Michael Portillo finds out about shoddy, a successful 19th-century recycling industry in the textile town of Batley, and meets a descendant of George Bradshaw.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop he told them where to travel, what to see, and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length
and breadth of the country to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
In recent days I've been using some of the earliest railway lines built in Britain or the world.
I'm continuing my journey around Northern England using a railway guide book published in the 1860s.
And I've found it gives me such insights into Britain's history and Britain today that you can
keep your Fodor's and your Michelin's and your Lonely Planet guide,
as long as you leave me my Bradshaw's.
It's full of tips for the Victorian traveller, from opening times for
banks and libraries to facts and figures about local industries.
On this leg of the journey, I'll be hearing how textile recycling started in 19th century Yorkshire.
When the rags came here, thousands of tonnes from all over the world,
they were auctioned on a regular basis here at the station.
Seeing how the Victorians made rhubarb grow in the dark.
Are there any secrets left in your process?
I can't tell you unless we'll have to bury you under the rhubarb roots.
And uncovering railway treasures with a descendant of George Bradshaw himself.
Oh my goodness.
That is so beautiful.
I started this trip in North East England,
and on my journey south travelled on lines laid down by railway pioneers.
I'm now in Yorkshire's industrial heart, and will
cross into rural Leicestershire, to end my journey in Melton Mowbray.
On today's stretch I start in Batley, and will pass through Woodlesford
on my way to Sheffield, the city of steel.
I'm now on way to town Batley.
Not a town name that springs to everyone's lips but in the 19th century, it was responsible for
the invention of an industry that I've always regarded as much more recent, more modern - recycling.
Today Batley strikes me as a quiet place, but in Bradshaw's time things were very different.
My 19th century guidebook tells me that Batley has "Extensive woollen and carpet manufactures".
It might also have mentioned that those industries were based on the concept of re-using waste material.
Malcolm Haigh has been researching the story.
-Are you Malcolm?
-I am, good to see you.
I'm Michael. Very good to see you indeed.
Now I understand Batley has some claim to have invented recycling?
-What's that based on?
-Well, yes, that is a system whereby a guy from Batley, called him
Benjamin Law wanted to find a new means of earning money, expand his work as clothier here.
The story goes that Benjamin Law began to tear up rags and waste from Yorkshire's
extensive woollen industry attempting to make new cloth.
He mixed these torn up woolen rags with virgin wool and then was able
-after number of years of trying to create cloth, fresh cloth.
-What did he call it?
Well, eventually it became known as shoddy.
Which sounds a very awful thing to do, shoddy cloth, I mean everybody
thinks it's awful but in fact it comes from Arabic word,
very similarly sounding for re-use.
Recycled shoddy cloth was such a success that by the 1850s, thousands
of tonnes of rags were arriving in Batley station each week.
I suppose this must have been quite a station in its day too.
This was central to Batley's prosperity.
The railway companies who came here didn't
really bother about passengers, it was bringing the goods in.
In those days there were no less than seven platforms
and a huge area given over to warehousing and auctions.
Because when the rags came here, thousands of tonnes from all over
the world, they were auctioned on a regular basis here at the station.
Did Batley make a fortune on the back of this?
Some people did,
some people made an awful lot of money but best of all was that
from this system lots and lots of manufactures, mills were created here
which meant over years thousands of people have had jobs in this valley
and creating things like woollen cloth, uniform cloth in particular,
which is why this whole area is known as a heavy woollen district.
What would Batley have looked like heyday?
If we were standing here, what might we have seen across the valley there?
Well something like, in the valley, 60 mill chimneys,
all of them, that's if you could see them, because they used to throw out
the dirt every hour on the hour, so sometimes couldn't see from one side the valley to the other.
Shoddy was a massive recycling industry right into the 20th century,
but from the 1960s, the growth of synthetic fabrics forced it into decline.
Most of the mills have closed now, but Batley has become an important centre for a new kind of recycling.
