Can Universities Change the World? A History of 20th Century British Student Life and Political Activism

Paper given at the University of Birmingham Politics Discussion group on the evening of 14/10/19 

The University of the Factory Owners

To begin thinking about whether universities can, or can’t change the world, it is important to recognise why universities emerged in capitalist societies and the role that they have played and continue to play in sustaining and reproducing the current system of social relations.

The quickest glance at the University of Birmingham’s website will tell you that the university was founded in 1900. But why was it that a university came into being in Birmingham at the dawn of the 20th Century?

An answer to this question can be found in exploring the economic structure and political economy of the city prior to the First World War. In Victorian times Birmingham was dominated as it had been since the middle ages by the interests of hundreds if not thousands of small scale manufacturers. Buying the labour of at most a handful of workers, these small scale capitalists, who made specialist products from metal such as cutlery, firearms and jewellery, were primarily concerned with keeping down taxes on their profits and keeping state regulation out of their workshops, which were often literally part of their houses.

As the 19th Century progressed, however; a small class of major manufacturers who had access to the capital necessary to build huge factories requiring the labour of thousands of workers emerged. The demands of this small group of incredibly wealthy often intermarried families of major capitalists differed from those of the older class of small workshop owners. In contrast to the thousands of small businessmen who had previously been dominant in Birmingham, these new kinds of owners, families such as the Kenrick’s, the Chamberlain’s, the Guests, the Keens, the Nettlefolds, and the Cadbury’s, actively lobbied for certain forms of state provision of services.

For instance: the older groups of workshop owners, when they had to buy the labour of people outside their families, favoured taking on young children from the streets around their homes and teaching them very specific sets of trade related skills. Whereas the new owners of the large factories preferred paying a little bit more in taxes to provide children with elementary education and then buying their labour as general semi-skilled workers, to undertake a range of tasks in their production processes, because at scale this was a far cheaper way for them to get a productive workforce.

Other examples include the creation of publicly owned water and gas companies because the major owners realised that it was cheaper for them if the gas and the water needed for their vast factories was provided by single City Council owned firms as opposed to a raft of competing private entities. In a similar vein they supported the Council’s work to construct a tram network as it meant that workers could be housed on the edge of the city, where land was cheaper and brought to their workplaces, enabling wages to be lower. As it happens many of those houses were rented from a notorious landlord and speculative builder called Henry Barber, a charitable trust in whose name, provides the university with a grant currently worth over £2million a year which covers the operating costs of the Barber Institute and funds a number of academic posts in the Art History, Music and Philosophy Departments.

This is the political economy out of which the University of Birmingham emerged. In many ways the university’s foundation was part of a nation wide, or indeed international phenomenon, given that universities were founded in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Belfast and Leeds within a decade of the University of Birmingham being established. As early as 1903 national government began providing grants to support research and teaching in the newly founded universities, however, the impetus and initial funding needed to establish a university had to come from the economic and political elites in a city or region.

These elite interests were clear that the purpose of these new universities was to sustain and reproduce the economic system upon which their interests rested. The focus at the new University of Birmingham was upon science, engineering and business studies. When it first opened in 1910 the Edgbaston campus was entirely focused upon teaching and research in science and engineering. A Business School, the first in the UK, was set-up in 1907 to conduct teaching and research in the then brand new fields of management and administration science, the idea being to train managers and administrators for Birmingham and the West Midlands’ industries.

Old Joe Must Fall

Which is not to say that the university during this early period was solely focused upon Birmingham and its surrounding region, far from it. The major industrialists who had lobbied for and funded the creation of the university were deeply embroiled in the workings of the UK’s colonial expansion, which reached its zenith in the first third of the Twentieth Century. Joseph Chamberlain, the University’s first Chancellor, who is commemorated in an immensely visible way; by the Old Joe Clock Tower, was the Colonial Secretary in the Conservative governments between 1895 and 1905. Even by the standards of the Tory Party just over a century ago, Joe Chamberlain was considered a zealous imperialist and something of a national chauvinist, highly entangled with and supportive of figures like Cecil Rhodes. That is the Cecil Rhodes whose ongoing influence upon higher education around the world through the trusts and foundations he established, has recently been challenged by students of colour and decolonising activists through the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign.

Just as insidious was the way in which the hydrocarbon industry was woven into the fabric of the university from its very beginning. A School of Mining was established at Edgbaston in 1905 complete with a functioning model coal mine, which was located near where the Sports Centre now is. In 1908 following the discovery of oil in what’s now Iran, the School of Mining branched out into serving the oil industry as well, with model oil derricks being erected on what’s now the playing fields by the Bristol Road. Engineers and chemists from the newly formed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company then worked with the university to refine the emerging science of petrochemistry, beginning a connection between that company and the university which continues to this day. Following the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry in 1951 by the government of Mohammed Mossadeq, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company renamed itself British Petroleum and more recently BP.

What this history of the early days of the university shows, is that from the start; the institution has been deeply enmeshed in the reproduction of the existing system of social relations. I am sure that everybody here can think of examples from the contemporary life of the university, and their experiences as members of its community, which replicate the university’s early grounding in the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist, colonial and fossil fuel based power.

These fundamentals are essential to understanding the education that the university offers those who study here, and those who come into contact with its wider educational and research mission. This can only raise vital questions for members of the university community who seek to challenge aspects-or the entirely-of the current system of social relations. Essentially, given that students and other activists at the university are part of an institution which has a key ideological and functional role to play in sustaining capitalism; how can they seek to challenge the conditions around them and change the world?

Scab Students?

There are at least partial answers which can be gleaned through looking historically at student life at the university. For most of the first 70 years of the existence of the University of Birmingham, as a historian when looking in the archive for the history of student activism, you end up asking yourself: what activism? Looking through the archives of Redbrick and other publications produced by students for students, politics for students between the foundation of the University and the 1960s, if it took place in any overt form, was highly conventional. There are references to debating at the Guild of Students, to campus branches of the Conservative, Liberal, Labour and Communist Parties, but not to anything that could be considered direct action and campaigning. It is all very refined and restrained, though essentially not that different from middle class forms of political expression that prevailed throughout British society in the first two thirds of the 20th Century.

To understand why this was the case, it is important to understand what the student body at the University of Birmingham was like prior to the late 1960s. For a start compared to today it was absolutely tiny. Today the university has 35,000 students and at least 8,000 staff. Prior to the Second World War the university had 2,000 students and several hundred staff, if that. Even in the early 1960s-after nearly 20 years of steady expansion following the 2nd World War-the number of students was still just over 3,000.

It was also an incredibly male student body. In 1961, 75% of the student population of the University of Birmingham were men. This was comparable to the situation in the 1920s and 1930s when there were pretty much no women students at the university who were not being paid for too be there by government teacher training grants. The male students as well were usually at university for very instrumental reasons studying technical and scientific subjects with a view to getting technical and administrative jobs in industry and state apparatus. These conditions, plus the solidly middle middle and upper middle class milieus that these students were drawn from, meant that they tended to have Conservative leanings.

Until the late 1950s when the government began to put a substantial amount of money into providing grants to students, the overwhelming majority of Birmingham students were drawn from a thirty mile radius of the university’s campuses. They also tended to live at home whilst they were studying, reducing the opportunities available for them to encounter influences, including things as simple as living with or meeting up outside of university hours with fellow students, outside the social sphere that they came from.

Indeed prior to the upsurge in student activism that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s the popular image of students was that they were either apolitical or an actively Conservative force in society. The historian of left activism in the 1960s and 1970s Cecilia Hughes has interviewed student activists from working class backgrounds who came from trade union, Labour or Commnist voting backgrounds. A number of her interviewees recall their families being concerned about them going away, in part because their popular image of what students were like, was conditioned by memories of students from universities like Birmingham volunteering to drive lorries, buses and trams and to work in key industries like electricity generation, so as to break the 1926 General Strike. Indeed, in the form of alumni Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain the University of Birmingham, provided the Conservative Prime Ministers who governed the UK for the overwhelming majority of the period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second World War. A vivid illustration of how university education during this period served to reinforce and reproduce conservative outlooks.

So, given that there was an outbreak of student militancy in the late 1960s, which continued with varying degrees of intensity throughout the 1970s and indeed beyond, what changed?

The University is a Factory

Two key moments and movements worth honing in on are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was founded in 1958, and the anti-Aparthied movement which also got going in the late 1950s. Both the CND and the anti-Aparthied movements were far more confrontational than previous predominantly middle class movements. They also had a strong appeal to students, not least because of the ways in which universities across the world were enmeshed in the military industrial complex, and the fact that British universities often had close ties to southern Africa, which made British students feel complicit in the racist regimes which governed South Africa and Rhodesia.

The University of Birmingham in particular had longstanding ties to the white nationalist governments in Pretoria and Salisbury. The government of Rhodesia based in Salisbury had established a university college in the 1950s which ran university level courses but could not award its own degrees. Birmingham offered to award degrees to University College Salisbury students, which prompted protests by Birmingham students which continued fairly consistently from the early 1960s until 1980 when the segregationist government fell and black majority rule was implemented in the newly renamed Zimbabwe. University College Salisbury was a segregated institution, to protest this, from 1962 onwards University of Birmingham students, through the Guild, raised several thousand pounds each year to pay for a black Rhodesian student to travel to Birmingham to study. This was the most prominent part of a wider campaign against the racist colonial regimes in southern Africa, which included boycotts of firms which did business in the region and protests against politicians and others, who supported the South African and Rhodesian governments when they visited campus.

