A House Through Time: A Refreshing Start to 2018

Just occasionally a historian comes along with some exciting new ways of understanding history. They usually come from the field of ‘public history’. 2018 kicks off with one such contribution from David Olusoga, who has already given us new insights into the personal side of the history of slavery. His new TV series ‘A House Through Time’ (BBC2 from 4 January) puts the spotlight on the homes we live in, at least those with a significant history. The series will explore the occupants over time of 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool since 1840.

What struck me most forcibly, however, was his introductory feature in The Observer (31.13.2017, page 25). It is full of some startlingly pithy statements about the meeting point between history in its grand sense and the personal in its everyday sense. It is worth quoting some of these remarks.

“Our homes, the most acutely personal places in our lives, come to us second-hand, and invisibly link us to people we have never met, people to whom we have no association other than a single shared connection to place.” My previous home had a relatively short history, going back to the 1930s, but we had the original deeds and papers relating to changes of ownership, and there were even neighbours who recalled the previous occupiers in a way that shattered anonymity. One of the first things I did when I arrived in my present, much older, home was to track down its earliest occupants in the census and to form a picture of their lives by wider family history research. The stories that emerged were commonplace but moving for that very reason, involving a seaman’s widow and her young son, an elderly lady and her unmarried piano teacher niece. We add our own stories to their’s.

Olusoga talks of how we make connections not only via documents from the archives, but the sheer physical presence of the building. “To read their letters from within the house in which they were written, or to hold in your hands their death certificates, while standing on their front steps or in their bedroom, is a strangely intimate experience.” Sometimes it can become “too close and a little too real for comfort”.

Historians have traditionally esteemed ‘objectivity’ and distance from their subjects, but this kind of history is the diametric opposite, as is much of family and community history at this level. “Historians love to talk about how we can get closer to the people of the past, but when it happens of its own volition the effects can be unnerving.”

There is much more that I could quote and all of it with hearty approval. But I will finish with the following, which sums up what should be a clarion call to all of us who operate in the field of personal history, whether family or collective.

“There is no official register of historians. No list from which practitioners of the art can be struck off for professional misconduct.”

Amen to that!


Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research

Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research, [edited Keri Facer and Kate Pahl, Policy Press, Bristol & Chicago, 2017] – paperback retailing at £24.99

Until 2014, I was involved in a project examining the issue of socialising heritage and legacy, part of a wider series of projects under the A.H.R.C. Connected Communities label looking at collaborative methods of working. Our particular strand concerned ‘heritage’ and, from the start, set out to be collaborative – including the design of the research. The outcomes of this strand are summarised and analysed in Chapter Four of this book: ‘Socialising heritage/ socialising legacy’.

My involvement was as an individual freelance family and community historian, participating in the York’s Alternative History group. There were more than 20 of us in this project, from a variety of backgrounds in a well-designed balance of university academics, heritage professionals (including local planners) and members of community organisations. The boundaries of the group were fluid enough to include new people as the project developed, as well as (memorably) the critique of another 20 or so volunteers at a mid-way event in Manchester. It was a wonderful experience, very inspiring, though not without its conflicts, and I met some great people whom I much admire. From my perspective, one of the best outcomes has been the way in which things changed in York with the involvement of Richard and Lianne Brigham and how that has continued and grown (see https://en-gb.facebook.com/YorkPastandPresent/).

At the point I moved away, the project was being written up and at this stage I began to develop the only slight negative feeling. The unease I felt has redoubled on the publication of this book. In some ways, it was to be expected that the final writing up of the project would fall principally to the academics, so I initially dismissed my reservations since I trusted the academics involved, and drafts were always referred around the group as a whole. However, now that I have the collective publication in my hands, the unease has returned.

From the very start of the editors’ introduction the emphasis is on a two-handed division: academics on the one hand, everybody else on the other hand, in the context of ‘the boundaries between universities and publics’. On scanning through the contents as a whole, this pattern seems to be the norm. It seems to be all about justifying the funding of academia by bringing in the participation of the community. The latter is never clearly defined, though it is stated that communities are ‘seeking evidence and validation for their practice’.

I would demur from that statement as the emphasis in this volume is largely different – the academics are coming to us for their validation and our evidence. While I am perfectly happy with the way our own strand developed and the kinds of outcome it produced (notably the DIY Heritage Manifesto contributed by Danny Callaghan, a freelance grassroots heritage consultant in the Potteries), I am initially disappointed by the way in which the editors have characterised the issues we explored as some sort of problem for universities. The real problem is how grassroots initiatives can be validated in their own right and escape the bureaucracy involved in funding bids – which are heavily biased in favour of academics and professionals in the heritage and legacy milieu as they are more adept at filling in the forms.

