Grafters: Visions and Voices of Industrial Society offers amazing photos from the past at Manchester's People's History Museum

By Ben Miller | 03 February 2016

A new exhibition in Manchester shows little-seen stories of England's industrial past, from lost panoramas to mugshots of arrested northerners during the 1880s and a huge camera

A photo of two young women walking along a street eating chips during the 1960s
John Bulmer, Mill girls, Elland, near Halifax (1960)© John Bulmer
Long before he became one of the nation’s finest photographers, Ian Beesley was hard at the grind within the industrial landscape his lens has often brought to vivid life. “Originally when I left school I worked in a mill, which I hated,” he laughs frankly.

“And then I worked in a foundry, which I really liked, but I got made redundant from there because I wasn’t strong enough. It was pouring molten metal into moulds – I just wasn’t strong enough. I worked at Associated Weavers, in Bradford, which is long gone, and a furnace foundry which is still going. And then I ended up working on one of the last industrial steam railways in England.”

A black and white photo of a group of mustard factory workers during the 1880s
Victoria Mustard workers, Doncaster (1880s). Photographer unknown© Doncaster Museums and Art Gallery
That was about 40 years ago, but the evidence remains: in an exhibition opening on Saturday where you can almost feel the sweat and iron, one of the pictures shows the railway gang for whom Beesley was a roadrunner on board the Elizabeth (“the engine driver’s assistant, you used to have to run down the rail road to change the points”). “I owe them a great debt because they actually said to me ‘you can’t stay here all your life, you’ve got to find your vocation, your profession, and get yourself a good education.’”

He bought a camera, earned a place at Bradford Art College and began capturing his former workplaces after witnessing the stark gap between the reality of the industrial north and the “clean and sterile”, PR-like photography produced from it. Turning curator for a display where sections of the design have been cut from steel, the Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society has embarked on an extensive cross-county search for little-known, hard-hitting images of people and powerhouses from our past, accompanied by a set of poems written by poetry great (and Barnsley boy) Ian McMillan.

A black and white panoramic photo of an industrial landscape
The Oldham Panoramic (1876)© Gallery Oldham

The Oldham Panoramic

"This is one of the gems, taken by the wonderfully named Squire Knott. He took a big glass plate camera on the roof of a mill in Oldham and exposed nine separate plates and moved it round, producing this almost 360-degree image of Oldham when it was at the height of industrialisation.

When you look at the picture you just realise how brutal the process was. These houses are jammed in between colliery pitheads, the mills, the railways...I’ve never seen a picture like it, I think it’s an incredibly rare and incredibly important picture, absolutely superb.

A black and white photo of factories with tall chimneys within an industrial landscape
A section of Knott's panoramic© Gallery Oldham
Gallery Oldham had it digitised so they could print it as a big panoramic, which is what we’ve done. They had somebody do it about 11 years ago and we thought we could perhaps improve on it. Strangely enough we couldn’t, because whoever did that for them was a master. We’ve put it in a small room and it wraps around the walls, you can stand in it and look round.

The picture’s amazing because it’s got a field full of sheep in one corner where industry’s moving rural. I think he took it on a Bank Holiday because none of the mill chimneys are smoking but if you look you can find four people. There’s a man asleep on the railway in the railway yard. There’s a lady obviously calling for something, bless her. But they’re really tiny figures, you’ve got to look for them.

I just think it’s such a stunning picture. I would argue that it’s one of the most important pictures of the industrialisation of Britain. The panoramic links the exhibition together, to some extent."

A photo of a man lying inside the core of a giant ancient camera
Ian Beesley inside the giant Gallery Oldham camera© Ian Beesley

A man-sized camera

"When they started to refurbish the galleries at Gallery Oldham they asked me and Ian McMillan to go and photo the Victorian art gallery and the natural history store. And when I was looking round this building that had been just used for storage and stuff I found a camera which is reputedly the second-largest camera ever manufactured.

