Demanding Recognition: Butch and Mates in Woodhouse, 1970

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.

1970. Image, entitled “Butch and Mates”, shows a group of children of varying ages pictured as they play out on an area of cleared land in front of rows of terraced houses located in Servia Hill. They have lit a small “camp fire” which is blazing away behind them. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)

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).

1970. View looking south-west up Wolseley Place from Cambridge Road to Servia Hill. Many of these back-to-back terraced houses are still occupied despite years of neglect, but are due to be pulled down shortly as part of a large-scale clearance plan for the area. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)

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.'”

1970. View looking south-west up Prosperity Street which is in the process of demolition. No.5 on the left is still standing as is a block comprising nos.15-21 on the right, but nos.7-13 in the middle have gone leaving a view through to Clay Pit Street. In the foreground a City of Leeds Works Department trailor is positioned where the even-numbered houses on Prosperity Street previously stood, which were back-to-backs with the odd-numbered side of Livinia Street. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)

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.”

1970. View of St. Mark’s Road from the junction with Archery Road, looking down towards Holborn Towers in the distance. The junction with Back St. Mark’s Road is on the right, while a child on a bicycle can be seen in the foreground. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)

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.”

1970. View looking north-east down Blackman Lane towards the junction with Grosvenor Hill in the distance. A long row of terraced housing is seen on the right hand side of the road while on the left is a Post Office beside the junction with Winfield Road. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)

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.

1970. View shows a cleared area of Institution Street following demolition. Part of a terrace on Churchfield Street is still standing and still occupied despite the clearance all around it. It would appear to be one side of row of back-to-backs, numbered 43 Institution Street and 1-7 Churchfield Street. St. Mark’s Church is in the background. The area is now occupied by Holborn Walk. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net)
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. John Sour says:

    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

    1. Hi John,

      Thank you for much for these comments, which are much appreciated. Would it be OK for me to e-mail you about this?

      Thanks,
      Antony

  2. John Sour says:

    Fine but email edward.walley@ntlworld.com – I appreciate the work you are doing even if I don’t agree with some of the detail.

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