I hope that my initial unease will be dispelled as I work through the various other project write-ups in this book, though a quick glance indicates I may have to wade through a lot of jargon and bullshit to extract what is really useful. Nevertheless – set aside the academic bias, these are all worthwhile projects in their own right. It will be worth the effort to persevere with the book – though I suspect a lot of community activists, if they hear of it through their networks and can get past the rather forbidding title, may find it hard going.

A Year of Anniversaries

Every year is a year of anniversaries and it is the mainstay of the heritage industry and easy journalism to commemorate them. More importantly, for the family historian it is where personal history and public history often intersect to remind us that we are participants not mere spectators. Examples can run from the distant past to our own modern lives.

150 years ago, on 12-13 December 1866, there was a series of explosions in the underground workings of the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley which took the lives of over 360 men and boys, including rescue workers. None of those involved was a Bashforth, but the events still intersected with our family. Bridget MacDonald (née Drudy), of Irish extraction, was the wife of Patrick (aka Peter) MacDonald and had a young son called John. Patrick and his brother Michael, also Irish, were killed in the explosion, leaving Bridget destitute – among many other widows from the disaster. How she managed in the years afterwards, who knows, but in 1869 she married my three-times great grandfather Thomas, who was a widower with two young boys, and they went on to have four more children.

Of course, 2016 has been the latest of a series of centennial commemorations of the Somme Battles of 1916. Three bearers of the Bashforth name fell that year. Private Willie Bashforth from Conisbrough, serving in the 12 West Yorkshire Regiment at Ypres, died of wounds on 27 March 1916 and is buried at Lijssenthoek in Belgium. Private Arthur Bashforth of 1/5 KOYLI died in an attack on the Leipzig Salient on 23 July 1916. 2nd Lieutenant John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth died in a futile attack on the Quadrilateral on 15 September when one of the first tanks to be used failed in front of the 9 Norfolk Regiment, leaving them exposed behind uncut barbed wire. Both the latter are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Memorable event followed in the 20th century. 1926 saw the General Strike from 4-13 May. On 4 October 1936, there was the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End and the Spanish Civil War was in full swing. In 1946, Winston Churchill made his speech about the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the Cold War was essentially launched. All apart from the last of these were before my time but have had echoes for me down the years of my own development, impinging on my consciousness.

On a more personal note, October 1956 made an impact on me because of the Hungarian Uprising, ruthlessly suppressed with Russian tanks in the November, alongside the Suez Canal invasion by French and British troops, and a growing awareness as I entered my teenage years of the dangers of nuclear warfare. While too young to do much about any of them, these were the seeds of future development. In 1966 Harold Wilson was re-elected with a massive majority for a Labour Government akin to the landslide of 1945, only to sell out any mandate to the IMF, whack up interest rates just as my parents bought their first house after years of scrimping and saving, since when I have never trusted the Labour Party as representatives of the interests of the working-classes. The same year I was confirmed in my opinion of both the Labour Party and the heavily bureaucratic nationalised industries by the events at Aberfan and the skinflint treatment of the local community that followed that tragedy.

As I wonder about 2016 and how it will be commemorated in the future, I recall the 40th anniversary of the death of topical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs on 9 April 1976. Check out his version of ‘When I’m Gone’ on YouTube – much more nuanced than cover versions I have heard. It is worth looking at these commemorations for signs of hope such as this and to restore faith and courage for the future. Goodbye 2016.

The Burston School Strike

On 4 September I had the great fortune to join a busload of trade unionists and other campaigners from Norwich to the little village of Burston, near Diss in Norfolk. It was in aid of an annual event commemorating the action of an isolated rural community acting in resistance to the overbearing power of the local squirearchy. I won’t go into all the details of what happened in 1914 and for 25 years afterwards. Best read it for yourselves here https://burstonstrikeschool.wordpress.com/

In short, more than 60 pupils, supported by their parents, went on strike to seek the reinstatement of their two sacked teachers, Annie and Tom Higdon. Annie as Head had fought the local school management for better facilities. Tom had organised the local farmworkers to take over the parish council. The local farmers and the Vicar were incensed by this insubordination. The teachers set up their own school, which was supported by the trade union movement, socialists and others, who provided the funds to build a new school and help maintain it until Tom died in 1939 and Annie could no longer continue.

