The Museum of Science and Technology of Catalonia (mNACTEC), TICCIH Spain (The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage) and 150 Years of Industrial Company Towns were the organisers of the Congress on Industrial Company Towns and Worker Housing on the Iberian Peninsula in October 2005.
The organisers received support from such various institutions as the City Councils of Esparreguera, Manlleu and Terrassa, the Association of the Museum of Science and Technology and of Industrial Archaeology of Catalonia, the Contemporary History Centre of Catalonia, the Autonomous Government of Catalonia, and Barcelona University.
The aim of the congress was to achieve a better understanding of the aforementioned heritage and the specific issues that it raises. Topics connected with worker housing form part of a series of questions grouped together under the term paternalism.This strand included employer conduct, but also bourgeois-led constructions and initiatives by groups of craftspeople and workers.
The congress covered 3 thematic areas:
- Locations, a chronology of the last three centuries (18th-20th). This dealt with urban worker neighbourhoods and isolated worker settlements, taking into account both those settlements that grew up around factories, and the context of working activity at home, as well as major industrial conglomerations.
- Social and cultural works. Grouping together all aspects to do with workers outside the factory, revealing the degrees of autonomy and initiative which allowed workers’ groups to furnish themselves with sites other than those offered by their employers for their gatherings, cultural expressions, education and trade union organisation.
- Religiosity as an ideological element in the industrial world.This address the role of the church, present throughout albeit in different forms depending on the region, the industrial sector and the relational system within which those involved moved, and as the body mainly responsible for teaching children and tending to the sick.
The date chosen for the congress marked the 150th anniversary of legislation on the industrial use of waters, which allowed inland Catalonia to industrialise. This process took place through the acquisition of waterfalls, the establishment of factories alongside watercourses, and later the creation of industrial company towns, most of them focused on textile manufacturing.
The density and architectural quality of these developments makes them a distinctive feature of the industrialisation of Catalonia, to the extent that today most people in Catalonia will have some relative who worked in the industry, which likewise constitutes one of the hallmarks of the identity of contemporary society. Hence the fact that locating and studying workers’ housing is essential, because despite its highly fragile status it has survived better than some other buildings, illustrating the pages of a part of our history that we tend to overlook or underestimate.
These sites had functions that went beyond merely housing: they are full of amenities and more or less imposing venues for social gatherings, created by industrial society either on the initiative of employers, or as a result of the efforts of the workers themselves, as in the case of evening class schools, meeting points, all manner of cooperatives, cultural centres, etc.
Consideration is given in Spain and Portugal to such various aspects as: the age of industrial activity, the uneven development of industrialisation, the spread of European models, the establishment of foreign-based companies, the loss of the last few traces of the colonial empires, resulting in original creations in the field both of worker housing and the associated amenities and cultural sites. More than any other such study, the work prompts a rethinking of the concept of industrialisation, an appraisal and attempt to reassess the place occupied by Spain and Portugal in this movement of contemporary civilisation, while also highlighting its variants.
51 presentations were made at the congress, which was attended by around eight hundred specialists in this field of industrial heritage.
The published proceedings of the seminars (2002) and of the congress (2005) can be consulted here.