On previous visits to Britain I purposely ignored Lancashire because I had a disagreeable idea it was "nought" but a sooty wasteland of chimneystacks and industrial grime left over from the era when "cotton was king" in the northern counties of England.
Lately, however, I've taken an interest in family history, a singularly fascinating pastime and ideal solo travel pursuit. Genealogy study can be much more than hanging out in libraries and archives poring over dusty old records and collecting the names and dates of dead people.
The real fun is following the paper trails to their origins, fleshing out the faces, and visiting places that lead directly to yourself. It's about the only way you can be totally self-centered without being faulted for it, because in taking an interest in your ancestors you release the vast majority of them from obscurity.
Investigating your past does insist on accepting the relatives as you find them, like it or not. With that I had to acknowledge that some of my roots are firmly planted in Lancashire factory life, including the grittiest of all workplaces – the iron and brass foundries employed in creating the nuts, bolts, and engines of the steam age.
So I went to Bolton where I was pleased to find, first of all, that my preconceptions were mostly misconceptions.
From my bedroom window at The Poplars B&B, I surveyed the view overlooking Bolton and only a few chimney-stacks appeared, and not-a-one smoked. Within a few minutes, I could walk in a Lancashire setting of rolling hills amply dotted with grazing sheep, and the tallest thing in sight was a village church steeple jutting up from yonder tree rimmed vale. I never saw greener greens anywhere – and I'm from very green British Columbia.
The picturesque side of Bolton both surprised and delighted me, yet when I spoke of this lack of stacks to John Knott, a Bolton engineer with whom I had been corresponding about genealogy matters, he said "Yes, they're all being pulled down, regrettably."
"Regrettably?" It hadn't occurred to me, till then, that those chimneys symbolize the era of the Industrial Revolution. To destroy them all would be a sad if not shameful loss to my family history and, most likely, to yours, too, if you think about it. Those heady times, from about 1750 to 1900, inspired social, religious, and scientific changes that impacted more directly on the lifestyles of the common man than any other age.
Some, with inventive minds and bold spirits, found previously inaccessible opportunities to unimaginable prosperity. Others, fearing loss of their simple, cottage-based livelihoods, violently resisted change but got only jail time or the hangman's noose for their pains. Most folks fell in with the tide and accepted factory ways, which offered 12-hour shifts and pennies a day for the whole family, aged 7 up.
Meanwhile, the complicated machinery, proliferating everywhere, needed operating and maintaining, so if nothing else, the rise of industry enforced a notion for educating more workers, allowing social reformers an opening to move in. Illiteracy gave way as child-labor laws changed and formal educational systems evolved from church-run Sunday schools and organized teaching efforts in libraries and reading rooms.
With education, labor movements gained confidence and fluency then, finally, a measure of real power for the working classes and even, sometimes, a decent living wage.
This is all well for the average joe, but the trouble with big industry is its tendency to be insensitive to any force but progress, all too frequently making a big mess wherever it settles. So who can complain when opposing forces muster behind economical pursuits with more eye appeal? Not I, even though I might question the wisdom of beautification schemes that replace my ancestral trails with parking lots: "Whatever happened to Soho Works?" I cried into a wilderness of parked cars the day I went looking for the foundry side of my family.
In Bolton (now in Greater Manchester), there is an apparent trend to replace former manufacturing sites with "retail and leisure centers," much to the dismay of Dr Philip Pilling, an economic historian who fears his home town is forsaking its industrial base. A mutual interest in the history of the Soho Works brought us together at the Bolton Steam Museum where dedicated volunteers from The Northern Mill Engine Society restore antique steam engines.
"Bolton should stick to its manufacturing roots," he said emphatically while explaining that very few steam engines remain in Britain. About 20 derelict engines have been rescued since the Society began in 1966. Ironically, the group owes its continued existence to William Morrison Supermarkets, as that company purchased the old Atlas Mills site and donated one of the buildings to the Society to develop as a steam museum.
Dressed in mud-splattered blue overalls, Dr Pilling took a break from the mundane chore of washing old bricks salvaged for some waste-not, want-not purpose to show me around while another of the team, Rod Fisher, a former teacher, got one of the big rigs going – a dinosaur-sized beam engine (1870s) whose 12-ton flywheel measures 14 feet in diameter.
Even a mechanical newbie like myself had to marvel at the ingenuity required to imagine, design, and construct such massive hulks of hardware. But as to the collective function of these cogs, wheels, and cranks, I had to admit total ignorance.
It did, however, strike me that around 1900 my grandmother might very well have labored as a young woman in one of the Atlas Mill buildings. Perhaps she even met her millwright husband right here in this spot, I thought, knowing that they were married in a church only a block away. And I had already spent one pleasant afternoon in the neighborhood, strolling by their former home and wondering about their life here before they emigrated in 1923.
