This week, Librarian Antony Ramm provides some context for a popular 1970 photo of Leeds.
Our Leodis archive is home to thousands of historical photos of Leeds, but one in particular caught a lot of attention on social media over the last few weeks: this 1970 image showing a group of children in the Servia Hill area of Woodhouse.
The photo – entitled “Butch and Mates” – is from a wider collection called Woodhouse and Camp Road, Leeds: Photographic Survey & Notes, 1970, available to view in our Local and Family History department, and which includes over a hundred other images of the Woodhouse area at the start of the 1970s. Woodhouse – as with so many other areas of Leeds – was (and still is) well-known, even notorious, for the perceived low-quality of its dense back-to-back terraced housing; that housing, and its future, being the focus of the photos in the 1970 collection (all the images in this article are taken from the album).
In that context, the introductory ‘Survey Notes’ by the collection compilers (not named, but self-identified as “planners and architects”) make for interesting reading. The authors take issue with what they identify as a distinct lack of “any kind of three-dimensional VISION for the area”, pointing the finger at the Corporation (the Council) for a policy of “deliberate neglect”, an approach which is linked (in their view) to “the wholesale destruction under the licence of the designate ‘clearance area.'”
This ‘clearance’ process is accused of being “the end result of massive political pressure for new houses,” pressure which sees “whole communities and families uprooted and ejected from their homes for ‘their own good'” – homes which, in the opinion of these planners and architects are, in fact, “sound in every sense”. Householders are forced to live under the “unending” threat of eviction, a constant state of nervousness that is only ever detrimental to a community: “[w]e were frequently confronted by anxious householders wanting to know when the axe was going to fall. Everybody appeared to live in this uneasy impermanence, knowing that eventually their turn would come.”
For the authors of these notes the solution was less drastic: “It is our intention to consider areas which people are still living as PERMANENT….[a] positive approach towards rehabilitation.” That seems to have been the motivation for this collection: a record of Woodhouse as a living community, visual proof for the benefits of improvement, rather than complete re-development; an argument for progressive change made with the community, not arbitrary eviction forcing residents from their homes, their neighbours, the shops they knew and the places they worked: “The following photographs illustrate particular aspects of the site which demand recognition. In addition we hope they illustrate perhaps a little of the spirit of the area.”
Those lines, then, seem to be the heart of the matter, and precisely what people respond to in the ‘Butch and Mates’ photograph (together with the diverse nature of its cast) – the strength of individual personalities and the community’s refusal to submit: their demand for recognition. Any time spent with the Woodhouse album, even at this fifty-year remove, redeems that claim for recognition; brings into sharp relief the tenacity of a community that refused to die, even as it was being slowly diminished and hollowed-out, street by street, house by house. That community survives in these images, even as it fades from memory.
7 Comments Add yours
I’m not too sure I entirely agree with what has been written as a commentary on these images.
First just a factual point with regard to “arbitrary eviction” – these clearance areas were not arbitrary as suggested here they were based on surveys which were undertaken based on legislated housing standards which were in force at the time. So although the areas chosen might have seen as illogically defined they were not simply random selections.
I think today, speaking as someone who was involved in these housing struggles, that a rosy image of back to back housing area – I won’t use the word community – is now creeping into what amount to contemporary reflections of the past.
People living in these areas often wanted to leave their damp and dilapidated homes especially when a better council house was the alternative. So in practice there was no unified “community” resolute to stay.
You are correct to say the clearance process itself undermined these areas further but underlying this was a basic material struggle between owners who had invested in their homes and wanted to stay and tenants of unimproved private landlord properties who wanted to go.
Looking back – compared to today when social housing itself has been run down and is unavailable to those in need – we need to ditch the rose tinted spectacles that over valorise the community struggles of the past and instead campaign for the kind of society which built the modern estates into which people from these “slum” areas were able to move
Thank you for much for these comments, which are much appreciated. Would it be OK for me to e-mail you about this?
Fine but email email@example.com – I appreciate the work you are doing even if I don’t agree with some of the detail.
I’m doing research into my late step grandfather Jack Gilpin who was born 22/06/1915 to Leonard and violet Gilpin at 7 Churchfield place, Woodhouse, leeds. I was just wondering if you have an photos or old maps of the time when Churchfield place was there?
Please send your enquiry to Localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk we will look at the resources we hold and get back to you.