In the early months of the lockdown the Friends of Zion Graveyard invited me to write the text for a series of interpretation boards to provide background information and archive photographs for visitors.
When the Friends’ committee was asked to comment on the draft I was justifiably taken to task for giving the impression that the houses in Attercliffe were slums.
I used the formal phrase “slum clearance” that the City Council applied to its clearance schemes from the 1950s onwards.
Indeed, the houses themselves were not slums. They simply lacked facilities we now take for granted.
The insulting arrogance of some of the public servants who drove the policy of slum clearance is highlighted in Marcus Binney’s book, Our Vanishing Heritage (Arlington 1984), p 193, where he quotes the civil engineer and planner Wilfred Burns, who changed the face of Coventry and later did the same in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
In his book New Towns for Old: the technique of urban renewal (1963) Burns declares,–
One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effect on the social grouping built up over the years. But, one might argue, that is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride. The task, surely, is to break up such groupings even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their own locality.
He wouldn’t have lasted long if he’d aired those views in the Dog & Partridge on a Saturday night.
There’s no wonder that my parents’ generation couldn’t wait to get out of Attercliffe in search of better housing. They were sick of managing with an outside lavatory, a single cold tap and heating by coal. Their lives were shortened by the atmospheric pollution that rained down on the valley where steelworks stood surrounded by terraced housing.
In earnest irony, Frank Hartley entitled his memoir of growing up in Attercliffe Where Sparrows Coughed (Sheaf 1989).
The post-war planners’ solution to the dreadful environment was single-use zoning, dividing the city into areas of unified purpose, such as industry, housing or retail.
The nineteenth-century development of the Lower Don Valley had been dictated by the need for steelworkers to walk between home and work.
By the mid-twentieth century it was possible to relocate housing well away from the smokestack industries, and to expect the workers to commute from leafy housing estates to their work by bus.
Nowadays their children write in internet nostalgia forums with sincere regret for the community they lost. It’s easy to sentimentalise our childhood while sitting at a keyboard in a modern dwelling that previous generations would have thought forever beyond their reach.
Remembering the good times and ignoring the bad is a lazy way of looking at the past, and it devalues the determination of the women who spent their days in never-ending labour, striving to make their homes into little palaces, and those of their menfolk who put their wage-packets on the table at the end of every week.
Everyone enjoys wallowing in nostalgia occasionally, but for me the most vivid evocation of Attercliffe in my childhood is Frank Hartley’s book, which has been out of print for far too long.