Beamish historical park: a living history of life and class realities in Northeast England

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I’ve always loved living-history museums. Growing up I was lucky enough to visit many in Canada – grand ones like Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Steele in south eastern B.C., and smaller ones closer to home – Burnaby Village and Fort Langley (both in the greater Vancouver area) come to mind. When I was four I also visited Beamish, a living history museum in the Northeast of England, while on a family trip. Now back in England, visiting the same family, I’ve had the chance to make a second visit.

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I’m not sure if I can sum up in a sentence what museums are for, but in my view living history museums give you a sense of what they should be for – granting you a felt as well as cognitive sense of how people lived in difference places and times. Of course there are limitations – we know so little about ancient times that a living history museum of, for example, Ancient Greece, would really tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Greeks. This perhaps explains why living history museums tend to be started by people who still have a lived connection to the history displaced, and why they tend to be started only a generation or two after the oldest time portrayed on the site.

Beamish focuses on the Northeast of England during the height of industrialism. The large site, mostly farmland on rolling hills, is dotted with villages enacting different periods and different forms of live. Set in 1900 there is a town, railway station, a mining (“pit”) village, and a coal mine. In the 1820s there is a manor house, a farm, and a steam powered wagonway (early term for railway). There is also 1940’s (wartime) “home farm”. There are plans to add a Georgian area, as well as one set in the 1980s. Since the last time I visited Beamish was in the 1980s, I found that last one a bit of a shock, but really it shows the commitment of the place to be relevant in an ongoing way.

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Because it shows sites from different periods, it’s possible to make comparisons as to how people from different socio economic classes lived in different periods. I was absolutely floored to discover that an average mine worker from 1900 might live with 14 children, his wife, and grandparents in what basically amounts to one room and a loft – and yet, keep a parlor the same size again as the cooking/living area for use only on high days and holidays. Also, there was nothing meek about the way the mine workers house was decorated – if I wasn’t told it was a mine workers house, and I’d seen it only from the inside, I think I would have guessed it was a middle class house for a small family in the city. Decorated with quite ornate goods (both in the living area and the rarely used parlour), it felt aspirational, as if the whole place was laid out to convince (guests? themselves?) that the family was richer than they really were. And they really were not that rich: they did not own their home, and if for any reason no people in the house were any longer working in the mine (including if the workers were killed in a mining accident), they had to be out of the house in five days, so it could be ready for the replacement worker. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Britain if mine workers had put as much effort into organizing against capitalism as they did into pretending to be wealthier than they were. (This insight obviously applies equally, if not infinitely more so, to people today).

There is a standard way to talk about the lives we discover in historical museums: to say “oh dear, their lives were so hard, I can’t imagine living like that”. I used to repeat this kind of talk, and of course, it’s completely true: we are totally dependent on the most modern of privileges, we can’t imagine living without all the consciences of home. Cars, vacations, computers, appliances, these all cost huge amounts of our meager earnings, and yet we don’t want to go without. Living a washing machine, who could imagine? (Besides some hipsters in Brooklyn, who I’m sure have taken up hand washing as some kind of D.I.Y. craze).

Trying to think in a way that is a little more wordly, however, this “oh their lives were so hard” talk starts to feel deeply disingenuous. Why should I pity the life of a mine worker in 1900, a mine worker who could afford to have a parlour which he only used on Christmas and Easter, when the keyboard I’m typing on was made by someone who I’m basically certain is much materially poorer than he was? And as for working conditions, yes industrial age working conditions were bad – but there are still no global standards for industrial labor or resource jobs. Am I sure that the miners who worked to get all the specific metals required for my phone and computer had working conditions any better than miners in Britain in 1900? Or even 1800?

We look at the lives of people who lived earlier in our societies and see the hardship and struggle, and feel good about ourselves because things are so much better today. And they are, for us at least. But this can lead to a vulgar progressivism – to be honest we should think not only about how what is called “development” has made some people’s lives better, but also other’s lives worse. Who gets included or excluded when a new standard of living is achieved?

This hypocrisy in the way we perceive the living museum reveals problem of global capitalism from the perspective of labour is, in a nutshell, that trade and production is global but regulation is local. Coal is no longer mined in the U.K. in large quantities, not because the coal ran out, but because (and I know this isn’t the only reason) increased standards for workers safety and the high standard of living of workers makes U.K. coal production uncompetitive on the global market. The problem is, in essence, that British families have the right to buy coal from workers who work in conditions which would be illegal if their employer subjected them to. This is a real material form of benefitting from the national inclusion/exclusion barrier to legal guarantees of well being. 

Of course, Beamish helps answer this question as well – the presence of ideological content from the different periods helps explain how it was (and how it is) that British workers care more about status aspiration than about their own material oppression, and care little at all about workers elsewhere.

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It isn’t prominently displayed, in fact it feels like there might have been a purposeful downplaying of the Imperial narrative, but you can still find evidence of British Imperial propaganda around Beamish, and in working class contexts. The above banner is from the school house where the children of mine workers were educated (at least until they began to work in the mine). There were no maps of the world displaced anywhere in the school house, but if there had been I can be sure that every British colony would have been coloured red, and children would have been taught that the sun never sets on their empire. In the hallway there were paintings of British imperial battles, and the same in one of the mine workers houses. Some of those children might have gone off to fight in imperial wars. But those who didn’t, those who stayed home to work the mines, in a sense their efforts were equally important to Britain’s imperial-industrialist projects. And while I might be inclined to interpret the worker’s situation as one of being oppressed by the owners of the means of production, it’s also possible to see the British workers as lower status members of the British imperial “team”, members whose efforts were crucial to that “team” continuing to “win”, and members who have, in the long run, materially benefitted from those ongoing victories. After all, the very fact that we look back on those times as hard proves that today’s working conditions have, on balance, improved – and not only historically in relation to earlier British workers, but also geographically in relation to non-British workers. Maybe this is just what “winning” looks like, and the battle between nationalism and socialism is a conflict over which game we interpret ourselves as playing – are we playing the game where we want our country to do better than other countries, or are we playing the game where we want the production of the material needs of a society to be more or less a tool for reproducing the status privilege of wealthier families?

