Tony Coverdale November 2016

2017 is rapidly approaching and with it our half-century. We will of course be having a Birthday Party – more details to follow. But this important milestone offers an opportunity for reflection to look back on what has been achieved and to look forward to what we might achieve in the future. The theme of the 2017 programme is therefore: ‘reflect on the past while planning for the future’.

Britain in 1967 was a very different place to Britain today. On the heritage front, in 1967 there was a desire to eradicate all that was old and shabby and replace it with a brave new world. A classic example of this was the ‘Sack of Bath’ in which planners hoped to clear away much, or all, of the lesser Georgian buildings in Bath, leaving just a few set-pieces like the Royal Crescent, and replace the rest with modern tower blocks and flats. In doing that they would have destroyed the character of the city, and though a lot of damage was done, thankfully much was saved. The same was true of industrial heritage. Old industry was being swept away, coal mines had closed or were about to close, the railways had been decimated by the Beeching cuts and most canals were silted up or drained. It was in this environment that BIAS was founded to promote research into the industrial archaeology of the region before valuable evidence was lost. I believe that we can congratulate ourselves on achieving that aim, the volumes of the BIAS Journal being testament to that fact.

Looking back, much has been achieved to save elements of our industrial heritage. Two beacon projects must be the SS Great Britain and the Kennet and Avon Canal. In 1967 the SS Great Britain was a rusting hulk in the Falklands and the Kennet and Avon Canal was largely un-navigable. Today the SS Great Britain is part of the National Historic Fleet welcoming 150,000 visitors a year and the Kennet and Avon Canal is a major ‘Heritage Tourism’ venue. But these are not the only examples of industrial archaeology to be preserved and there are numerous other projects doing equally sterling work, albeit not so much in the lime light. Projects which come to mind are: the South Gloucestershire Mines Research Group; the Museum of Bath at Work; the Radstock Museum; the Saltford Brass Mill Project (with which I am closely involved); Warmley Brass Mill; the Avon Valley Railway, Underfall Yard, Clifton Rocks Railway and the list goes on. Our programme of talks in 2017 will therefore focus on these success stories and will aim to present the tale of research, conservation and interpretation over the decades. We will seek to highlight the successes, consider the challenges that have been faced and overcome and so help better inform how we should take the BIAS forward into the future.

BIAS is not alone in showing an interest in industrial archaeology. I deliver a programme of lectures on the Avon Valley brass industry to interested groups. I lecture once or twice a month and the range of audiences is illuminating. They include major heritage organisations such as the National Trust, the University of the Third Age, Local history groups, family history groups and other technical groups such as the Society of Model and Experimental Engineers. There is also growing academic interest. I have made links with Bath Spa and Bristol University in recent years and of course we also have Bath University and the University of the West of England in our region, both have which have a strong technology bias. As we take our programme forward my belief is that we should forge links with such allied organisations and aim to work together to consolidate research and interest in our industrial past. To further this aim, we hope to hold our 2017 talks at a range of venues to foster links with allied groups and organisations. Many of our talks will be held at our Keynsham venue, but we also hope to provide talks in other venues to help widen our interest base.

We are also working hard on producing a 2017 Gazetteer of the Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol and Bath Region. The last time such a project was undertaken was in 1987 (30 years ago! – well done Joan Day) and again much has changed. Many of the sites in which we are interested are now scheduled or the buildings listed. This has achieved two outcomes. It provides protection for the buildings and sites and also provides a useful starting point for research as each Heritage England site entry includes a synopsis of the building, the reasons why it is important, the building’s key dates and the people involved. In putting together the gazetteer we also have to reflect the changing times. Some sites which in 1987 it seemed might disappear have been saved while others have gone. And new industries have joined the list of sites of interest to the industrial archaeologist. The tobacco and chocolate industries are two which come readily to mind. These were going strong in 1987 but we have since seen their demise and so they join the ranks of industrial heritage. The question has been asked ‘what date should we set as a cut-off for something being industrial archaeology?’ As I said in my last report from the chair, the three submarines in which I served were built in the 1960s and 70s but are now awaiting disposal and so are consigned to industrial archaeology. I believe that the only criterion is that the topic reflects an industry which once thrived but has now disappeared and its memory is worth recording. Concorde, chocolate and early computers all fit the criteria.

This is an interesting time for industrial archaeology. The emphasis may have changed from recording what is left before it disappears and preserving worthwhile examples of buildings and hardware to revaluating our interpretation of the facts that we have. The scope for research may have changed, but there is much still to be done.