These single issue campaigns injected a new tenor, more open to challenging authority, into what had previously been a quiet and conservative campus milieu. However, as is always the case, it was changing material conditions and new social forms which led to the emergence of student radicalism and militancy at Birmingham and other universities.
In the late 1950s it was decided by the government, following lobbying for industry who like their early 20th Century forebearers required more highly skilled workers and did not want to have to pay to train them, themselves; that there would be a major expansion in student numbers. Ever since the Second World War, the number of students had slowly been increasing, so that by 1960 around 3% of school leavers went to university. Twenty years previously only around 1% had done so. At the same time the amount of money that the government spent each year on maintenance and tuition grants for students also increased meaning that a larger proportion of the student body was being paid to go to university and they did not have to pay fees.

In 1961 a Conservative government extended this provision even further, effectively abolishing tuition fees and setting a standard grant rate of around three and a half pounds a week for students living away from home. This was more money than the majority of manual workers were paid each week, so whilst not exuberant, was more than enough for a single young person to live on, away from home. Then in 1963 the Robbins Report revamped the government’s entire university policy, stipulating that “universities should be open to all those qualified and able to attend who wish to do so”, and just as strikingly; that the government shouldn’t try and control what people wanted to study. This meant that universities were allowed to run any course they wanted that they could get students to study.

The effect of these new policies was almost instant. The percentage of school leavers attending university tripled from 3% to 9% within six years. Some of these new students were accommodated in new universities such as Warwick, Sussex and York, but the majority took up places at established universities like Birmingham. At Birmingham by 1970 the student body numbered over 9,000 an increase from around 3,000 just ten years earlier.

Material Issues, Concrete Calls for Action

As was inevitable, despite possibly the most generous government funding settlement for British universities ever, this sudden rapid growth led to immense teething problems. Campuses were rapidly expanded with new halls of residence, teaching blocks and facilities hastily being thrown up to meet government targets. Quite often these new buildings were poorly designed and constructed as they’d been commissioned to tight budgets. Often there were hold-ups and delays in their completion. The Muirhead Tower, which like most of the University of Birmingham’s teaching space, dates from this era, is a case in point having been begun in 1965 it wasn’t finished until 1971, and even then was plagued by serious structural faults for decades after it was finished.

It was to a campus very much under construction that the students who took part in the 1968 Occupation of the Great Hall arrived in the mid-1960s. If you read through back copies of Redbrick and other student publications from the period, and listen to the memories and reflections of people who were students at this time, many of the complaints seem strikingly like ones that people might have today. About a lack of social space, about half finished buildings, about support services not keeping up with the volume and pace of university expansion.

Accomodation was an especially pressing concern for students arriving at Birmingham. The number of students arriving from across the country to study at the university overwhelmed the university’s underesourced programme to construct new halls of residence. This meant that students had to look for flats and rooms in the private sector at a time when there was a severe shortage of private accommodation to rent in Birmingham, which put upwards pressure on prices and meant that some students ended up living in incredibly poor accommodation. At this time, whilst the student body was rapidly growing, it was a fraction of the size that it is citywide today, so there was nobody other than universities building or renting accommodation specifically to students.

To my mind it is these conditions and the discontents they bred which led to the upsurge in student militancy in the late 1960s. It is often forgotten that in France in 1968 the first student occupation broke out after the dismissive and patronising response a student at Paris VIII University received from the visiting Education Minister, when he complained during a Q&A about the lack of social space in his accomodation block. These material conditions and the quality of life that people are able to enjoy matter. And judging by the way they are juxtaposed in the publications of the time it is clear that a poor housing situation, poor facilities and a half finished campus, formed a key backdrop to the student protests which erupted at Birmingham in 1968.

Which is not to overlook the role of wider cultural and political change in creating the conditions which led to the protest and the occupation. Key amongst these are the fact that an increasingly large proportion of students at the university were studying social science and humanities disciplines, as opposed to the technical and scientific subjects, which earlier generations of students had overwhelmingly studied. These disciplines gave students the skills and ability to understand and critique the conditions that they found themselves in.

Likewise, because the humanities and social sciences were expanding so rapidly during this period, an unusually large number of the staff teaching students were themselves young. They were freshly minted PhD graduates in their 20s and 30s. As such they were keen to use new approaches and literature in their teaching. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 led to a large number of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigning in protest, and in doing so; set the seeds for a flourishing of Marxist and critical thought in Britain and elsewhere that perhaps has only been mirrored by the current phase that we’re going through. This new left included the historian E.P. Thompson and the literature critic Raymond Williams who contributed to a revolution in the study and teaching of History and English respectively. It also included younger figures like the sociologist and critic Stuart Hall, who was involved in founding the New Left Review, and who began teaching at Birmingham in 1964, in the newly founded Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Students exposed to these worldviews also had access to newly translated and published Marxist classics, as well as the growing body of structuralist theory that was emerging in Europe. These books produced in cheap editions readily affordable to students on fairly generous grants were the fuel that underpinned students’ growing critique of the world around them.

Farenheit 27/11

The lightning rod for the protest movement at Birmingham in 1968 and the subsequent occupation of the Great Hall which ran from the 27th November until the 4th December, was the lack of say that students had in the governance structure of the university. Students wanted more direct input into every aspect of their lives as students: from the decisions of the university’s accommodation and catering committees, to the university’s strategic direction, to matters like assessment and what the university syllabus was like.

In 1968 the age of majority was still 21, it was only lowered to 18 in 1969, which meant that like a school, the university argued that it was acting “in place of parents” for the majority of the undergraduate population. For the university this meant it was entirely reasonable that students should not be allowed a say in the running of the university. At this time, after all, most of the academic staff at the university also did not have a say in how the institution was governed. Operational decisions were made by the University Council, which then as now, comprised mostly business people representing capitalist interests within the university. Academic decisions were made the Senate which was comprised almost entirely of the professors who ran each department, with only minimal representation for staff who were not professors. Within the university’s faculties and departments, again, decisions were pretty much solely made by professors. This meant that a lot of the more junior academics, who as we’ve were often not all that much older than the students they were teaching, also felt cut-out of decision making.

In February 1968 in a climate of general student and junior staff resentment and dissent a document produced by the Guild of Students called “The Student Role” began to circulate. This publication called upon the university to completely overhaul its governance structures and allow students and staff opportunities to shape the policies and direction of the institution. The University’s governing Council received the report when it was sent copies by the Guild, however, they refused to meet with the students’ union and its leadership and to publish the minutes of their internal discussions about the document.

Come the autumn term the Guild of Students and the Redbrick paper both began campaigning harder for the university to adopt its recommendations. It was clear that some kind of reckoning was on its way. The environment on campus was further charged by the fact that the university’s long serving Vice Chancellor Robert Aitken had retired over the summer. His replacement Robert Hunter had no previous experience at Birmingham and therefore no real feel for what the issues at the university were. He resolved however, that he was not going to introduce any reforms to student representation.

As the autumn term of the 1968-69 academic year continued, the Guild of Students found that its attempts to negotiate what the university were not going anywhere, and neither would the university publish a response to The Student Role. In the face of this intransigence-Ray Phillips the Guild’s politically middle of the road President-began threatening direct action. At a general meeting on the 30th October a day of protests on campus against the University Council and Vice Chancellor Robert Hunter was planned for the 27th November, with an ongoing programme of direct action after that, if the students’ demands were not met.

This day of action culminated in a full general meeting on the Guild of Students, where more radical members of the student body organised as the “Ad-Hoc Group for University Reform” managed to pass a motion calling for an occupation. The occupation began that evening with a group of student protesters taking over the Great Hall, Vice Chancellor’s Office, Council Chamber and the Finance Office in the Aston Webb Building. Activists also attempted to take over the University’s switchboards and post room, which would have severely limited the ability of the University’s managers to communicate with the outside world, however; they were denied access by a small group of university telecoms workers who were later lauded in the right-wing tabloid press for seeing off the threat from these supposed revolutionaries.

The University’s response to the occupation was extreme, senior academic managers and members of the University Council clearly did not know what had hit them. Robin Hunter recorded a televised address which was shown on screens across campus through the university’s recently installed closed circuit television system. In it he pleaded for the restoration of order and threatened terrible consequences for the organisers and participants in the occupation.

Inside the occupation the activists who were sleeping on the floors of the spaces that they’d captured organised themselves. Ray Phillips has recalled he was concerned that the University’s administration and their security guards would attempt to enter the occupation and lock-out/evict the occupiers. To avoid such a countermove the Guild organised elections to a ten member occupation committee who were responsible for security in the occupation. This was both to ensure that the University could not entire the spaces that had been occupied and also to try and avoid occupiers causing damage or making a mess that the university could later blame upon the Guild.

This standoff continued for the rest of the week with the end of term looming. On the 4th December it was decided that another Guild general meeting would be held to see whether the student body wanted to continue the sit-in. The meeting was held the next day, with roughly 5,000 people, over half the student body in attendance. It was resolved that the occupation would be ended. The students had not achieved their goals, however; they threatened further action down the line if the university continued to be intransient and also stated that they expected the following four principals be respected:

‘no victimisation, all university committees to meet in public, the right of students to a say in university government and a commission to examine the role and structure of the University’.

