A walk with history in mind
A ‘long read’. The background to ‘My Artful Way’ commission:
the process of walking, and developing the artwork ‘Tangled Threads’.
By Rosie Galloway Smith
The following content includes themes of trauma, Carlisle’s connection to the exploitation of enslaved people, and suicide.
I was thrilled to be awarded one of the commissions to do an artist walk about the history of cloth making and textiles in Carlisle, and more importantly, how this history fits into international history.
From 1836 onwards, the mill run by the Dixon family made simple Gingham fabric that was shipped to the American Southern States to be made into clothing for enslaved people working on the plantations. The raw cotton that this cloth was woven from came from the very same plantations. The cloth was referred to colloquially as ‘slave cloth’, showing that those who made it knew where it was heading; and it was low quality. This name for the cloth inspired the title of this written piece.
At this point in history the slave trade had been made illegal – the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute books in 1807. However, full emancipation did not come to British colonies until 1838, and slavery continued in the States – so British businesses continued to profit from it. The American Civil War finally ended the use of enslaved people in 1863. Despite being the largest cotton mill in England and having all the latest equipment, Dixon’s went into liquidation in 1883.
On the Academia app I stumbled across a paper: ‘Industrial Archaeology of Carlisle’ by Caron Newman.
As I read, this paragraph jumped out at me:
“The last purpose built spinning mill to be built was Shaddon Mills of 1836 in Shaddongate, and run by the firm of Peter Dixon and Sons. This seven storey sandstone structure along with its 305 foot high brick chimney is one of the few mill buildings to survive intact in Carlisle and is listed grade II. Steam power was essential to work a mill of this size which had a large engine house and seven boilers. Coal for the engines was brought in from the west Cumberland coal field along the Carlisle Canal and then from 1838 transferred onto the canal branch of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway. It would have been unloaded at the coal and lime depot on Shaddongate to the south of the mill.
Weaving had been added to cotton spinning by 1853 with the construction of a large weaving shed to the east. The company had run into financial problems by the 1870s attributed by Bulmer to the abolition of slavery and thus a drop in demand from the plantation owners for the material to clothe them. “
I was shocked. I had never ever stopped to consider the fact that Shaddon Mill had been a cotton mill or what that meant historically. The Black Lives Matter movement was gathering force, statues were being toppled, histories uncovered. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me that Carlisle would have history it needed to reckon with. I realised this gap in knowledge would probably be true for most Carlisle citizens. The chimney looms over the city and is seen from most parts of the city, and it seems mostly benign. Recently, this changed with the tragic death of Robert Philip Longcake in October 2019. (There is an article about this in the News and Star, available here).
It’s no longer possible to see the chimney without being mindful of this terrible loss and the mental health tragedy behind it. And now that I’ve learnt about the connection between the mill and the manufacture of cloth for enslaved people, I can no longer look at the chimney without thinking of this. I hope this artwork can be a starting point for further leaning and greater understanding about the history of Carlisle as well as the wider, global story of enslaved people.
There are many layers of history here, as well as individual stories connected with this landmark. I know my own father had an emotional attachment to it – he grew up in Carlisle in the war years and its presence was something he recalls, like something constant in his life. It would be an interesting starting point for an art project to explore other people’s relationship to this landmark, and how it fits in to a sense of belonging to the city.
When I heard about the Artful Ways commission I thought about the factory’s involvement in the economics of slavery that would have enriched the whole city. I was drawn to learn more about the defunct canal (then railway) and the hidden histories of Carlisle. On the back of learning more about the Black Lives Matter movement and watching the TV series Black and British by David Olusoga I realised that this part of Carlisle’s history was something that should be told, shared and accepted.
During lockdown I explored Carlisle and found myself speculating on street names and remnants of past history. I go past Port Road and the Jovial Sailor every day. Where is the port? Why is there a Canal Street? When did these things go?
I felt that sharing the story of the making of cloth would engage local Carlisle people and encourage them to learn more about how the city gained from the continuing use of enslaved people in America and also to understand how Carlisle’s own story connected with world history.
My Artful Way really began when I started making the clothing I wanted take on the route with me. My initial submission talked about spooling out a length of clothes along the route of the old Carlisle canal, from Dixon’s chimney to Port Carlisle, but it was impractical to make so many for such a distance. I wanted to mark the route that cotton would have travelled as it came into and out of the city.
I initially thought that osnaburg cotton had been produced but a quick look in the Carlisle Library archives informed me it was in fact Gingham. This Gingham was not the same as the cloth we call Gingham in the 20th Century. It was coarse, the colours came from vegetable dyes and quite often it was striped instead of checked.
I bought some lengths of striped grey chambray cloth for making the clothes but, through the support of fabric historian Anna Vaughan Kett, I was able to see photos of actual cloth made in Dixon’s mill that was in the Tullie House collection; checked cloth was included in this. Sadly, the checked Gingham I ordered didn’t arrive in time to be used.
My next task was to research the type of clothing the cloth would have been made into: modest dress patterns from previous decades and simple shifts, shirts and overalls would have been used.
