A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The Industrial Revolution

Neil Pickford looks back

I made a promise in 2011. Today is the day to honour it.

Last week we had Guy Fawkes’ night – and as true loyal Britons we in Beverley celebrated on the 5th of November itself, not during the nearest weekend as some less patriotic towns may do.

The display this year was a triumph of choreographed explosions, flames and noise. It started gently with a mass of writhing, whirling constructs of white and finished with what looked like two giant jellyfish dangling over the Westwood and drifting gently sou’easterly. It was great – well worth all the money I dumped in a bucket, so thanks to the Lions again.

The one thing missing was any reminder of why we were doing this – the origins of what we now rather antiseptically call ‘Bonfire Night’ were completely buried under the traditions of lighting huge pyres, spending large sums on explosives and raising money for charity. Let me remind/inform you: we were celebrating when a plot by Roman Catholics to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 with all the royal, legal and political establishment of Great Britain inside it was thwarted. The aim had been to wipe out the political and religious leadership of our countries and forcibly return us to the Catholic form of Christianity after half a century of Protestantism.

However, the bomb was discovered and all the plotters, including former Beverley Grammar School pupil Thomas Percy, were either executed or died while being pursued.

It’s a less antagonistic relationship these days and to commemorate this I opened an appropriate bottle of wine on November 5th. This particular bottle had been a small ‘thank-you’ for we virgers’ efforts back in September, helping set up for the first Catholic mass led by a bishop in Beverley Minster since 1550. Then I suddenly remembered that, during last year’s Bonfire night blog, I had promised to explain why I thought creating the Church of England was an essential first step to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and thus the British Empire (which was, for 100 years, the largest and most powerful empire in human history). So (at last) here goes.

Basically, the core of new Anglicanism (unlike mediaeval Catholicism) was democratic, regarding all members of the congregation as important. Priests led services in the language of the people, not the Latin of scholars. Chairs were provided for people to sit and listen to sermons – and then debate them afterwards. Suddenly it was being demonstrated that even the ploughman in the field was sacred and had a right to question the pronouncements from on high. Oh, you still had kings and commoners, but kings were no longer Divine. The route to Heaven was through living a Good Life, not by paying for prayers.

From this grew a new British habit of group meetings for discussions and education in coffee houses and it was these social institutions which led to a new form of networking. Here, in informal surroundings, businessmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, visionaries and empire-builders could and did meet. These were fluid, creative melting pots where ideas could be floated, finance raised and projects initiated. It was in these socially-fluid institutions that mine-owners met men who produced steam-powered machines that could move coal and iron more effectively and cheaply than horses. It was in these coffee shops that men discussed laying railway lines to make the steam locomotives more efficient. Then we needed steel to make reliable railway lines, and coal to make the steam to drive the steelworks that made…. And so on.

Victorian Britain ruled the world as a result of a social structure that allowed men with money to meet men with ideas – an interplay that would have been impossible had not the seeds been sown by installing seats in the Church of England.

Well, that’s my theory. I hope you think the wait was worth it.


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