This perhaps helps us define very exactly what class aspirationalism actually is: the desire to improve the economic status of oneself or one’s family, without the desire to overcome the system of domination that allows those with higher economic status to extract wealth from those with lower economic status. And this same dynamic can be discerned on national (both Russian “socialism in one country” and British “socialism not communism” varieties are examples of this), and international (i.e. Trotskyist) levels. In all of these cases the defining characteristic appear to be a combination of seeing oneself as part of a larger group that shares common interests, caring about other members of that group, and distinguishing that group from another group or groups to which your group has either an antagonistic or neutral orientation, and about which you do not particularly care.

Perhaps the only example of socialism in action at Beamish is the presence of the co-op store in the 1900 town.

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The co-op movement started in Rochedale, also in the Northeast of England. Built and run by workers for workers, the co-op movement was a way of avoiding high prices. You had to be a member to shop there, and as a member you had the right to elect the board of directors which hired the workers and ran the shop. As such, everything was done in the interests of the co-op’s members. The co-op sold goods with a lower mark up than other stores, and they also dealt directly with manufacturers and sold goods under their own C.W.S. (co-op wholesale society) brand.

Co-ops are interesting. You can imagine a mine worker in 1900 who cares about his own well being and the well being of other workers, and sees his interests in common with them. He has the choice between joining the co-op society, or joining the union (working in the mine he has limited capacity for organizing). If he joins the co-op, he works for the interests of workers as consumers – improving the access to quality goods at lower prices. Imagine he has been elected to the board, and been enlisted with the task of finding a supplier for a new product which the co-op wishes to offer as C.W.S. (in-store) brand. He finds two suppliers that can offer the product at the same quality, but one supplier can offer the product more cheaply because of a combination of lower wages and less concern for workers safety. Which supplier should he choose? Because he is entrusted to work in the interest of the membership, who are workers but workers as consumers, he will most likely have to choose the supplier that can offer the product more cheaply, unless he can convince the board and membership to adopt some kind of “fair trade” standard for suppliers. This illustrates an interesting paradox: advocating for workers, but advocating for them as consumers, one can end up reproducing (or in some cases increasing) the exploitation of the very workers on whose behalf he is advocating.

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I want to finish this by writing about trains. This might seem like a strange departure from a post which has mostly focused on working conditions and worker’s consciousness, but bear with me. The steam locomotive was invented in the Northeast of England, and the importance of the locomotive to the history of industry in this area is obvious from the fact that there are no less than 3 different and separate steam railways at Beamish: a reproduction of the first railway locomotive ever (pictured above) from 1815, a typical mining railway from 1900, and a passenger railway from 1900. There is also an electric tramway that circles the park, bringing you between the different areas on vintage streetcars. In other words, trains are clearly very important for the history of this region.

But what does this mean for the lives of the people who lived here? The locomotive above only carried coal. It was a good deal better than horses at hauling coal – a horse could pull a half ton of coal along a wagonway, whereas this engine, named “steam elephant”, cold haul 90 tons of coal in a 15 wagon long train. It meant mines could be built farther from canals, which means more mines and more work. At a more general level, the steam engine (and this means primarily the stationary steam engine) was a source of work – work which elsewhere would have needed to be done by men or non human animals. Really what the steam locomotive is is a symbol of the transition to the fossilized carbon economy – where the key fuel transitions from food (from recently deceased plants), and the fact this transition happened here earlier than other places is not only a source of pride, but firstly one of material wealth. The actual mechanization of labour was slow – in 1913, which was the highest production year of the mine at the Beamish site, less than 10% of the coal was taken off the coal face by machine. But at the same time, if locomotives were the reason the mine could be there, and made it feasible to transport all that coal to market, then the workers benefitted deeply from the locomotive. Beamish has an incomplete mock up of a coal mine from the Georgian era. Basically a hope in the ground, topped by a wooden crane powered by oxen to lift the coal out of the mine. It was worked by a whole family, father and son underground, mother and daughter above working the animals. The transition to steam powered industrial mining meant that instead of the whole family needing to work mining, a family could buy their material needs from the labour of the men only. Another impact was the growth of new jobs in railroading. My mother’s grandfather worked for the Stockton and Darlington railway, a good step up from his previous job as Gardner. With that income he was able to buy a stately family home in Redcar, a stroll away from the seaside. And don’t forget the advent of the working class holiday- made possible by the railway as well.

So, perhaps the truth of this story is that what at first appears as false pretention (the aspirationalism of a mine workers parlour), is in the end a real material truth (opportunities arising from industrialism for class ascension). At least for some. And of course today the story is the opposite – young people leaving for want of jobs, pit villages are depressed, many houses deserted. The high street in Redcar, although nicely pedestrianized, does not show signs of economic prosperity. Perhaps this is not something that can be altogether separated from how good the museum is – places whose glories are in the past, it’s not wrong for them to celebrate them.