I found some photographs of African American enslaved people from that period. Sadly, these photos come from a range of sources online and have been shared by others without giving any information on who the individuals were or where they lived. This is a reflection of how dehumanising the trade and exploitation of enslaved people was. More about the history of this clothing can be read in the Virginia Encyclopedia here.
What struck me was the variety of ways that patterns were used to make outfits, even though the cloth would have arrived as a bulk quantity in similar designs. I decided to make sure each piece I made was different to reflect this.
Having researched the nature of the cloth, I chose to create small, scaled versions of clothing. I decided to make the pieces in miniature for practical reasons and also for impact. The scale of the clothes made for the walk was chosen with the final piece in mind and how I could present a wide range of clothes that could be made in the time available, and could be displayed in the limited space of an art gallery. The change in scale makes you look at them more carefully, I think. In order to make them all of a similar size I used a 1:6 scale and created vector files of the patterns so that I could resize them easily. I then walked the route the clothes would have taken from the factory to Port Carlisle, and took a selection of the small garments with me as symbols of individual lives and wider historical events.
Through my walking route, I wanted to mark the path both the raw cotton and the cloth would have taken, and through the walk and the pieces I have created, I wanted to show that the cloth had a significance that went beyond it being an abstract product made in a mill: that this cloth was made to be worn by people living in what I imagine to be horrific enslaved circumstances, whose stories have so far been almost entirely unrecognised within the context of Carlisle.
By incorporating small details, like buttons made from leather, I wanted to show how even with only such a plainly woven cloth available, many of the people who wore these clothes asserted their individuality in small but significant acts of choice about what they wore. My husband made me some miniature leather buttons and I used both sides to show how buttons would have had a functional rather than decorative purpose; very often they would not have matched and would have been recycled from other items of clothing.
I made 22 items of clothing in the end and took them with me on the 14-mile walk from Dixon’s Chimney to Port Carlisle, following the route the cloth would have followed on its return to the southern states of America.
Because of the recent traumatic event at Dixon’s chimney, I chose to give the walk a subtext about acknowledging trauma. The artwork does not directly reference the recent event, but inevitably it invites consideration of, and conversations about, the very difficult and important issues of loss, mental health and trauma. Although I put out an open invitation for people to join the walk, in the end it was close friends and family who braved the exceptionally hot day to come with me. Each person on the walk was battling a personal trauma and learning to come to terms with it. For me this echoed the idea that the city of Carlisle has to come to terms with its own past and not hide it away to fester; and carrying the clothes with us was a way to carry this part of Carlisle’s history, and consideration of the lives bound up with that, into the present. The conversations we had along the way, and our own individual thoughts, were contemplative, especially as we came across residual evidence of the canal and railway.
I think open and accepting conversations about trauma can help us build better future emotional wellness and inform honest communication and reflection.
I hope this piece of work helps to open up conversations and further research into Carlisle’s industrial past and the links to empire and slavery, and the exploitations involved.
It is fair to say that I want my artwork to provoke an emotional response and perhaps to shock – just as I was shocked to learn of this hidden history. I want to use the clothing in a way that will jar, make viewers think about the reality of enslaved lives through a direct connection with Carlisle, and the lack of care for human life that is central to any act of slavery. I wanted to make people uncomfortable, and through this and other emotional responses, bring a new engagement with the history the art work is trying to tell. I wanted to make a piece of work that could not be ignored.
What my Artful Way walk means to me: why I chose to look into Carlisle’s connections with the slave trade, and how this research relates to my art practice.
When I proposed my idea for the Artful Way Commission, I was doubtful about it being selected as I anticipated the topic would be controversial to many local to Carlisle and some might see it as an attack on the proud history of the city.
The road that led me to this point of proposing such an idea has been winding. Born in England, I grew up in the north of Scotland, and moved to Cumbria aged 12. As an undergraduate art student in Hull, I was introduced to gender and ethnicity studies in the theoretical component of the course. I had been brought up in a conservative, religious, patriotic home, along with my 11 siblings, and was thrilled to be given the tools to articulate myself more clearly on my own developing viewpoints (through education) that were at odds with what I had been taught as a child. I immersed myself in the theory but failed often at using it successfully in my own artwork. After a 20-year period that included living in Europe and as an immigrant in Canada, and teaching both art and English as a Foreign Language in many settings, I was accepted on to the MLitt in Fine Art Practice at Glasgow School of art. I took this as an opportunity to explore materiality as my starting point and then found that my interest in textiles and clothes as ciphers of human experience rose to the surface as well.
Since living in Canada from 2005 to 2007 I had reflected more on what it meant to be British and what that involved historically. I could not escape the consequences the empire had had on other peoples, including my sister’s extended first nation family past and present. The idea that my brother-in-law hated the British before he met my sister was shocking to me and became a more personal starting point to investigating colonial and industrial history. The tools of critical thinking and process-based art making I had learned in Hull finally kicked in and my re-education began. It reminded me, as well, of being treated differently as a child because I was English not Scottish, something I understand much better now than I did as a small child, having learned about Culloden.
