Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge, Shropshire, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Shirley Mann looks at how the museum was developed.
In the Sixties and Seventies the evolution of new towns with their opportunities of jobs, amenities and technology was sweeping away much of the Midlands’s dirty industrial past. But that rush for modernism meant the survival of a heritage full of traditional crafts and buildings was jeopardised.
Just a few miles from one of the beacons of the new age, the new town of Telford, was Ironbridge, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, where a once proud industrial history had fallen into disrepair.
It was here that the seed of an idea started to grow. That seed resulted in what later became the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site and the jewel in the crown, Blists Hill Victorian Town, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
This 50 acre site on the edge of the Ironbridge Gorge was close to where Abraham Darby had perfected the secret of smelting iron using coke rather than charcoal in 1709. His discovery completely changed the local countryside and created an industrial fiery landscape among the green hills and valleys of Shropshire. It also changed the world as his discovery meant that affordable, high-quality iron could be produced as quickly as coal could be mined from the ground on an industrial scale and in locations across the country. the industrial revolution had begun.
Over the years, Ironbridge had been left with its remnants of mining, clay production, coal mining and brick making and had become a sad shadow of its former industrial glory. However in 1967 the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was created.
It had twin aims of conservation and education within the gorge but its ambitions for Blists Hill were more specific and entrepreneurial.
Steve Miller, chief executive of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, says: “When you look back at the photographs of the area around Blists Hill before the museum took on the site, it was an industrial wasteland.
“Ironbridge was one of the biggest heritage restoration projects being undertaken anywhere in the country at the time. The trust’s members were ambitious, determined and as resourceful as Abraham Darby had been. It was completely fitting that Ironbridge should lead the way again.”
Blists Hill was designated as a safe haven for the buildings around Shropshire and the West Midlands that were threatened with demolition and by the time it opened its doors to the public in 1973, it was an open air museum featuring a number of original industrial features such as the Shropshire Canal, the Hay Incline Plane, the brick and tile works and original blast furnaces along with many buildings that had been relocated from the local area.
Over the next 40 years the site was to become home to a Victorian town, with shops, cottages and places of work, where industrial processes and craft skills along with demonstrations of domestic and commercial life, could be shown by townsfolk in the costume of the day.
Michael Day was the curator of social history and manager of Blists Hill in the 1980s and is now chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces including The Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace.
He arrived at a time when job creation schemes had been set up in response to local unemployment rates that reached 27 per cent and he started to use the new programme and the accompanying grants available to develop the 19th century industrial township of Blists
“One of my most prized personal possessions still today is the arrowhead finial that was the very first object to come from the first day of casting. I treasure it as a reminder that a determined team with a clear vision can achieve great things,” he says.
The museum’s success relies heavily on almost 500 volunteers who bring history to life for the visitors each year.
They demonstrate crafts, help with educational workshops, pick up litter, do research, give guided tours, help park cars, sew on buttons, help the curators
and help as stewards at some of the spectacular events throughout the year such as one of the highlights of the anniversary year – the Blitz Hill night on June 22, when the whole town will become a 1940s’ war community, raising morale on the Home Front.
“One of the keys of our success is how we work with volunteers, as every role they do is of benefit to our visitors,” says Lucy Andrews-Manion, volunteer co-ordinator at the museum.
“Everything they do is amazing. Without them the museum would still be here but the heart and soul would be missing.”