SIAS

 

Fossicks

Peter Daniel writes:

Fossicks are an integral part of the SIAS programme. They provide a means of exploring the industrial archaeology of a small area in more detail and offer the opportunity to casually visit a number of sites of Industrial Archaeological interest.

The word fossick comes from Australia and means to rummage or search for something; there is an element of discovery involved. We could call them guided walks or Industrial Archaeological trails but that would be to miss that element of looking out for industrial features or evidence that are unknown to the leader. In a group of people with eclectic interests there will always be someone present who can provide further comments and knowledge and this enhances the experience for everyone.

Much of Industrial Archaeology is focused on sites or specific industries in isolation. Of course even a casual site visit on a fossick can, on occasion, reveal visible evidence that will tell us more about an industry than surviving documents or maps will ever do. Examples include water power sources, access and transport arrangements, scale or size, and physical artefacts such as street furniture.

However the real strength of fossicks is that they allow us to look at the context of those sites and also the visible remains and evidence of industry in general. In these days when everything seems to be imported from the far east the historical importance of our own industries can easily be forgotten by anyone under the age of 50. In the 18th and 19th centuries Britain was the workshop of the world, rather than a centre for financial jiggery-pokery, and our extractive and manufacturing industries shaped so much of what we see around us. The physical evidence for this industrial pre-eminence is wider than simply the sites and artefacts themselves and fossicks can be used to examine these aspects in a number of ways.

Firstly there is the reason for the industry being there. In the past industries were located in specific areas dependent on raw materials, power sources and transport routes. This is what we were taught in geography lessons at school, although it is probably meaningless now. Modern industry, such as it is, is fairly foot-loose and can be located anywhere. Unravelling the reasons why industrial premises are where they are can be a source of much speculation on fossicks. Sometimes it is obvious and related to a particular mineral outcrop for example but sometimes it is purely down to the drive of a local entrepreneur.

Then there is the way in which past industry has shaped our landscapes and townscapes. Most urban areas have had their development caused or heavily influenced by local industries. Nowadays industry and residential developments are segregated as much as possible and it is hard to recognise just how much industry was embedded into general urban development in the past – especially when people had to walk to work prior to railways, trams, etc. Very often a community’s growth and development was shaped almost entirely by the presence and growth of specific industries. In places this is obvious as in coal mining villages; at other times it may be due to a range of industries which are less evident. Relating the increase in population and the spread of housing to what was happening industrially can be another aspect examined on fossicks.

Industrial development also gave rise to other institutions which might be called social archaeology. Banks, schools, town halls, chapels and churches, reading rooms, miners institutes, workhouses are all examples of other physical evidence that arose because of increasing economic activity and industry. Their presence may well be all that remains of a particular community’s industrial development now that the actual industrial buildings have been swept away.

Similarly transport routes often provide some of the most enduring and impressive evidence of past industrial activity – the incline of the West Somerset Mineral railway is a classic example. Sometimes the industry is located because of the transport route and sometimes the transport route is there because of the industry; again this is something that can be discussed and explored on fossicks.

In recent years SIAS has been visiting some of the less obviously industrial small towns and villages of Somerset. For those that I have led I have been keen to explore some of the themes that I have outlined above and I hope that members have found that approach interesting. I am in the process of turning these fossicks into true industrial archaeological trails and the first two of the series, covering Somerton and Cheddar are available in abridged versions as leaflets available for download and printing.

Leaflets in pdf format (free download)

Somerton - An industrial archaeological trail

Cheddar - An industrial archaeological trail

In May 2010 I organised what may be the ultimate test of the fossick concept. We went to North Petherton which is by far the largest place in Somerset which doesn’t have even a single entry in the SIAS gazetteer ‘Somerset’s Industrial Heritage’. Nevertheless as we ‘rummaged around’ we were able to find significant physical evidence of North Petherton’s industrial past. Although some of the most interesting industrial premises have now been redeveloped (including the acetylene gasworks and Starkey’s brewery) we were able to see a surprising amount of infrastructure surviving from previous industrial activities. This included three mill sites with mill ponds or leats, the pre- and post-1822 turnpike roads, a malthouse, and other aspects of social archaeology such as schools and assembly rooms. In the process of poking around we also came to understand much more about the history and development of the town.

Peter Daniel

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