Industrial History

Everyone knows Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He did more to change the industrial face of South West England than anyone. Railways – he founded Great Western Railways that, in its heyday employed 12,000 in Swindon alone with a works that covered 320 acres. Bridges – his suspension bridge at Clifton is a work of genius and his bridge over the Tamar remains a work of industrial art. Boats – the SS Great Britain, now restored in Bristol, was the largest ship in the world.

But South West England’s industrial history lays claim to a multitude of innovative, courageous and, at times, risk-taking entrepreneurs. Of these, Richard Trevithick of Camborne (1771-1833) ranks with Brunel. He invented the world’s first steam-powered vehicle. His inventions revolutionised deep-shaft mining. To many, he was the father of the industrial revolution.

The industrialists combined with a workforce that shaped one of the most rural landscapes in Britain. Many were miners – tin in Cornwall, copper in Devon and coal in Gloucestershire. Others were Quarrymen – from Delabole where slate has been quarried continuously since Elizabeth I was on the throne, to Portland where Sir Christopher Wren found the perfect stone to build St Paul’s Cathedral.

But agriculture was always the key industry. And it was the farmers of Tolpuddle in Dorset who changed industrial history. In 1834, six farmers formed a Trade Union. They were arrested, charged as a ‘secret society’ and were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia. It led to outcry, a pardon and their return. The Tolpuddle Martyrs – and Trade Unions - were born.