In assessing the outcome of the occupation in 1968 it is worth pointing out that compared to actions which took place internationally in the United States, France and Mexico, or even at other UK institutions such as Liverpool, LSE and Essex, the Aston Webb occupation in November and December of that year was relatively low-key. After all it only lasted for a week and was conducted in a relatively orderly manner. Unlike other occupations during the period 1967-69 such as Essex, Leeds, LSE-and the Warwick occupation-which took place a bit later in 1970, there was relatively little media coverage outside the West Midlands region, and even less which seriously engaged with the students’ concerns.

Longer term, the demands that the Guild had put to the university, were partially fulfilled. Today Guild sabbatical officers sit on major university committees like the Council and the Senate and students have the right to elect a number of representatives to sit on the Senate. Likewise, the course rep system, which encompasses all departments and levels of study, also dates from this time. There was also a review of university governance, which dragged on throughout the early 1970s, eventually reporting in 1975, which led to some small improvements in junior staff representation at the university, as well the changes to student involvement in university affairs outlined above.

In a similar vein the students’ demands for non-victimisation also went unheeded. Dick Atkinson a Teaching Fellow in the Sociology Department, who had been a student leader whilst a postgraduate student at LSE, was informed at the end of the 1968-69 academic year that his contract would not be renewed. This was unusual at the time, because once hired academic staff very rarely, were not offered permanent positions after a couple of years teaching at universities. His removal from the staff was widely perceived to be retaliation for the fact that he was perceived as being close to the students involved in the protests and had co-ordinated a group of junior staff who had made similar demands. Dick Atkinson became something of a cause celebre, unsuccessfully suing the university for unfair termination of contract. The Guild of Students’ in solidarity resolved to pay his salary for the 1969-70 academic year and allowed him to use their premises to teach any courses that he wanted.

He was not the only staff member to feel the chill because of his actions during the occupation. Richard Hoggart the University’s Professor of Cultural Studies, and Head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, was perceived as not entirely sympathetic to the student activist’s demands, but also not unsympathetic either. This made his position at the university tricky and he took an extended sabbatical from the summer of 1969 to go to New York and be the CEO of UNESCO. He never returned to the University of Birmingham, moving to Goldsmith’s College instead. His deputy at Birmingham Stuart Hall moved into the Centre’s Directorship and led it throughout the 1970s, the period of time when much of its most groundbreaking and still cited work was produced.

This messy conclusion to the occupation and the very partial and incomplete way that the students’ demands were met, I think, actually overlooks a lot of key aspects of what the 1968 occupation, and other events like it in the late 1960s and early 1970s signified.

Students as an Interest Group in pre-Neo Liberal Society

After three years of fairly constant student direct action on British campuses it is fair to say that the old view of students as conservative, or apolitical had been completely chucked out the window in the eyes of the public. Students now were perceived, probably not always entirely accurately as the majority were never like this, as a radical and even destabilising force in society. Some of this was thanks to the emergence of “students” as a distinctive “class” with shared interests in society. Students during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s had a collective interest in the maintenance of free university education and in defending the real terms value of the grants they received from the government.

Defending these things in an environment of high inflation when university funding was increasingly constricted, meant that there was a major wave of occupations and other protests, in defence of student grants and free education pretty much every year during the 1970s. This meant that students, despite still overwhelmingly being drawn from the middle class, had commonalities of interest with groups like benefit claimants, older people, council housing tenants and trade unionists. All of these groups from the late 1960s into the 1980s were highly organised and assertive when it came to pressing their claims for an increased share of society’s wealth and better goods and services. Students during this period were acting no differently.

What did this mean in practice? As we have seen students at Birmingham prior to the late 1960s did not generally involve themselves with overt politics and campaigning. In the two decades that followed this altered drastically. I mentioned earlier about the problems students in Birmingham during this period had with accessing good housing and accommodation. From around 1969 onwards this manifested itself in students showing solidarity with housing campaigners living in run down parts of the city like Balsall Heath. Tenants living in dilapidated Victorian properties in Balsall Heath were campaigning for their homes to be demolished and to be rehoused in new council built properties at cheaper rents. To this end they organised themselves and went on rent strike withholding payment from their landlords.

A large number of Birmingham students involved themselves in the tenants’ campaign which ran from 1969 to 1970 when it successfully concluded. In this way, following their own experience of campaigning and taking direct action in 1968, Birmingham students were showing solidarity with some of the city’s poorest residents engaged in a struggle of their own. This illustrates that when it came to access to services and social issues like housing students and non-students had a clear commonality of interest and organised and campaigned together.

At the same time students and recent graduates from the University of Birmingham were involved in setting up the Birmingham Claimants Union. This was one of the first organisations of its kind in the UK and worked to organise benefit claimants, of all kinds, so as to support them to secure the maximum amount of money possible from the benefits office. Later in the 1970s student activists also worked with community activists in areas like Selly Oak to squat abandoned buildings. Some of these squats were occupied by families and others in need of re-homing, or better housing, whereas others became occupied community centres. Some of these like the Selly Oak People’s Centre, which stood next to what’s now Big John’s takeaway, lasted for years. The People’s Centre was in use from 1975 until 1982 and was used for all sorts of purposes including women’s liberation meetings, legal advice clinics, and Rock Against Racism gigs.

What is especially striking looking back on the period from today is that lots of these activities had formal institutional backing from the Guild of Students’. The Guild of Students’ volunteering department, then called Student Community Action, was heavily involved in all manner of community campaigns. Indeed typical Guild publications from the 1970s will include adverts for volunteers to run swimming lessons for disabled people, join a befriending scheme for elderly people and run a reading group for mental health inpatients, alongside adverts for volunteers to support the People’s Centre, run welfare rights stalls and take part in housing related activism. Essentially at the time no distinction was being made between social service volunteering and more radical forms of activism. Guild officials, Guild spaces and Guild money was being used equally to support both.

To conclude this paper, and move into a discussion, I will suggest a few key things which I think have changed over the last forty years at the University of Birmingham, in the UK and in the world more generally. These are things which have made the kinds of activism I have just described harder:

  • Less reason for students to express solidarity with other groups in society
    -Changes to student finance mean grants aren’t there any more. So no longer a focus for student activism via the NUS etc. to try and get a good settlement each year
    -Social democratic state has been hacked back, fewer groups in society have clear stakes in the welfare system, those which do are marginalised.
    -Students despite getting loans are a group who have lost out and no longer see themselves as having solidarity with other groups that get government money
  • Student unions are far more controlled and regulated
    -Now have to be charities which really limits their ability to be political
    -Professional managers and other workers who have careers and don’t want to rock the boat
    -Less open and transparent democratic structures
  • *Students are now more spatially separated from wider society
    -I.e. Many are now in Selly Oak living amongst other students. Until the 1990s when student landlords became a thing this wasn’t the case. Students were scattered across Harbourne, Mosely, Kings’ Heath, Balsall Heath and other areas. This meant that they came more readily into contact with non-students and shared their problems and concerns
    -Conversely there’s more students living at home. I read the other day that 20% of full-time students now live with their parents. This means like students before the 1960s they’re cut-off from their peers and have less chance to mix with them and share now ideas and approaches to things.
  • *More pressure upon students
    -To do certain things to get certain kinds of “good jobs” post-graduation
    -More pressure to study, demands of part-time work, commuting etc.
    -To conform generally and not rock the boat
    -Affects things like mental health
  • *More diverse student body
    -No longer overwhelmingly young (late teens early 20s), middle class, white British etc.
    -More postgrads, older students etc studying part-time etc.
    -More ethnically diverse student body, more international students, the majority of students now women
    -Diversity of institutions as well

Further Reading (and Watching)

Jenny Wickham’s reflections for Redbrick on her involvement in the 1968 Occupation of the Great Hall

Helen Fisher, University of Birmingham Archivist, on the Cadbury Research Library’s holdings relating to the event of 1968 on the university campus. From Old Joe magazine.

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Birmingham 1968, by Flatpack Projects

N.B. Flatpack have a book launch event at the IKON Gallery on Tuesday 10th December 2019. It’ll feature talks, and the chance to meet a number of people who were involved in events in Birmingham during the period.

 

“…as dramatic as anything induced by any preceding wave of industrialisation or deindustrialisation”

Last summer I was part of the team based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern British Studies focused upon delivering the Activist Selly Oak Project. Financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Activist Selly Oak brought together Birmingham students and longstanding members of the Selly Oak community to co-produce a microhistory of social and political activism in the suburb between the 1950s and the 1990s. Intentionally lively, upbeat-and ever so slightly subversive-in tone, the project culminated in a series of events, an exhibition and a publication aimed at engaging and involving the widest possible audience. Things public history projects, regardless of scope or scale-aspire to; but which in our case- because the project was instigated and managed from the university-were especially important.

If you are unfamiliar with the geography of south Birmingham, Selly Oak is a primarily residential area located immediately adjacent to the University of Birmingham campus. Whilst cheek by jowl for decades, Selly Oak and the university developed in relative isolation from each other. A pattern of development that was neatly summed up by one of our oral history participants (a life long Selly Oak resident) who described the campus during his youth as representing “Another world… the other side of the wall… A place you might go to work as a cook or cleaner”.

