This week, the University of Sheffield is hosting three History-related events as part of the In the City festival. Tonight, at St. George’s Church Lecture Theatre, John Grindrod will be talking about his new book Concretopia, praised by one reviewer as a ‘witty and informative tour’ of postwar British town planning. Continuing the theme of urban design, Thursday, sees a roundtable discussion with veterans of the fight against slum clearance in the University’s near neighbour, Walkley. Then this Friday, the popular author Charlie Connelly will join members of our department to discuss how we tell stories about cities.
All the In The City events are free, but if you’re interested in coming along, please reserve a ticket (and take a look at some of the other talks, film showings, and performances coming up in the next few weeks) here.
The talks on Tuesday and Thursday have come out of a collaboration between two oral history projects. We set up ‘Witness’ in the department a few years ago to give students the opportunity to research Sheffield’s history. Since then, about three dozen undergraduates have conducted more than fifty interviews which range from the war years to the 1980s, and we’re hoping to continue to grow the archive (the website is currently offline while we upload new material, but it will soon reappear here) over the next few years. Sarah Kenny, a Ph.D. student in Modern British history who has helped to coordinate Witness, explains its purpose well:
The ability to hear stories from Sheffield’s residents about such a wide variety of topics, encompassing housing, unemployment, music culture, family and community, the mining and steel industries, and changes to the city to name but a few, is invaluable to a researcher interested in social and cultural history. It offers a rare insight into the everyday life of people, and an opportunity to look past the traditional narratives about Sheffield’s history of strikes, declining industry, and steel, and encourage the researcher to understand the culture and societies of the city, and of the people behind the industry. In building the Witness archive we hope that this rich and important source material will benefit researchers beyond the department, and provide an opportunity to better understand the impact of deindustrialisation and social changes on the residents of Sheffield over the last six decades.
The second project, Walkley Ways, Walkley Wars, secured National Lottery-funded Community Heritage funding to record the suburb’s past. Under the guidance of archaeologist Bill Bevan, residents have donated photographs, volunteered as interviewers or interviewees, and tracked down the descendants of First World War soldiers immortalised in the stained glass windows of the local Reform Club. Bill’s belief in the democratic possibilities of public history reminds me of Raphael Samuel’s Theatre’s of Memory, and for him the merit of the project lies as much in broadening participation in the writing of history as it does in the history itself. This year Bill’s been working alongside Witness students.
I met Bill soon after moving to Walkley myself and the story he told fascinated me. In the 1960s, much of the suburb – a typical Sheffield neighbourhood in which red-brick terraces cling to steep hillsides – was slated for demolition. Swathes of Lower Walkley and adjacent Upperthorpe succumbed to the bulldozer, the old streets replaced by the likes of the Kelvin Flats (now gone themselves, though not before inspiring the dystopian Pulp B-Side, ‘Deep Fried in Kelvin’).
Before the wave of clearances swept over the hill, however, residents began to organize, forming the Walkley Action Group. Opening one front in a transatlantic revolt against modernist urban planning, the activists showed how beneath the label ‘slum’ lay a closely-connected community, and their endeavours saved much of the area (including my house) from being reduced to rubble. As Owen Hatherley – a speaker at In the City last year – has shown, Sheffield’s postwar planners had utopian designs, and developments like Park Hill, for all their gargantuan scale, were built with human needs in mind.
John Grindrod’s talk tonight, though not focused on Sheffield, will put the debate over urban renewal in the ’60s and ’70s into national context. Then on Thursday, Bill will be chairing a panel of the activists, planners, and politicians who fought over Walkley’s future. Through tying Witness to the Walkley project we want to link the national and international transformations that we often find ourselves writing to what academic historians sometimes dismissively refer to as ‘local history’. The battles we’ll hear about this week are a reminder that the often impersonal and remote forces we explore have shaped the physical and social fabric of our immediate surroundings.
Look north from the top floor of the university’s Arts Tower – itself a product of postwar planning – and you’ll see a landscape sculpted by the struggles over how to organize our cities. Sarah, who is working on youth cultures in Sheffield and Manchester, sums it up nicely when she talks about the need to ‘anchor’ her analysis in local communities, and I’ll leave her with the final word:
The historian of post-war Britain works alongside narratives of affluence, consumerism, industrial decline, changes in ideas of class and community, and my research has benefitted enormously from examining these themes and narratives within the context of a local community. Only by doing this is it possible to examine, and sometimes challenge, the narratives that have been influenced by national change. The Walkley Action Group is a fantastic example of this, and through exploring the history of this community it is possible to better understand the impact of slum clearance and changes in housing in a way that is much less abstract than the national narrative.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the urban history of the 19th-century United States. You can read Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: Upperthorpe pictured from Parkwood Springs, Sheffield (2012) [Wikicommons]