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New exhibition highlights Workington’s industrial heritage – ‘The Rails Which Circled the World’

A new exhibition, celebrating the heritage and importance of the railway industry in West Cumbria, opened at Workington railway station, Wednesday 26 May.

With funding and support from the Community Rail Network, ‘The Rails Which Circled the World’ heritage project has transformed Workington railway station into an exhibition centre that celebrates a time when the town was a world leader in rail technology. Iron and steelmaking in and around Workington used to employ thousands of local people, producing industry-leading rails that still circumnavigate the globe to this day.

Cumbria County Council’s Community Rail Cumbria team developed a focus group, including representatives from Northern Rail, Direct Rail Services, Cumbria County Council, Cumbrian Railways Association, Workington Transport Heritage Trust and the Helena Thompson Museum, to research the town’s rich industrial heritage, and create an engaging and informative display in and around Workington railway station.

The exhibition highlights the hard shifts in the local mines where both children and adults worked together in extremely challenging conditions; the locations of where ships docked to be loaded for transporting Cumbrian steel rails all over the world; how local women stepped in at the steelworks during the war; and how the innovative Bessemer Convertor helped to light up the night sky for all to see and to enable production to continue 24 hours a day.

Whilst passengers wait for their train, they can also watch a short film screened in the waiting rooms on both platforms. The film portrays personal stories of what life was like, including some wonderful West Cumbrian characters who worked with and contributed to Henry Bessemer’s unique process. Full footage of the film can be viewed here.

Cumbria County Council has been seeking a suitable location for a Bessemer sculpture as a legacy to this important piece of local history.  Cllr Marjorie Rae, local member for Harrington, sourced a piece of local Tendley carboniferous limestone, and commissioned local sculptor Shaun Williamson to carve a Bessemer converter into the stone.

The Bessemer sculpture will be an integral part of the exhibition, due to the significance Henry Bessemer played in the development of the Workington Steelworks, and will be placed on site at Workington railway station in the near future, following planning permission approval.

Cllr Keith Little, Cumbria County Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, said: “I am delighted to see this fantastic exhibition opening at Workington railway station – it provides a fascinating insight in to our local history and industrial heritage, and serves as a reminder of the world-leading skills and dedication of the thousands of local people who worked in the steel, coal, iron, shipping and rail industries. I was pleased to recognise some of the people I knew when I was younger in the exhibition – it brought back some lovely memories from growing up in Siddick.

“I’d encourage local people to view the exhibition, learn more about our industrial past, and celebrate the innovation of Henry Bessemer. I’d also like to thank our colleagues from the various organisations involved in this project for their hard work and input into what is another fantastic addition and asset for the Cumbrian Coast Rail Line.”

Eddie Pollock, chair of the Community Rail Partnership, said:“I am so very proud to be associated with the Rails Which Circled the World project that has now come to fruition. The Workington Focus Group has worked tirelessly in pulling the project together and engaged with many of the folks that had such vivid and passionate memories of the whole production and supply process at Workington steel works. It is no bold claim that Workington produced the world standard of quality in railway track manufacture.

“This project will give visitors and locals , the opportunity to see the historical importance and impact that Workington had, not just in the UK but the whole world, something that young and old in Workington and Cumbria should quite rightly, be very proud of.” 

Jane Murray, Northern station manager said: “This project which has been more than two years in the making is an outstanding addition to Workington railway station.  It has brought the history of the station and the local area to life in these giant-sized boards telling a picturesque story throughout the years. I could never have imagined the impact that this project has made at the station, and I am really proud to have played a small part in it.”

Community railpartnership officer, Warren Birch said: “It has been a real pleasure to work with so many people on this project, capturing their wealth of knowledge and memories of this area. Workington now has a powerful reminder of these industries and the impact they had on the world, but more importantly the communities of West Cumbria. Workington is rightly proud to boast about their role in being World leaders in rail technology.”

Community Rail Cumbria would like to warmly thank the many individuals and organisations that have contributed, helping bring this project to life.