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Activist Selly Oak Banner logo, Designed by Kerry Leslie (2018)

Which is not to say that there was complete disconnection between Selly Oak and the University. Activist Selly Oak uncovered a rich history of mutually interdependent organising that benefited both communities. In the 1950s and 1960s this took the form of staff and students involving themselves in the activities of local political, religious and campaigning associations. A typical example from the mid-1960s being Stuart Hall, a precariously employed researcher in the English Department, lodging on Gibbins Road; whose name and address appears on the membership list of the Selly Oak branch of the CND.

Towards the end of the 1960s, in line with general activist trends; student and wider community activism began to take on a more broadly focused, less formal, more ad-hoc character. Whilst less stringent (and less successful) in its demands than other contemporary actions at LSE, Essex, Warwick and elsewhere, our oral history participants vehemently felt that the University of Birmingham occupation in 1968 was a catalyst for greater politicisation and subsequent involvement in community action by university members.

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Selly Oak Station Footbridge, Author’s photo (February, 2018)

This assertion is supported by surviving contemporary documentation. University of Birmingham students and recent graduates played a key role in the establishment of south Birmingham Claimants Unions in 1969, a form of direct action which widened and morphed over the course of the 1970s into involvement with a widespread Selly Oak squatting and tenants rights movement. The high watermark of this moment was the creation-in microscale-of an Italian style social centre in a squatted shop at 768 Bristol Road. Known as the Selly Oak People’s Centre this venue became an activist meeting space, hosting workshops, performances and gigs including benefits for the Grunwick strikers and Rock Against Racism. Day-to-day, activists affiliated with the centre-including university staff and students-provided practical advice and support. For instance: two Law School alumni who came on one of our walking tours of key sites uncovered during the project told us that they had volunteered at a legal advice centre based there.

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Worcester-Birmingham Canal Towpath, Author’s photo (February, 2018)

This pattern of politicised mutually supportive action continued across the 1980s, with the Guild of Students facilitating amongst other things; the production of the Selly Oak Alternative Paper (SOAP) between 1980 and 1983 and joining with Selly Oak residents to support the Miners Strike in 1984-85. Well established ties between students and community activists are celebrated in the Guild’s Annual Reports from the 1990s. A notable example from the 1996-7 report being the Guild picking out its successful alliance with community groups in Selly Oak to oppose the planned alignment of the A38 relief road on environmental grounds as a major achievement. This campaign had seen its members and members of the wider community jointly write to, petition and protest against the City Council’s plans.

As a reader you can doubtless tell from the narrative mode I have adopted that this period of rapport between student and community activists in Selly Oak has not sustained. Indeed-as hinted at the start of this piece-many of the community participants in the Activist Selly Oak project were far from favourable in their opinions of the university as an institution, and indeed; of its students. This is because since the 1990s much of Selly Oak’s housing stock has been purchased by buy-to let landlords who have converted former single household dwellings into houses in multiple occupancy (HMOs).

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Alton Road, Author’s photo (March, 2018) 

For the suburb’s established community the changes were sudden and dramatic. By the 2011 census 16,500 people in Selly Oak ward out of a total population of 26,000 were aged 20-29, almost all of them students. Now comprising 65-70% of the ward-and especially concentrated in Bournbrook and other sub-districts by the University-HMOs today make up nearly one hundred percent of the housing stock on some roads, whilst yet more students, especially those from overseas; reside in purpose built blocks.

Whilst effects of capitalism neo-liberal turn upon the mission and staff of higher education institutions is much discussed, its effects upon the communities immediately adjacent to them has been far less documented. To borrow conceptually from the geographer David Harvey, what had happened in Selly Oak since the 1990s is that the tripling of the university’s student population over the last three decades has decanted the settled working and lower middle class community that historically inhabited Selly Oak’s terraces and semis in favour of a more profitable population.

Landlords from the early 1990s onwards recognised that Selly Oak’s housing stock was relatively cheap. So, as house prices rose in the comparatively expensive Harborne, Moseley and Kings Heath areas where Birmingham’s students traditionally resided (in a relatively dispersed manner) leading bedsits and HMOs there to be sold off to single occupiers; they bought up and converted Selly Oak houses enmass. By the 2000s-as in comparable areas in other British university towns-a tipping point had been reached with local services and amenities catering to non-students shutting and being withdrawn increasing numbers of Selly Oak residents sold-up and moved on meaning even more properties were converted for student occupation. For those involved in converting, managing and creaming off the rent from them, it is an incredibly lucrative business; today when they change hands student lets in Selly Oak sell for at least as much as comparable properties in wealthier parts of the city based upon rental values alone.

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Langley’s Road, Author’s photo (Summer, 2018)

In this way the government’s policies to encourage university expansion and the adoption of financialised operating models has effectively unravelled the social fabric of Selly Oak. This rent seeking alliance between capital, the state and the managers of higher education institutions has undone the conditions that made possible the mutually supportive campaigning environment that facilitated the campaigns and movements that Activist Selly Oak uncovered and charted.

It is little wonder that many of the current and former Selly Oak residents that we spoke to disposed and disorientated, resentful of the university on their doorstep. There are also detrimental effects upon the students crammed into the area, reported in the local paper in a manner simultaneously farcical and tragic. Voyeuristic pictures of seriously substandard, or just bizarre student housing, mounds of rubbish and belongings left at end of session; and most striking; the surrealistic image of students wading through flash flooding-because overdevelopment in the area has changed the area’s water table-abound.

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Eighteen Storey Student Block, Author’s photo (December, 2018)

Even darker is the effect that living in such a monoculture has upon students’ safety and wellbeing. When our student volunteers spoke about living in Selly Oak the real and perceived fear of crime featured highly. Areas such as Selly Oak are often derided as student bubbles, but in a time of austerity and increasing desperation on the part of those in danger of falling between society’s yawning cracks; the lack of a settled community of “eyes on the street”; has contributed to the area becoming a hotspot for petty crime.

Beyond immediate threats the deeper personal wellbeing of students in such areas is also under question. The effects that the pressure of constant competition and striving for distinction have upon student wellbeing, mental health and development, are much discussed and must only be exacerbated by living in such warped locations. Interestingly our oral history participants and those who contributed personal archives to project recognised this. They commented on how much more pressure students today are under to pursue a very narrow vision of “success”. It is hackneyed, if not blinkered; to look back to higher education prior to the 1990s as a halcyon age. But today’s ghettoised, hothoused, students who feel compelled by everything around them to strive for magic circle internships as opposed to honing their skills by helping out an ad-hoc, pro-bono clinic in a squat are surely rendered all the more atomised, vulnerable and detrementially detached from society?

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Raddlebarn Road, Author’s photo (Summer, 2018)

When Modern British Studies designed and embarked upon Activist Selly Oak there was a hope that it would in some small way serve to bridge the gap that has grown between the student and non-student community. What we discovered when we got down to work and went out into the community was a far richer tapestry of connections and shared projects than we could have ever envisaged. What we also uncovered was a far bigger story, a worked case study of how capitalism in its current moment works to undermine and exploit communities and impede collective action.

When they first wrote in the 1840s about how capitalist exploitation renders asunder all existing beliefs and social relations Marx and Engels could not have envisaged the social conditions and systems of relations which make possible modern higher education and its foundational place within the contemporary knowledge economy. Far beyond its Heritage Lottery mandated remit our project discovered lying amidst the sea of builders skips, to-let signs and pizza cartons that characterise the student district of any contemporary British city, a story of dispossession and social ties rent asunder as dramatic as any induced by any preceding wave of industrialisation or deindustrialisation. And hopefully, on a more positive note; that universities and the communities that surround them have come together before, and that there is no reason why they cannot do so again.

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Rookery Road in the Twlight, Author’s photo (May 2018)

An alternative version of this piece has been published by History Workshop Online. 

Birmingham Modernist Map Launch 06/12/18

On the evening of 6th December 2018 at least fifty people filtered through the appropriately refined, sleek and chic, gallery of the Minima furniture store in the Jewellery Quarter; to bag a copy of the Birmingham Modernist Map hot off the press.

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Modernist Map Front Cover, Author’s photo 2018

This was fitting testament to what had been an eighteen month long labour of love for staff and students at Birmingham City University’s School of Architecture and Design aided by designers An Endless Supply.

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Modernist Map Back Cover, Author’s photo 2018

Mike Dring (Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Chair of the Birmingham Modern Society) who led on the Project, introduced the map by stressing his hope that it’s completion marked the start of a new; more up tempo, phase in the city’s celebration of its twentieth century architectural heritage.

A quick glance at the finished product is enough to confirm that it marks a firm foundation for future appreciation of the city’s recent built past. Intelligently structured around three walks easily legible and accessible to locals and visitors alike, the map, researched with Pevsner like precision; showcases the “top fifty” finest of Birmingham’s surviving buildings constructed during modernism’s unambiguous fifty year heyday between the 1920s and the 1970s.

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Modernist Map on Glass Coffee Table, Author’s photo 2018

Stylistically the Birmingham Modernist Map harks back to the mid-twentieth century with some contemporary twists. It is produced pamphlet, or guide leaflet style, on hard wearing stock with a minimalistic front and back cover protecting the glossy pages inside. The pages within contain numerous brilliant monochrome images of the mid-twentieth century classics that map-holders are invited to tour. These images draw the eye and provide vital visual context, but the real capstone of the publication is the vital statistics for each structure recorded, listed in an easily accessible manner that recalls nothing so much as an “Eye Spy” guide for adults (making for an appropriately modernistic frame of reference).