I'm meeting Joanne Illingworth to see how it works in the 21st century.
What are you actually doing?
We're textile recyclers. We process second-hand clothing, we sort it,
we hand sort it and then we export the final product, most goes abroad.
A lot of it goes to eastern Europe, but the main bulk of the clothing goes to Africa,
and some goes to Pakistan as well.
A small percentage does stay in this country.
And where do you get it?
The main source is charity shops, off the rails, what they can't sell.
-Is there a benefit to the environment from what you are doing?
-Of course. Anybody that wants
to throw their old clothing away, if they just throw it in the bin, it's going to go to landfill,
whereas if it comes here it's all processed and sorted and all goes for re-use again.
And what do you do with the stuff that isn't fit for human wear?
That will be gone for shoddy and then there is a very small percentage that will go to landfill.
-Shoddy is still used is it, for re-cycling material?
-It is, yes.
We sell to other companies who will process it into shoddy, so they do still use that word, yes.
Although recycling has moved on, seeing clothes being sorted
by hand makes me sense a connection with work in Bradshaw's day.
So what judgement are you making, what are you deciding?
I know that's heavy so I know that goes straight into there.
So is that. I can judge straight away. Light, summery, it goes there.
-It goes to ladies on mill there.
OK, I guess that's acrylic again, don't you?
Feel! I go by feel a lot.
How long have you been doing this?
-About 25 years.
-Have you really?
I wonder how many bits of clothing you've sorted in that time?
I don't know.
This is heavy enough for Pakistan?
-Oh, I'm getting the hang of this.
As I move on to catch my next train, I am impressed to think that here in
Yorkshire, recycling is an industry with 150 years of history.
When I've taken stuff into a charity shop, I've sometimes wondered whether I'd be embarrassed
if I bumped into someone locally wearing my clothes.
It never occurred to me they might end up in West Africa or Pakistan
having travelled via Yorkshire.
Does the word shoddy mean anything to you?
-What does it mean?
-Do you know what the origin of it is?
-Are you from Yorkshire?
Well, apparently it's to do with taking the old cloth and they would rework it into a new cloth.
They'd mix it with wool and make a new cloth and that was called shoddy.
Really! That's brilliant.
Do you think it's a Yorkshire thing to do? Do save on stuff and make do?
-Is that very Yorkshire?
-Knowing my dad.
-He's a typical Yorkshireman, short arms, long pockets.
I'm now travelling through what in Bradshaw's day was Yorkshire's West Riding.
My guidebook enthuses about the area's industries, describing, "Their manifest utility in furnishing
"employment for a great part of our population and supplying the comforts and conveniences of life".
At my next stop, I want to find out about a delicious foodstuff produced grown here in the 19th century.
This is Woodlesford Station and it dates back to 1840.
It was one of the original stations on George Stephenson's Derby to Leeds line.
But I'm not so interested in the station, I'm looking for what's in the fields out there.
In Bradshaw's day, this whole area was famous for a single crop, rhubarb.
In the 19th century, it was grown in this region by around 200 farmers.
Janet Oldroyd's family has been cultivating it for four generations.
Lovely to see you. I've never seen so much rhubarb in my life.
She's an expert on why it flourished here in Victorian times.
I'm guessing there's a connection with railways there nearly always is?
There is a great connection. How else did the growers get their produce to market very quickly?
It was collected all the local stations, taken down, particularly to old Covent Garden market.
From mostly Covent Garden it was sent on into Europe as well.
-And we're talking about big quantities of rhubarb travelling by train?
Those trains carried nothing but rhubarb and became nicknamed the Rhubarb Express trains.
The railways also brought cheap coal to Yorkshire's farmers.
It enabled them to grow rhubarb in special heated sheds, a new process called forcing.
-What is forcing?
-It's making it grow in the dark
using it's energy from the roots, which is done in winter.
So they were able to produce rhubarb in winter, indoors?
Yes, giving the nation
a vegetable that they ate as a fruit, which was full of nutrients.
