“…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. 

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