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Crowd at Map launch Event 6.12.18 #1, Author’s photo 2018

This format allows the author’s to unobtrusively, and non-judgmentally note; that a great many of the buildings listed have been substantially altered since they were erected forty, fifty or sixty years ago. The writer of this review, however; was struck to be reminded just how many outwardly contemporary looking buildings-notably for instance the Mailbox-in central Birmingham; are built around, and within; the core of older structures. Regardless, the map provides a brilliant window through which the long time resident, frequent observer, or casual visitor can explore the topography of twentieth century Britain.

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Crowd at Modernist Map Launch Event 6.12.18 #2, Author’s photo 2018

 

Beyond the opportunity to buy the map and peruse a further collection of limited edition photographic prints-by Mike Dring-showcasing modernist buildings in Birmingham, Minima as a venue was very much the star of the evening. What better location to encounter the design of the mid twentieth century than amidst minimalist, Scandinavian inspired furniture and utensils? This backdrop provided the perfect stage for Zygeratt to perform a solo set, brilliantly blending analogue synth and digital sounds. The overall effect was that of a dynamic, ethereal, yet still calming soundscape. One that was perfectly suited and brilliantly attuned to both the tenor of the event and the venue.

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Zygeratt Playing Set 6.12.18, Author’s photo 2018

There can be little doubt that the Birmingham Modernist Map will become a standard reference point for people interested in the city’s recent architectural past. They’ll hopefully be lots of work in a similar vein coming in the future.

The Birmingham Modernist Map will be available to purchase through the Modernist Society online shop. 

Rosamund Lily West-Kingston University

For the latest in my series exploring the practice of urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Rosamund West, museums professional and PhD student at Kingston University. Rosamund’s PhD explores, partly through utalising a range of public engagement approaches, the ways in which the London County Council’s public art policies worked their way-not just into London’s fabric-but the fabric of Londoner’s lives.

What is your background?

I am South-East London born and bred, and so the subject of my research is possibly not the most adventurous! I did a BA and a part time MA in History of Art at the University of York, and really loved my time there. My BA dissertation was on the post-war rebuilding of the Elephant and Castle and my MA dissertation was on two London County Council (LCC) estates that had artworks installed on them. In between, and at the same time as studying, I have worked in a number of museums in London and Yorkshire.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London.”

I went into my degree wanting to study the architecture and planning of the Elephant and Castle. I have known the Elephant my whole life and have family connections to the area. Growing up, people would say how ugly it was and how it had been ruined. As I got older, I wandered why the environment was like it was, why you had to go under the ground to cross from one side of the roundabout to another, who ‘ruined’ it, and why?

Also growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London. I particularly noticed the colourful murals, often political, on the end of terraces around my local area. As a child, the motivation and meaning of them was lost on me but I loved how colourful they were and how I could see familiar people in them.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research?”

There are a lot of historians doing research into post-war architecture and planning, which is great as it stimulates more work and more interest in the area. I recently joined twitter and have been blown away by how supportive people have been in showing an interest in my work, in pointing me towards articles, and in helping me find sources. I have found the wider community of historians, enthusiasts and professionals to be a generous and supportive one.

An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research? When I speak about my research, reactions range from bemusement to a real enthusiasm to talk about the effect the LCC had on them. Presenting research to people that experienced what you are talking about is a useful challenge, I find.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“I… hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it.”

I hope readers find the post-war re-planning of London engaging as it affects many of us in our daily lives. I hope people see how optimistically London was planned, and how the original vision, the original ideas, were intended to make London a better place to live in for Londoners. I hope people get a sense of how a municipal authority was providing housing so desperately needed, while at the same time being concerned about people’s cultural enrichment and education.

I also hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it. I have taken people on tours of the Lansbury estate in Poplar, which I love doing, as I get to talk about an (apparently everyday) environment with people and respond to their questions, opinions and memories. I find this way of working so beneficial to my research, especially when former and current residents come along and fill in gaps for me!

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

Going right back to my BA, a big change I have noticed is how easy it is now to take photographs of an everyday urban environment. We now all have camera phones and use social media, so taking photographs all the time is normal. When I began studying and taking photographs of the Elephant and Castle around 2005, a lot of my photographs have my Dad in. It felt intrusive taking photos around people going about their daily business, so I pretended I was taking photos of my Dad. Consequently, he is in a lot of my dissertation photographs of the Elephant!

“For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.”

Another way my work has evolved is that I cannot fail to ignore current housing and arts policies as they become increasingly remote from the post-war consensus. How people are housed, and attitudes of politicians and the media to people that need housing, are a world away from the policies and rhetoric of the LCC. Cuts to arts funding and arts education are also a huge departure from the post-war LCC. The LCC was installing artworks by artists such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, and Franta Belsky within everyday housing environments. They believed in the value of the arts and the value of arts education. For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.

Whilst researching, what sources have you found most illuminating?

My absolute favourite source is LCC publications themselves. The LCC wrote about themselves a lot! The way they are so proud of their achievements and write in such a totally optimistic way about the LCC is fascinating. The LCC publications directly address Londoners and are sentimental about London and Londoners; they see the romance in everyday London life. These publications are very revealing about what the LCC thought Londoners wanted and how they believed they were working in Londoner’s best interests.

How easy is it to trace the networks that enabled the creation of public art in post-war London

“I have… spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more.”

My holy grail is to find minutes, or some detailed descriptions, of the ‘client committees’ used to discuss an artwork. Representatives from the Arts Council, the LCC and a client committee would meet to discuss an artwork. The client committee would vary depending on whether the artwork was for a school, a housing estate, an old people’s home, or a park. I have found many references to the discussions and outcomes of the client committees, and have spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more. Later in my PhD, I hope to track down residents who remember speaking to artists or the LCC about artworks.

Do they appear to have changed over time?

Yes. Before the patronage of the arts programme really got going in 1956/57, the LCC were already installing artworks in residential settings. As early as 1949, Peter Laszlo Peri’s sculptural relief, Following the Leader (Memorial to the children killed in the Blitz) was installed on the Vauxhall Gardens estate. From 1956/57, the LCC set aside £20,000 a year for the scheme. The scheme morphs over time, and the LCC express concern over not exercising personal taste; seeking advice from the Arts Council; and the role of the client committees in assessing works.

Through my museum job, I identify with the LCC’s need to change and adapt their acquisition policy and process over time. The main purpose of my museum role is the complicated and varied process of acquiring objects and I attend the acquisition committee meetings. These same ethical and moral concerns over acquisitions are still relevant to practise today.

Is there anything that historians can learn from museum work and practices?

“Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space.”

In my museum career, I have delivered many handling workshops and talks involving objects, and witnessed how powerfully an object can evoke a period in history or a memory for a person. Such activities open up museum collections to the public, and increase access and knowledge to the collections. Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space. Architecture and the built environment is the same: to engage with it you need to be within the environment. This is especially relevant with my research as I am interested in how the LCC planned for communities, and why they installed artworks where they did, and so physically walking around the environment is crucial.

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Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman(‘Old Flo’), Stifford Estate, Stepney

You can find Rosamund on Twitter and she can also be reached through the Kingston University Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture graduate school. More  urban history profiles can be read here.

“Worth less than zero”? When the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a biker gang

“If your going to survive riding a motorbike you have to be totally concentrated on the here and now. About everything observed of the here and now. You don’t think about the past, you don’t think about the future you don’t have expectations except the immediate ones which are negotiated… This concentration of the here and now is curiously calming.”

John Berger, 2016

How did the Church of England cope with social change in the second half of the 20th Century?

The answer that trips off the tongue is: very badly. Two clips spring to mind. The first is the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood debating John Cleese and Michael Palin in 1979 following the release of The Life of Brian:

Concluding by stating that “they’ll soon have their thirty pieces of silver” Stockwood (who was widely considered a “liberal”) can most charitably be viewed as a rabbit in the headlights, a man staring dazed and confused at a world changing all around him.

The second clip is drawn from Privilege Peter Watkins’ 1967 (Birmingham filmed) pop music “mocumentary”:

Here the church is an sinister, malevolent and insidious presence locked in a repressive ideological marriage of convenience with capital and the state. The aging priestly characters lurk with almost lecherous intent, moving their pop star manque around like a chess piece, as they plot the reassertion of their traditional moral and social authority. Of course, whilst its dominant codes are seldom radical the culture industry-in reality-never formed an alliance with the established church. However, echos of a backlash in the name of the established “Christian” order against “permissiveness” can be heard in everything from the short lived-Cliff Richards endorsed-Festival of Light Movement in 1970-71, to the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher ten years later.

And of course-stretching across both the out of touch and the actively reactionary positions-is a graph. A graph with steadily declining church attendance on one axis and increasing lack of identification with any kind of religious faith on the other.

The thing about this narrative, the story of how hundreds (if not thousands) of years of (supposedly) monolithic Christian culture rapidly breaking down, is that it is a little bit to neat, to tidy, to comfortable for lumpy secular liberalism. What if sections of the Church of England, including parts of its hierarchy, were rather more in tune with-and eager to adapt to-the changing society that they found themselves in? What follows is a case study from Birmingham which shows how in the later 1960s a group of Anglicans attempted to do just that.

