Monday, 6 July 2015

'A Project Based Economy' - The A2SN workshop at Ironbridge, 29th and 30th May

The 29th and 30th of May saw the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (Coalbrook, Shropshire) play host to the A2SN workshop 'Exploring the Project-based Economy: Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, 1650-1900.' What a wonderful event it was, with speakers and delegates coming from a host of locations and from many and varied backgrounds. There was resounding agreement that with such a diversity of delegates in attendance that the workshop was a testament to A2SN's unique and rapidly developing ability to bring together volunteer-led societies, academics, archivists and museum professionals with an interest business history. Indeed, for the first time ever A2SN welcomed some guests from across the Atlantic Ocean. One of these was Professor Albert Churella from Kennesaw State University, Georgia, who was sponsored by his university to attend and is noted for having recently published The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917 (available from the University of Pennsylvania Press).

Kevin Tennent addresses the delegates
The keynote on the first day was given by Dr Kevin Tennent of The York Management School. He suggested that when enthusiasts and academics come together the exchange of ideas, viewpoints and information can greatly aid in advancing our knowledge of business history. Enthusiasts' commendably dogged approach to researching subjects, that may occasionally seem esoteric, give the business historian a rich vein of evidence that can be put to academic use. The relationship is two-way though, and the business historian can help give the curious enthusiast a new, perhaps dispassionate understanding of their topic of interest. In essence, Kevin's keynote summed up the spirit and the purpose of A2SN - to bring individuals interested in business history together.

The first panel session of the day was about business networks. Helen Bates's (University of Leicester) subject was John, Second Duke of Montagu’s instigation and development of commercial enterprises between 1720 and 1750. He was responsible for the expansion of the iron ore industry in Furness and had links to other companies in the iron industry and ironmasters around the nation. John Scott of the Postal History Society then talked about the impact of the postal reforms in 1839-40, which included a reduction in the cost of post. This made mailing for commercial purposes viable for the first time, but it also led to the development of the phenomenon of junk mail.

Helen Bates
The theme of networks continued in the second session. Ivor Lewis of the Historical Model Railway Society talked about the importance of networking in the Industrial revolution (1750-1850), and how in the period problem solving was the was the cause of communication between likeminded pople. Personal status did not enter into it. He was followed by Carolyn Dougherty (University of York) who spoke on the development of engineering networks in the early railway era. Amongst her many interesting statements was that George Stephenson was behind the curve in terms of his general engineering knowledge, but his image was reinforced by his protégés so as to bolster their own standing.

The final session of day one featured Stephen Murfitt (University of York) who looked at the patent system and English railway technology during the Industrial Revolution. He revealed how Britain's patent system was one of the oldest in the world, which meant that by the 1770s if you submitted a patent it had to be quite detailed to be approved . This was a system where detailed technical knowledge was vitally important. The final speaker of the day was Shane Kelleher, who is Museum Archaeologist at the host organisation of the workshop, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Ironbridge Gorge was for him a 'project based landscape.' In the eighteenth century, under the stewardship of four generations of the Darbys, the industrial landscape of area developed, with their ironworks business developing many features that can be found in modern industrial concerns.

Karin Dannehl
Day 2 kicked off with as session on domestic cooling pots and canal management. Karin Dannehl (University of Wolverhampton) discussed the management of Hollow Ware distribution in the early eighteenth century. For the Wolverhampton producers Bristol, London, Liverpool and Gainsborough were satellite markets, but other producers had dominance over the trade in other regions. Indeed, there was competition from Newcastle, Prescott, Ruabon and Neath. After her Lucy Lead, who works at the Wedgeood archive, presented on 'early canal development from a land perspective'. While canals were built for private benefit, to sell them to investors they had to be promoted as having public benefits. Finally, Grahame Boyes of the Railway and Canal Historical Society discussed the business of Peak Forest Canal. It is notable that this canal entered quarrying business directly and marketed its own output; an interesting and possibly unique business model for a canal at the time.

In the second session of the day Alison Kay, Assistant Archivist at the National Railway Museum, talked on the life of Timothy Hackworth and his archive which is held at the museum. Hackworth was one of the pioneer locomotive builders of the early nineteenth century and was born only four years after George Stephenson. However, his career and work have been somewhat overshadowed by that of the Stephensons, despite his acolytes continuing to defend him after his death. Elizabeth Marsh (University of York) then talked about Joseph Dodds, the disgrace of a Pioneer of the Cleveland Iron Trade. Dodds had a very colourful career, rising to become a master of the iron industry. He was active politically, campaigning for the Liberals, and was involved in over forty public organisations. But in 1889 the dream fell apart and he fled from charges of embezzlement and fraud.

Diane Deblois and Robert Harris
Our final session of the workshop started with James Wilson (University of Glasgow) who described the Portsmouth block mills. Blocks were used in pulleys, principally in battleship rigging, and the navy developed a pioneering mill in the late-eighteenth century that used all-metal machine tools to mass produce them. At the mill the navy developed something that looked a little like modern project management to improve the operation's efficiency, and there were production volume and cost goals. The workshop's last speakers were Diane Deblois & Robert Harris who came all the way from United States and represented the Ephemera Society of America. They presented on the first transatlantic telegraph cable that opened in 1865 (earlier attempts had failed) and argued that it was more important to businesses in the United States than those of Britain as it allowed them to tap global markets without needing an empire.

The A2SN workshop on the 29th and 30th of May was a huge success, its purpose was more than fulfilled. By bringing volunteer-led societies, academics, archivists and museum professionals together, ideas were stimulated, knowledge was exchanged, collections were discovered and our knowledge of business history was advanced. No doubt future workshops will have the same positive outcomes and should not be missed!

A2SN wants to extend its warmest thanks to Dr Matt Thompson, Senior Curator, at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust for providing a wonderful venue and absolutely terrific support.