Honorary Research Fellow Gillian Cookson

Honorary Research Fellow

Summary: Industrial history, particularly engineering and textiles, and especially the industries of northern England in the 18th and 19th centuries.



As an undergraduate in the School of History, 1982-5, I was enthralled by the Brotherton Library’s special collections, especially those archives relating to the region’s textile industry. I was also inspired by Maurice Beresford’s special subject on the urban and industrial development of Leeds. After graduation I worked with architectural historians as historical researcher on the RCHME (now English Heritage) Yorkshire Textile Mills survey. It was clear that early textile engineering, despite its obvious importance to the dynamics of industrialization, had been little studied. So I applied for an ESRC award and took a DPhil in the Economics department at York University. My thesis investigated the genesis of this new industry, textile machine-making, in late-18th century Yorkshire.
After this I was appointed to a post-doctoral research fellowship at Teesside. Here I wrote a biography of a 19th-century electrical engineer and polymath called Fleeming Jenkin, and published many articles and a book on submarine telegraphs and the foundations of electrical engineering as a profession.
Since 1999 I have been county editor of the Victoria County History of Durham, most recently in the capacity of consultant. A major new history of Sunderland is nearing completion and will be published in 2014. The VCH is a long established project based in the University of London. Volunteers and community programmes have become increasingly important in this work, and I am involved now in community and voluntary history initiatives of various kinds, in Co. Durham and Yorkshire.

Research Interests

My main interest is in industrial history, particularly engineering and textiles, and especially the industries of northern England in the 18th and 19th centuries. I explore the social context of industry, especially questions of how cutting edge technologies could develop in localities with apparently very limited resources; and what were the driving forces behind industrialization. 

Current or forthcoming Research Project

I am writing a book, working title Ingenious Mechanics: Making Machines in the Industrial Revolution. This charts how a highly technical industry was created, c. 1770-1830, from artisanal roots in northern England. Though quickly a trade of international importance, textile engineering was first an industry of small and shifting firms that has left few business records. Ingenious Mechanics explores the idea that this, the most high-tech trade of its time, was nurtured within communities with limited means but inspired by the possibilities around them. It re-frames our understanding of early textile engineering, and shows the potential of social context and craft skills in building economic growth.

Forthcoming Publications

Victoria County History of County Durham, V, Sunderland (Boydell and Brewer, 2014).

Wider Community

I have a busy programme of community work, including community lectures at the University of Sunderland (Sept. 2013) and the National Glass Centre (April 2014); and the Mayor of Darlington’s annual lecture in March 2014.
I’m involved with regeneration activities, as a director of Sunderland Heritage Quarter CIC Ltd. My report, ‘Sunderland Heritage Quarter: Options for heritage-driven regeneration in the East End of Sunderland’ (2009), commissioned by Sunderland City Council and Sunderland Heritage Forum, audited historic assets in Sunderland’s old port area, suggesting routes towards economic regeneration and conservation. Subsequently I have raised grants of over £100,000 to continue the work of the Heritage Quarter.

Popular media:
 Danby Castle: a Manor and its Lords (2010)

Danby Court Leet (2009): produced a DVD including full length recording of court, documentary film and new research on a working manorial court.

'The transatlantic telegraph cable: eighth wonder of the world', History Today, March 2000, 44-51

Historical consultant to Tyne Tees Television series The Way We Were (2004); Mint Productions for Irish Who Do You Think You Are? (2008); Green Umbrella film on the Atlantic Cable for U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (2005).

Conference Papers and other presentations (selected):

PLACE, York St John, Oct 2013 'History in action: the manor court of Danby'

Oxford University, Department for Continuing Education, ‘Getting About: Buildings and Inland Transport’ conference, September 2013: ‘The impact of railways on north-east towns: Darlington and Sunderland in the 19th century.’

University of London, Institute for Historical Research, Locality and Region seminar series, November 2011: ‘The manor court of Danby: medieval or modern?’

Friends of Sunderland Museum, October 2011: ‘Building a City: Sunderland’s landscape, medieval to modern’.
Oral History Society Annual Conference, July 2011: ‘Sunderland Heritage Quarter: oral history, regeneration and the East End of Sunderland’. Also panel member for plenary debate on Heritage and Regeneration.

Teesside University, with Cleveland Local History Society, day school March 2010: ‘ Darlington: a market town in the long term’.

Durham County Local History Society annual meeting: 2008 David Reid memorial lecture, April 2008: ‘Unpacking a modern landscape: the building of Sunderland’.

Centre for Regional and Local Historical Research seminar, University of Teesside, January 2008: ‘A port of last resort: moving coal from County Durham, 1700-1850’.

Federation of Family History Societies' Conference, Durham University, September 2007: 'Family business in northern England: how genealogists and historians can help each other'

Locality and Region seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, May 2007: 'Ferry, bridge and harbour: the development of the port of Sunderland from the 17th century'.

