The community action case for investing in local history

TL:DR. It’s community cohesion and a shared story.

This stems from the blogpost Hopeful towns and how to make them, and focuses in on one of the factors identified in the HNH Report on Hopeful Towns. <<– Essential reading if you are in local government. That factor is on heritage assets.

You could add the factor above it on cultural opportunities as well.

The Victoria County History Project

In 1899 a national project to write an authoritative history for every county in the country was founded in the name of Queen Victoria. It is still going – see Cambridgeshire’s ten volume history was completed in 1989 – you can read it online here. The town history of Cambridge is in volume 3 here, written by Professor Helen Cam of Girton College, later the first woman to be appointed a professor at Harvard. The town history of Cambridge contrasts with how each of the then all male colleges (outside Girton & Newnham) were divided up between the chaps so that each college got their own chapter, but the history of the town was left to Helen Cam, who during her Cambridge years was also a member of the Cambridge Labour Party and a benefactor of the Romsey Labour Club.

Why does monarch-and-military history take priority over other historical genres?

Because it’s popular, brings in the TV audiences and brings in the book sales? The recent commissions by Channel 5 on shows about the royals – with enough of a core popular audience in the UK and Australia alike, reflects this. Strange that this time back in 1997 I was putting my head down to go to sleep with a vague recollection about Diana being hurt in a car crash. The fact that newspapers still write headlines over two decades after her death speaks volumes. Yet there is so much more than Henry VIII and the two world wars.

Do other historical genres undersell themselves? Or are they not given a fair shot?

When you think local history or social history, what sort of words and phrases come to mind? In particular when compared to military history, political history, international history even? And do issues of gender and patriarchy come into it?

I remember in the mid-1990s that we had two options for GCSE history – modern or local history. I went for the former as I assumed it would cover WWII. It didn’t. In the end I learnt more about interwar Germany than I did about interwar UK, even though so many of interwar Germany’s failures were tied up with huge failures in the UK’s foreign policy. No one ever made the case for social history, local history, the history of our city. No one mentioned that there was this wonderful legacy of women who made our city what it is today – the women who made modern Cambridge.

“He/She bequeathed this to the people of the village/town/city” is a powerful antidote to these individualistic times

Well…I think it is. Even more so when some of the people doing the bequeathing were Conservatives pre-Thatcher. In Cambridge’s case these included men such as Cllr Kelsey Kerridge (who we named ‘that’ sports centre after), Sir David Robinson (who we named a college, a small theatre, and a road after), and Sir Frank Lee of Frank Lee Centre fame. It has only been in more recent times that councillors have started considering the names of the women featured in my Lost Cambridge research as candidates to have new civic buildings, community facilities, and roads named after. After all, how many of us are familiar with the process of nominating new road names? Who decides the themes?

In East Cambridge, there are a series of roads in Romsey Town named after places in colonies. Montreal Road, Hobart Road, Suez Road, Natal Road – spot the pattern? The 1980s eastward extension to Cherry Hinton (Then known as Cherry Orchard) has roads named after plants (Comfrey Court, Clover Court, Teasel Way, Valerian Court), and animals (Lemur Court, Loris Court, Eland Way, Antelope Way). In Queen Edith’s ward there’s a pre-Norman theme – Wulfstan Way, Godwin Way, Gunhild Way, Queen Edith’s Way.

“Where do you start researching local history?”

Existing local history societies are listed in the British Association for Local History. In Cambridgeshire what strikes me is that the villages have much more comprehensive records of their histories than us townfolk of Cambridge have – bar some noble exceptions such as the Mill Road History Society, the Trumpington History Group, and the Chesterton History Society.  Then there are the museums all too often run on shoestring budgets – we have the Museum of Cambridge and the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

Newspaper archives

The British Newspaper Archive online has probably been one of the biggest boosts to local history in recent times – in particular the ability to do keyword searches. A large part of my discoveries have been as a result of searching and reading materials in that archive. Searches that have thrown up interesting things have involved words and phrases such as “elections”, “riot”, “protest”, “meeting” and so on. What were the things that happened that shaped history?