At one time, Yorkshire's heated sheds produced 90% of the world's forced rhubarb.
Until the 1940s, it was a staple in the British diet.
Then rising fuel costs and changing tastes took their toll.
There was a major downturn in popularity, linked with...
during the second world war.
This nation loved rhubarb and they loved sugar and they liked their rhubarb sweet,
so with rationing they couldn't get rhubarb to their taste.
So eating it very tart,
giving it to a child, turned the next generation away from rhubarb.
The growers were massively over-producing,
so many went bankrupt and many got out of the industry before they did.
Now there are just 11 producers left here.
Janet's farm was one of the few to survive and she grows forced rhubarb in the original Victorian sheds.
We had a crop in here.
The roots now have given all the energy into production and they're starting to die.
When the crop was growing in here, describe what it looked like.
Well, pitch black.
Totally like a mine in here and so what's happening is the root is tricked into growth by heat.
And it grows up looking for light which it can never find.
By candlelight, we harvest the crop, because we don't want to damage the process.
Recently, as consumers have become interested in traditional British produce,
forced rhubarb has again become fashionable.
Tell me what it tastes like?
It's less acidic, so it appears sweeter and it doesn't need as much sugar as the outdoor grown variety.
So very, very popular when chefs today
want the tart balance that you would get
with savoury products particularly.
You're pretty proud of your product, aren't you?
Very proud of my product and Yorkshire's links to it.
It's part of the heritage, not just of Yorkshire but of this country.
Are there any secrets left in your process?
There are a great deal of secrets, that can't tell you unless we have to bury you under the rhubarb roots.
Basically, it isn't called the secret world of the rhubarb triangle for nothing.
It's time to make my escape before I end up in the rhubarb sheds.
And I'm now headed for my hotel for the night.
I'm lucky to stay in this beautifully restored Georgian House,
and the reason I've picked it is an intriguing reference in my Bradshaw's guide.
This gorgeous pile is, according to Bradshaw's, Waterton Hall, near Wakefield, and was the seat
of Charles Waterton, the great naturalist and South American traveller.
Few people today have heard of Waterton, but he was famous in
Bradshaw's era and Charles Darwin once came to visit him here.
Like Darwin, he travelled the world,
studying and collecting exotic animals, and writing books.
On this estate, he created a safe haven for wildlife,
making him one of the world's first environmentalists.
Michael Portillo, checking in, please. It's a lovely hotel.
-I gather Charles Waterton was quite a character.
-He was indeed.
This was the first nature reserve in the world,
he designed that, he put the brick wall around the whole area.
-It started from there.
-What sort of animals did he have?
He was a specialist in birds, like ducks, everything.
-The whole hotel, you can see there's baby geese out there.
-Room seven, the first floor and just in front of you.
-Do I get a view?
-It's of the front of the island, and you get lake views.
-Thank you very much.
-Enjoy your stay.
I've been looking forward to staying here because
Waterton, apart from being a naturalist was also a great eccentric and he liked to impersonate animals.
For instance, he would put on wings and try to fly like a bird.
Or he'd pretend to be a dog and bark and go under the dining room table
and even bite the legs of guests.
Those are two things I think I shouldn't attempt tonight.
Having woken to a beautiful day, I have to tear myself away from this delightful estate.
Though my journey continues south to a place that's highly commended in my guide.
Now which city do you think Bradshaw's is describing here?
"Its suburbs spreading mile after mile in every direction,
hill and dale, and every accessible point on the slopes between,
"be occupied by houses and villas in endless variety,
"offer to the stranger new objects of pleasure at each turn,
"and to residents, prospects of great extent and beauty."
Well, I'm sure you guessed it, Sheffield.
Now that's never been my view of Sheffield.
I remember the slopes being disfigured by enormous blocks of flats,
but I'm willing to give Sheffield another go and look at it afresh
through Bradshaw's eyes.
