Can you ever “meet” your long deceased ancestors? I believe you can! All you have to do is find what are often called living museums and journey back in time exploring Victorian streets and houses, mine workings, preserved farms, historic harbours and ships, old ironworks. England is full of them and I’m willing to bet most other countries are too.
Thankfully the sun was shining as we arrived at the Blists Hill car park on a warm Spring morning, the parking fee being £3 for the whole day and the permit can be used in all of the other Gorge Museum car parks the same day. The entrance to the museum reception is below the level of the Victorian village and the glass facade is topped by a large and impressive looking steam engine, a taste of things to come. As usual with these places, buying an Annual Passport ticket works out cheaper than buying individual day-tickets if you intend to visit more than one museum.
Blists Hill, south of Telford in Shropshire, was an area of considerable industrial activity in the 1800s and 1900s and reminded me a great deal of my own home growing up on the West coast of Cumbria where we had an iron ore mine, an ironworks, a tannery, a shoe factory, a brewery, a fishing port, and numerous farms for sheep, dairy and oats. Blists Hill had iron furnaces, brickworks, a clay mine, a coal mine, a tile works, and had the Shropshire Union Canal running across the site enabling boats to travel to Coalport via the Hay Inclined Plane.
After watching the video of iron making and pressing of wrought iron we walked out into the village and stepped into Lloyd’s Bank staffed by two ladies in Victorian costume behind metal bars! As well as learning about how banks operated in the 19th Century you can exchange modern day money £p for REAL money, £Sd, to use around the village!
Next we wandered into the pharmacy, or Apothecary as it was called in those days, with its fantastic smell of carbolic, the array of glass bottles and a group of children listening to a lady behind the counter explaining how the system worked. Many of the children had made an effort to wear typical clothing of the era …… especially flat caps.
Walking around the streets really took us personally back in time, a pub, a butchers, an iron mongers, a bakery, a milliners, a primary school ……….. can you imagine this ……. in our current Cotswolds village we have four hairdressers, five coffee shops, two charity shops …… but thankfully we have a decent butchers though we lost our bakery, vegetable shop, three pubs etc. To walk through the streets of Blists Hill was metaphorically walking amongst my ancestors.
There are also many “industrial” buildings interspersed between and around the houses and shops. Many of these are operational such as the iron foundry, the sawmill/carpenters, the steam engine operating the clay mine lift, the dray horses and yard. Everywhere there is in-built evidence of the industrial past, especially the row of blast furnaces with their brickwork having survived decades of temperatures above 1000 degrees, and the wrought iron mill with the enthusiastic volunteer explaining to visitors how it all worked and the lives of the people who operated it.
We enjoyed ourselves here immensely, having immersed ourselves in Victorian life for two hours. To many of the young people visiting it must have seemed like another planet, but the majority of visitors that morning were 60+ like ourselves and probably reliving parts of their childhood. It is very easy to compare modern life more favourably with better living conditions, greater safety in the workplace, better wages and standard of living, gender equality, cleaner air ……. but did all this have to be INSTEAD of a sense of community, pride in ones village, mounting debt, and 4 hairdressers, 5 coffee shops? Answers below in comments appreciated.
Next we move on to a museum celebrating how one man contributed to the Industrial Revolution and changed the iron making process for the first time in thousands of years: Abraham Darby I.
Writing An American Tourist Guide To England a few months back set me thinking about how much many of us take for granted our own country, preferring to visit Notre Dame Cathedral instead of Salisbury, The Prado instead of The Tate, ignoring our wonderful Industrial Museums, and having no idea of the significance of Magna Carta, Mappa Mundi or even where to find them. But visiting such places gets us closer to our ancestors than merely looking at birth certificates, marriage certificates or death certificates and graves. THIS is Imaginative Ancestry so why not find places like this that will take you back in time to “meet” your ancestors?