Saturday, 12 March 2016

'Passport to Kennington'. What is Public History?


Explanatory Note. This was posted on my website site which I have now closed down because of problems keeping it updated. I have asked to ensure that material on it is still available. This is the text of a talk ‘Passport to Kennington’ I gave at the Public History Conference, Ruskin College, Oxford, 16–17 September 2005. Using examples from the Kennington, Oval & Vauxhall area I discussed the interlink between ‘heritage’ and community activity.

What is ‘Public History’? For me it is about the use of history in community and political activity. It is not:

• the popular leisure consumption of history through visits to heritage sites, museums and watching and listening to history programmes on television and radio
• popular research engagement in family history that is self-contained, narrow in its focus, and not set within the socio-economic context of the family and not shared with a wider audience.

Popular engagement in family history that is set within the socio-economic context of the family, that helps to shed light on people’s historical experience and is shared with a wider audience, provides a bridge into ‘Public History’.

All history is ‘political’ in its broadest non-party sense. The labour history, History Workshop, feminist, oral, Black and friendly society history movements, have been and are ‘political’, seeking to write back into history ordinary people, their struggles, and redress the imbalance of more official and establishment histories or the histories told by victors. ‘Public history’ is a development on from these separate histories enabling connections to be made between them. All historical specialisms and approaches are useful routes into the historical picture. The challenge is to integrate them so that a more holistic and inclusive story of the past is told. I was therefore pleased to be able to give a paper at the Band of Brothers Conference in November which brought together labour, women’s friendly society and masonic historians. The sponsors included the Society for the Study of Labour History and the Friendly Societies Research Group.

For me ‘Public History’ at local level encompasses such activities as:

• the celebration by the residents of an anniversary of the building of their estate
• the anniversary of an important building or neighbourhood
• the fight to save built environment heritage
• an emphasis on the lives of ordinary people
• an emphasis on the role ordinary people and their organisations have played in shaping their area
• a re-imaging of British history to include women, the working class, black and ethnic minorities and other excluded groups

Some Aspects of Public History in South London

I now want to look at some of the activities which I would include under the heading ‘Public History’ in parts of South London over the last 30 years.

• Battersea Town Hall. Following a campaign to prevent its sale and possible demolition, it eventually became Battersea Arts Centre, firstly as a community arts facility and then when local Council cuts adversely affected it, an important regional theatre. Among its community history projects were:
-100th Anniversary of Battersea Town Hall. Pamphlet produced by Jo Stanley. A weekend of celebratory events including a debate on whether Battersea had benefited from the merger with Wandsworth which was videoed.
-Wandsworth Working Women’s Lives, by Jo Stanley and Bronwen Griffiths published by London History Workshop in 1990.
-Lavender Hill footprints project. A history and community involvement project in which local people and workers were asked to put what they knew about the past of Lavender Hill on a map of the street. The original aim was to carve aspects of that onto the paving stones; but the Council pulled out of supporting that aspect.

• Fred Knee. Fred Knee, member of the Social Democratic Federation, campaigner for housing for the working class, and founder of the London Labour Party, was honoured with a blue plaque on his former Battersea home unveiled by the then Labour MP Alf Dubs. Unfortunately, as yet this has not been followed up with a pamphlet about his life.

• Falcon Pub. The listing of the Falcon Pub on the corner of Clapham Junction as part of the 1970s Junction Action Group campaign against an office development scheme that would have seen the pub’s demolition. This fundamentally changed what could be done on the site, and preserved an usual feature of the Junction – the curve of the pub diagonally opposite the Arding & Hobbs store.

• Wandsworth Court House. A campaign by tenants on the Arndale Estate supported by a local community and youth worker led to the conversion of this redundant building into a community centre for the estate residents run by Arndale Community Project and Council offices. Later the Council forced the Project to relocate and the building was converted into Wandsworth Museum.

• Cottages on West Hill. Two 18th Century Wandsworth cottages were under threat of demolition to build a new office block by a local developer, while the Council traffic engineers wanted to widen the curve of the road as traffic entered the Wandsworth one way system. A campaign led to new proposals: the renovation of the cottages, a backlands office development and no road widening.

• Putney Exchange Centre. The original proposals for the redevelopment of Putney High St would have seen massive frontage demolition. A campaign fought for years finally forced the retention of most of the frontage and the development of a indoor store complex behind.

• Putney’s Parish Church. The venue of the Putney Debates among Cromwell’s Army in the Civil War. Commemorated every year with a lecture by such speakers as Peter Hain, Tony Benn and others.
• Latchmere Estate. Opened 1903 as the first Battersea municipal housing scheme. Celebrated by the local Residents Association by exhibition, plaque and talk.

There are numerous similar examples across South London, including:

• Coin St, where the Community Builders celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the GLC handing it the land after successfully defeating commercial developers.