This was grassroots community action, organised by local people against enormous, wealthy and well-situated opposition. It is inspirational 100 years later as politicians talk incessantly about ‘community’ but mean something completely different, hierarchical and vested in established institutions. Sunday’s commemorative events highlighted how grassroots campaigning can overturn this alien concept of community and replace it with the genuine article. The Strike School in Burston still continues as a community venture, still with union support and still inspires. This is real working-class heritage with continuing power in the here and now. It is worth a million old castle ruins and stately homes.

History is Personal 1916-2016

History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.

I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.

The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.

Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.

There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.


Do Museums Have Value?

Apparently not much! In recent weeks I have heard of the closure of at least two museums in the north-east of England with which I have had connections.

The DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will be closing in April, despite a campaign to keep it open. The museum is the depository for huge numbers of artefacts connected with the history of the Durham Light Infantry and its forebears. The regiment has close connections with all communities across the north-east and it is ironic that it should be closing in the middle of centenary commemorations for the First World War and the 70th anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Many local families, including my own, have gifted personal items into their collection. It is proposed to put the collection into permanent storage, though apparently this will be in a disused former tobacco factory on a short lease and with presumably dubious atmospheric conditions for conservation purposes. The museum was housed in a modern building in extensive parkland that was used recreationally by local people, including events at the museum such as those for fathers and children on a Saturday morning. It is proposed to sell the land for redevelopment, so there will be no turning back at a later date in better times.

The facilities at Bede’s World in Jarrow were closed at short notice in February. The site has national and global significance, as this is where the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People during the early 700s. He was locally born and is nationally and internationally renowned. Until recently Bede’s World was directed by Mike Benson, assisted by Kathy Cremin and a host of enthusiastic volunteers, young apprentices, former offenders and local people. It was buzzing with social and cultural significance, the second place that Mike and Kathy have enthused with their particular vision for heritage. Sadly, the Charitable Trust was not up the task and went into liquidation and all this hard work, hope and energy has been wasted by men in suits. Mike has gone on to the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire (I wonder how much longer that will survive in the current climate, since it is quite remote) while Kathy has left the museum sector.

In recent decades, £millions have been poured into the heritage sector only for recent austerity measures and economic downturn to render the survival of the institutions in doubt. Not even major national museums are exempt. The National Railway Museum took millions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national funding bodies to open up its library and archives seven days a week, all year round in a new facility called Search Engine. That vision survived only a few years before staff cuts were made and opening hours shredded. The same sad story is affecting museums, archives and libraries across the country – though there will always be a hand in the till for London and the facilities for the élite few.

And why? In the last analysis it is to prop up the bankers and their culture of high salaries and bonuses for failure. Usually this is couched by the politicians in terms of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Where is the responsibility in trashing the country’s social and cultural heritage in this way? Where is the responsibility in trashing facilities for the disadvantaged, the sick and the poor?

The Big Question is ‘Where the hell is the opposition?’ Why is the population of this country just accepting of this? Where is the clarion call from the so-called anti-austerity ‘Hard Left’ Labour Party leadership? It would seem they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Short answer: sorry, Britain, you get exactly what you deserve. If you sit on your hands – this is what you get and what you, by default, have asked for.

I was recently involved in an AHRC funded project asking the question: who makes heritage decisions? Not the ordinary people, that’s for sure. That was the doubt I began with and the one I still end with.

The Barnsley Cordwainers Society

Check across to the ‘related sites’ tag on the right hand side and you will find a new site has been added to the list. For at least twelve years I have been researching the history of the Cordwainers Society of Barnsley. This is reputedly the oldest surviving local friendly society in England, having been founded in March 1747/8 by sixteen men from the town. Although they adopted the name ‘Cordwainers’, indicating a link to the profession of making (not repairing) boots and shoes and other leather goods, very few actually pursued this trade. There were two ‘gentlemen’ who acted as patrons and bankers in the early years until the Society was firmly established. There were several miners and assorted metal tradesmen and farmers, among others. The Society continued to include men from all backgrounds. It still exists today, though its welfare activities as such have long ceased to have any currency. Instead it functions as a social club, gathering once a year in the Spring to celebrate its survival on its traditional feast day, and at other occasional informal gatherings often including families.

The website will act as a means of publishing items from the Society’s history and create a focal point through which present day members, as well as family historians tracing links and social historians interested in friendly societies can access and contribute to. My own family name has links going back to the late 18th century, with several members serving on the committee over the subsequent decades. I stumbled into it by accident, having sought permission to use material from their archives (deposited with Barnsley Local Studies), attending a few annual dinners and being admitted as an honorary life member and historian. I am now pleased at last to be getting the history of this unique organisation better known in the 21st century.