 30 years, which meant conditions must have been pretty crap for much longer than I would have thought).  I was fascinated by these, especially because my grandmother worked at a suit factory in Cleveland in the ’40s, and although she had some fond memories, I realised her working conditions must not have been very pleasant.   Of course people in developing countries still work in similarly horrible conditions, which is a sobering thought, and one mentioned in some of the exhibits.  There were lots of interactive things where you could practice the steps of cloth-making for yourself; they were intended for children, but we were the only visitors so of course I gave them a go (I’m awesome at carding wool thanks to my short-lived Hale Farm internship).  There were also examples of the range of finished cloth produced by the mills, which I had to examine in detail, because, c’mon, Victorian fabric patterns that might have been used by the Ingallses ( I didn’t see any “turkey red” fabric with a big yellow pattern, but some of the calicoes could have been plausibly used by them, especially because Lowell fabric was on the inexpensive side, so it would have been affordable for Pa’s broke ass.  I am such a nerd)!

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The museum took us right up to the story of modern Lowell, which became the home of a computer factory (called Wang Computers, I couldn’t help snickering).  By the time we finished with the upstairs exhibits, the machinery downstairs was up and running (we could actually feel it start whilst we were watching the film, as there was a steady rumble underneath our feet from that point on).  They offer ear plugs, as the machines are very loud, and they only turn on a few of them, so I had some idea of the cacophony that must have resulted when the whole factory was operational.  It’s a wonder that not everyone went deaf.

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Although the Mill Girls Exhibit was right next door, it didn’t open until 1:30, so we decided to wander over to the Visitor’s Center on the other side of town to kill the 15 minutes or so until opening time.  On the way, we passed the historic trolley and train depot, though we didn’t come at the right time for the free tour.  The Visitor’s Center was small and filled with trick-or-treaters, but there were exhibits on the trolley, and Jack Kerouac, who I didn’t even know was from Lowell (not that I’m at all a fan of the Beat Generation, so I don’t know why I would have known).  There wasn’t much else to see, so we made our way back through the hordes of children.  I also noticed a few textile related museums on our walk, which looked interesting, but we had a flight to catch that evening, so we didn’t have much time to spare.

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I was excited for the Mill Girls Exhibit, because the stories of the girls working in the mills is more appealing to me than the history of the mills themselves.  The exhibit was housed in one of the old dormitories, where the girls lived under the supervision of a landlady who cooked their meals.  The dining room was set up, ready for a meal, and some of the foods the girls would have eaten were tacked up in a display (some of the “potatoes” had fallen to the bottom of the case, which amused me).  Climbing the narrow staircase, I found another room devoted to the mill girls that explained the the layout of the dorms, which would have had larger apartments on the corners for the families of higher-ups. Although the grand intentions of Lowell, which was initially conceived as a wholesome environment where girls could make some money whilst enriching themselves mentally and socially, eventually went awry, as these things do, many of the early girls (who were often from the middle classes) clearly enjoyed the social aspects of their time there.  It was only later, when immigrants came to work, and wages dropped, that the highfalutin ideas on education and good working conditions completely went down the toilet.  All of this was discussed in the upstairs room, but I would have liked to hear more, as the experiences of only a few girls were highlighted.

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The next section had a timeline of immigrants (with some nice old-timey photos), and then downstairs, we learned about the modern immigrant communities in Lowell, which seems to be a veritable melting pot.  I think it’s nice that they talk about the cultural background of Lowell, but I could have done with more historical exhibits and fewer modern ones.  That’s just my personal preference though – everything was arranged very nicely, and they’d clearly made an effort to engage with the local community with their displays.

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I definitely delighted in our visit to Lowell, and was glad I tacked it on to our itinerary in the end.  It was really neat to see all the old buildings still standing (it looks like some of them have been converted into flats), and they kept the mill heritage alive throughout the town, which was ringed with sculptures of spools and bobbins.  I like how they’ve integrated the historic buildings into the modern community, and have managed to preserve the often troubled history of the mills.  4/5, for the Lowell experience, and if I ever return, I’ll definitely check out the other museums in town (and maybe go on a canal tour!)!