Thursday, 15 July 2010

History lessons

I've been too busy talking about breakdowns to talk about the reason for our being stranded at this particular spot – a visit to the Black Country Living Museum.
What an extraordinary step back through time it is. On the huge 26 acre site shops, houses, blacksmiths, a funfair, a spit 'n sawdust pub and even a coal mine take you back to a world of valve radios, gobstoppers, chain-makers, trams and, more poignantly, sweat shops and starvation wages.
Every building has been carefully dismantled from its original home somewhere in the Black Country and restored and re-assembled on the site. But what makes it a 'living'museum is the cast of period characters who sell sweets, chips - cooked in dripping of course - demonstrate chain making or sit by the fireside in old cottages telling the tales of life in those times with a vigour that takes you right there.
Standing in the Cradley Workers' Institute and hearing the story of the strike a hundred years ago by the women chain-makers brought a tear to my eye. A strike by women who called themselves the white slaves of England who earned a penny an hour working in appalling conditions. It was a milestone strike for the union movement and women's rights.
The whole museum was fascinating on several levels. I could feel myself sliding inexorably into 'old codger' mode as I exchanged anecdotes about ancient radios, bought old fashioned chips at sadly new fashioned prices and browsed among the nick nacks in the ironmongers.
No such connection would have been possible for the dozens of school kids on trips - for them it must have seemed as ancient as ancient Rome.
But my overwhelming thought was that we may have got rid of penny an hour sweat shops, terrible mining conditions and grinding poverty - but only because we have exported it elsewhere in the world. There are no white slaves of England but there are virtual slaves in Africa, Asia and China working in the same atrocious conditions for the same pitiful pay to keep the western world wealthy.

Pics: Cradley Workers Institute (originally paid for out of the surplus from thechain makers' strike support fund.)
Street scene of period shops.
Starman patiently queueing for his portion of beef dripping cooked chips

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