A converted furnace into modern accommodation

Heritage skills and how to keep them

With many of the UK's key industrial heritage sites relying on ageing volunteers for their upkeep, we take a look at several initiatives that are attempting to maintain key skills.

It may have come as a surprise to the audience at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics that the two icons represented in the pageant of British history were the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the mechanical and civil engineer.

The familiar image of Brunel of course shows him standing, dwarfed by the huge mass of launching chains of the SS Great Eastern. But those chains and Brunel's iconic status would not have been possible without the far more important achievement of another British engineer, Abraham Darby.

Darby was not portrayed in the pageant, although he did feature in the written programme: "In 1709 Abraham Darby smelted iron in a blast furnace using coke. And so began the industrial revolution. Out of Abraham's Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in..."

Perhaps the last hurrah belongs to Darby, as it was his invention that formed the centrepiece of the evening: the dramatic reconstruction of the smelting of iron and the casting of the Olympic rings.

And what of Darby's furnace? Well, it still exists, preserved at Ironbridge Gorge Museum, which in 1986 became a UNESCO World Heritage site. So it is right that Britain celebrates above all its role as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Indeed in a survey conducted by English Heritage in 2011, 80 per cent of respondents said that Britain's industrial heritage was as important to preserve as its castles and country houses.

Lost skills

Recently, however, the movers and shakers in UK engineering have voiced concern that heritage sites are too dependent on the skills of a voluntary and largely ageing workforce. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is concerned that: "This has the potential to significantly compromise our ability to preserve our industrial heritage in the future. Knowledge transfer is key to working towards a more sustainable and self-sufficient solution." John Wood, chairman of the institution's heritage committee, says: "We need to take action now to help transfer skills, so that vital techniques and practices to maintain these precious links to our past aren't lost forever."

Steve Miller, chief executive of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust confirmed this when talking of Blists Hill, its 54-acre Victorian town. "Many of the exhibits on show there concern engineering - a steam road roller, a saw mill, a winding engine, which we demonstrate to the public, a wrought-iron works in the middle of the site, and the foundry where objects are cast, using sand-casting techniques that Abraham Darby would recognise, all requiring engineering support and skills to keep them in a good state of repair. So we have two engineers with us helping to maintain them but that would be insufficient without the help of a whole team of volunteers. Also, at the Jackfield Tile Museum, encaustic tiles are still commercially manufactured by Craven Dunnill using Victorian techniques and technology, and saggars, the ceramic containers created to fire decorative china in industrial kilns, are still made at Coalport China Museum using traditional skills including those of the 'saggar-maker's bottom knocker'. However the volunteers at all museums are of a certain age and getting older, so we have been making a concerted effort recently to try and encourage younger people to get involved and learn those skills and we are having a lot of success with that, transferring the basic necessary skills to maintain those exhibits."

Industry links

Ironbridge has been trying other ways of involving younger people. "We have got very active links with manufacturing and engineering industry," says Miller, "with GKN Sankey and with E.ON, the power station nearby. Their young apprentices will often come and support the museum and learn different skills working on old machines at Blists Hill in a very traditional manner, with old fashioned tools or creating new exhibits for Enginuity, our hands-on design and technology centre.

"That is brilliant for us, but hopefully also a great learning experience for young engineers, some of whom are not long out of college, having completed their formal studies. There is no substitute for getting hands-on with a practical project and it is not just the nuts and bolts of the actual activity,but also all the attendant skills you need to be a successful engineer, including project management, understanding the client brief, knowing what the audience requires, testing, refining and delivering – and all those are skills that we would actively teach."

Apprentices are actually being taken on full-time at some heritage sites as part of a scheme being run by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has been financing 800 new paid training opportunities. As a result,the Mid-Hants Railway, a heritage railway in Hampshire, running 16km from New Alresford to Alton, has been allocated funds for ten two-year work placements, the apprentices undertaking training in the mechanical engineering and technical skills required by the railway heritage sector to enable the restoration and maintenance of steam engines, coaches and rolling stock.

Colin Chambers, managing director of the Mid-Hants Railway, says: "The Heritage Lottery Fund scheme is called Skills for the Future. The idea is to preserve these skills, many of which are not in common use today, by transferring them from our older volunteers and staff to youngsters through a two-year apprenticeship, at the end of which, even if we can't give them a job, they stand a very good chance of obtaining alternative employment in the heritage industry which is now vast. We are by no means the biggest heritage railway, but our turnover last year was £2.5m, we employ 40 staff and, it is estimated, bring £10m into the local economy."

Still relevant

Wood also stresses the business potential of heritage, saying "The UK's industrial heritage is often overlooked; these artefacts are not just revealing physical links to our great industrial history from the industrial revolution through to the present day,but are also potentially profitable projects that can generate wealth and jobs in local areas." As a whole in 2010, the British heritage sector, including its industrial heritage, contributed over £7.4bn to the economy and provided more than 190,000 full-time jobs. If tourism and service industries are included, this contribution increases to over £20bn, with 466,000 employment opportunities.

Though the majority of visits to heritage sites are by people resident in the UK, there is little doubt that interest from abroad is growing. Of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Miller says: "Out of 545,000 visits to our ten museums last year, 7 per cent were international. We expect that number to increase significantly this year with the impact of the Olympics. Some from abroad come seeking out our monuments like the Hay Incline Plane, which connected two canals. We also have a fair number of international delegations visiting Ironbridge recently, including groups from China who are looking at their own industrial heritage, working out ways to make it accessible and to learn from it."

There may be many other ways of profiting from our industrial heritage, if the machines and the skills to maintain them are preserved and handed on. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers believes that: "Industrial heritage can inspire and enthuse our future generations of engineers. [It has been recognised] for many years that that the preservation of mechanical heritage has contributed to influencing the career paths of many of its 100,000 members."

Miller concurs. "There is a high probability that those young people engaged in a heritage context may gain the skill to go into engineering for a living. Here at Coalbrookdale, we like to think that symbols like the Iron Bridge and the Old Furnace, where it all began in 1709, are inspirational for young engineers and volunteers." 

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