Between 1965 and 1970-71 the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a motorcycle club based at the disused St. Basil’s Church, Digbeth. Today with its pop-up concepts, contemporary art galleries and design studios the area has a rough and ready chic. In the 1960s it was part of the inner-city “twilight zone”, a messy, crumbling, insanitary, urban wasteland awaiting the bulldozers. It was here that the Reverend David Collyer the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” facilitated the establishment of the Double Zero Motorcycle Club.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) Rea Valley towards Digbeth, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

In of itself what Collyer was doing was not radical. With varying degrees of formal church input, Anglicans had been founding “Boy’s Clubs” centered around recreations that they thought would appeal to tough working class youth’s since the 19th Century, as any Smiths fan could tell you.

It is possible to read the Double Zero as merely a late flowering iteration of this tradition, however, it is clear that Collyer and his supporters thought they had a rather different agenda.

The name Double Zero reputedly came about because the club’s membership thought that “they were worth less than zero”. Which seems on first glance an incredibly nihilistic starting point for a church run youth group. Collyer secured St. Basil’s from the diocese to start the club because he felt that he needed a more solid base for the youth outreach work he was doing. 1965 when it first opened was near the height of the moral panic that surrounded the “mod” and “rocker” violence of the mid-1960s meaning that the club’s target audience were high up the public’s list of folk devils.

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St. Basil’s Digbeth as it appears today, author’s photo

Birmingham in the 1960s was well placed for the development of a motorcycle subculture. New motorways and expressways with exhilarating underpasses sliced through the city allowing for speed, it’s industrial economy was predicated upon exactly the kind of mechnical skills needed to maintain a bike and the baby boom generation was leaving school and entering workplaces that combined, hard, dull work with relatively high wages.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1966) View from the Rotunda over the roof of New Street Station, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

From the start the club was popular, and by 1966-7 St. Basil’s hundreds of regular attenders and thousands on the peripheries. Members ranged from a hardcore of Hell’s Angels and “greasers” that were widely deemed anti social and frequently in legal trouble, through a much larger pool of wayward disaffected teens and young adults, to those who were essentially young motorcycle enthusiasts that appreciate the club’s free tools and engine oil. Collyer had a keen eye for a good story and little objection to being in the limelight (to the consternation of many more traditional Anglicans) and a splurge of charitable donations, local authority and central government grants funded an expanding cadre of salaried staff, building extensions and better catering, games and musical equipment. The lowering of the age of majority in 1969 even allowed for a charity appeal to fund the institution of a licensed bar!         

In 1973 Collyer published his experiences as a diocesan youth worker in Double Zero: Five Years with Rockers and Hell’s Angels in an English City. Brought out by Fontana it is a lively book clearly aimed at the mass market. In genre terms it recalls earlier generations of Christian testament and faith autobiography, but also secular life-stories especially those dealing with war-time service, or other extraordinary situations (like: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Escape from Colditz, Kon-Tiki), that were published in large numbers in the 1950s when Collyer was a teen. All in all more “Boys Own” than Hunter S. Thompson. These qualities make the book an excitable and at times even lurid source. Did Collyer really gain the respect of Birmingham’s biker’s by playing “chicken” at 100 miles per hour-on the back of a bike-between two double decker buses going the wrong way down the A45 towards Coventry? Win a fist-fight with the leader of a gang of Hell’s Angels? Or drive over to a brothel on the Varna Road to “rescue a fallen girl” with dozens of rockers in train? Likewise the book’s religious symbolism is at times overly neat. For instance: Collyer’s car breaks down in the Staffordshire countryside late at night and the only person willing to stop and help him is a leader of a (different) gang of Hell’s Angels that a few weeks previously threatened him with a sawn off shotgun. Handily this Wulfrunian Good Samaritan’s day job is as a mechanic’s mate.

Collyer’s work must be read in light of these dramatic moments. But, lively points aside; Double Zero provides a brilliant insight into what the community of volunteers and paid youth workers that gathered around St. Basil’s and Birmingham’s biker youth hoped to achieve. Their objectives can be best understood through division into three broad categories: the pastoral, the participatory and the iconoclastic.

In pastoral terms the “Double Zero model”, whilst delivered almost entirely by staunch Christians with a very deep belief in the values of their faith, was in practice far closer to the developing fields of youth and social work than traditional faith based charity. By Collyer’s own admission the club’s-frequently troubled-clientele “just wouldn’t come” if they felt that they would be preached to, forced to express gratitude and contrition, and reformed, in exchange for support and assistance. Instead the Double Zero’s practice was to offer food and drink (including alcohol), company and contraceptives with an understanding that housing, legal, employment (and spiritual) support was there if asked for.

This lack of overt moralism was far removed from the stance adopted by many state, and especially local authority agencies in the period, and in the late 1960s attracted many observers. Indeed, half a century later, the Double Zero experiment with its communalism and emphasis on free spirited human flourishing seems quintessentially of its era. Collyer’s account balances a social concerned, bang up-to-date, sociological understanding of the persistence of want in Britain despite “full employment” and the welfare state, with the traditional moral concerns of his religion.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (0019) The Bull Ring Shooping Centre. [Image] (Unpublished)

Perhaps the most quintessentially 1960s part of the Double Zero experiment was its emphasis on participation. The club was supposedly run on a “dual power” basis with authority vested not just in Collyer and his staff of church youth workers, but also in an elected members committee, as if the Double Zero was any other biker’s chapter. This arrangement-unavoidably-led to tensions and constant politicking. But also vividly illustrates the genuine desire on the part of the Anglicans (who it can be assumed secured and administered the government, local authority and Church of England grants that lubricated the club’s day-to-day functions) to manage the club in partnership with, rather than for; the membership.

This spirit of participation extended to other organisations and milieus. From the “major figure in his firm” who discreetly found work for bikers down on their luck, through the radical students “Pam” and “Alan” who despite little love for organised religion arranged for their “Student Action” organisation to support the club, to the “elderly anglo-catholic priest” with a “quiet parish” in “an affluent suburb” who woke up early to rouse a bailed biker for his probation appointments, like any project the Double Zero had many architects. Key amongst these was Leonard Wilson who was the Bishop of Birmingham until 1969. A liberal clergyman of a previous generation, he appears to have had little affinity for or understanding of modern youth culture, but believed that Collyer’s schemes merited support and sanction. Capitalists, student radicals and aged clerical grandees enabling the same scheme for their own divergent ends, graphically illustrates that changes are multi-authored, multi-purposed and frequently driven by impulse.   

Iconoclasm, the Double Zero project’s third key strand, is tightly woven into Collyer’s narrative of what the Double Zero was about. This is perhaps unsurprising, early in the book he sets himself up as a maverick, someone who from an early age reckoned “rules got in the way” and “people mattered more than organisations”. On the most basic level there is evident glee in his presentation of how the Double Zero differs from “traditional” youth clubs. The club is a place where youths can come and blast the juke box, fix their bike, or kick a ball around in the church. In contrast to the Boy’s Brigade or the Scout’s physical activity was generally scorned. An attempted outdoors bound trip cheerily written off as a disaster-utterly alien to the Double Zero membership’s everyday experience-a certain pride taken in their short lived football team scraping along the bottom of the league.

The decision to relate these trappings of rebellion paints a picture of Collyer’s radically egalitarian objectives for the club. However, aspects of the theology on display at St. Basil’s were equally radical. Prior to becoming the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” Collyer gained a degree of notoriety for publicly disclaiming the concept of infant baptism and refusing to have his children baptised. The style of worship-in so far as there was a style of worship practised whilst the Double Zero was based at the church-was equally radical. Collyer gleefully recounts how memorials services for dead bikers and wedding blessings departed from the standard practises of the Church of England to take into account “the situation” “circumstances” and “life experiences” of club members. This practice is defended by arguing the anything else would be perceived as “unreal” or “false”-in a Holden Caulfield sense-by the audience of bikers.

As priest in charge Collyer’s actions-he reports gleefully-are condemned by “traditionalists” and “[his] persistent evangelical critics”. He states that his aim was to “reach out to people who are failed by the parish system” and make “religion relevant to everyday life in the inner-city”. Evidentially he and his supporters felt the form of religion they sought to enact was well suited to injecting some compassion into the highly stratified, atomised and brutal, affluent society. This comes across clearly in one of the self-written hymns Collyer includes as an appendix to Double Zero:

“When you’ve looked in the streets just lately

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the slog, slog of the factory

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the concrete flats of the suburbs

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?”

The sound of alienation according to another group of 1960s Birmingham musicians 

It is at this point that the Double Zero’s progressive brand of Christian humanism intersects with the dominant discourses of mid-late ‘60s grassroots left-wing activism. It is possible to discern in Collyer and his supporters intensely practical attempt to reach out to Birmingham’s damaged, disaffected and alienated youth a Christian counterpart to the cry of anger against the compromises and contradictions of welfare capitalism that can be found in the pages of the New Left Review or the work of Marcuse and Debord. Far from our inherited picture of the Church of England in this period as bewildered and reactionary in its decrepitude, the Double Zero experiment shows that parts of the church were tuned into and engaged with criticisms of the social order and working to overcome it.

What then became of this strand of Anglicanism? Why is it that the Double Zero club closed in 1970 and those involved with it were scattered? Why did Collyer’s brand of open minded, socially engaged, Christianity seemingly gain so little traction that it’s been largely forgotten? Why these things came to pass is possibly best explained through comparison with another product of 1960s critical emancipatory thought: cultural studies.

