Why did the story of artificial silk need to be told?
The manufacturing industries of the North of England have shaped its memories and left a lasting heritage. But there are many hidden stories.
As the gap widens between the closing of textile factories and the present day, it is important to celebrate the unique experiences and perspectives of the many people who came to England to work in the artificial silk (viscose) industry. Countries include Belgium, India, Lithuania, Pakistan, Poland, the Ukraine and the West Indies. Many Italian prisoners of war settled in Preston. The Fons character in the novel is a second generation Italian.
The characters in the fictional story from Pakistan to Preston reflect these and already resident communities. Roman Urdu (phonetics) and Lancashire dialect feature in the book. Here are Sunehri and Tommy talking in the story:
Years of research for the book from Pakistan to Preston, ongoing events and talking to lots of people resulted in four-month exhibition at the People’s History Museum on the Salford-Manchester border.
Skeins of artificial silk produced in Lancashire 1960-80s © A.T .Boyle on display in the exhibition
ONE OF MANY TIMELINES
1939 the gates of Courtaulds, an artificial silk factory, open in Preston, Lancashire, on the eve of the Second World War. These same gates close in 1980 with the loss of 2,600 jobs.
1947 Jean Crossthwaite and Terry Boyle begin working in the colour laboratory and get married.
1954 Jean leaves her job in the lab because she is pregnant.
1950 – 1980 stories about textile shades and shade naming emerge… spillages of bright red pigment, a fire, the humour and resilience of 5,000 factory workers on a single Lancashire manufacturing site.
1972 Guild features in the book, including Avenham Park just after Concorde has made a noisy and memorable flyover:
1980 the gates of Courtaulds, an artificial silk factory, are shut with the loss of 2,600 jobs.
31st August 2012 the debut novel by A. T. Boyle launches on LightNight at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston. Refreshments include burfi (fudge) from the sweet shop round the corner in Acregate Lane, the setting for the novel, and huge ‘squashed ant’ Eccles cakes (pastry and sugared raisins).
3rd September 2012 it’s Preston Guild (the previous Guild was 1992). Miller Park is host to Preston born animator Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit, and a rang group from Blackburn displaying colourful seed patterns on Top Walk where Victorians promenaded on Sunday. Ear-splitting bands, performances by local poets and a reading from the novel entertain audiences who lounge on deckchairs in the Preston sunshine.
12th September 2012 Gilly (John Gilmore, BBC Radio Lancashire) broadcasts live for three hours from Walton-le-Dale primary school near Preston. Listeners hear how pupils and teachers have been inspired by the Guild, regional Cultural Olympiad celebrations and the story.
Pupils made painted tiles with shields of the Green Guild, the Merchants’ Guild and the People’s Guild… This and other vibrant imagery bursts out of South Ribble for the Guild. .
It was good to meet up by chance with an old junior school friend who teaches at Walton-le-Dale, Jane Livesey.
“We all had a fantastic day and to be honest the week and a half has been one of the best whole school projects we’ve done. It’s so inspiring for the children (and us as a staff) to have had the opportunity to work with you. As I mentioned yesterday it’s given me plenty of ideas for continuing themes!” (Jen Douglas, Curriculum Leader, Walton-le-Dale primary school)
Terry Boyle speaking: Viscose
24th November 2012 the book’s authors give a reading and describe the methods for making artificial silk. The T in A.T. Boyle guides the library audience through some of the complex processes.
In the photograph Terry is describing the similarities between viscose and honey. He advises not to spread viscose on hot buttered toast, or in fact anything you plan to eat.
Shade sample and laboratory record books Terry saved when the factory shut are in the Discovery gallery, first floor of the museum.
Preston Guild 1972 is the main setting for the book. Tommy O’Reilly from Preston and Sunehri Saleem from Pakistan are working at an artificial silk factory. As Tommy creates a vibrant new shade that will be made into flags to celebrate the Guild, the bright skein of modern Britain’s origins is gradually untangled.
Many people remarked during our community projects that, because the celebration is such a highlight locally, they measure their lives in Guilds. Usually occurring every twenty years, there was a blip in 1942 when the Second World War caused a 10-year delay. This Guild was eventually staged in 1952.
In 1179, King Henry II granted Preston the right to have a Guild Merchant. The Guild was an organisation of traders, craftsmen and merchants that controlled trade in the Lancashire town. Every twenty years the Guild met to update its records, admit new members, and deal with people falsely claiming the right to trade. Gatherings were a good excuse to hold processions.
Preston Guild is the only one of its kind flourishing today. Unless it is interrupted, the next Guild will be in 2032.
In the story Tommy makes a new shade for the Guild Mayor in 1972, and forty years later the character anticipates a school visit where he will talk to children about the North’s social and industrial heritage. Terry did give talks in Northwest venues during 2012.
Blackburn with Darwen trailblazer 10th September 2014 saw a group of library visitors exploring the shade names of artificial silk produced in Lancashire. First we described the colours of the clothes we were wearing.
A pair of trousers labelled ‘nougat’ by a shop assistant lead us to look more closely at the labels sewn into our clothes. We each chose three colours for making a tassel and enjoyed some wordplay…
clover pink, moss green, sage
olive green, russet, wheat
baby pink, pale coffee, charcoal
dusty turquoise, dusty pink, teal
silver grey, burgundy, buttercup
coral pink, mink brown and heather.
The finished tassels were attached to the Big-Up Female Boffins banner in the Colours, Community and Chemistry exhibition.
William Grundy speaking: Colours on the roof
Manchester Mela 6th July 2013 on Platt Fields Park brought visitors to our paranda stall in the Arts and Crafts tent. First they chose favourite colours of artificial silk thread then made tassels to attach to their hair. Here are some of the things we heard:
“These shades look brilliant together.”
“My aunty’s paranda is really old. She washes it every few days. It gets a bit knotted.”
“Let me show you.” (female elder)
“Thank you. Can we take it home?” (10 year-old boy)
Preston Mela June 2013 Pot Market for South Asian classical and Bollywood and previously Guild 2012 Rainbow at the Cultural Olympiad.
Three princesses showing off on Preston Fish Market for the Mela
Macclesfield Library in Cheshire was taken over by Northern writers on Readers and Writers Day 22nd September 2012. We discovered that most of the panel was of Irish descent. A personal touch was receiving a customised cupcake topped with a tiny icing sugar book, our name on the spine. (No photograph, sorry. Cupcake consumed.)
Fulwood Academy asked new and challenging questions, and sneaked in some old chestnuts How money do you make? and How famous are you?
Media students at Penwortham Girls High School filmed an author visit as a way of welcoming their new intake of students.
World Museum Liverpool 24th May 2013 whose foyer was decorated with beautiful fabrics from around the world as the authors of from Pakistan to Preston arrived to take part in Lifelong Learning week.
A talk about how artificial silk is made from the wood pulp in fir trees was aided by an artificial Christmas tree, an incongruous object on a sunny bank holiday in Liverpool.
Colours, Community & Chemistry was a 17-week collaboration between regional artists, archivists and scientists at the People’s History Museum. Find out more.
Read reviews of the story.
Buy the book or eBook.
Watch a short film of the book: