Britain's Industrial Heritage Seeks World Status

Article excerpt

When Mrs Thatcher took Britain out of UNESCO in 1985, the UK's list of World Heritage Sites, which UNESCO administers was frozen. A couple of months after Labour's election victory, Britain rejoined UNESCO and Chris Smith's Department for Culture, Media and Sport began dusting down its list of possible further British sites. Greenwich and Edinburgh quickly joined the dub; then last summer the DCMS published a `tentative list' of possible further nominations.

World Heritage Sites exist to protect and promote understanding of places that are of `outstanding universal value' for their cultural and/or natural qualities. Britain's pre-1985 sites included such cultural icons as Stonehenge, the Tower of London and Ironbridge Gorge. The new list's biggest grouping is called simply `Industrialisation', implying that historically Britain's most important gift to the world has not been football or television but the Industrial Revolution.

The coverage is wide: tin mining in Cornwall, coal and iron in Wales, whisky distilling in Scotland and cotton mills in Manchester and New Lanark. It includes such setpieces as the Forth Rail Bridge, a canal aqueduct in Wales and Brunel's entire London to Bristol railway. But the list is tentative; UNESCO and its advisers are choosy, and the DCMS will nominate only those sites with a really well-supported case. A ninth potential site, the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, looks a powerful contender.

The Valley's case benefits from a detailed report drawn up by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in association with English Heritage, which came just three months after Chris Smith's Tentative List. The proposed site comprises a narrow 17 mile stretch of the lower Derwent Valley including the historic textile areas of Cromford, Belper, Milford, Darley Abbey and Derby - each of huge significance not only in the history of textiles but of the whole factory system and industrialisation.

Cromford was where Arkwright harnessed first a series of streams and then the Derwent itself to power a range of textile machinery, and where he built mill-workers' housing to accommodate a newly concentrated labour force. At Belper and Milford, the Strutt family developed water-power, fire resistant industrial buildings, social housing and farms to feed their workforce. At Darley Abbey, on the outskirts of Derby, the Evans family developed an impressive complex of mills, pioneered advances in fireproof construction and built model housing and community facilities for their workers. …