Victorian and Edwardian British Industrial Architecture
Ramsbury (Marlborough): The Crowood Press, 2016
Hardcover. 150 p. ISBN 978-1785001895. £22.50
Reviewed by William Whyte
St John’s College, Oxford
This slim volume is a remarkable achievement. In somewhat fewer than 150 pages, Victorian and Edwardian British Industrial Architecture offers an encyclopaedic – and beautifully well-illustrated – survey of its subject. True enough, covering such a tremendous range of buildings within such a small compass means that the text proceeds at break-neck pace. It is true, too, that the book is better on styles and façades than on structures and plans. But as an introduction to the subject, it could scarcely be bettered. This is a book that anyone interested in industrial architecture will benefit from reading.
After a couple of sensible sections defining the subject and exploring the development of factory buildings in general, the book consists of six chapters each exploring a different type of factory building. The author demonstrates equal facility in describing engineering works, factories which fashioned building materials, and those which produced food and drink, fashion, homeware, or paper and books. The volume is finished off with both a reflection on ‘Victorian and Edwardian Factories Today’ and a short, but helpful, bibliography.
Managing to pack all this into a single volume is genuinely impressive, for the scale of the subject is daunting. Across the period, tens of thousands of factories were built. By 1900 there were 1,500 woollen mills in Yorkshire alone; more than 1,000 bottle ovens in Stoke; even – it turns out – somewhat in excess of 70 piano factories in the London borough of Camden. Even to sample these various different buildings and different building types is a work of supererogation. The fact that mastering this material also involves expertise in a wide variety of disciplines and literatures makes the project all the more unlikely. Here the reader will learn about the great centres for oil-seed processing and vinegar production (Hull and South London respectively, in case you don’t know). Here are massive tobacco factories and diminutive distilleries. Here, too, are oriental carpet manufactories and soap plants in a variety of exotic styles. From Aberdeen to York – and all stops in between – the book achieves marvellously comprehensive coverage.
For all their importance and for all the effort made to embellish so many of them, factories were never seen as high art. Despite the magnificent chimneys, the imposing façades, the sheer scale of some of these edifices, contemporaries tended to look for architectural excellence elsewhere. In the last two decades of the century, for instance, the pre-eminent trade publication of the period, The Builder, illustrated only one factory – the Schweppes water-bottling plant in Colwall in 1891. Even when the Victorians admired a factory, they tended to praise it because they thought it did not look like one. At Bedford, the Britannia Iron Works was so enormous that it became a tourist attraction and so elaborate that one journalist observed that its entrance looked like ‘the portal to some sybaritic castle of indolence, or some luxurious seat of learning, or anything indeed other than a temple of industry’. Yet it is not the least of this book’s achievements to show readers that they should look again. Examples like the staggeringly whimsical Saracen Foundry in Glasgow – complete with a dome, fancy metal work, and crowns atop the chimneys – are compared with the sheer brute mass of cotton mills like James Howard’s Sun Mill at Chadderton, which housed no fewer than 153,000 spindles.
And it is not simply through its text that this book succeeds in illuminating a whole world of buildings. Not the least of its attractions are its superb collection of images: some of them taken from postcards and prospectuses and other advertising material (for these factories were always about broadcasting the identity of a brand); others produced by the author herself. Taken as a whole, they reveal just how remarkable these buildings could be – and also just how vulnerable industrial architecture has proved to the exigencies of time. Many marvellous buildings have been lost. Still others are now neglected. Of those that survive, only a very few continue to have a productive purpose. In Stoke-on-Trent, Emma Bridgewater’s pottery now reuses the 1887 Eastwood Works. In Laverstoke, Hampshire, the old Portal paper mill – once used to produce the material on which banknotes were printed – is now used to manufacture Bombay Sapphire Gin. But these are exceptions.
In the end, then, what the text and what these splendid pictures equally illustrate is both the importance of these edifices and the effects of de-industrialisation on them. All historians of modern Britain will gain from reading this introduction to the subject and even specialists are bound to encounter something new. It is a volume that can also be recommended to students looking for a clear and comprehensive way of engaging with Britain’s industrial past.
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