It’s called a Hunter Penrose process. It takes a negative of 24 by 36 inches. It’s so big you can climb inside it. It’s eight or nine feet long when extended, about 5ft 8 tall. It weighs a ton. It was originally used in a wallpaper factory for photoing wallpaper.

A photo of part of a panorama of an industrial rural landscape from the 19th century
The transit van used to transport the camera doubled as a darkroom for a series of new photos© Ian Beesley
We restored it and put it in the back of a transit van and drove it round Oldham taking photographs. They used to have it on display at one point but then it was just put in the storeroom because it’s so big. It’s about 100 years old, mahogany and brass with bellows.

We’ve got Arts Council funding to take it round in a van in the spring and summer. I converted it by building a grid inside, cos you can’t get film that big anymore, and it takes fantastic pictures. It exposes 20 sheets of film at the same time, like a joiner picture."

A black and white photo of a group of industrial workers standing within a ship canal
W E Birtles, The Construction of the Manchester Ship Canal (1887-1893)© Chetham's Library

Manchester Ship Canal

"We’ve got a complete album of the building of the Manchester Ship Canal. This guy documented the process which took, what, six years?

If you live in Manchester you know it, but you don’t realise how deep and big it is. They actually had trains running in the bottom of it.

A black and white photo of a large industrial juggernaut on a canal during the 1880s
© Chetham's Library
You see a picture and think ‘that’s a big ditch’, and then you see two steam engines in there.

When they were building the ship canal they had so many fatalities that they had hospitals every three or four miles. At one point they ran out of navvies and had to recruit labourers from Germany."

A black and white photo of a miner covered in soot down a mine during the 1950s
Harold White, Miner (1950s). Location unknown© National Coal Mining Museum

Portraits of workers

"In the really early pictures, if you find workers, they’re often blurred or double-exposed, because what was actually being photographed was probably something commemorating the power of the empire – like a big bridge.

The workers are just seen as incidental or distractions. They’re more there by accident. That makes an interesting metaphor for how a working man’s life was valued at that time. Life expectancy was very low and there were a lot of accidents. They were almost peripheral.

A black and white photo of a female worked in an industrial factory during the 1980s
Spinner, Listers Mill, Bradford (1984)© Ian Beesley
You know they’re there but they’re not really recognised. They were seen, to some extent, as disposable. We’ve got these pictures where they get a worker to stand in it so they’re just an anonymous unit of scale.

One of the funniest ones we got, from Leeds, had a man next to a casting and just a note on the back saying ‘Fred was the smallest man in the foundry, so was always asked to stand next to new products because he’d make them look bigger.'"

A black and white photo of a group of female pit workers in uniform during the 1880s
Wigan pitbrow lasses, Wigan (1880s). Photographer unknown© Greater Manchester Libraries

Pit-brow lasses

"Some of the early photo examples you get are of what you might call the exotic worker. Victorian gentlemen would collect these. When they outlawed women and children working in mines there was an exception in the Lancashire coalfields, where women were allowed to work on the surface at pits, being known as pit-brow lassies.

The Victorian gentlemen had a little bit of a fascination with these working women and commissioned photographers to take portraits of them. When you look at the pictures they seem to be fairly confident and quite willing to pose. They’ve got their working clothes on and their shovels and stuff with them, but they’re in studios. They’re the interesting phenomenon of that time."

A black and white mugshot of a woman who has been arrested wearing a head cloak
Eleanor Gardner was arrested in North Shields on February 19 1909© Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Police photos

"A lot of police forces in the 1870s and 1880s got this idea of photographing anyone who committed any sort of crime for identification. They also had this belief in phrenology – you know, you’d be able to work out by looking at someone’s visual characteristics what sort of criminal they were. That’s obviously complete rubbish but they had a big thing about that.

They’d have a mugshot but they’d have a chalkboard where they’d have to write down their name, age and what they were arrested for. The working class that were photographed at that time in any number were often the ones that were arrested.

