History and Historiography

The tragedy of Telford’s girls

Did political correctness enable the biggest sexual abuse scandal in British history?

Ironbridge in Shropshire is seen as the birthplace of the industrial revolution — and a very pretty one as well. It was here that Abraham Darby the Elder first smelted iron with coke, hugely increasing the possibilities for cheap iron production. It was also here that his grandson and namesake built the famous bridge, which opened on New Year’s Day in 1781 and marks the spot where the great transformation began.

The industrial revolution pushed the country way ahead of any rivals, while increasing global living standards in unimaginable ways. Yet life for those living in the white heat of Britain’s industry was a form of hell, an existence of unending toil, poor health and increasing alienation; life expectancy in industrial Preston and other parts of the north would soon fall below 18, worse than for slaves in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.

Not far from Ironbridge, Birmingham rose in power from a once modest village to England’s second city, while further north other industrial conurbations emerged in Lancashire and Yorkshire, drawing in rural workers and gifting the world England’s two greatest contributions to modernity, industrialisation and football.

But globalisation would lose Britain its competitive edge and with industrial decline from the early 20th century, and the destruction wrought in the war, many former urban former slums were demolished and new towns established on their periphery. As Britain’s empire retreated, often in bloodshed, the old towns became home to newcomers from distant former colonial outposts. They were attracted by industries in need of cheap labour and inexpensive housing — but the houses were often poor quality and the industries were dying. As for the inhabitants of the new towns, designed by the most forward-thinking town planners of the mid-20th century, they often found themselves miserable and isolated in their new homes away from London, Glasgow or Birmingham.

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