What becomes of a place when the factory shuts down? In the 1980s this question was answered all over Britain, when the economy changed from being dominated by manufacturing, to one centred on retail, finance and service industries.

In Manchester, the world’s first industrial city, large-scale engineering works were closed and cleared in places such as the Trafford Park industrial estate. They were deemed unsuitable in design and scale for new, smaller businesses. Ironically, many of the mills, which had heralded the start of industrialisation two centuries before, proved more adaptable to new uses and survived. Pear Mill in Stockport has become a retail outlet, Islington Mill in Salford is now artists’ studios, and in the city centre, mills and warehouses have been turned into housing.

Train Wheels Sculpture Gorton

The social dimension of this reconfiguration of the economy has been the displacement of working class communities. These are typically not people who can afford to move into loft-style, renovated apartments in the city. When a factory closed down the sense of community and the economic benefit went with it. The realisation of this is reflected in the rise of industrial archaeology and the memorialisation of old industrial sites. These memorials invariably take two forms – artworks erected by developers to ‘place make’ an area that has lost its purpose or community arts projects that seek to engage the former workers and their descendants.

On Ashton Old Road in Openshaw, shoppers walk under a 15-ton, stainless steel sculpture as they enter the Lime Square retail park. The sculpture, nicknamed The Dead Blow, represents a steam hammer like B&S Massey used to build on the site. Today you would be forgiven for thinking the sculpture’s ‘M’ shape represents Morrisons supermarket, the biggest shop on the site.

Gorton, to the east of Manchester, owed much of its 19th Century growth as an industrial suburb to railway locomotive engineering. In Manchester in 1849, the Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway opened its Gorton Tank works, which eventually grew to cover 30 acres. Six years later the railway’s chief engineer, Richard Peacock, left, and together with the German Charles Beyer formed the Beyer-Peacock locomotive company. Their works was built at Gorton Foundry, just over the railway line from Gorton Tank. From 1854, some 8,000 locomotives were built at the factory and exported all over the world to places including South Africa, Australia, Norway and the Isle of Man, where they are still in use.

Beyer-Peacock didn’t last long enough to suffer from the recession of the 1980s. It never really survived the evolution from steam to diesel and electric railways and sadly shut its doors in 1966. The former boiler shop is now Manchester City Council’s Hammerstone Road depot. An acknowledgment to its history as Gorton Foundry is the Steelworks Tavern, a small corner pub which is still open, though now the only metal to be seen are bags of aluminium cans left out for recycling.

Gorton Mural

The descendants of those engineers now find work in places such as Tesco. Outside its Gorton supermarket is an example of a public art memorial – a pair of faux-steam engine wheels. In 2010, the workforce itself got a community art project mural on the side of a housing complex and outside the Council’s former housing local office is yet another pair of faux-railway engine wheels.

A few hundred metres away, Richard Peacock’s body lies in a high gothic mausoleum in a semi-derelict churchyard. It could be argued that the public sculptures that mark his and the industry of others are like gravestones to communities that have had the life squeezed out of them.

Photos by David Dunnico, a documentary photographer from Manchester.


David Dunnico