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The making of 'This Wall is Crewe', winner of 'HISTORY's short filmmaker of the year 2018'

The factory wall in Crewe

Is there a building that you walk past every day to which you never give a second glance? Every town has at least one, a building that was perhaps once the pride of generations of working people, but which now languishes dilapidated and forgotten. My hometown of Crewe in the North West of England contains such a building, a huge workshop which formed the western boundary of one of the country’s most important railway works for almost a century.

In recent years, the public face of this former locomotive construction works had been a giant brick wall almost 700 feet long which towers over the terrace houses nestled below its vast frame. These terraces were home to dedicated workers who created locomotives that broke world records and powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution. But in October 2018 Cheshire East Council announced that the workshop would be demolished, and its iconic brick wall - which had become such a feature of Crewe life for over 90 years - was to be torn down.

The town of Crewe as we know it today would simply not exist without the Grand Junction Railway. Their decision in 1840 to choose the then hamlet as the site for its new railway works led to the construction of the town. From its opening in 1843, the works had an immediate impact. Lending its name to the revolutionary ‘Crewe type’, this design would influence worldwide locomotive construction for the next 40 years. The first example of the ‘Crewe type’, Columbine, built in 1845 still survives at the Science Museum in London today.

As the railway works grew, so too did the town. Under the iron grip of a man who became known as ‘the King of Crewe’ Sir Francis Webb, the now London and North Western Railway company not only expanded the works site, but also built a park, an orphanage, a hospital, and a mechanics institute for its workers. The town’s population rose from 2,000 in 1843 to over 20,000 by 1871.

Just one of the thousands of families who flocked from the fields to the exciting opportunities presented by the works were my own ancestors. Five generations of my family have been employed in Crewe Works, from the 1850s right up to the present day. And the same is true of thousands of other Crewe families who were brought together by the smoke, grime, and camaraderie of the railway workshop.

The decision to demolish the workshop and its iconic wall was therefore very personal. I remember being guided around the workshop’s vast interior by my grandad. He showed me where he sat with his pals and ate lunch, where his locker was, and where he, along with all his workmates, would hammer, rivet and marry steel onto steel. Stories like these have always fired my own passion about the past, resulting in a history degree and then a masters in the same subject, plus a desire to bring to life amazing but little-known stories.

I began making documentaries in 2015 under the name Squeaky Pedal with my good friend and bandmate Peter Roch. Armed with nothing more than a notepad and camera, our first projects were entirely self-funded. Although we had no previous formal training, these films honed our skills. We met some amazing people and visited some incredible places and, to our delight, the films began to win awards, most notable being ‘Best Use of Archive’ at the Imperial War Museum Film Festival in 2018.

Recently, as we looked for new project, I was sent a link to the HISTORY Facebook page which asked the question ‘Do You Want to Be a History Presenter?’ The competition called for entries to bring the story of a favourite historical site to life in a two-minute film. Having seen the headline about the demolition of the Crewe Works wall, this seemed the perfect opportunity to bring one of my hometown’s forgotten landmarks to life.

Many people ask the question ‘if these walls could talk what amazing stories would they tell’. I wanted the Works wall to tell the story of why it is important to our hometown. We made the wall the star of our film, the conduit for tales of the skills, memories and heritage housed within its brickwork.

We began with 70-year-old archive film of men in the Works. The fascinating footage revealed the skilled hands of the workers, displaying the deep dexterity, aptitude and pride of their craft. These are skills that have been passed down the generations, so we visited a local blacksmith and asked him to ‘create as many sparks as he possibly could’ to show a craftsman working on an anvil. Then we filmed Peter’s dad working on a lathe in his workshop and my father at the controls of a train. These modern-day images portrayed the strong community that the Works created and along with photographs of my own granddad and uncle, we showed how generations of families had worked together.

This film is a personal ode to my town, celebrating its history and its remarkable people. I was proud to show people how seemingly unremarkable places can hold more history than we know once we scratch the surface. To hear that we had won the HISTORY Short Filmmaker Award was unbelievable news! For amateur filmmakers at this stage of our career, the opportunity to have our film broadcast on HISTORY is transformative.

Yet my film will not save the Crewe Works wall. I am a realist and understand the need for progress. If the demolition of the site creates new housing and secures what little is left of the remaining Works site for my uncle and his colleagues’ future then so be it. But my film captures the history and significance of the workshop and the wall and its importance to my hometown and the lives of its inhabitants. This wall is the embodiment of Crewe’s history and should never be forgotten. This wall is Crewe.

This Wall is Crewe

By Jason Davidson

Friday, October 11, 2019

Jason is a filmmaker and director of the production company ‘Squeaky Pedal.’