Looking for Heartbreak Hill: landscapes of the Great Depression in Northern England

Over the last decade, the world has been living through a period of massive economic disruption and global recession. This has had a profound impact on many particularly through wage cuts and job losses. However, in Britain, the affect on unemployment is dwarfed by the loss of work that occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the US, one of the key governmental responses to unemployment was the foundation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was responsible for overseeing massive schemes of public works and civil infrastructure construction. This was often structured through ‘work camps’ bringing workers together to carry out the labour. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also oversaw nearly 2 million young men passing through their work camps carrying out conservation and forestry projects.

The archaeological survivals of these responses to unemployment are well established as a topic for research by US and Canadian scholars. However, there has been little engagement by UK scholars in this aspect of 20th century heritage. This is not because the impact of the depression was more limited in Britain. Nationally, unemployment more than doubled (from 1million to 2.5 million). In the north-east of England, the situation was worse than the national average. In the shipbuilding areas of Tyneside such as Jarrow unemployment hit 70% whilst in the ironstone mining areas of Cleveland, a staggering 90% of the workforce was out of a job. However, there was only limited centralised governmental investment in formal work programmes. There were, though, a series of individual, often privately funded, initiatives providing new settlements and work schemes for the unemployed, as well as some centrally supported work camps. But because of the diverse and patchy nature of this response it has generally failed to capture the interest of researchers.

Now, though, David Petts and Quentin Lewis from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University are starting a project (funded by a Durham University Seedcorn Research Grant) to explore this aspect of 20th century heritage. The pilot project is focussing in on the north-east of England and is collating the various responses to unemployment, exploring how they were structured and funded, defining their impact on the local landscape and assessing the extent to which there are still physical traces of these sites.

Our initial focus is on “Heartbreak Hill”, a co-operative allotment scheme set up for unemployed ironstone miners in 1936. This was funded by a combination of the local Tory landowners, the Conservative MP and his radical wife. It also drew in a range of other participants, including intriguing figures such as the neo-fascist morris dancing organicist Rolf Gardiner and composer Michael Tippett. Using archive sources and field visits, we are mapping the location of the scheme, and are planning some simple field survey to attempt to identify any of the surviving infrastructure.

We have also been working to identify the sites of other work programmes and engagement and educational initiatives responding to unemployment in the North-East. To date these include the Spennymoor Settlement (a community settlement partly funded through the Pilgrim Trust), forestry work-camps (Instructional Training Centres) at Hamsterley, Byrness and Kielder, the Swarland settlement (founded by the private Fountains Abbey Land Settlement Company) and the Land Settlement Association farm at Stannington. Some of these have very little surviving evidence, for example, the forestry camp at Kielder is now beneath the waters of the Kielder reservoir. At other sites though, there are stll physical traces of these initiatives. One of the huts from the work camp at Hamsterley is now part of the Forestry Commission visitor centre, the theatre at the Spennymoor Settlement is still in use, whilst there are eleven of the earliest buildings at Swarland are protected by Listing.

The project is still in its early stages; we hope to complete our initial work at Heartbreak Hill in the early summer and aim to then develop a larger grant proposal to take this research forward in the near future.

If anyone reading this has any information about any of the sites mentioned or knows of other similar initiatives we’d be pleased to hear from you!

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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1 Comment

  1. You may be interested in a project of the North East Labour History Society called 'The Landscape of North East Labour History' in which we are seeking to identify and record sites, buildings and places significant to the labour movement. There is some overlap with your project. If you would like to know more about what we doing, email: diptonlad@blueyonder.co.uk

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