Grafters at the People's History Museum, preview: The unseen workers of the North

Andrew Anderson

Who were the men – and women – behind the industrial revolution? That’s the question asked in this new exhibition of industrial photography.

The landscape of the North West was forged in the furnace of the industrial revolution, and its relics remain to this day: chimneys point towards the sky like a forest of brick fingers, canals, roads and train tracks crisscross the countryside and mill buildings loom broodingly on every horizon. In other words, it’s a man-made world.

“Although photography came out of the industrial revolution it wasn’t interested in industry,” says curator of Grafters: Industrial society in image and word (6 Feb-18 Sept, People’s History Museum), Ian Beesley, who has spent his career photographing the lives of workers in the North West. “It was controlled by a rich elite who made images reflecting their idea of a romantic idyll.” In other words, what Beesley has found is that early industrial photographs tell us more about the people taking the pictures than the workers who are actually in them.

Grafters opens up the modern industrial world that we all rely on for our everyday existence

“In images from the 1860s-1890s the workers are just a blur, or only used to give a sense of scale – they are totally incidental to image,” he explains. It’s a vivid metaphor for the value priviledged Victorians placed on working people: unimportant, anonymous and expendable. Grafters is packed with pictures that portray this truth, from an ant-sized builder stood in the Manchester Ship Canal to a bemused group who have just escaped a factory explosion in the 1870s.

At the start of the 20th century this changed, though not necessarily for the better. “Photographers would take pictures of workers – especially working women – almost as a curiosity,” says Beesley. “There was something exotic about it; they even became collectable cigarette cards.” As cameras became more affordable, however, workers started taking their own images.

Beesley has sifted through thousands of local archive photographs and come up with a striking selection, which gives real insight into what life was actually like for North West workers. Accompanying the images are poems from Beesley’s long-time collaborator Ian McMillan, better known as the Bard of Barnsley. “His words help you make sense of what you’re seeing and puts it into context,” says Beesley.

As well as this historical hindsight, Grafters also opens up the modern industrial world that most of us never really encounter, but that we all rely on for our everyday existence. “For me it shows the immense effort and sacrifice that workers have put into this country,” Beesley concludes. “Hopefully it will give people something to think about.”

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