Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Exploring legacy

As usual a quick Google gives you unending references to “legacy” – but most of these seem to be about leaving money. Otherwise there are lots of articles on the legacy of great individuals or what it means to leave a legacy of our own, but relatively few exploring the range of ideas that legacy can represent. On this basis I’m going to have to do a bit of exploring and development myself.

Where to start? Perhaps with good and bad (and neutral). There are positive legacies – perhaps things that enhance the environment or peoples lives, and bad legacies – illness, pollution and the like – and in between there are what I’ll call neutral legacies – perhaps things done to mitigate the the “bad” legacies, or things that just are – things that have been handed down but really have little impact.

Then there are types of legacies – cultural, financial, human and environmental are examples that spring to mind. If we add into this the idea that there are genuine legacies – things that have actually been handed down, and faux legacies – things that simply capitalise on the idea of a legacy, and perhaps even legacies that turn out differently to the original intent we begin to get a huge range of possibilities for images to capture the idea of legacy.

I’d really like to support this with some references but I’m definitely struggling to find something that investigates the idea in a structured way. Perhaps a couple of examples will help - so lets start with faux legacy.

Workington’s past is intimately involved with steel working. By an accident of geology the iron ore fields of west Cumbria produced ores that were low in phosphates and ideally suited to the Bessemer process which was invented around 1855. The end result was that in the mid-late 1800s steel production took off in Workington and many neighbouring towns. So it’s fair to say that Henry Bessemer left a significant legacy for Workington – but on an initial reading of various internet sources there’s little to say that he spent much time in the town – which makes the choice of Henry Bessemer as the name for a new pub seem a little shall we say “odd”  especially when it has an original suggestion for a name in letters a foot high carved above the front door.


By the time this building was built – in around 1920, Bessemer had been dead for 20 years – so he’s unlikely to have been a regular visitor. This seems to me a straightforward marketing exercise and probably qualifies as faux-legacy on that basis, although there is undoubtedly an element of cultural legacy associated with it. By contrast, the towns cenotaph contains a large plaque commemorating the contribution of the steel workers to the war effort in two wars and the legacy of freedom that left future generations.

Steel workers memorial, Workington Cenotaph

While I’m on a roll with these ideas the next picture represents an environmental legacy, the remnants of years of slag tipping over local beaches:

Traces of ...Steel

A questions that raises its head here is “Is this a positive legacy or a negative one?” For many I’m sure the answer would be in the negative – throwing it on a beach is no-one’s idea of a good way to treat industrial wastes, and whatever unpleasantries it may have contained are now leaching into the sea. And yet – if it were a 2000 years older, and of Roman origin, we would probably be trying to preserve it. The slag banks and tips are a very physical legacy of the industry, and a reminder of the enormous scale of industrial activity in a relatively sleepy corner of the UK.

At the opposite end of this scale are these items set in the beach – again a legacy of pollution, but these are so real and so obviously human that they provide an almost direct link back to the activities that resulted in them ending up here. If this was Viking or Roman it would have people campaigning to preserve it.

Traces of ...Steel

It’s important not to forget that many of the people who worked in these steel plants are still alive, but as an outsider their history is remote from mine. I am not a social anthropologist and this physical legacy is, for me, a more accessible way of understanding the areas industrial past – a history told through things.


  1. There's a grittiness about these images that appeals to me - something uncompromising about them solid in the landscape.

  2. Thanks Catherine - the objects themselves do convey some of that solidity when you see them, which is in part what turned me to the idea of "legacy" for this assignment - some of the objects are clearly going to be around for a long time.