Saturday, 15 March 2014

Looking for Heartbreak Hill: landscapes of the Great Depression in Northern England

Over the last decade, the world has been living through a period of massive economic disruption and global recession. This has had a profound impact on many particularly through wage cuts and job losses. However, in Britain, the affect on unemployment is dwarfed by the loss of work that occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the US, one of the key governmental responses to unemployment was the foundation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was responsible for overseeing massive schemes of public works and civil infrastructure construction. This was often structured through 'work camps' bringing workers together to carry out the labour. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also oversaw nearly 2 million young men passing through their work camps carrying out conservation and forestry projects.

The archaeological survivals of these responses to unemployment are well established as a topic for research by US and Canadian scholars. However, there has been little engagement by UK scholars in this aspect of 20th century heritage. This is not because the impact of the depression was more limited in Britain. Nationally, unemployment more than doubled (from 1million to 2.5 million). In the north-east of England, the situation was worse than the national average. In the shipbuilding areas of Tyneside such as Jarrow unemployment hit 70% whilst in the ironstone mining areas of Cleveland, a staggering 90% of the workforce was out of a job. However, there was only limited centralised governmental investment in formal work programmes. There were, though, a series of individual, often privately funded, initiatives providing new settlements and work schemes for the unemployed, as well as some centrally supported work camps. But because of the diverse and patchy nature of this response it has generally failed to capture the interest of researchers.

Now, though, David Petts and Quentin Lewis from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University are starting a project (funded by a Durham University Seedcorn Research Grant) to explore this aspect of 20th century heritage. The pilot project is focussing in on the north-east of England and is collating the various responses to unemployment, exploring how they were structured and funded, defining their impact on the local landscape and assessing the extent to which there are still physical traces of these sites.

Our initial focus is on “Heartbreak Hill”, a co-operative allotment scheme set up for unemployed ironstone miners in 1936. This was funded by a combination of the local Tory landowners, the Conservative MP and his radical wife. It also drew in a range of other participants, including intriguing figures such as the neo-fascist morris dancing organicist Rolf Gardiner and composer Michael Tippett. Using archive sources and field visits, we are mapping the location of the scheme, and are planning some simple field survey to attempt to identify any of the surviving infrastructure.

We have also been working to identify the sites of other work programmes and engagement and educational initiatives responding to unemployment in the North-East. To date these include the Spennymoor Settlement (a community settlement partly funded through the Pilgrim Trust), forestry work-camps (Instructional Training Centres) at Hamsterley, Byrness and Kielder, the Swarland settlement (founded by the private Fountains Abbey Land Settlement Company) and the Land Settlement Association farm at Stannington. Some of these have very little surviving evidence, for example, the forestry camp at Kielder is now beneath the waters of the Kielder reservoir. At other sites though, there are stll physical traces of these initiatives. One of the huts from the work camp at Hamsterley is now part of the Forestry Commission visitor centre, the theatre at the Spennymoor Settlement is still in use, whilst there are eleven of the earliest buildings at Swarland are protected by Listing.

The project is still in its early stages; we hope to complete our initial work at Heartbreak Hill in the early summer and aim to then develop a larger grant proposal to take this research forward in the near future.

If anyone reading this has any information about any of the sites mentioned or knows of other similar initiatives we'd be pleased to hear from you!

Friday, 7 March 2014

"The history of clouds" World War II skyscapes

With all this talk of recording and rediscovering the home front landscapes of World War I, I thought this would be a good point to have a ponder about the home front landscapes of World War II instead.

In Britain, we've been lucky; the last battle on British soil took place in 1746 at Culloden. We have no historic battlefields of 19th or 20th century date at all. Our experience of World War I was largely vicarious, barring occasional naval bombardment and a little limited bombing (remind me to tell you the story of how my great-grandfather got a medal for not shooting down a zeppelin). The landscape imprint of the Great War is largely confined to the run up to combat (training camps; practice trenches) and the aftermath (hospitals and war graves / memorials).