A black and white mugshot photo of a man with a moustache and flat cap
Robert Muir was a miner arrested for stealing potatoes in North Shields on August 17 1914© Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
We’ve got this fantastic album full of these pictures from 1880 in Hartlepool. But when you look at them it’s really sad because most of the people who have been photographed look like they’re starving. It says, like, ‘arrested for stealing turnips’, ‘unemployed miner’, ‘arrested for sleeping out’.

It was obviously really hard times and they were just arresting them because they were trying to survive: quite heartbreaking. Some of them are young children arrested for pinching food. Quite a lot of them are obviously very distressed, they’ve probably got mental health issues.

It’s quite a tragic sort of collection. They’re the only portrait pictures that you can find of the working class and lower income brackets of that time."

A black and white photo of female factory workers posing for a photo in 1948
CH Wood, burlers and menders, Scott Mills, Bradford (1948)© Bradford City Art Galleries and Museums

Group portraits

"In the First World War they started to do group portraits – particularly of women workers, because they were seen as interesting. The group portrait itself is a symbol of a power structure: the most important at the front and the middle, growing up and out to the side, with the less important to the back.

One of the best pictures we’ve found is the workers of a Victorian mustard factory in Doncaster in about 1900. There’s a big group of workers and it just looks like the photographer or the owner of the company said ‘I’m gonna take your group photograph.’

A black and white photo of a group of mustard factory workers during the 1880s
Victoria Mustard workers, Doncaster (1880s). Photographer unknown© Doncaster Museums and Art Gallery
They’re all coming off shift, somebody has stopped them and they obviously don’t want to be photographed. The sheer look of belligerence and unco-operativeness of the people in this portrait is really funny. You can see they are probably quite exhausted and don’t want to be photographed in a group.

A lot of the photographs were taken to say ‘this is my unit of labour’. It’s seen as a group, a unit, not an individual or a person – ‘I own them, they work for me’. The expressions on these people’s faces…there are a couple at the front, real hardcases, and you can see them thinking ‘if the boss wasn’t here I’d flatten that photographer.’

A black and white photo of a group of demolition men posing on a cobbled street
Jimmy Forsyth, Demolition Men, Newcastle (September 21 1956)© Collection Ian Beesley
There is great tension in that picture which makes it one of my favourite ones I’ve found. It’s from a little museum in Doncaster called Cusworth Hall which had quite a small but really interesting collection of photographs.

I went there and the curator was quite flattered. She didn’t think they’d got anything of interest but we found four or five really interesting pictures.

A lot of them were in archives, boxes and cellars. A lot had been oddly filed – not under industry, you’d have to think laterally about how someone might file what you were looking."

A black and white photo of two women sitting by a window on a city street long ago
Jack Hulme, Fanny Morgan and her sister, Fryston. Date unknown© Kirklees Image Archive


"In the 1930s and '40s, when cameras got cheaper, a number of workers would buy their own cameras and photographed where they worked. So you’d get this insider view: there was a guy called Hulme who was a miner and he’d just photographed the pit village he lived in all his life, for nearly 60 years.

He’s got some wonderful pictures of pit life and what happened in the village. Some people were very interested in what industry did and the aesthetic. And then others are by accident, records of things. Some of them are quite otherworldly."

A black and white photo of a pit pony on grass in a bygone industrial setting
Harold White, Pit Pony, Yorkshire. Date unknown© National Coal Mining Museum

Pit ponies

"One of my favourites is a picture by a photographer called Harold White, who was one of the first official photographers for the coal board when it was nationalised. One of the nicest series of pictures he took was of pit ponies – you used to have horses working underground. In the summer they’d bring them up, they’d have two weeks in August.

He had a great affinity with these horses. They’re really beautiful. He makes these horses look heroic. Of course, you’d have to argue that they were: poor sods, working underground.

They wore special protection, what you might call headgear, and the picture that we’ve got is of this big, massive pony looking like it should be pulling the chariot for gladiators."

