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24 September 2014
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How We Built Britain 
David Dimbleby at Stourhead Gardens

How We Built Britain



Programme Five: The North – Full Steam Ahead


David Dimbleby journeys north to the powerhouse of Queen Victoria's Britain, where passion for progress brought a wealthy lifestyle to some – but a harsh and often short life for the factory and mill workers who helped create it.

 

Railway mania spread as the steam train carried people across the country. Newcastle-upon-Tyne – home of George and Robert Stephenson – celebrated the modern age with a station inspired by ancient Rome.

 

Villages emptied as workers flocked into towns. Manchester saw its population increase six-fold, thanks to industries such as cloth-making. But there was a cost.

 

Explains David: "In the 1830s, stories began to emerge of the true horror of Manchester's streets. The average life expectancy was 26.5 years – the lowest in Britain since the plague in the Middle Ages."

 

Workers rented space in squalid cellars while their employers splashed out. At Watts Warehouse, drapery boss James Watts drew on the architecture of Italy and the French Renaissance, adding staircases and bridges to show off his goods.

 

The Town Hall, built in 1864, gives Manchester an imposing air, while below it engineers were at work on a different project – digging sewers.

 

David says: "This is as great a monument to Victorian achievement as any of the grand buildings above ground. The decision to make mile after mile of sewers made cities habitable."

 

Appalled by living conditions in Bradford, textile king Titus Salt created a model community for his workers. Saltaire had a factory with smoke filters, houses, a church, school and village hall.

 

In Leeds, merchants lived on the hills above town, while glass and iron shopping arcades sprang up in the centre, along with music hall Thornton's, which later played host to both Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini.

 

The Victorian spirit can even be seen in flamboyant memorials at Lawnswood cemetery outside Leeds, while West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum had a ballroom for weekly dances.

 

David's journey ends in Blackpool, Victorian Britain's favourite resort, with its pleasure beach, ballroom and tower. The Victorian world had changed: "The north of England may be hard graft, but it can also be a place for pleasure."

 


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