• Borough Market.

• St Mark’s Church at the Oval, which has put up several local history plaques past which hundreds of people walk every day getting to and from Oval Tube Station. They include mention of the role of William Cuffay, the black British Chartist who organised the Kennington Common demonstration in 1848.
• The Old Vic where following a campaign led by Oku Ekpenyon, with the support of the Black and Asian Studies Association, a print of Ira Aldridge, the great 19th Century black actor has been put on display in the bar.

There are numerous opportunities to add new dimensions to such a list.

• John Archer. Archer’s grave is in the former Battersea cemetery in Morden. I am hoping to investigate the possibility of restoring it, having a plaque put next to it, and organising an event around it.

• Hailee Selaisse. A bust of the Emperor made when he visited Wimbledon while in exile is in the grounds of Cannizario Park off the Common. Talking recently to an activist in the Rastafarian community in St Agnes Place in Kennington, I realised that they did not know about this bust. We plan to explore the possibility of an event centred on it.

Both Archer and Selaisse feature in the Merton Black & Asian Heritage display I was involved in putting together in 2000, sponsored by my local community association. It has been used in many ways since, and led to the formation of the Merton Multi-Cultural History Group, and a project to develop teacher resources.

The Public and the Historic Built Environment

We need to acknowledge the wish of large numbers of people to protect and celebrate the past as reflected in their local built and open space environment. The work of amenity societies in popularising and campaigning on this should be acknowledged. Without the dedication over 30 years of activists like my brother-in-law Paul Carter we would not have had the renaissance in British Waterways, in Paul’s case the re-opening of the Forth-Clyde Canal.

When amenity societies seem over precious about opposing building on Commons to enable better access and enjoyment for example for children with physical disabilities to have an adventure playground as happened in Wandsworth in the early 1970s, they are remaining true to aspirations that triggered the tradition of mass struggle and law-breaking against the enclosures of common land in the mid 19th Century, which led to Acts of Parliament preserving the Commons across South London. It is regrettable that the labour movement has not been very good at protecting its own buildings, despite the guidance issued on the topic by the Society for the Study of Labour History. The research of Heidi Topman, a former Secretary of Labour Heritage, into Labour Halls in Greater London makes a contribution to addressing this neglect. Her work started off in Wimbledon with an exhibition and pamphlet about the William Morris House.

The Importance of Public History Work

Work on ‘Public History’ is important because it helps to inform ordinary people, and community organisations struggling to obtain improvements in their neighbourhoods today, that they are heirs of a long tradition of ordinary working people creating organisations to meet particular needs, and engaging in collective activity to influence their lives and lobby for economic, political and social inclusion and justice.
It was for this reason that when I introduced a workshop for community activists on Neighbourhood Renewal in 2002, many of whom were from newer ethnic minority communities, I stressed that continuity. In particular the friendly, loan, building, co-operative, and trade union societies had:

• provided the glue that linked people together at work, and because work and home were often close, between work and community
• built an amazing infrastructure of social welfare and income support in the absence of a Welfare State
• were seedbeds for building experience in running organisations and in participative and representative democracy
• forced a response that made Britain more inclusive in electoral politics, and moderated the worst effect of economic forces through social and employment reform

The militant trade unionism of the period 1888 to 1892 had set in motion a new social and economic agenda based on the eight hour day, fair wages, direct labour and the public service role of local government, an agenda which Labour and then Tories began to dismantle from 1976.

The trade unions had created the Labour Party in 1900 as a political vehicle to represent the interests of working people in Parliament. Together they became a major electoral force, and in the 1945-51 period brought in the building blocks of the modern Welfare State, including the National Health Service and the expansion of public services.

I had then gone on to explain that the pursuit of social and economic justice had never been easy because of the effects of economic cycles and the resultant changes in types and location of jobs. Once the labour movement began to win control of local and Central Government it had to face the problems involved in policy implementation and management. In the process all kinds of mistakes were made.

The centralist wing of Labour ensured that the welfare state and publicly owned industries were built not on the foundation of the charity, voluntary and mutual sectors, but by nationalising them and creating centrally controlled bureaucratic structures. What Stephen Yeo calls the associational culture of Labour was thrown on one side and marginalised. Older forms of organisation began to wither, while new forms began to grow.
Under the 1976 International Monetary Fund deal the Labour Government began to roll back public services, paving the way for the Tory monetarist destruction from 1979. This resulted in a great increase in poverty and deprivation and the abandonment and betrayal by private and public services of the needs of the people living in the large number of what are now called deprived neighbourhoods. In the process individuals, families and whole communities had experienced hopelessness and brutalisation. Within the climate of Thatcherism collective self-help community organisation and voluntary organisations could do little more than mitigate the worst effects of the mountain of neglect, the failure to provide good quality job creation and investment, and to fundamentally address the underlying problem of low incomes and means-testing dependency.