In 1972 Paul Willis, an early PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, completed his thesis: Popular Music and Youth Culture Groups in Birmingham.           

In the first chapter of the thesis Willis traces a lineage of rebellion. A pop genealogy that can be traced from progressive rock:

Through the Rolling Stones:

And Dylan:

To Marlon Brando in the early motorcycle movie The Wild Bunch (1953) answering the question: “…What are you rebelling against?”

By asking: “What have you got?”

Willis sought to establish the validity of pop culture’s own “great canon”. A rebel canon, an emancipatory canon, a canon showcasing youth culture’s increasing sophistication and refinement.

In the early stages of his research, perhaps through sympathetic student radicals, although more likely through earlier University of Birmingham researchers who’d found them accommodating, Willis found himself in Digbeth at the Double Zero Club interviewing the club’s members.

Willis hoped to show through interviewing the biker boys about their love of early rock ‘n roll that their critical judgement was just as developed, discerning and reasoned as critical conclusions about established art forms expressed by the upper middle class.

It is also clear that he found the Club’s members exciting and fascinating in of themselves. With their den in the dingy backstreets of Digbeth and “greasy” “unkempt” “appearance calculated to shock members of the middle class and respectable society” Willis found the Double Zero “authentic”. They emerge from the text as totemic representatives of a form of unpredictably vibrant working class masculinity. Qualities that despite being-as a Cambridge educated upwardly mobile research student-in society’s terms a “success”, he clearly envived.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1960) Old Crown, Heath Mill Lane, Deritend, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

Yet, he was also fascinated by Collyer and those who worked with him. The idea of a Christian run youth club for rockers and Hell’s Angels evidently grabbed his attention. As it did me. Discovering through Willis’ thesis that the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron in the 1960s of a Digbeth based motorcycle club sent me hurtling to Google and from their to Collyer’s book.

He provides-seemingly with a half raised eyebrow-a comprehensive list of some of the voluntary activities “community spirited” Double Zero members undertook in an attempt to “improve the public image” of young motorcyclists. All orientated towards biking, these included:

Leafleting to support road safety campaigns

Transporting emergency blood supplies to hospitals

Guiding emergency vehicles through the fog

Lending their premises to one of Birmingham’s grammar schools for their end of year prom. An event that was apparently poorly received by both parties….

He also comments upon the club’s ethos and its goals. With his thesis noting in several places how egalitarian the club seemed and how unbound by rules, Willis’ observations indicate that the environment at the Double Zero was much as Collyer hoped it would be.  

At times he suggests that this might even have gone too far, finding the atmosphere of constant engine revving, loud rock music and physical boisterousness “edgy”, “unnerving” even “intimidating”. In discussing the club’s management he describes how despite the club’s ostensibly Anglican foundation he “never saw Collyer or any of the other workers preaching or moralising” and praises their warmth and open mindedness.

An open mindedness that perhaps went a little bit too far. Willis’ thesis notes that whilst he was undertaking fieldwork at the club and in the surrounding streets (including the still existent Forge pub on Fazeley Street) he had reason to suspect that stolen goods were being fenced inside the club. Indeed one of his key subjects was jailed for burglary during the course of his research. In Double Zero Collyer’s recounts that there were hundreds of incidents when club members were arrested and charged with crimes of theft and assault, he also writes about three or four cases when club members were charged with unlawful killing, including murder.

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“The Forge Tavern as it appears today”, author’s photo

These details, together with Willis’ observations and snatches of tape transcript which record copious examples of fairly extreme misogynistic and racist statements falling from the mouths of Double Zero members, remind us not to overly romanticise them. By the same virtue, whilst Willis’ subjects were mostly older members in their twenties, Collyer’s reminiscences of the kind of pastoral work he was doing at the Double Zero indicate that most members were teenagers frequently using the club as a refuge from what today would be viewed as abusive and exploitative situations. This probably goes some way towards explaining the aggressive, impulsive, even self-loathing, behaviour displayed by members.

From a twenty first century perspective Willis and Collyer’s approach towards tackling and discussing these issues seems naive. But at least they were attempting to raise and address them. At the time practically every formal state agency and charitable organisation was set up just to meet material needs, and then, even twenty years after the National Assistance Act, frequently with explicit conduct based strings attached.

Which leads us to the question of what happened to the fiery, naive, yet iconoclastic; ‘60s optimism that fired both the Double Zero project and the early years of cultural studies. It did not disappear it just grew-up, got wise and was assimilated.

The open values that underpinned Collyer’s charismatic, yet liberal and pragmatic, brand of Christianity, were transmitted via a process of general osmosis to the youth and social worker sectors as a whole. Cut to the bone and highly regulated (only one of which is in of itself a bad thing) today’s outreach, homeless prevention and counselling services at least pay-lip service to the idea of user-provider co-production and even at their most marketised are a far cry from the kind of cold, one-sized fits all, overbearing; forms of social provision that Collyer felt had failed his clients.

The seeds of this change were already apparent in the 1960s. Many of the volunteers that facilitated the Double Zero’s work at St. Basil’s were “young girls” (and a few young men) who wanted to go on and study for teaching, social work and youth work qualifications. Assuming that they then went on the practice and have careers in these fields, they will have had an impact upon shaping the delivery of these services in the UK and further afield, that extends to the present day.

In a sense the set-up at St. Basil’s that the Double Zero established has also continued to exist. Today St. Basil’s sits at the heart of the eponymous St. Basil’s youth homelessness prevention charity. How the charity has changed since it was established in 1972 reflects well shifts in society. Firstly the massive increase in housing and employment precarity that has emerged in cities like Birmingham since the decline of mass manufacturing in the 1970s. Secondly the neo-liberal state’s shift towards contracting third sector organisations to deliver key social services. St. Basil’s is a brilliant example of an organisation that has met these challenges and delivered a brilliant service to its users in very trying circumstances. It retains church input but is fundamentally secular and whilst retaining a focus on listening to, working with and empowering its service users, operates to standards of professionalism light years away from those that prevailed at the Double Zero.

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“St. Basil’s Church Digbeth as it appears today”, author’s photo

The cultural studies project has followed a similar trajectory. Today when every broadsheet has a pop music critic and BBC Four happily broadcasts documentaries about post-punk alongside those about Prokofiev, few would seriously dispute that Willis’ notion that pop culture has a worthy canonical tradition that deserves serious attention. But (great as they are) the deification of New Order and The Fall in no way extinguishes the inherently elitist and exclusionary notion of a canon: it just reproduces it with less cello and more guitars.

Cultural studies related academic disciplines, whilst (due in large part to the political climate) not as powerful as they were fifteen or twenty years ago, are well established in the academy. According to Peter Mandler, whilst relative numbers are lower than in the 1980s and ‘90s one in ten British undergraduates are currently studying for a degree in social studies. But all this shows it that the study of popular culture has been accepted into the academy, it hasn’t fundamentally altered, or even exploded the academy. As with radical youth work what has happened is that cultural studies concepts and the radical ideals and critique that they embodied have been co-opted.

It’s clear-as my exploration of the Double Zero initiative indicates-that many Anglicans, at all levels of the church’s hierarchy, from the cathedral throne right down to the rank sat in their parish pews, were far from dismayed by the cultural changes of the 1960s. Indeed they agreed with many criticisms of the affluent society and traditional cultures of deference and morality. For them as many as anyone else the spectre of cultural change in the 1960s was welcome, exciting and pregnant with opportunities.

However, like so many other radical initiatives from the period it was co-opted, incorporated into a slightly liberalised version of the existing system. Life in 21st Century Britain might be rather less authoritarian than the society that Willis and Collyer railed against. However, is it really any less rigid, brutal or alienating? Parts of the superstructure have been smoothed down but the base remains as hard as ever. The Church of England’s 1960s experiments in socially involved agape are forgotten, its spasms of pearl clutching remembered; because they legitimise rather than problematise the existing order.

“Jesus Built My Hotrod”, (Redline/Whiteline Version), Jourgensen, Rieflin, Balch, Haynes (Sire, 1991)

Katrina Navickas-University of Hertfordshire

“…trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban history today, I was lucky enough to catch up with Katrina Navickas; a Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Katrina’s work brings an exciting new spatial dimension to the study of urban and regional protest movements in eighteenth and nineteenth Century Lancashire.

What is your background?

I’m originally from Rochdale in Lancashire. I read Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, and I taught at Oxford, Bath Spa and Edinburgh universities before joining the University of Hertfordshire in 2009.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I was taught about the history of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Luddites of 1812 at school, and their legacy stayed with me. I really appreciate the Pennine landscape of Lancashire and Yorkshire too, so combining this with my interest in the history of popular democratic movements and protest was obvious.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

The geographer Doreen Massey. Last year I went to the colloquium at the Royal Geographic Society in memory of Massey, and the number of her friends and former students who testified to her original thinking about space and place was testimony to her influence on all sorts of scholars.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

Hopefully an appreciation that protesting for democratic and human rights is important, and that there is a long history of these movements, often rooted in their localities and places that we can still see today. I’m trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“…my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s.”

