Last year, Sir Neil Cossons completed a seven year stint as Chairman of English Heritage. Throughout his career, his chief concern has been for Britain’s industrial Heritage. It was 50 years ago that the term ‘industrial archaeology’ was first coined, and throughout much of that time, Sir Neil has been the foremost champion of industrial archaeology, first at Ironbridge Gorge, then at the Science Museum, and then as Chairman of English Heritage. Here Christopher Catling profiles the man and his views
When Sir Neil Cossons retired as Chairman of English Heritage in June 2007, his farewell party was held in a building overlooking St
Pancras Station. This was a fitting venue given the extent of Neil’s personal involvement in the transformation of William Henry Barlow’s revolutionary train shed – the world’s largest singlespan structure when it opened in 1868 – into the gleaming new UK terminus of the European high-speed train network. The other big mission of his Chairmanship – resolving the ‘national disgrace’ of the Stonehenge landscape – had defeated him just as surely as it had defeated every one of his predecessors, but rescuing St Pancras will go down as one of the great achievements of Neil’s period in office.
In his farewell speech, Simon Thurley, English Heritage Chief Executive, talked fondly of train journeys between Paddington and Swindon enlivened by Neil’s railway monologues. Simply getting on a train was the signal for a lecture on any subject, from the buttons on the seat upholstery (diagnostic of the Metro Cammell Carriage and Wagon works in Birmingham)
to the histories of such railway pioneers as Sir (Matthew) Digby Wyatt, assistant to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who perhaps gets too little credit for his work in designing the stations at Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads.
By sheer chance, English Heritage has ended up occupying some of the buildings in Swindon that Brunel himself designed in the 1840s as the engineering hub of the Great Western Railway (GWR). Built of stone excavated from tunnels along the route of the GWR, these solid functional buildings were converted to form offices for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in the early 1990s, along with a new archive store and search room for the National Monuments Record, all of which was absorbed into English Heritage when the two organisations merged on 1 April 1999.
An industrial heritage Not by any means an aesthetically beautiful place, Neil nevertheless feels passionately that Swindon – and indeed, the whole of ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’, as the GWR is known to its aficionados – deserves World Heritage Status. Probing into the reasoning behind this belief reveals some deeply held and important thoughts about industrial heritage generally.
In a series of speeches given just before his retirement, Neil explained why he believes the Industrial Revolution has been one of the defining epochs in world history – on a par with revolutions deep in prehistory when the development of tool use, of language, art, agriculture and settled lifestyles are inseparable from changes in the way we think and behave. The legacy of such seismic shifts is not just evident in the transformed landscape – wildwood cut down and fields created, coal and minerals extracted, transformed and transported – but in the complex web of cultural and social attitudes and mores that have shaped the society in which we live. Just as there is such a thing as