The same is true to a certain extent of World War II. Again, there was no land-based combat on UK soil (unless Went the Day Well and the Eagle has Landed are true). The direct experience of the destructive power of modern warfare was however felt through the impact of the bombing raids. Obviously these were most extensive in the Blitz over London – my great-grandparents lost their house. But many other places, Coventry, Bristol, Cardiff Liverpool and other great industrial cities were heavily hit. Even smaller towns such as York felt the impact of the Luftwaffe – my daughter's school was substantially rebuilt following the Baedeker raid on York in 1942. These not surprisingly had a massive physical impact on the fabric of British cities and these structural and social effects were recorded by artists during and after the bombings.

However, I've been increasingly coming across another dimension to the landscape experience of the World War II air war. I'm currently reading a book by HE Bates called “In the heart of the country” written in 1942 about living in Kent during 1941. It is primarily a book about nature and rural life, but the war keeps on breaking through the surface. He encounters evacuee children, meets squaddies fishing, records a crashed German bomber and a dogfight over the village resulting in a Messerschmidt being shot down. For Bates, the “memorable hot beauty of that summer was sharply impregnated by the prick of destruction”.

One particular experience he mentions was the appearance of vapour-trails in the sky tracing the twists and turns of Spitfires and Messerschmidts in combat

So you got another example of the how little a war, savagely though it was fought above the countryside affected the countryside. The summer went on from that day in middle August as if the air-battles were not only clearing the sky of raiders but clearing it also of cloud. But towards the end of the summer they began to do the opposite things; they began to fill it with cloud. It was cloud such as has never been seen before. The white or blue-white vapour trails of plane-wings were a new phenomenon. They streamed in delicate smoke parallels from the wings of planes that were not visible, or they whitened suddenly the fresh blue autumn surface of a sky with soft splashes of milky curd. If there were many planes and the sky was blue and clear enough, it was would as if the sky were ice and the planes were skaters marking on the virgin surface all the rings and spirals and figures-of-eight and fancy cuttings that skates make on a frozen pond. These patterns sharp, frost-white, so fine and fancy, when first made, added something to the history of clouds. Sometimes you never saw the plane except for a split second as they turned in the sun; all you saw were the parallel streams of snow pouring backward from a moving point. Sometimes a squadron would turn in the sky, and then the snow-trails would turn too, suddenly merged together or split apart, but always, as they hung far behind, enlarging and softening and sometimes even assuming the shape of natural cloud, remaining visible for a long-time.(Bates 1942, 86-7)

The con-trails also make an appearance in the wonderful woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe that illustrate the book, including my favourite image, of a man lying on his back looking over the Kent countryside with the vapour tails like spider scratches at the top of the picture.

These vapour trails not surprisingly appear to have had quite an impact on those who observed them, and they appear several times in art and film in the early 1940s. The best known example is the painting Battle of Britain – by Paul Nash (Yes him again), which although as is typical of Nash's post-WWI work is balanced on the very cusp of surrealism, depicts the con-trails of dog fights over the Channel.

Vapour trails also appear in the work of other war artists, such as Richard Eurich, who depicted them on the south coast in his painting Fortresses over Southampton Water and Airfight Over Portland, and Walter Monnington's Southern England, 1944. Spitfires Attacking Flying-Bombs.

A classic filmic depiction of con-trails I've come across recently is the Noel Coward war film “In which we serve” (a film, which incidentally, should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Trousers). At 1hr24min50s into the film, a frightfully dapper Capt Kinross (Noel Coward), his cut-glass Mrs (Celia Johnson) and family have a picnic and watch the vapour trails of a dogfight going on overhead. [I did go back and check the famous opening sequence of Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, with the famous jump cut from a diving medieval kestrel to a Spitfire, but sad to report, no vapour trail).

In a world where we are used to seeing the trails behind high altitude plains, it is easy to forget that until the Battle of Britain very few people would ever have seen vapour trails- they were something new and with their close connection to dog-fights and bombings must have had a slightly sinister beauty. However, this nice little clip from a Pathe newsreel from the summer of 1941 of the village of Meopham in Kent, includes the site of con trails as part of its overview of a picturesque rural landscape, so thoroughly had they become embedded into the national consciousness by this point

Finally, although I've mainly been writing about the con-trail as it was seen from a English point of view, there is a rather nice passage from Flight to Arras by the French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery about the other side of the equation:

“The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside. The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf… The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport. Gossamer threads set me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. “… As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.”