I’m turning into a geographer! I’m thinking and reading a lot more about the cultural geographies of space and place, and how to apply various theories and models to historical evidence. I’m also using digital resources and open software more regularly not just to visualise the places that I research, but also as analytical tools to enable me to deal with much larger data. For example, my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s. I would not have been able to do this on that scale before. I’m still developing my skills in digital humanities and seeing what new insights I can gain from them.

How have tools like GIS shaped the way that you use sources in researching your work?

“…I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data.”

Related to the previous question, they’ve enabled me to examine much larger bodies of sources on a scale I was unable to do before. I first used GIS during the last year of my DPhil studies, when I went to the Bodleian Map Library and asked for help in drawing maps for my thesis. It was a lot more simplistic then, so I was simply doing a digital version of a map I could draw on paper. Now my use of GIS is a lot more sophisticated: I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data. I can layer lots of different mapped data on top of each other to find any correlations or relations between them, such as population density, cholera outbreaks, ethnic and religious communities’ concentration in particular areas, etc.

I am also collaborating with Dr Sam Griffiths and his colleagues at the Space Syntax Lab of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, on a project using space syntax methods on the historical data. Space Syntax is a way of modelling the level of connectedness or integration of urban street plans, and the software, Depthmap, enables some great visualisations of how ‘busy’ or ‘isolated’ particular locations were. We’re hoping to apply the methods to historical street plans and my data of protest sites to come to new ways of describing their locations.

Are there any new questions that this enables you to address?

“I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents.”

Yes, I’m looking for new ways of understanding the locations of protest and political meetings and how and why they changed over time. I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents. Modelling isovists, or lines of sight, will also enable me to understand something about how both protesters and the authorities saw each other, both physically and perhaps more metaphorically.

Do you get a sense that there was a cohesive “northern” or “north western” identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or were identities far more locally rooted?

“…the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester.”

There was certainly a northern identity in this period. Industrialisation, though regional, fostered a sense of a distinctive identity against ‘the South’, and though custom, tradition, and landscape meant that local identities and links were still strong, particular events served to bring the North together – in particular, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester. The massive protests against the implementation of the New Poor Law from 1837 onwards were also clear evidence of a distinctive northern defiance against perceived centralisation of power from London – indeed, there was little overt or violent resistance south of the Trent.

Do you get any impression that the protesters you study saw their actions as forming part of established local traditions?

Yes definitely. The processions to St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1816-19, culminating with the Peterloo Massacre, drew directly from local customs, notably the Rushbearing festivals of the towns and villages surrounding Manchester and also the processions of Friendly societies and Sunday schools. You can read the recollections of the Middleton leader, Samuel Bamford, for his defence of the tactic of political processions as an integral part of working-class culture. The Chartists also organised their ‘camp meetings’ on the moors, which had hymns, sermons and other features borrowed from Methodist culture.

Pennine Way, Edale from Kinder Scout, Peak District, Derbyshire (8120126842)

“Kinder Scout (Peak District, southern Pennines)” By Andrew Bone from Weymouth, England [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about Katrina’s work on her University of Hertfordshire Faculty page, the “Protest History” blog and academia.edu profile. She is also on Twitter.

More urban historian profiles can be read here.

Birmingham Manufactures project

“Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer.”

For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with the team that’s working on the Birmingham Museums Trust’s Birmingham Manufactures project. Birmingham Manufactures is an Arts Council funded project that-amongst other things-aims to catalogue and make more accessible and visible, the Birmingham made objects in the museum’s collections.

What is the background to Birmingham Manufactures?

“The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.”

The project came out of a desire to improve the cataloguing system for Birmingham Museums, and make the collection more accessible to researchers and members of the public. The project is funded by the Art’s Council’s Designation Fund which funds projects which ensure the long-term sustainability of significant museum collections and maximise their value both to the public and to museum staff. This money has paid for two new dedicated members of staff, and will be used to develop the cataloguing system and to pay for new archival and collections storage. Birmingham Museums has an enormous collection of objects – somewhere in the region of 800,000 items – which have come into the collection in various ways. The acquisition and cataloguing of objects has traditionally been the responsibility of individual curators who look after a particular area of the collection – applied art, for example, or science and industry. Although many of the items in the collection are related to Birmingham manufacture, these objects are rarely understood in this way. Some objects, such as fine metalwork and jewellery, were acquired as examples of ‘good’ design to inspire Birmingham’s workforce and subsequently found their way into the applied arts collection. Others items, such as the engines and machinery used in some of the city’s various trades, were acquired and displayed at the old Museum of Science and Industry as examples of innovation and technology. More recently, oral histories from individuals employed in Birmingham’s workshops and factories have been collected as part of the social history collection, and new interpretation for the Birmingham History Gallery. The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.

How does this help us understand Birmingham’s history?

“As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them.”

Birmingham is known for its history of manufacturing, and is commonly referred to as the City of a Thousand Trades. Industry and manufacture were central to the city’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and making and manufacture remain at the heart of the self-identity of many in the city today. The variety of objects that we will be cataloguing as part of this project suggest the complexity of this history. Items that we will be considering include weights and scales, engines, motor vehicles, bicycles, firearms, jewellery and domestic metalware, food products, buttons and pens amongst many, many others. Unlike industrialising towns like Manchester and Sheffield which were focused on one major industry (cotton and steel respectively), Birmingham flourished precisely because of the variety of industries operating within its borders. By understanding the composition of objects and the materials needed for their production, these items can help demonstrate the interconnectivity of Birmingham industries, and of their place in national and international markets and movement of people. As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them. Some of these objects speak volumes about the skill (or otherwise) of Birmingham’s workforce and of the labour involved in their production; others suggest changes in fashion, taste, and consumption patterns; other objects will have more personal meanings, and will appear in individual and family histories in different ways. Rather than simply understanding these items as commodities or as examples of design, we will be digging through archives and conducting oral histories interviews to generate a more complex record of what these objects may have meant.

What do you see as being the project’s long-term outcome?

“It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture.”

The project will ensure that a significant number of items in the collection that were made in Birmingham and its surrounding areas are properly catalogued. This may not sound like an exciting ambition, but it is vital for the future of the collection, and its interpretation. As well as describing the objects in full and assessing their condition, we will be recording maker names and the location of production where it is known. A large number of items will be photographed to a professional standard, creating a vital visual record which might also be used for display purposes. All this information will support the work of researchers and academics, and provide a wealth of information for those interested in the history of manufacturing in Birmingham. Eventually, all this information will be available online, allowing members of the public to access images and information about the collection digitally. It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture. Although the main outcome of the project will be to document, make accessible and raise awareness about an important part of the collection at Birmingham Museums we also hope that the project will encourage curators and members of the public to think differently about the objects in store and on display, and to continue to build connections between different parts of the collection. We are also hopeful that the project will encourage future collaboration between Birmingham Museums and local heritage sites, archives, libraries and community groups.

Are museums and their collections overlooked as a historical resource?

we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource whether… writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co… or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…”

Yes! Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer. More recently, and partly stimulated by what is termed ‘the material turn’, there has been an increase in the use of museum collections in historical research and a recognition that objects offer important insights into the past. Although the interest in using museum collections is increasing, there is a problem with the logistics of how exactly interested parties might access these items, particularly the vast majority of items which are not on display, but locked away in museum stores. As funding cuts follow funding cuts and staff numbers dwindle, providing access to these collections becomes all the more difficult. By fully cataloguing the objects which appear as part of the project, and by taking detailed photographs of them, we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource, whether they’re interested in writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co. or one of the many other Birmingham manufacturers, or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…

Has there been much interest from the public in what you’re doing?

Although we’re still at the very early stages of the project, we’ve been lucky to have lots of people get in touch. It’s wonderful to hear the stories of those who work or worked in Birmingham-based industries, or those who have memories of their relatives doing so. As I mentioned, we will be doing some oral histories as part of the project, and would be very pleased to hear from anybody who would be interested in doing this. At the moment, we are particularly interested to find anybody who worked at the factory of Alfred Bird and Sons in Digbeth, so please do get in touch!

Why do you think that people have been motivated to get in touch, or otherwise engage with you, about Birmingham Manufactures?

These industries shaped people’s lives, and those who worked in them (and their relatives) have a strong affinity with them. There is also something very powerful about the idea of your history, the history of your workplace, your family, or your neighbourhood being recorded in some way by a museum.

What’s the interesting thing that you’ve uncovered so far?

“One rectangular tin of custard powder… made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6…”

There are many interesting stories to be told from the collection, but our favourites so far are the globe-trotting tins of Alfred Bird’s food products. With its home in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Bird’s was an iconic Birmingham brand, and because of this, we acquired a collection from its archives in 2013. The collection offers a fascinating insight into the development of a brand, food tastes, and advertising in this country, but it also demonstrates the global reach of many Birmingham-made goods. One rectangular tin of custard powder, for example, made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6; another tin of baking powder was found on the other side of the globe, rescued from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Birmingham Manufactures say:

Please do get in touch with us: birminghammanufactures@birminghammuseums.org.uk. We are also on Twitter @BrumMfr and on Facebook, where we post regular updates about our findings.

Please also consider signing the petition to ask Birmingham City Council to reconsider substantial cuts to Birmingham Museums at www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-please-reconsider-cuts6-to-birmingham-museums. The deadline for the petition in Monday the 16th January 2017.

For more urban history profiles see here.

Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

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A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

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Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

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By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

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Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

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New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

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Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

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Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

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The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

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Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.