Who would have imagined that one of the most popular football teams in Uruguay took its team colours from the world’s first steam train, Stephenson’s Rocket?
The beginnings of the Peñarol football club is totally intertwined with the story of the British in Uruguay and the building of the railways. To find out more, head out to Barrio Peñarol, the new neighbourhood community centre in Montevideo which has applied for UNESCO industrial heritage status.
Set about six miles outside of what was the city centre, Peñarol was founded by an Italian immigrant who set up a pulpería—a kind of general store and inn—in 1776. At the time Montevideo was primarily the Old City, Centro, Cordón and the area around the Palacio Legislativo. What was to become Peñarol was countryside and farmland.
Over a century later, Peñarol was still primarily farmland and an ideal spot for a British rail company looking for land to set up their railway workshop.
The British and the railways in Uruguay
The British had created the railway and the steam engine. The first train ran in North England in 1825.
The first railway in Uruguay ran from Bella Vista in Montevideo to nearby Las Piedras in Canelones —nowadays wine country— in 1869. The founders were all Uruguayan though a number were of British ancestory. On the board of directors sat men with names like Proudfoot and Tomkinson.
However a lack of local capital meant that in 1878 the company was sold to British investors. It became known as the Central Uruguay Railway and it was the CUR that decided to set up their workshop and a whole factory town in Peñarol.
Cutting edge nineteenth century industry
A factory town is a settlement developed around a single business or factory, with the housing and most of the facilities –stores, entertainment and the like– being owned by the company in question.
Nineteenth century model factory towns included Bournville and Lanark in the UK and Peñarol and Conchillas in Uruguay.
In fact, CUR’s head office wanted to rename Peñarol – to Nueva Manchester.
Today every architectural structure of that factory town remains, though the city has grown around it,. So Peñarol may be just another Montevideo neighbourhood, but it has a remarkable industrial and social history.
The Peñarol Industrial Heritage Centre and a living neighbourhood
With the coming of the CUR, Peñarol’s population exploded. By 1895, this formerly pastoral area had a population of 1300 people living in 228 company-built houses. Many were British and others were German and Italian. The site that you can visit today is made up of the houses of the CUR chief of stores and the mechanical engineer.
Also walk around the neighbourhood. These houses are all occupied by families and some businesses. Surrounding streets are still named after British icons such as Shakespeare and James Watt (who had radically improved the steam engine 1770-1780). The workers houses were good quality with 2-3 bedrooms. The Victorian-style terraces with roses around the doors were for senior employees.
Peñarol is a typically working-class neighbourhood which inspires a strong loyalty in its inhabitants. It’s typical for people from Peñarol, even when they move up the social ladder to stay put there. Look out for photos of some of the locals including the lady who makes the “tortas fritas” across the road. The neighbours asked to be recognised in this way.
There was a theatre and a cinema for employees which there are plans to renovate. And a pub knowns as La Primavera – The Spring, which was working until 2009. It’s not exactly as identifiable as The Rover’s Return. So I took a photo so you can spot it opposite the station.
But the biggest leisure-time occupations were the Peñarol cricket and football clubs.
Peñarol – home to Uruguay’s biggest football club
Just like Manchester United in the UK, Peñarol, nowadays one of Uruguay’s two biggest football clubs, was a team founded for and by railway workers. Look out for the 1898 photo of the football team on display and you’ll spot the same water tank as you’ll see over the workshop nowadays. They say that the Peñarol football team took its team colours of yellow and black from the world’s first steam engine, Stephenson’s Rocket.
Locally Peñarol supporters are known as “carboneros”, coal-shovelers. Coal being used to fuel the steam trains.
UNESCO Industrial Heritage status for Peñarol?
CUR was in British hands until after the Second World War. The UK government had run up huge debts with Uruguay and they signed over the railways as part payment in 1952.
By the 1980s, the railway in Uruguay had fallen into decline. Most lines stopped running passenger services and some trains still run but mainly carrying livestock and crops. You can read about Villa Independencia, one of many small towns in the Uruguayan interior which were deeply affected by the closure.
The Peñarol workshop is apparently in perfect repair – a Sleeping Beauty in the hands of the Uruguayan railway company (AFE). You’ll see the entrance marked with AFE. Don’t even try asking to go in. The custodian is under strict orders to turn people away it seems.
They’ll be visitable if Uruguay is successful in its bid to get UNESCO Industrial Heritage status for Peñarol, just as it was for also remarkably preserved meat packing plant at Fray Bentos.
Peñarol Industrial Heritage Centre is a recommended trip for social history and architecture buffs, railway enthusiasts and football fans.
Peñarol Industrial Heritage Centre (Centro de Barrio Peñarol) Av. Sayago 1584, Peñarol, Montevideo
You can walk around the neighbourhood with the help of a map (in English! Hallelujah!) from the visitors centre (3 on the map).
Visits to the station and the centre on weekday afternoons can be arranged by writing to the tourism coordinator, Josefa at turismomunicipioG@gmail.com
How to get there
There are regular buses to Peñarol from the city centre. The 582 is a good option. You could also combine the trip with a visit to the picturesque Prado neighbourhood and the charming Blanes Museum.
The Peñarol Industrial Heritage Centre is one of “10 Architectural Delights” recommended in The Guru’Guay Guide to Montevideo – 140 pages of things to do and places to experience
Thanks to Josefa at Municipio G for the invitation to visit the Peñarol Industrial Heritage Centre and to Derek Tyler. His talk on the history of Peñarol was very helpful for writing this article.