I just spent a week running a small youth hostel near Todmorden, Yorkshire. It is called Mankinholes and is in a tiny hamlet up in the hills above the valley where the town is located.
A tiny hamlet with a huge history. For this area was one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution in England, when home industry changed to the factory system and mass production. The geology of the area means there is flowing water to power the mills, and when the technology became available during the late eighteenth century, local farmers such as the Fielden family, already prosperous from the domestic wool and cloth business, developed large factory mills in the valley. Later on the mills were powered by steam, making location less dependent on the water supply, but also creating a sooty pollution which turned everything black. Just a few hundred yards from Mankinholes, a huge mill was built at Lumbutts, and its water tower which incorporated three huge water wheels still survives. So Mankinholes, which is up in the hills, is coal black as well!
The Fieldens were Quakers and supported the need to restrict working hours and educate their workers and improve their conditions. The very building I was staying in, a 500 year old former manor house, was the centre for dramatic rioting against the introduction of the Poor Laws in 1834. These laws meant that no able bodied person could receive relief unless they were in the workhouse. I think I read that Fielden was actually present at this riot. He refused to pay the local rates to enable the Poor Law, and actually closed his mills as an act of defiance, putting 3000 people onto poor relief. These people were subsequently all paid. He was instrumental as an MP in introducing the 10 Hour Act in 1847. The Fielden family were always shrewd business people, however, and their heirs eventually became among the wealthiest people in Britain, buying huge estates far from Todmorden.
It really gripped my imagination, however, to think that people had been living in the village of Mankinholes for generations, making their wool into cloth. And that they became politically active, staging protests in the very building I was staying in. I understood the hard work, the labour, the activity involved in building dams, turnpikes, canals and then the railways, all infrastructure that we take for granted now.
All this happened only about 200 years ago. And why does it seem so immediate? Perhaps because we are now at a similar point, with social change, broken patterns of employment and huge inequalities of wealth due to new technology. We in UK are emerging from the industrial age, many still benefitting from the legacy of the Victorian age and the its wealth. It is only about 50 years since many of the mills closed, as well as the coal mines.