It’s a year since the Brexit Referendum and the UK is struggling to work out where it is going next. Partially, this is due to those who supported Brexit believing we could slip back into a golden age when Britain ruled the world and waves. Sadly, the reality of life today is far from the time, particularly in the nineteenth century, when we were a huge manufacturing empire dominating the world.
We now import more than we export, and we depend on our trade links with Europe as well as other parts of the world. And, sadly, the traditional industries in the heartlands of Britain have been wound down, closed, and/or shifted overseas. We are now a parts culture, making bits of cars or other machinery for other cultures, in a post-industrial, technological age.
So, what was it really like to work in a place, such as Nottingham, in the early to mid-twentieth century, when industry was booming? Nottingham is a good case study as it had been an industrial powerhouse since the Industrial Revolution started in Ironbridge in the 1750s. The ‘dark satanic mills’ of the nineteenth century saw it transform into a huge industrial force, with thousands of workers living in tightly-packed back-to-backs in usually horrendous conditions.
Nottingham and the surrounding counties were well-known for the mines, cotton mills, weaving (lace, cotton and later synthetics), textiles, pottery, ceramics, steel and iron. Following on from that was the growth of huge well-known brands, such as Raleigh (world dominating in bicycles once two wheels overtook horses).
George Stephenson’s Rocket hailed the beginning of steam trains and the railway, and Nottingham became a centre of production and transportation in Netherfield. Also with Rolls Royce later in Derby.
Poverty and sickness was crushing, but life had its good moments.
Boots, now a worldwide brand, started right in the centre of Nottingham and then moved to Beeston. Then there was Players, when the world was in love with smoking. The Players factory in Lenton was an enormous art-deco confection, housing thousands of workers in its heyday.
Mines, of course, were spread throughout the Midlands, with thousands of miners producing coal to run UK industry and homes during the First and Second World Wars. Nottingham spawned author D.H. Lawrence who described the realities and hardships of miners’ lives in Sons and Lovers and in other stories in the 1920s-40s.
The two World Wars, the 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Nottingham extremely hard. Two or three hundred starving men would line up for one job and worked miles to other cities to try and get work. There was no welfare, no reliable contraception or NHS, and many starved or died of curable diseases.
Post-Second World War and the introduction of the NHS (1948), Nottingham was all about modernisation. The old tenements were torn down and high-rises shot up. Whole communities were decimated in the name of ‘progress’, and a whole way of life swept away by modernising bulldozers. Of course, it is easy to romanticise poverty, but areas such as St. Ann’s and Radford had thousands of streets, pubs, community centres, churches and street life, which were swept away in a tsnunami of progress.
Local writers, such as Joan Wallace, describes in Independent Street how local communities supported each other, pre-modernisation. Alan Sillitoe describes, just as vividly, life in ‘The Raleigh’ being hitched to a machine in post-war 1950s Nottingham. His book encapsulated the ‘industrial alienation’ of the workforce chained to a hard-working, hard-drinking, working life.
Today, the big factories have closed. Boots is owned by US owners, Walgreens (2014), Raleigh was eaten up by the Far East markets (closed 2002), and vaping and healthier living has done for Players (closed 2015). The trains were decimated by Beeching in the 1960s, mines were axed by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and many communities have never recovered and are benefit-bound.
However, there are still some older souls, alive today, who can remember the days of trudging over the cobbles to work 14-hour days. They can speak about their lives in amazing detail, with its hardships, its community spirit, and the simpler pleasures. Religion (especially Methodist) was important, the pubs played a social role, and children had a freedom on the street unknown today. Poverty and sickness was crushing, but life had its good moments.
In a Brexit world it would do well for us to remember where we have come from so we can honour the hard labour of the past, while trying to establish a fledgling new order for the post-industrial future.
Corinne Sweet is a psychologist and psychotherapist, who has appeared extensively on TV and radio. She is also the author of 14 books, including the international bestseller, The Mindfulness Journal. Her latest book, Money on’t Table, is published by September Publishing.
I agree AmMaz. Our country doesn't belong to us anymore. I think most people voted out because they feel there are too many coming into our country. When new arrivals get more help than our own people that is wrong. We should look after our own first. Our precious NHS & doctors are buckling under the pressure, our schools can't cope and are having their budgets cut, its time for a rethink.
I worked on a project in the 90's for The Industrial Museum interviewing people and getting them to put their work life on tape . Conditions were bad, no work contracts so you never knew if you had paid work that day, working in unhealthy buildings, dangerous jobs, two weeks holiday if you were lucky and so on. We have moved forward for the better and this has been partially due to the EU and the Unions. We tend to glamorise the past when in reality it wax anything but. The industries have mostly been sold by our own government so we were sold out by them and as for foreign workers, how many of our people work or go abroad? We need them to fill our own skill shortage and if they pay taxes etc then they should receive the same benefits. The NHS and lack of staff is not the EUs fault but the governments for charging dr and nurses so much for their training and changing their work contracts. No I don't want to go back in time, we live in a more enlightened global world.
All of our problems are down to our own governments placing the emphasis on profit and capitalism and privatising many of our public services whilst starving the rest of funding. The EU protected individuals and without it we are at the mercy of our own politicians. Last night they passed the EU Withdrawal Bill. It gives complete power to the government (not parliament) and is very very similar to Hitler's Enabling act. Please don't take my word for it - visit the National Holocaust Museum near Tuxford. We are heading for dictatorship thanks to Brexit. Is that what you voted for?