Deindustrialisation, heritage and memory: Reflections on 2018-2019 network

Deindustrialisation, and the understanding of how it continues to reverberate through working-class communities, is a relatively new but growing interdisciplinary field. Alongside academic interest, community activist groups, heritage organisations, trade unions and artists are engaged in examining the impact of structural economic change. The Deindustrialisation, Heritage and Memory Network came together through three workshops – held in Glasgow, Newcastle and Canterbury – which brought together research from across academia and the heritage sector, offering an important space where significant and lasting connections have been made. In this post, network contributors Paul Barnsley and Emma Copestake reflect on their experiences of the workshops, and consider future directions in the field.

As postgraduate researchers, the Deindustrialisation, Heritage and Memory Network provided an invaluable opportunity to learn in a supportive and encouraging setting. Like ourselves, many working in the field have experienced the impact of deindustrialisation first-hand. This unique insight into the subject has created an organic wave of projects undertaken by academics and researchers across the United Kingdom. The breadth of work produced by contributors helped us to develop a deeper understanding of the extent and reach of deindustrialisation spatially and temporally. Academics, archivists and curators learned from one another whilst frantically writing down references to authors, archives and heritage projects. At the third workshop, Andy Clark opened a roundtable with two mining heritage groups by asking what meaningful knowledge exchange looked like. One of the responses to this question captured the sentiment of the network and our experience of the workshops perfectly: we must work together because as individuals we cannot capture industrial heritage. The Network provided a rare opportunity to participate actively in a shared approach to thinking about the complex issues thrown up by work in the field.

Every paper brought a different approach and a different topic that forced attendees to think seriously about how to take discussions further. Natalie Braber’s paper on ‘Pit Talk in the East Midlands’ and Sophie Rowland’s ‘”If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry”: Embodiment, Identity and Health in a Deindustrial Coalfield Community’ emphasised the desire of communities to pass on their industrial history to future generations. The names for tools or nicknames for workers stemmed from close relationships formed through a strenuous job. Therefore, remembering the working cultures of industries that have closed or changed forever means translating this solidarity into the present.

The ways in which industry has been remembered and who gets to shape these memories lay at the heart of all the papers. At the Scottish Oral History Centre, Sarah Christie and Chris Cassells spoke about the success of the ‘Singer Stories’ project with West Dunbartonshire Council. This project used oral histories of the Singer factory to understand its significance in Clydebank. In Newcastle, Jon Swords introduced the Memoryscapes project and got everybody involved in creating immersive experiences that could be used to imagine places historically. An innovative roundtable discussion at the University of Kent with Elvington and Eythorne Heritage Group and Betteshanger Social Welfare Scheme highlighted the work these groups had done to archive the mining history of Eythorne, Waldershare and Elvington. The two groups really emphasised the significance of getting the local community involved to ensure heritage is not only commemorated but passed to younger generations by facilitating conversations between older and younger members of a community.

In this vein the Network also raised important ideas about how our research can be presented to reach a wider audience and to engage communities that have experienced industrial change and decline. Ewan Gibbs and Susan Henderson from the University of the West of Scotland discussed their project that aimed to teach schoolchildren about the experience of deindustrialisation in their local community. In this project, students interviewed workers who had occupied the Catterpillar factory in Tannochside to prevent closure and job loss. David Bates from Newcastle University shared a film with us that interspersed the natural beauty of Teeside with sites of industrial ruin and explained how the film was shared with members of the community to prompt discussion about their lived experience. Syliva Loeffler, an artist based in Dublin, shared a mapping tool and her stunning photography captured the repurposing of the harbour at Dun Loaghaire. David Nettlingham, from the University of Kent, examined the regeneration of the former ship-building town Faversham to remind us that regeneration of industrial spaces often provokes conflict about place, ownership and futures.

The three workshops of the Network highlighted avenues for further research and the approach this work could take. Jackie Clarke’s keynote lecture at the first workshop focussed on the experience of workers at the Moulinex factory in Cormelles-le-Royal and underlined the need for more work focusing on areas outside of Britain and America. The experience of female workers and BAME workers remains underrepresented in existing research which tends to accentuate white male experience in heavy industries. Tim Strangleman drew together key strands that were present at all of the workshops in the final keynote lecture. His lecture indicated that the existing work on deindustrialisation has, perhaps, only just begun to understand the social and political impacts of fundamental economic change and the ‘lingering radioactive effects of deindustrialisation’, highlighted by Sherry Lee Linkon.

As research continues and time progresses, the complex, deep-rooted manifestations of structural change will emerge so those working in this field must be reflexive, self-aware and historically sensitive. Heritage groups and cultural organisations are already interested in deindustrialisation and academics should approach them to understand what is already happening and what people want to know more about. The network has taught us that invaluable documents, photographs and other objects are hidden away in people’s lofts or stashed away in garden sheds. Ensuring that ‘meaningful knowledge exchange’ continues beyond the initial three workshops will entail continued collaboration.

For us, the greatest success of the workshops was fostering bonds between a broad range of actors that can be drawn upon to drive the direction of deindustrialisation research. The Network and its members are committed to working together to ensure that we build upon the fabulous start made by the three workshops. Several ideas have already been suggested to help support those engaged with remembering deindustrialisation and analysing its impact including a deindustrialisation blog and a digital map of research and heritage projects. In the more immediate future, the ongoing collaborative work of the Network will be represented at this year’s Working-Class Studies Association Conference to be held at Kent University in September.
We would like to place on record our thanks to all of the contributors and in particular the Network Co-ordinator, Andy Clark, for putting the Network together. His hard work and enthusiasm have driven the work to date and made participation both enjoyable and rewarding.

Paul Barnsley, Wolverhampton University, is currently completing his PhD thesis that examines the closure of two steelworks in the Black Country at the end of the 1970s and the aftermath of these closures.

Emma Copestake, University of Liverpool, is working towards her PhD thesis that assesses the occupational wellbeing of dock workers in Liverpool and Glasgow from 1964 to 1989.

The Deindustrialisation, Heritage and Memory network is funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award

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