In 1853, 20,000 workers were out on strike in Preston. The city was at the heart of a major battle for a 10 percent pay increase across the cotton industry.
The authorities tried everything to break the strikes. They made it illegal for groups of people to meet on the street, and banned posters and handbills.
So, instead, the workers wrote songs in support of their demands, to raise solidarity and keep up morale. And at a time when literacy rates were poor, songs were accessible to all.
The revolutionary Karl Marx featured the strike in his journalistic articles at the time.
And the struggle led to authors like Charles Dickens (in Hard Times) and Elizabeth Gaskell (in North and South) using the city to express the horrors of the industrial age.
This is just one of many fascinating stories from the period of the industrial revolution told through the engaging and lively set of exhibits at Preston’s Harris Museum.
The exhibition focuses on the characters who grew up during the dramatic changes of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The story of the time is told through a focus on a selection of these “industrial revolutionaries” who had a connection with the city.
Each individual story allows the exhibition to explore the wider social context and impact the changes brought to the city and its people.
Preston was then a key centre of Britain’s cotton industry. Richard Arkwright was born in the city and the development of his water frame mill brought mill workers together in large factories.
From 1790, workers were sucked into Preston from the surrounding area to work in the industry.
They were employed in huge factories like the Swanson, Burley and Co mill—it was seven stories high, had 660 windows and employed close to 10,000 workers.
There were several similar-sized factories across the city and these, in turn, spawned a range of subsidiary industries and workplaces that made Preston one of the dynamic industrial centres of the period.
One such development was the Preston Gas Light Company, established in 1816. This brought town and street lighting to the urban centre and was the first example of street lighting in Britain outside of London.
But such developments were not motivated by a concern for general safety and well-being. Street lighting was prioritised because it helped extend the viable working day!
This highlights one of the key features of the industrial revolution, and one that the exhibition draws out.
The technological and economic advances of the period brought huge wealth and benefits to the already wealthy—but for the vast majority it brought hardship, poverty, long hours of work and conflict with the authorities.
Ordinary people sometimes faced brutal treatment.
The exhibition points to the way the workhouse was used to control the urban population by threatening those who didn’t work—or went on strike—with incarceration.
In Lancashire and Yorkshire workhouses were always built on the top of hills, dominating the sky line and sitting there as a constant warning: “knuckle under or else this is where you will go”.
And in 1830, when James “Orator” Hunt, a well known radical, was elected to the House of Commons, the new ruling class stepped up its attacks.
His election was such a shock to the powerful that they moved to restrict the right to vote and disenfranchised many Preston workers for future elections.
A more direct form of social control was the development of the police force.
Again, the exhibition looks at Preston’s police, their origins and the brutal ways they went about their “work”: beating, birching and imprisoning “uncontrollable” elements within the working class.
It is good that the exhibition notes workers’ resistance—but there are one or two strange omissions.
There is no mention of Chartism, for example, or the strike of 1842, during which the militia shot strikers—even though it is marked by a monument in the city centre.
But if you are in the North West this summer, it’s worth popping along to this exhibition and learning a little about Britain’s industrial heritage and the struggles of ordinary people to shape and create a better world.
Industrial Revolutionaries, Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Until 6 November. Free entry. Visit www.harrismuseum.org.uk