I started with a history of England and the British Empire that was published in 1898, and dipped into it to take apart the language and attitudes so prevalent of the time. I knew these attitudes were deeply embedded still in modern British society and so really wanted to understand the source. When I had studied gender and ethnicity previously it had been from an objective stand point. Being an immigrant in Canada and volunteering at an immigrant centre had shown me what it was like to be on the wrong side of a golden line. I would flit between trying to help a Bangladeshi friend rid her home of cockroaches to the sport- and bar-centred lifestyle of my then fiancé and his friends. It was clear to me in a way it hadn’t been before what it was like to be ‘othered’. I take my ease with other cultures a little for granted now but I need to remember how I felt when it seemed a strange and new experience, when I first stepped outside of my cultural bubble. It was also wonderful: my friend fed me glorious dishes of food while we chatted, I learned first-hand accounts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from my elderly Chinese conversation class.
I wanted to understand better my personal history as a white British person and for the first time realised that it was something I should engage with head on and unwrap the subjectivity it had always afforded me. I felt that turning an analytical eye on to my own culture was a vital step to take in becoming a better person and artist. The responsibility of digging down into history must be shared by all of us. Since that point I regularly read and research the Victorian era in particular and try to get many viewpoints as well as taking apart anything that presents as an authoritative voice and disguises opinion as fact.
My main focus while at Glasgow was on materiality and uncanny experience in response to my oldest brother’s recent death and through that I realised emotion was very important to my work, expressing conflicting and unwelcome feelings. The studies in materiality also brought me around to looking into the significance of some materials in relation to British colonial history. It seemed like I was looking at many disparate things but I trusted my instinct in following them and seeing where it took me. Materials have powerful stories to tell and I am yet to fully explore all the stories I want to (there are so many – the significance of cement in global warming is just one example). I looked into the trade products of empire, particularly cotton; but at this stage ideas were incubating. I wanted then, and now, to take apart the facts and find the stories hidden within.
When the full horror of Eurocentric thinking and the British empire is unpacked the next question is how do you say sorry or even can you say sorry? How can you educate others that we need to say sorry, especially in the increasingly xenophobic post-Brexit landscape we are now in? We need to learn to let the untold stories come out so that together we can reflect and move onwards towards a more tolerant and kinder society. I think pretending the past didn’t happen or relying on partial or selected versions of history, particularly when these come from only one perspective, isn’t useful to anyone; what is chosen to be explored by dominant cultures, without the balance of the story being told by those whose voices have historically been ignored,can significantly skewer the telling of the full story. A much better way forward is to bring together voices and stories from people with more than one perspective, and allow new conversations to take place. It feels as if we are all learning how to do this, and somehow find our common humanity.
While at Hull I had also studied psychoanalysis and learned to use it as a tool for taking ideas and concepts apart, to look at the semiotics of what surrounded me and use surrealism to turn narratives on their head. I’m interested in the idea of the three realms of the ‘Symbolic’, the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Real’, which Lacan proposed: these continue to be fertile starting points when I’m engaging with subject matter, as well as the way this is described. Lacan’s theories can be complex and opaque at times but in essence these three realms relate to the sphere of constructed language and meaning through symbols and signifiers (The Symbolic); the way in which we ourselves interact with symbols and language and the impact they have on us as individuals (The Imaginary); and that which is beyond symbolism (The Real). A simple way to explain this is to analyse the word ‘moon’. There is a shared understanding of what is referred to when using this word, there is also an individual response to the word and object it refers to, based on personal experiences and desires. Finally, there is the object itself, that we attach the word ‘moon’ to but which exists entirely unaffected by our classification and labelling of it.
I have been playing with garments and materials for some time and I like paying attention to what is in front of me, something I definitely did more of during lockdown. With my husband we would explore Carlisle and speculate on street names and remnants of past history. I go past Port Road and the Jovial Sailor every day. Where is the port? Why is there a Canal Street? When did these things go? There has been a gap in my knowledge, and now that I have begun to learn more about this hidden history, I have set off on a new journey of discovery.
Doing this art work has opened the doors to an ongoing conversation with people whose personal histories connect them to the Slave Trade, including people from Anti Racist Cumbria. It has been useful to begin to appreciate the many different ways a piece such as this may have a very personal and triggered response in those whose ancestors were enslaved, and to discuss how the piece can be educational on different levels.
I have taught in and around Carlisle for over 18 years, during which time I’ve learned the power of education and discussion in enlightening others. I have helped young people understand how to be accepting of those who differ from themselves, perhaps allowing conversations that would be very different to the conversations they would have at home. I know that opinions can be based on a lack of knowledge, and education is key to changing that.
The final piece from the project, exhibited in Tullie House is called “Tangled Threads’.
This refers to Carlisle’s textile history and how it does not stand alone from wider complicated world history, and in particular the more shameful parts of British international history. It refers, as well, to the current situation we find ourselves in where we must untangle these links, the ways we have benefitted, and examine them as closely as we are able to.
To find out more about Rosie Galloway Smith’s work, visit her website here: www.rosiegallowaysmith.co.uk.