Centre for Research into Freemasonry, University of Sheffield, February 2007: 'Freemasons and networking in 18th-c Sunderland'.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society, November 2006, ‘Ferry, bridge and port: recent VCH research in Sunderland’.

International Economic History Association conference, Helsinki, August 2006: 'Keeping it in the family: the role of family firms in the industrialising north of England, 1780-1830'.

International Maritime Economic History Association, Kotka, Finland, August 2006: ‘Cutting out the Middleman: The Development of the Port of Sunderland, 1715-1850’.

Business History Conference Annual Meeting, Toronto, June 2006: ‘Frameworks and freemasons: municipal affairs and business infrastructure in late 18th-century Sunderland’

Historical Association, Durham branch, March 2005: 'Submarine cables in the 19th century'.

Pasold conference, University of Nottingham, October 2004: 'Making a virtue of necessity? Business networks in two English textile districts, 1790-1830'.

European Business History Association, Barcelona, September 2004: 'The dynamics of industrialisation: services and manufacturing in the Tees valley, 1818-1870'.

Institution of Electrical Engineers, History of Technology conference, UCL, July 2004: session organiser and chair, 150th anniversary Atlantic cable


Hon. editor (History), Yorkshire Archaeological Journal

Memberships of professional bodies:

Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
Plus learned societies, editorial boards etc:
Council member and vice-president, Surtees Society [record series]

Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, committee member.

Member of the international advisory panel for the journal Quaker Studies; editorial board, Northern History; conference organiser, Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society


Sunderland: Building a City  (VCH Studies series: Phillimore, 2010)

Victoria County History of County Durham, IV, Darlington (Boydell and Brewer, 2005)

The Townscape of Darlington (VCH Studies series: Boydell Press, 2003)

The Cable: the Wire that Changed the World (Tempus Publishing, 2003; new edition by The History Press, 2012)

A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and the Birth of Electrical Engineering (with C.A. Hempstead: Ashgate, 2000)

Henry Maudslay and the Pioneers of the Machine Age co-edited with J. A. Cantrell (Tempus Publishing, 2003)

Reprint of John Hodgson, Textile Manufacture and Other Industries in Keighley [1879] co-edited and with a new introduction, with George Ingle (Shaun Tyas Press, 1999)

‘Menethorpe: Rediscovering a Lost Village’, Ryedale Historian, 25 (2011), 22-31.

'The Darlington Landscape', in T. Faulkner, H. Berry and J. Gregory (ed.), Northern Landscapes: Representations and Realities of North East England (Boydell and Brewer, 2010), 193-206

Entries in P.S.M. Cross-Rudkin and M.M. Chrimes (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, ii, 1830-90 (2008) on Fleeming Jenkin and John Harris

'A city in search of yarn: the journal of Edward Taylor of Norwich, 1817', Textile History, 37 (1) (2006), 38-51

‘Submarine cables: novelty and innovation, 1850-1870’, Trans. Newcomen Soc., 76 (2006), 207-19

Entries in the Dictionary of National Biography (2004): Sir Peter Fairbairn; James Kitson; Matthew Murray; Lewis Paul; Richard Roberts; James Walton; and (with D.T. Jenkins) Richard L. Hattersley

'Quaker families and business networks in 19th century Darlington', Quaker Studies, 8 (2) (2004), 119-40

'Quaker networks and the industrial development of Darlington, 1780-1870', in Andrew Popp and J. F. Wilson (ed.), Industrial Clusters and Regional Business Networks in England, 1750-1970 (Ashgate, 2003)

'The Golden Age of Electricity' in I. Inkster et al (ed.), The Golden Age: Essays in British Social and Economic History, 1850-1870 (Ashgate, 2000)

'"Ruinous competition": the French Atlantic Telegraph of 1869', Entreprises et Histoire, 23 (1999), 1-16

'Reconstructing a lost engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and problems of sources', in A. Jarvis and K. Smith (ed.), Perceptions of Great Engineers II (Science Museum, 1998)

'The mechanization of Yorkshire card-making', Textile History, 29 (1) (1998), 41-61

'Regarding the artisan: the role of traditional skills in the development of mechanical engineering', in W. J. Ashworth (ed.), Approaches to the History of Engineering (Merseyside Maritime Museum/ Newcomen Society, 1997)

'Building Plans', in Kathryn M. Thompson (ed.), Short Guides to Records (Historical Assoc. 1997)

'Family firms and business networks: textile engineering in Yorkshire, 1780-1830', Business History, 39 (1) (1997), 1-20.

'Millwrights, clockmakers and the origins of textile machine-making in Yorkshire', Textile History, 27 (1) (1996), 43-57

'Innovation, diffusion and mechanical engineers in Britain, 1780-1850', Economic History Review, XLVII, 4 (1994), 749-53

'Early textile engineers in Leeds, 1780-1850', Pub. Thoresby Soc., 2nd series, IV (1994), 40-61

'Large scale problems: the neglect of building plans', The Local Historian, XIX (1989), 3-7