The Museum of Bath at Work Malcolm Rigby as he explores the Museum of Bath at Work

PUBLISHED: 12:16 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013

An office from Bowler's shop (PHOTO: MALCOLM RIGBY)

An office from Bowler's shop (PHOTO: MALCOLM RIGBY)

Join Malcolm Rigby as he explores the Museum of Bath at Work and connects the dots between Plasticine, giant cranes and a self-winding clock.

Join Malcolm Rigby as he explores the Museum of Bath at Work and connects the dots between Plasticine, giant cranes and a self-winding clock.

The most well-known image of Bath is that surrounding the Jane Austen 'concept' - a city of elegance, culture and high living. Whilst this picture has been around for over a quarter of a millennium, there is another side to this famous city that is equally deserving of such attention, and the purpose of the Museum of Bath at Work is to offer this side of the story.

As the Director, Stuart Burroughs, says: "It was set up by a group of enthusiasts who felt that the way the history of the city had been presented was as if no one in the city had actually done any work, that somehow Bath had lived a charmed life, that it was a place set apart. And I suppose, to an extent, the remit of the museum has been to show that however dull it might sound, Bath is in many respects not that exceptional. Most of the people, for most of the time, have to work. One of the missions of the museum is to say it's really just like anywhere else. It's had factories, shops; there are all the sorts of trades that you might find elsewhere."

The city might now be associated with marketing, graphics and of course tourism, but it was not so long ago that Bath generated its own electricity, produced its own gas, possessed two busy railway yards, exported giant dockyard cranes to every corner of the globe, brewed its own beer, milled its own flour, wove fine worsted cloth, modelled the world in Plasticine, fitted out Atlantic liners, and manufactured motor cars. The museum is there to celebrate and remind residents and visitors of this impressive history.

Originally established in 1978 as the Industrial Heritage Centre, the museum later changed its name to cover all forms of employment. Its home, Camden Works off Julian Road, itself tells a story of Bath. The large distinctive building was designed in 1776 as a Real Tennis court for the idle rich, but still a business, since then though its been a brewery, a warehouse, various kinds of factories and even a school.

The centrepiece of the museum is the Bowler collection. Jonathan B Bowler set up shop on Corn Street in 1872; his willingness to tackle almost any task is perhaps best described by his original trade card - 'Engineer Plumbers and General Founder, Gas Fitter, Locksmith and Bell Hanger'. The business continued trading for 97 years, having been passed on to children and grandchildren, and taken on the role of soft drink manufacturer. By the time it closed, it was a living museum, which was probably why it closed. Virtually nothing had changed and nothing had been taken away what was left was a unique insight into the operations of a typical late Victorian family business. Machinery, hand-tools, documents and other objects (about one million of them) are now all housed by the museum.

Visitors to the city might be surprised to learn that Bath has connections with heavy engineering. Stothert and Pitt manufactured and exported cranes all over the world for the best part of a century. The museum holds more than 40,000 photographs relating to Stothert and Pitt alone; fitting a selection of industrial cranes into the building was unsurprisingly impractical! The business started as just an ironmongers in 1785 then kept on expanding until hitting its heyday after the Second World War. Its demise during the 80s is thought to have been due to not anticipating the full impact of the container trade.

Possibly more difficult to believe is that Bath was once a centre for car production. Gustav Horstmann, a German watchmaker, came to the city in the 19th century and was himself responsible for inventing a self-winding clock (which apparently didnt work very well). But he did pass on his technical and inventive skills to his sons, who set up a range of engineering companies. In 1914, Sydney Horstmann, who had earlier invented an automatic gearbox, went into car manufacturing. The museum is a proud owner of one of these first cars; there is only a handful still in existence.

Another Bath invention that led to a major industry was Plasticine. The inspiration behind this was William Harbutt, the Director of the Bath School of Art. Well-to-do parents of the 19th century were taking their offspring out of modelling classes because they were concerned about them becoming ill from the water that was used with the clay. So Harbutt replaced the water with oil and realised that he had a product that would remain malleable indefinitely. Suddenly there was a multitude of industrial applications and a manufacturing company was established in Bathampton.

A recent addition to the museum is the Hudson Gallery. This is an educational space but it is also a room designed to give local organisations and community groups a voice. Stuart says: "This museum is not a treasure house of the crown jewels. We have got historically important objects and some financially valuable things, but by and large we are to do with the celebration of ordinary people doing ordinary things, earning a living. One ambition would be much more involvement with the communities."

As he is the only member of staff, he already relies on his team of volunteers just to get the building open. Another way that local people have contributed is through recorded histories; there are now more than 500 tapes of them.
"Bath is not as genteel as it appears to be. You can find those trades that you might expect to find in Birmingham or Halifax in Bath, and you don't have to look very far," says Stuart. "It must have been quite an experience walking along the Lower Bristol Road in the early 20th century. If you walked from Churchill Bridge to Twerton, you would pass through a corridor of almost continuous industrial development."

Bath is pretty, but it works, and always has done.

The Museum of Bath at Work is open every day during the summer. 01225 318348

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