A colour photo of a young woman carrying a pitchfork in an industrial field under a blue sky
PG Hennell, Land Girl (1940-1945)© Collection Ian Beesley

Mystery photographers

"A lot of photos I found were by unknown photographers. A lot of these pictures have probably never been exhibited before so we’ve found some absolutely fantastic gems, really, hidden away in the archives of places in Doncaster, Leeds, Bradford and Oldham. The earliest is from about 1850. Before then it is very, very rare – you don’t actually see any pictures or much of industry.

Tragically, we were trying to find summat out about a photographer we’ve featured from the 1940s, PG Hennell, and a couple of weeks ago it turned out that he died in the ‘90s and his family destroyed everything. Someone at the National Media Museum had tried to find them but the family had thought they were worthless – they burnt all his negatives, they binned his prints, they threw it all away.

A colour photo of a male manual labourer carrying a large shovel in 1950
Labourer (1950). Location and photographer unknown© People's History Museum
He did a book with JB Priestley all about women workers called British Women go to War. They’re beautiful, heroic colour pictures of munition workers, land girls etc. But we’ve only got the ones in the book.

We have got a very early picture, from about 1870, and you just can’t work out what it is: it looks like something out of a gothic horror film and it’s just called Savoy Engine. It’s like a circular metal construction with a window in it with a pump. It’s so bizarre, like steampunk or a goth fantasy.

A red monochrome photo of some sort of large machine during the industrial revolution
Savoy Engine, Lumle Thicks, County Durham (1874). Photographer unknown© Leeds Industrial Museum
It probably was, at the time, cutting-edge technology but it looks completely bizarre. It’s such an amazing image, a wonderful picture.

We’ve no information at all on some of the images. There’s this massive swathe of visual material that’s sometimes overlooked, but you can still use it because you can make an educated guess to the period when it is. We’ve had a couple where people who’ve seen them have been able to give us more information based on their knowledge about particular subjects: ‘no, I think you’ve got that bit wrong, what’s happening here is this.’

I’m sure we’ll have someone who tells us that the coupling on a rail means that picture was taken in 1947 and not ’46, you know.”

  • Grafters: Visions and Voices of Industrial Society is at the People’s History Museum, Manchester from February 6 – August 14 2016. Visit the museum blog, on Facebook and on Twitter @phmmcr.

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A photo of a woman riding a motorbike with goggles on her head during the 1940s
PG Hennell, Dispatch Rider (1940-1945). Location unknown© Collection Ian Beesley
A black and white photo of the mugshots of women arrested during the early 20th century
Arrested North Shields (1902-1916). Photographer unknown© Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
A black and white photo of an industrial worker holding his thumb up in front of a ship
R L Palme, Thumbs Up, Teeside (1960s)© People's History Museum
A black and white photo of a man working in an industrial furnace during the 1950s
CH Wood, Foundry Worker, Bradford (1950s)© Bradford Industrial Museum
A black and white photo of a woman working in an textile factory during the 1940s
CH Wood, Millworker, Bradford (1940s)© Bradford Museums and Art Gallery
Three places to discover industrial history in

Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
Uncover Manchester's industrial past and learn about the fascinating stories of the people who contributed to the history and science of a city that helped shape the modern world. Located on the site of the world's oldest surviving passenger railway station.

Bradford Industrial Museum
A former Worsted Mill complete with the mill manager’s house, which features Victorian décor and a terrace of back-to-back houses showing how mill workers lived at different times in history. Includes working displays of textile machinery, steam power, engineering, printing and motor vehicles, along with an exciting temporary exhibitions programme.

Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield
The Enid Hattersley Gallery is home to the 12,000hp River Don Engine, which you can see in steam at selected times. Other notable exhibits include the Benjamin Huntsman Clock, Bramah Press, Crossley Gas Engine, Die-Sinkers and Cutlers Workshops, Grand Slam Bomb, Little Mesters Street, Melting Shop Play Area, Sheffield Floods, Town Guns, Armaments and War Memorials.
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