With my own grandparents in the picture my interest grew considerably. I imagined my grandfather strutting about with the tools of his trade and my grandmother pausing work to cast an admiring glance at the masterful fellow who handled such formidable machinery. Romance in the factory I easily imagined, but engines would best be seen in a real working setting, so I thought, and on impulse, so I said.
"Ah yes! But not in Bolton," replied Pilling, an exasperated sigh revealing the frustration his group feels at the lack of local support for such initiatives.
To get a feel for life in a real cotton factory off I went to the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, by bus, on a Sunday – always tricky due to reduced service and closed information offices. This three-bus trip made for a minor adventure, as none went according to schedule. Nonetheless, I made it there and back through misdirection, backtracking, and with advice from assorted persons and a lift from one of the museum volunteers. All in all, I enjoyed the day thoroughly and found the story of cotton manufacture much more fascinating than I had formerly supposed.
To tell the truth, my solo excursions frequently start with one intent and finish with another, like the day I wanted to visit a family-related church in Walmsley but ended up in Whalley, which was just fine as Whalley is one of the prettiest towns (among several) I'd seen so far in Lancashire.
More often than not my missteps bring small surprises and delights, like the time I decided to visit an ancestor's address, only to discover I had already passed by there unbeknownst – that day I got off at the wrong stop and wandered where I hadn't intended.
As a holiday pastime, genealogy research is best done on your own with the freedom to follow your hunches without consideration for a travel partner.
One day, following a clue based on one word I found in an old newspaper clipping, I hopped a train and went to York (£ 23.50), about a two-hour trip from Bolton via Manchester.
York is noted as one of Britain's most attractive and historically interesting cities, but I had little time for that; I asked around and found the bus to Elvington, a village about seven miles to the south.
There I hoped to discover ancestral links to an elusive Wesleyan Methodist connection I was tracing. Right at the bus stop I spotted a couple of likely looking old buildings, but as neither was open I moseyed down the way to the parish church graveyard and looked for familial stones. Nothing came to light there, but as I was leaving, an elderly lady, in a wheelchair, passed by with her dog. I had a word with the dog, then on a whim I said to her:
"Do you know anything about a Primitive Wesleyan sect in this area?"
"Oh yes," said she. "I live in the building," and she claimed that it had long ago been a meeting house for a local group; furthermore, it was one of the two I had suspected.
What a charmingly memorable day. Blanche took me home to her immaculate cottage, and after the visit I left with a feeling in my bones that Elvington has a large place in my past. While waiting for the bus I noted a sign across the street saying "Blacksmith Close" but thought no more about that until a week later when I had an opportunity to check the parish registers for Elvington, circa 1780s, and found the William in question employed there as the village blacksmith.
I tell you, I felt as if Sherlock Holmes could not have done better, but the quest does not end there. With each new find the family tree branches out in a never-ending saga, rich in drama and mystery no matter where the players stand on the social scale.
The comings and goings of our forbears may not be writ large in the history books. On the other hand, they may be recorded for foul deeds rather than fair. In the big scheme it only counts that their life decisions led inexorably to us; none other would do the trick. Without them where would we be? Nowhere.
Getting around: Bolton is a good base for exploring all of England. Manchester is only 15 minutes south by train. Liverpool and Southport on the west coast, Carlisle, on the Scottish border, to the north, Leeds and York to the east, and London to the south – all are within two hours by train.
Traveline Bus Info: Tel. 0870-678-2608
Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, Holcombe Road, Helmshore, Rossendale, Lancashire. Tel. +44(0)1706-226459. Two working mills dating from the Industrial Revolution. Also video films and exhibits. Open: Daily, April through October. Admission: £3 (C$7; US$6). Bus from Bolton via Rawtenstall.
Plan B: I find that public transport has a way of behaving other than expected, even after double-checking with the source. Scheduled maintenance, sudden breakdowns, unforeseen events, reduced services on Sundays and holidays, time and route changes, anything can and does happen with disconcerting regularity. Travelers who rely on local transport had better learn to adopt a carefree attitude and have a plan B in mind, or simply do whatever comes along instead.
Getting Started: For beginner tips and resources see Ancestral Trails.
Call Ahead: Nothing is more frustrating for the family historian than being denied access to wanted material, especially after having traveled from afar to inspect it. Libraries, archives, museums, and government repositories operate to their own peculiar hours, and these may change without much notice due to maintenance and repairs, staff shortages, or unforeseen events. Also, the records needed may have to be ordered up from safe-keeping vaults, which may take days.