My recollections are of a city rebuilt after terrible bombing during World War II
and suffering from industrial decline.
Although I've passed through it many times,
I've not had the chance to explore since its face-changing regeneration programme that started in 2001.
From the moment you step off the train, there are signs of new life.
Sheffield has had a station since 1845 and this one dates from 1870.
It's recently been given a complete makeover, and the blend of the old and the new is very successful.
I absolutely love it.
And this sculpture reminds us, as Bradshaw did, that Sheffield is the city of steel.
The 'Cutting Edge' sculpture, as it's known, is 90 metres long, and weighs 60 tons.
It's just one of many new structures that in recent years have come to grace the city.
It seems 21st century Sheffield is once again becoming a beautiful city as Bradshaw described.
-Hello, Michael. Nice to meet you.
-Very nice to see you.
-Welcome to Sheffield.
-Thank you. You're from Sheffield?
-I haven't been here for a while,
I didn't know about all these new buildings.
Yeah, it's really changed in the area here.
I mean, you've still got the old town hall here,
but you've got the new buildings like the new hotel there and the cafes.
It's come back into 21st century, I think.
In Bradshaw's day, Sheffield became famous for steel.
In the 1850s, Henry Bessemer invented a cheaper and simpler process for mass production
and established one of his first factories in Sheffield.
As steel replaced iron in everything from railways to buildings and bridges,
Sheffield's industry went into overdrive.
Bessemer became a millionaire.
But alongside that heavy industry, many smaller businesses added to the prestige of Sheffield steel.
Bradshaw's mentions Sheffield's fame for "Knives, forks, razors, saws, scissors, printing type,
"optical instruments, Britannia metal, Sheffield plate, scythes, garden implements,
"files, screws, other tools, stoves, fenders, as well as engines, railway springs and buffers".
And in those days, much of the work was done by craftsmen working in small groups
and I'm here to see what survives of that tradition.
Specialist items, like knives, were too intricate to be produced in bulk.
They were made by highly skilled metalworkers called "little mesters", meaning masters.
These men were often self-employed, and worked long hours to make ends meet.
Today, Trevor Ablett and Reg Cooper are among the last of the little mesters still toiling in that way.
-Hello. Very nice to see you.
-How old were you when you started in the business?
Trevor, you're new to the business, aren't you?
-Yeah, I were 15.
-You were 15 when you started!
He's ten years in front of me, he's been in't trade 60-odd years and I've been in 50-odd years.
1957, I started.
You're both fantastic examples of the healths of your trade, you look fantastic for your ages.
-You, of course, are retired.
So tell me how many days you're working.
I work five days a week now.
I come in the morning at seven, I'm here at seven,
and then I work till about three or half past three.
Trevor, what's your routine?
Seven while seven in't week, and
Saturday seven while four... er, seven while six.
I did cut it down to four but I've got that much work now, we're back to six o'clock.
Sundays I knock off at dinner time now.
What would I do if I were at home? I'd watch telly and fall to sleep. So I'm doing something I enjoy.
It takes Reg two to three days to make one of the hunting knives that are his speciality.
So these are the things that you produce, beautiful, beautiful blades.
You make that into that.
Yep, as you can see it's marked out there
and then it has to be on a bandsaw, we take the shape out of there and shape it up.
Very pretty, and again all this beautiful work you've done along here.
In the early 19th century demand for hunting knives boomed.
American settlers in particular went mad for Bowie knives like these, and the best ones came from Sheffield.
Trevor, your speciality is...
These are very, very fine indeed.
These days, enthusiasts buy the knives crafted by Trevor and Reg,
and even their machine tools are collectors' items.
-This is 1800 and something.
-What do you call that machine?
-You've never thought of buying a new one?
No, everybody wants this.
There's a friend of ours, he's always after it but while it's working, it's like us two.
If it works, let it carry on!
What it is, you put the letters the wrong way round so that when you turn it that way...
And what you do, make sure all't letters are in.
Isn't that beautiful? Why indeed would you want a new machine?
