The Strange Death of Industrial Britain

Sometime between 1974 and 1983 industrial Britain died. The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 was not so much the last gasp as a wake for an already extinguished world. It had been a long last illness, British industry undergoing a protracted decline from the 1930s and in some branches earlier.

Photo from Corah files, Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

 What is striking in retrospect is how little anticipated the end actually was. Successive government reports in the decades following the Second World War reflected anxiety about the competitiveness of sectors of British industry: coal, steel, car manufacturing. But almost no-one, it seems, foresaw the effective dissolution of industrial Britain as a whole. Britain’s identity was intimately tied up with its status as an industrial nation; it was unthinkable without it.

Researching the history of Leicester’s clothing and engineering industries brings this point starkly home. Balance sheets might show falling profitability but the company magazines of major firms like Corah hosiery and Liberty shoes in the 1970s pointed jauntily towards a prosperous and expansionary future. Suddenly, though, the run of magazines stopped; almost overnight firms ceased trading and large factory works became deserted, in most cases never to re-open.

 In historical terms the 1970s and early 1980s represent a caesura in the long run of manufacturing and industrial production in Britain and a fault-line in the history of modern Britain. What underwrote those factories, balance-sheets and magazines was what the cultural critic Raymond Williams called ‘a whole way of life’ – the life of terraced streets, washing lines, corner shops, works’ canteens and sports days. In the nineteenth-century factory districts, the historian Patrick Joyce once wrote, ‘work got under the skin of life’ and this was true in towns like Leicester until the 1970s.

The passing of this world has been the source of much regret and nostalgia but it is also something that still remains curiously unanalysed by historians. We know a great deal about the economics of industrial decline but remarkably little about how it was registered socially, about how the ‘rhythm of the brick world’, in Richard Hoggart’s phrase, came to a halt.

 An important part of the Manufacturing Pasts project, then, is to analyse precisely this: the ways in which the threads of life were woven between street, factory and town in the twentieth century and how those threads came to be undone by the gradual, uneven – and ultimately sudden – collapse of the industrial economy. We are aiming, in short, to produce the materials from which a social history of de-industrialization in Britain might be written.

Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History, University of Leicester