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High Street History: Factories

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

Once a place of industry; now a witness to history.

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An abandoned factory Creative commons image Icon DigiMatt under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license


Britain was the first major country to industrialise, so factories are significant features in its urban landscape. Many of them, these days, are no longer working. Plenty have been converted into flats or bars. Nevertheless, they provide evidence of industry’s integration into the urban landscape between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth.

There are numerous examples that reside alongside canals in particular, since it was with canals that the creation of a national transport infrastructure for heavy goods began. Be alert for ‘give-aways’ like hoists or loading platforms that have been retained on the old buildings.

Factories’ architecture tended to be functional, but there may be touches that betray the vanity of their former owners, such as ornate or large signs displaying the firm’s name, or a prominent date-stone. For the latter, look above the main doors or high up on the building. The history of local industries can be relatively easily traced through archives or local history societies.

Factory hoists and loading boards Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Industrial features

Now residential, this property wasn’t designed as a home. The loading boards and remnants of hoists have been retained as attractive and interesting features for prospective buyers, but they also give away the building’s former purpose: a warehouse.

Thomas Briggs factory Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Thomas Briggs

This photo shows a canal-side view of a factory. From the late 1700s a major canal network was being constructed to carry heavy industrial goods. Many factories andwarehouses were built alongside the new waterways to take advantage of this. This factory is from the late Georgian period and its style is typical of that era.

Boris Limited factory Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell


If you look carefully above the door of this disused factory, you may see its datestone (it reads 1913). Datestones are worth searching for – habitually they were put on the building’s pediments. We can speculate that whatever this factory made was popular in the early twentieth century. That’s the sort of thing you could find out from a local archive. (The large lettering, incidentally, was almost certainly added much later than 1913.)

Taking it further

The history of industrialisation is covered in OU course Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900 (A200). The impact of war on industry is dealt with extensively in Total war and social change: Europe 1914-1955 (AA312). On the economics of industry, there is Understanding economic behaviour: households, firms and markets (D319). We also have some free sample material that discusses Dundee’s historical jute industry available in the LearningSpace.





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