You couldn't do it more beautifully than that.
-Isn't that a beautiful piece of work?
Before I leave Sheffield, I've set up a special meeting.
As I've travelled around Britain using my Victorian guidebook,
I've become increasingly keen to learn about George Bradshaw and his work.
And to my delight, one of his direct descendants has come to light.
Mary John will see me in the City Hall.
Do I have the honour of addressing the great great granddaughter of George Bradshaw?
-Yes, yes, thank you.
-This is a very proud moment for me. Very proud indeed.
George Bradshaw started out mapping canals, before turning his attention to the railways in the 1830s.
With each different train company printing its own timetable, planning a journey wasn't easy.
In 1840, Bradshaw brought all that information together
in a single guidebook, called The Railway Companion, transforming train travel.
I found this letter, which is an original letter from George.
-And you can read it.
Yeah. Postmark on the outside and everything, don't know if you want to read it.
Manchester, 27 Brown Street, 11...
Month seven, 1843.
It says, "Dear friend, I should be glad if thou wilt be on the lookout for any new railway works
"which may be making their appearance about this time.
"I should very much like to know if there is likely to be a railway almanac for 1844.
"Perhaps thou wilt make a little enquiry."
I mean, this is amazing because I suppose he's seeing whether there's any competition
to the books that he's producing.
Maybe, there was competition when he first started out and then he wrote this really comprehensive guide
that then people bought instead, yeah.
I think that's an amazing discovery, Mary.
You know, museums and archivists will be so excited by this letter.
Bradshaw's railway guides became so successful that he published
monthly updates and later, an international version.
He's such a big influence, George Bradshaw.
At one time, Bradshaw was just a household word.
I know, yeah, but you don't appreciate it if it's always there,
you don't appreciate it, do you really?
Bradshaw became a noun meaning railway timetable in the way that
Biro means ballpoint pen, Hoover means vacuum cleaner.
It was just one of those words. "Go and get the Bradshaw."
This is actually the first edition, we think, of a map from...1839.
1839? That is early.
But it unfolds, it's really, really big.
I don't know if you want to open it and have a look.
"Tables of the gradients to Bradshaw's map of the railways of Great Britain."
And this whole thing is a map?
Oh, my goodness!
That is so beautiful!
-And again, it's in perfect condition.
This rare early map by Bradshaw reminds me how the major lines grew stage by stage.
This is Brunel's Great Western Railway running through here.
But it goes as far as Exeter and no further.
And here's the Southampton railway, and again there's nothing
beyond Southampton. This is treasure,
this is gold.
Meeting Bradshaw's great great granddaughter with her cache of personal effects
has brought the man to life for me.
As I head back to the station, I wonder whether the railway revolution that he witnessed in a few years
has been matched by anything in the many decades since.
On this journey, I've found out what shoddy means and I've discovered the beauties of modern Sheffield.
And I've been thrilled to meet a real life descendent of George Bradshaw.
He understood that railways would change society absolutely.
Yet those tracks, stations and trains are recognisable today.
I wonder whether that will be true of the technologies that are currently revolutionising our lives.
On the next leg of my journey,
I'll be learning the secrets of one of the Victorians' favourite cheeses, Stilton.
You turn that very well. I can't turn an omelette, let alone that!
Finding out how the railways transformed a traditional British sport.
Special carriages were built to take these hunters
from the middle of London right up to the shires of Leicestershire.
And attempting to mould an authentic Melton Mowbray pork pie.
Oh, dear. Mine doesn't look like yours but never mind.
-Oh, my goodness.
-It's a good job it's a three-year apprenticeship!
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. He travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains, as his journey follows some of the earliest railways in the country from Newcastle to Melton Mowbray.
Michael finds out about shoddy, a successful 19th-century recycling industry in the textile town of Batley, discovers how the railways boosted Yorkshire's forced rhubarb trade and meets the great-great-granddaughter of George Bradshaw himself.