Tackling the legacy of this deprivation lies at the heart of the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy for England. Much of its critique reflects what the community and voluntary sector had been saying for years.

While the Strategy has fitted uneasily within a set of tensions within Government policy, especially that of central control versus decentralisation and democratisation, it has provided opportunities for community and voluntary organisations to play a major role, especially in continuing the associational provision of services and activities, in providing social glue, fostering democratic participation, and unlocking the strengths and skills inherent in every community.

I went on to argue that part of the social glue function of community organisations should be to build a common sense of justice, understanding, and positive interaction between all the different sub-groups and interests within the neighbourhood community. There needs to be activity that brings people together, especially in those areas adversely affected by racism and ethnic segregation. The Government now calls this community cohesion.

But what has this to do with ‘Public History’. Apart from people needing to have an historical understanding of how their communities developed, a central challenge is how to address the disproportionate discrimination experienced by Black and minority ethnic communities, 70% of whom live in the deprived neighbourhoods.

It was for this reason that on behalf of the Black & Asian Studies Association I made representations to the Treasury and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit arguing that tackling racism must be a central aim within neighbourhood renewal, and that this should include improving the knowledge and understanding of the Black and Asian historical presence and contribution to the development of British society over the last five hundred years.

The only recognition of this case was the inclusion of community history and the history of ethnic communities as projects which could be funded under the Neighbourhood Renewal Community Chest programme linked to the Community Empowerment Fund support to the community and voluntary sector within the Strategy.

Public Historians and Public History Activity

There is a wealth of community activity going on around the country. There is a danger that this will not be properly recorded, archived or become ‘Public History’. This will lead to new forms of non-inclusive history. The Public History movement needs to consider how it can support community organisations in this work. Adapting the advice issued by the Society for the Study of Labour History on archiving for labour organisations, I have prepared an advice note which is posted on the Settlements and Social Action Centres Group’s page on my website. It will only make sense to organisations if they recognise that their own histories are an important part of their contemporary development and as an educative and community development tool. It was with this perspective that I was successfully able to argue while working at the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres for the inclusion of a sense of history in the occupational standards developed for community workers. In being a guest tutor on the Community & Youth Work course at Goldsmiths since 2002 I have sought to encourage this understanding.

Our Public History or Theirs?

The sort of ‘Public History’ I have been talking about is the Cinderella to other types of public history. When the commemoration events of the end of the Second World War were organised in 1995 there was little acknowledgement of the role of black members of the armed forces from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian Sub-continent. The West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Women’s Association based in Clapham Manor St organised its own commemoration. At the main event its President Rene Webb said that a society that cannot look after its own poor cannot be expected to look after its black poor. I think it can similarly be said a society that cannot celebrate the contribution of the majority of its ordinary people cannot be expected to celebrate that of ethnic minorities.

A challenge for our type of ‘Public History’ is how to turn officially backed commemorations into different types of celebrations or to run parallel activities telling a more rounded story. This year sees the 200th Anniversary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. As the work I have been involved in Merton has shown Nelson had several black connections. Can we have a strand in the Anniversary on Nelson and the Black Atlantic? The National Trust presents a particular form of public history at its stately homes. Can public and black historians use the 200th Anniversary of the ending of Britain’s official involvement in the slave trade to get the National Trust to present the real hidden history behind so many of these stately homes; built on slave and colonial exploitation?

Public and Personal Histories

Given what I have said ‘Public History’ is not some abstract concept outside our own lives. Activists in political and community campaigns help make ‘Public History’. The personal is not just the political but the historical. How many people who have been active in various ways have their own personal archives, which they draw on from time to time to inform their current involvements. How do they intend to ensure that these archives are preserved to illuminate future ‘Public History’ work?

Public History and Academia

And how can hard pressed history academics assist hard pressed community groups in furthering all aspects of Public History? I think one avenue is through exploiting the Higher Education Funding Council Active Community Fund which can be used to fund volunteering activity by staff and students with local communities.

Kennington Cross Lavatories


To end this talk I want to return to another example of ‘Public History’ in action: Kennington Cross Grade II listed disused underground gentlemen’s lavatories. Community action defeated the attempt to create major road changes at Kennington Cross. This would have meant the removal of the above ground structures of the toilet, which were manufactured locally, and infilled the underground toilets. Having saved them the Friends of Kennington Cross community group developed ideas for bringing the lavatories back into use. They propose to convert them into a community arts and heritage centre. With the help of the local Community Development Trust, a bid and business plan has been submitted to Lambeth Council. The Friends have generated enormous levels of interest in the project, from the gay community because it was a meeting place, to artists and filmmakers to businesses who see it as a potential unique venue for promotional events in the project, which will enable income generating activities to subsidise community uses.

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