Jun 082011

I came across a fascinating series of photographs this morning from an exhibition by John Bulmer, a  former photographer for The Sunday Times magazine.

The exhibition is entitled “The North” and features working-class scenes from the north of England, although the inclusion of the Black Country, in the West Midlands, stretches the definition of the north of England to breaking point. The photographs were taken in the 1960s, the period I grew up in and capture a way of life I experienced at first hand.

It was a time of cobbled streets devoid of cars and lined with terraced houses whose chimneys belched smoke from coal fires. The street lighting was gas, which created pools of a dim yellow light every 25 yards.

Black Country street in 1961 by John Bulmer.

Front steps were scrubbed on a weekly basis in the days when elbow grease had real meaning. Washing was hung out to dry on lines in back yards or across the street and invariably ended up catching particles of soot from the grimy atmosphere and had to be washed for a second time.

Hanging out the washing in a northern mill town by John Bulmer.

It was time when men wore flat caps and for women headscarves were de rigueur; women who became old before their time and acted as the unpaid police of the streets. There were certain houses where you did not play football outside for fear of incurring the wrath of these women and, at times, losing the ball. These dragons and self-appointed militia did not think twice about confiscating the ball if their censure was ignored. And you never dared complain to your own parents.

The 1960s was also a time of redevelopment of the major cities, when vast tracts of slum housing were cleared to be replaced by ugly pre-fabricated concrete monstrosities that created more social problems than they solved and robbed people of their back yard privacy and privy.

Moss Side, Manchester by John Bulmer

Bulmer’s photographs capture the spirit of a bygone age, which to today’s youngsters must look as remote as photographs of the Victorian and Edwardian era did in my youth — such is the dissonance of time.

His exhibition is being held at the Third Floor Gallery, in Cardiff, and runs through June 12. It moves to Chris Beetles Art Gallery, London, in October.

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Apr 202011

Two things caught my eye during my recent rail journey from London to Stoke-on-Trent.

First, the presence of spring lambs in the green fields of middle England. In the 11 years that I have been in America, I have yet to see a single sheep in a field let alone a lamb. I obviously need to travel more extensively within the United States.

Second, for much of the journey the railway line ran parallel to its mass transport predecessor — the canal.

Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The pace of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the growth of the canal network went hand in hand. A system of transport was needed for the safe and large scale  movement of goods and raw materials and canals provided the answer.

The pottery manufacturers of Stoke-on-Trent were in the vanguard of the move to building canals. Transporting a fragile commodity such as pottery by pack horse had the inevitable consequences with such a fragile product.

Trent & Mersey Canal runs by the former Dolby Pottery works, Stoke-on-Trent England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The success of the Bridgewater Canal in transporting coal from Worsley to Manchester, and also cutting the cost of coal to consumers by two-thirds, was taken up by the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood saw canals as the ideal way of transporting clay, particularly the china clay from St Austell in  Cornwall, to his factory via the port of Liverpool and also as a means of getting his finished goods to the domestic markets of Manchester, Birmingham and London, as well as markets overseas, particularly North America.

Wedgwood was a driving force behind the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal and shared engineer James Brindley’s vision of a canal network linking the four major rivers of England —  the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames.

The Act of Parliament allowing the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal was passed in 1766. In 1777, the 93.5-mile canal, including more than 70 locks and five tunnels, was completed.

Narrowboat on the Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

At the peak of canal transport, the canal system extended for 4,000 miles before it was eclipsed by the advent of the railways, which from 1840 onwards could carry greater loads and at a faster pace.

The growth of road transport in the 20th Century also spelled the death knell for canals and many of them fell into sad decline after the Second World War.

It was largely thanks to canal trusts and an army of volunteers that the waterways have been preserved not only as part of England’s industrial heritage but also as a valuable recreational amenity.

Glebe Street Bridge and the Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England, ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

In urban areas, such as Manchester and Birmingham, the old canal basins have seen a rejuvenation in the past 30 years, with the development of Salford Quays and Gas Street Basin, respectively, as entertainment and upmarket residential areas.

Canals, with their narrowboats, locks, bridges, tunnels, warehouses and wharves, also provide a great subject for photography.

Growing up in the Potteries, the canal was always referred to as the “cut” as in, “Ast bin dine cut?” In Queen’s English it translates to,  “Have you been down to the canal?”

The construction of the canals by men known as navigationalists, usually Irish in origin, led to the word navvy, to describe a general labourer, passing into the English language.