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VISIT Lancashire today and you'll be impressed by the contrasts. High, rolling moors merge into lush, arable farmland. Modern, cosmopolitan cities like Manchester and Liverpool rub shoulders with breezy seaside resorts like Blackpool and Southport. Quaint villages lie waiting to be discovered in quiet valleys.

It's all clean and green and welcoming for the tourist and holidaymaker - but look a little closer and you'll spot the tell-tale signs that Lancashire has a a very different past. A mill chimney here. A row of weavers' cottages there. An overgrown canal towpath or the occasional abandoned pithead winding gear. You're in the place where the Industrial Revolution began, two and a half centuries ago.

Stand atop Holcombe Hill just north of Bury on a sunny day, looking south, and the whole of the one-time cotton district of Lancashire will be spread out like a map at your feet, sunlight glittering from a thousand windows.

It's hard to believe that for nearly two centuries, that same view was shrouded beneath a perpetual smog of factory smoke that stifled nature and stunted the lives of the region's wretched inhabitants.

People once regarded this region as the epitome of hell on earth. It was a pestilential land where rural innocence was sacrificed on the altar of progress. It was where the soulless world of organised labour was born.

Visitors from all over the globe, among them kings, princes and philosophers, came here to see the new industrial world taking shape. They may have marvelled at the mechanical wonder of it all, but to a man they shuddered at the grey, polluted surroundings and winced at the sheer misery they witnessed. Usually, they bolted for home as fast as their carriages could take them.

Yet some of them must have realised even then that what was happening here, 200 miles north of London, would shape men's lives for the rest of time. No-one, from the duke on his country estate to the farm labourer in his tied cottage, would be left untouched by the effects of this vast social experiment being conducted in the laboratory that was Lancashire.

It was a combination of conditions and circumstances that helped to turn Lancashire into what became known as the Workshop of the World.

Before the Industrial Revolution began, the place was a backwater. Few outsiders had any reason or inclination to visit, because the roads were notoriously impassable and there was nothing here of any significance to make the effort worthwhile.

THE gaunt ruins of an 18th-century cotton mill in Cheesden Valley, between Bury and Rochdale.
However, the wild moors in the east of the county supported hardy, mixed-farming communities who eked out their existence in the harsh winters by weaving sheep's wool, for their own use and for sale.

And when cotton began to oust wool as Britain's prime textile product from the mid-eighteenth century, Lancashire found it had everything going for it - the ideal climate to prevent delicate cotton threads from snapping, an experienced, honest work-force and, not least, an array of talented and imaginative men, whose inventive genius produced the machines that made the Revolution roll.

As the manufacture of cotton moved out of the cottage kitchen, Lancashire had an abundance of powerful upland streams to turn the waterwheels of the new factories. And when the steam engine eventually replaced water power, the county had ample reserves of coal to fire the boilers.

Lancashire became synonymous with cotton and cotton spearheaded the Industrial Revolution, its export in huge quantities to all corners of the globe not only bankrolling an empire on which the sun never set but, at the same time, forcing the rest of the civilised world to industrialise, too.

It was a process that would lead eventually to all those lifestyle improvements that we now take for granted. Yet those benefits came at a massive cost to the men, women and children whose sweat and suffering made them happen, not just in Lancashire but throughout Britain, Europe and America.

So here, alongside the biographies of the famous inventors, engineers, statesmen and reformers of that most turbulent and defining period of our history, you will find the story of those ordinary people upon whom industrial success was founded.

Decide for yourself if those lifestyle changes were for the better, and if they were worth the cost in human misery. But Source WS will try to show you how and why it all happened.

2017 | Admiral Nelson | Read about the Industrial Revolution