“How do we move from finding local history to community action and stronger communities?”

All too often, important local history is left in the hands of fragile alliances of well-intentioned, hard working people of advanced years. Don’t believe for a moment this is because younger generations don’t care. There are a whole host of reasons why they don’t get involved – whether it’s lack of awareness through to having such unstable lives that they are unable to put down roots for long enough to find out about its local history. This was me in Brighton during my university years – moving three times in three years to very different parts of the city was no way to encourage me to find out about its incredible history.

Investing in the arts – performing art, drama, music, and more

In the mid 1960s, local fire fighter Ken Woollard came up with this idea to have a music festival in my neighbourhood. Thus the Cambridge Folk Festival was created. A decade later, he was featured on the BBC in 1974.

Mr Woollard appears at around 2m45s. (The same video on FB is here). It has grown into an institution in its own right.

It’s not just the big festivals but the local community ones that are just as important – not least because they bring people together. The Arbury Carnival in North West Cambridge is one example where many youth groups showcase what they’ve been working on throughout the year.

Investing and sustaining local festivals

One of the things cities like Cambridge struggle with is co-ordinating and synchronising community events – especially when councils themselves are run on shoestring budgets due to austerity. I don’t think people should shy away from making the political case for investing in community events, or from even acknowledging that an issue is political either. Politics is simply how people in a society decide how limited resources and powers are distributed in a society (that arguably has unlimited wants!). Cambridge’s history has more than a few examples of local residents protesting about how councils spend money on arts and festivals in the face of what they see as high local taxation bills. At the same time, there are those who have successfully made the case for investing in and sustaining such festivals. For a start it gives community groups performing something to focus on, and a stage to perform on that they might not otherwise be able to afford individually. The same with the size of audiences – larger collective events attract larger audiences.

“What is “a clear place narrative”?”

It was mentioned in the HnH report. And locally we have an example of how a negative place narrative took place in the face of multiple failures of politics, of architecture, of urban design, of transport engineering, and of town planning. This was the early days of Cambourne, west of Cambridge in the mid-2000s. It came about when a former newspaper columnist who lived not far from the town wrote a disparaging column in a national broadsheet publication about the town in 2008. It generated media headlines and radio discussions amongst other things, as well as a t-shirt. (Personally I prefer the Cambridge Monorail t-shirt)…but as they say, other designs are available. Some of them have historic themes, such as the People’s Republic of Romsey, referring to a time when prominent left wing activists, campaigners, and councillors lived in the ward.

A standardised process does not need to result in identical outcomes

In my civil service says I learnt about Neighbourhood Agreements that some communities were trying out. People and groups in a neighbourhood would meet with local public service providers and emergency services to agree who would do what to improve their area. Different neighbourhoods chose different themes and priorities. One of the most high profile successes was a neighbourhood working with police to agree when and where police officers needed to be on their beats. For example at certain times of an evening on certain days, anti social behaviour would be a problem outside a promenade of shops. A simple change of patrol routes and times meant that officers just happened to be in the place to nip the problem in the bud. Residents praised the police and thanked them for increasing the number of officers around – even though there had been no increase in funding.

In Cambridge, the MyCambridge program opens up spaces that, although on paper open to the public, are seldom visited by families in some of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge. Several years ago there was a horrific headline of how 35% of children in one ward had not visited the town centre ever – so had never walked down King’s Parade. It was something that mobilised Cambridge University students at the Cambridge Hub. There is now a thriving program for students to volunteer in schools in those communities. That’s not to say simply throwing university students into schools will solve the problems – the solutions came about through dialogue and conversations. What they will be, and which institutions & groups will be involved will vary from place to place.  What’s interesting about the work the Cambridge Hub does, is that over time they start creating values that radiate outward and influence other students about the sort of place they want Cambridge to become. In this way, students, activists and volunteers are shaping their own histories in the same way that some of their predecessors, the women who made modern Cambridge (many of whom were undergraduates themselves) shaped our city.











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