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The Ouse Valley Viaduct And What History Forgets


As many readers will know, in June various friends and myself recently completed the annual walk that I organise in memory of my Mum. The route that we have walked for the past two years has proved very popular amongst those attending to the point that some have decided to go and re-trace their steps at another time. The irony of the walk is that the most awe inspiring features are in fact man made. Firstly, the beautiful Ardingly reservoir is a creation of the 70’s, although it has such a natural feel, then there is the majestic Ouse Valley Viaduct.

Depending on whom you read, the viaduct was completed in 1841. This figures as I think this was the same year that the London to Brighton railway opened. Although most of the railways in the early days were not really built with passengers in mind, I can’t help but think of pompous handkerchief waving, top hated twats in those carry carts on their way to Brighton and its healing waters. Thinking about it, the Brighton line was probably more for passengers than goods.

John Rastrick is the name most associated with this viaduct; he was indeed the engineer who designed it. He has famous association with many other engineering achievements of that era too. Fair dues, he was a clever bloke. A plaque in his honour has been placed at the north end of the construction, which we saw when we were there during the walk, it’s sight merely underlying a point which I had been making to one of the walkers as we approached the arches.

I read that 11 million bricks were used in the construction of the viaduct, having been brought in from Holland via the River Ouse, and that around 6,500 labourers were involved in the construction of the London to Brighton railway generally. Certainly the viaduct would have needed a large number of hands on deck, given that the machinery available would have been very labour intensive. Now imagine such a construction nowadays, more particularly those who create it, and I don’t mean the architects, I mean the builders. Lets face it, and I certainly don’t begrudge it to them, they would be on a fair whack. Whilst the construction itself wouldn’t take as long as the 5 years the previous construction took, it would take a while, and probably have a lot of overtime attached. There’s a family holiday in there somewhere. Good for them.

Now lets think about the lads who put the viaduct up in late 1830’s. Well In those days the working people, who actually produced the wealth, lived, worked and died in conditions of desperate poverty. Many reports and surveys were carried out during the 19th century, telling of poor wages, impossibly long working hours, dangerous working conditions, even more unsanitary dwellings, little or no health provisions, high infant mortality and a short life expectancy. As labourers, and in an age of decreasing wages due to higher industrialisation and less demand for workers, the viaduct would have provided some stability for those employed-for a time. However, rights and a decent living wage-forget it. Talking of living conditions for the average working class family at that time, in the late 1840’s Edward Cressy wrote a commissioned report about the sanitary conditions in Brighton. My understanding is that it was prevented from reaching certain folk in London. No surprise.

The below here is the closest I can get to extracts; http://www.bygones.org.uk/page_id__247_path__0p2p13p.aspx

So here is the point I’m trying to make. History, as taught to us over the years, likes to tell us of those amazing designers, architects, politicians, kings, queens, but tells us of the ‘average folk’, the overwhelming majority, far less than it should. I guess they don’t arouse so much interest. Once you’ve heard about one, you’ve heard about them all. History, in real time, was written by those articulates who possessed the power of the pen, so I guess we would only hear about the common classes in a sickeningly pitiful, or disparaging way. Nowadays information is more accessible, and it’s our learning of the artificial importance of celebrity and the handing down of the empirical interpretation of history, that prevents us from allowing our minds to form a view of what real history is created by and whom the most credit and acclaim should belong to.

Next time someone tells you who designed something, or who invented what, ask yourself who facilitated it. Oh, and visit the Ouse Valley Viaduct up close sometime. It’ll take your breath away. Those 6.500 blokes didn’t get much for building the railway, and doubtless a few of them died in the process. Spare a thought eh?




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