A tall viaduct gilds the skyline at Pinch Beck valley, beside the village of Thornton in West Yorkshire. Afternoon light and gentle winds are funnelled through its long grille of 20 looping archways, the highest as tall as 20 men. It could be religious architecture, perhaps a celestial bridge. But in fact it is a stark reminder of the grim realities of an industrial past.
‘For much of the 1800s, the average life expectancy was just 21,’ says Charlotte Derry, Education Officer for the Stone Heritage Project in Thornton and writer of the ‘Minecraft Village’ Discovering Britain trail. ‘This was down to the dangerous industrial work and squalid living conditions for both the families that moved to the area and those that grew up here’.
These days, Thornton has become a lush nook on the outskirts of Bradford. Climbing the steep incline towards the old market road, I can see green moss has grown through the cracks and cobblestones; small houses are gridded with little front gardens, overflowing with plants, while allotments jostle for leafy supremacy. It’s hard to imagine that good health was ever hard to come by here. However, the area was ill-prepared for the influx of workers during the manufacturing boom of the 1800s. To walk through it today is to pick like an archaeologist among beautiful bones of old northern industry.
“It’s only now that the village is just starting to get recognition for its history”
‘Between 1800 and 1850, the population tripled,’ says Derry. ‘The small houses were built quickly, desperately and without plumbing.’ Outside toilets were shared by too many inhabitants and sewage could often contaminate the drinking wells. The resulting illnesses could kill. ‘A century later some of those issues would have been resolved with antibiotics,’ says Derry. ‘Back then, infant mortality was high and young children risked their lives doing dangerous work in nearby textile factories, in order to provide for big families.’ This was no local health crisis, the state of Thornton was all too common for many industrial towns.
‘It was most likely the pace of change that kept the living conditions low,’ she says. Unprecedented advances in manufacturing technology brought industrial workers to Thornton, formerly an agricultural village, and the advances continued to happen. ‘Steam power and woollen mills, came with exponential advances in technology and was the kind of revolution that we can only now compare to the internet.’ However, the transformation then was physical, not digital. It completely altered the landscape of places like Thornton.
From the top of the incline it is possible to see the broken husk of Prospect Mill, which once employed 2,000 people. By 1900, the village was home to eight more mills. ‘To keep them running,’ says Derry, ‘the ideal combination was the steep-sided valley – so the rain water would rush off the sides – as well as the softness of the water.’ Wool and textiles thrived in Pennine villages like Thornton because the water was soft enough to ‘scour’ clean the sheep’s wool. Hard water does not produce enough suds.
Victorian Thornton was opportunistic. It clung like a limpet colony to its host valley, crusting up the hillside with bricks and mortar, layer by layer. ‘I don’t think families would have anticipated difficult conditions when they moved here,’ says Derry. ‘When it happened they would have got on with it and managed as best they could.’
Turning up Havelocks Street, this becomes obvious. A tall spindly building rises above the rest. It is called ‘Coffin End’ because it looks like one – narrowing to the width of just a few feet where it meets the road. ‘The population had to build upwards not outwards,’ says Derry. The ‘footprint’ of many buildings was restricted to the borders of the surrounding pastures and the slope of the hillside. Builders had to do what they could with the little space available.
Land boundaries kept the buildings herded together even as the population boomed. For the most part homes were constructed as long streets of connected, terraced houses that run in lines up the hill, some of them still pockmarked with coal holes and second-floor gantries. From above, it would look like the maze of one, long crinkled building, the curled-up carapace of a large animal. Still lived in, though with far fewer inhabitants.
“We’ve had Australians, Japanese and American students – people who have been influenced by Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. One was so excited she was visibly shaking”
Old Thornton still keeps a secret. ‘You’re actually sitting on the spot where all three of the Brontë sisters were born,’ says Mark de Luca, a chef who has recently renovated the parsonage where the writers were born into ‘Emily’s’ café.
I whip around in my seat to look at a small fireplace behind me, its mantle piece topped with recent histories and illustrations dedicated to the authors, Anne, Emily and Charlotte. ‘We think that, because it’s likely that the mother would gone to the warmest part of the house,’ he says.
‘What we often get are international tourists who have read Brontë books as part of English literature courses. We’ve had Australians, Japanese and American students – people who have been influenced by Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.’ De Luca occasionally finds the commitment of bookish pilgrims overwhelming. ‘You can spot them coming for miles,’ he jests, ‘they often try to go wandering upstairs, which is just a house now. One was so excited she was visibly shaking.’
Among Britons, Thornton tends to be overlooked. ‘If tourists do come,’ says Derry, ‘they tend to go to the village of Haworth, three miles north of here, where the Brontës moved and grew up.’
In Thornton, meanwhile, the birthplace-as-café aptly speaks to the working heritage of the village, it’s been lived in and used. ‘It has had many manifestations since the Brontës lived there,’ says Derry. ‘It’s been a butcher’s shop, a baker’s, a grocer’s. For a long time, it would have just blended in, it’s only now that the village is just starting to get recognition for its history.’
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.